Number 230: The Ghost Horses

29 August 2016

You won’t find the city of Ihara on a map. On old maps, perhaps, but so many of those were burned. Cordoned off from the rest of the Aomori Prefecture, Ihara waits on the northern coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. But – although isolated, although alone – Ihara is far from abandoned. It is a ghost town, in perhaps the truest sense.

It is September, 1984. The colours of autumn breathe through the prefecture. And everyone is in Ihara to see its most celebrated resident – Kenji Akiyama. An illusionist held in the highest regard by audiences both in Japan and overseas, Akiyama has well and truly made a name for himself in the last ten years. Having only just finished a season of performances in Las Vegas, Kenji has returned to his hometown for a one-night-only performance of what he calls his “greatest illusion”. This is no small feat for a magician who has previously transformed Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing into a labyrinth without end, levitated a mountain in the Mojave and, of course, pulled a rabbit out of the Dutch ambassador’s hat. Expectations are high, even if the crowd is small – only a few hundred. In the years to come, they give their word to never speak of what transpired. However, from the smallest waves in the ocean of information that washes over the world today, we can establish a picture of what occurred.

A disappearing act. Akiyama, alone on stage, drapes the palest of silks over his slight frame. One moment passes. Then another. Then – the sound of thunder. The silk falls to the stage and Akiyama is nowhere to be seen. The audience applauds, but not with the full verve of appreciation. After all – the disappearing is only half the trick. They wait. And wait. Minutes pass. Hours – two before someone calls the emergency services. Four before men in dark suits and darker glasses arrive. Six before the audience are allowed to leave. Eight before the authorities decide on an explanation. Kenji Akiyama has vanished.

But that’s only the half of it.

It is September, 1986. Akiyama’s disappearance is old news. No leads, no developments – case closed. People tend to forget that which they cannot explain. Life in Ihara goes on. Until Nao Kimura, aging owner of the theatre where Akiyama’s last illusion was staged, sees a ghost. A ghost horse, to be precise. She will go on to tell the local newspaper that it looked like “melted glass” and that its eyes gleamed with “the heat of the sun”. Few believe her and she dies some months later. In December, however, the executors of her last wishes visit the theatre. Later, they too claim to have seen the ghost horse. Fleeing to gather witnesses, they return to find three of the creatures “hovering about the auditorium”. Of the six witnesses, four are dead by February.

Once more, men in dark suits and darker glasses arrive in Ihara.

It is October, 1998. Miles away, children are cloaked in pale silks, pretending to be ghosts. Nobody in Ihara need pretend. The number of ghost horses has gorwn and grown – three, ten, twenty, sixty. A hundred. To lock eyes with one of the wraiths is a death sentence. Doctors liken it to a kind of cancer. By 1998, of course, the city has been evacuated. Abandoned, yes, but not empty. The ghost horses tread down silent streets, eyes shining into open doorways. Translucent veins glisten against cold dawns and long manes bristle like forgotten life at the bottom of the sea.

It is October, 2008. Ihara has been taken off the map. Residents have been moved on to cities across Japan, warned in no uncertain terms that talk of their former home is a breach of particular laws that carry particular punishments. The United Nations will go on to criticise these tactics as heavy-handed but, in Japan’s defense, offshore observation of Ihara reveals that the number of ghost horses has continued to grow exponentially. Two hundred, three hundred – they show no sign of stopping. Ihara can contain them but not for much longer. Will they spread through all of Aomori? Tests show they are immune to conventional weapons. A nuclear option is proposed in 2010 but vetoed a year later in the wake of events at Fukushima. Slowly but surely the number of ghost horses multiplies. Nearby towns are evacuated.

It is November, 2014. The flood of ghost horses has slowed but not stopped. The situation is more than just a state secret – agencies are operating internationally to ensure no one finds out. Questions are asked about Kenji Akiyama – after all, this began in the place where he disappeared. Scientists and magicians are brought in. Where did Akiyama learn his trade? How did he accomplish his illusions? Many are asking if they were illusions at all.

It is November, 2015. Ghost horses have been seen wading out toward Hokkaido, gleaming figures almost invisible against the sea spray, eyes spectral against each nightfall. Spilling from the empty theatre. While humanity faces up to its own socio-political terrors, a quiet apocalypse illuminates a city you won’t find on any map.

Then again, come tomorrow, you may not need such things.

Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.

– Cutter (Michael Caine), The Prestige

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