Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Asama-yama, 4

These days you are low on self-responsibility. Only last month Asamayama erupted, throwing lava bombs a kilometer from the crater. A four-kilometer exclusion zone has been declared around the volcano, a perimeter that barely excludes the highway and the shrine of Onioshidashi-en to the north. Climbing it now would be, as with so many of your plans, a bad idea. This does not make it seem any less attractive. Whatever holds you back, it is not self-responsibility.

There is a game you would play in drama class called Circle Fall. The cast or company forms a ring, with one of their number in the middle, close enough so that they may reach out and grasp him by the shoulders or under the arms. He stands with feet together, stiff and straight, closes his eyes. Then he gradually lets himself topple, forward or backward or to one side, like a tree the lumberjack has just given a final stroke of the axe.

Now he is in the hands of the others. As he falls, they must catch him, taking the weight of his body gently and gradually, raise him upright again. Then they give him another push, maybe in this direction, maybe in that. He falls, and is caught; he is stood back up, and toppled over again. One might think there would be the one joker in the pack who would let their fellow fall, but no one ever does. It would be more than a betrayal.

At first the temptation is strong to catch your balance, to put one foot out to stop yourself, not yet quite believing that you will be caught. But you learn no longer to think of catching yourself, to lose yourself in a dark loop of falling and falling, feeling at every turn a pair of hands to pick you up and put you into the hands of someone else. And your memories of this game, from your mistrustful teens, are of great comfort. Now, many years later, it occurs to you that you like being talked out of these volcano-climbing adventures, a reassurance that someone is looking out for you, has your welfare in mind, if not at heart.

There is also the matter of the snow. Climbing a mountain in the face of sudden fiery death has a certain romantic pathos to it, but slipping on ice and ending up in pieces at the bottom would just be embarrassing.


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