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July 2024


by Samantha Sapp

Elegy for Two Sakura



     When I think of Japan, that’s the first memory that comes. Of you and wild Japan, not of the city with its trains, ramen shops, and old stone drains etched with characters I never could understand well. I think of our time camping in the woods, both of us desperate for friends in a troop of boys pretending to be men. I think of the bamboo forests that swayed and bent in dance, and the moss-covered rocks that seemed to have a spirit of their own.
     I think of us wide-eyed among the sakura trees, unaware how soon the bloom of our youth would end.
     The more time goes on, the more you look like a mirror. Both of us raised in Japan but not fully belonging. You, having to fully belong against your will, half-Japanese and enrolled in a Japanese high school when you craved America. Me, unable to fully belong against my will, wholly American and too much an outsider for the land I was born and part-raised in. Neither of
us fully belonging anywhere, both forever-foreigners, too queer for the world—except I still don’t know if you were queer, but you used to make all kinds of jokes about how gay sex wasn’t really gay in the right circumstances, and I would blush at such scandal. I didn’t like you like
that, I don’t think. And you didn’t like me like that, I don't think. But we had our delusions of joint Eagle Scout projects, delusions that we were destined to reach those heights together, hand in hand.
     I still don't know how you died, your dad didn’t say, but three years later I found myself at a different height, or maybe the same height you found yourself at. The world seemed so small from up there. I made my choice. I wonder if that was where you made yours, at the top of some
parking garage in Japan.


     After you died, I lit a candle for you in every cathedral I could—not because you were sometimes Catholic like your dad, but because a part of me believed I could feel your ghost.
     Even now, it’s like I can feel you. Like you’re seeping between this world and the next, telling me I have the story all wrong, warning me to go no further, filling me with shame for being out as queer. And while I still wonder if you were hiding back then just like me, another part of me wonders if it’s just my own desire to make your story into something it isn’t—to see too much of myself in you.
     So let me tell your story.


     We were friends, which is important. I don’t think you had a lot of friends, but we were friends—reluctantly at first because I thought you were immature, but you taught me a lot that I was too scared to know, and I taught you a lot that you were too scared to know. You with what you called street smarts, me with the book smarts. I saw things in you I was afraid to see in me, and maybe the same was true for you. I saw the insecurity, the fear of not belonging, the screaming anxiety to be seen, and I’m sure you saw the same in me. We shared tents, dreams, and memories we didn’t share with anyone else. Then I moved away from Japan for good. I wrote to you, you wrote to me, I wrote to you.
     And then nothing.
     And then one day, your dad posted online that you were dead. I cried and lit a few lonely candles in cavernous, empty cathedrals belonging to a faith you mostly didn’t believe in, hoping that if I left before they flickered out maybe it’d be like your light was still burning out of sight. Thinking I was such a good friend for remembering you. Thinking that writing you into some sob narrative about how hard my life was might somehow be the same as thinking about you.

     And then, years later, my mom asked me if you were gay and I said I wasn’t sure but that I had wondered, and I wasn’t sure if it was okay to wonder. If maybe you were a red-blooded half-American heterosexual man and the idea of being queer disgusted you. If maybe you would’ve been disgusted by me, if you’d known. Or if maybe I disgusted you then because I
never had the courage to say that there was nothing wrong with being gay.
     But maybe my memory now is just so faded that all of you is gone and only the parts of me I saw in you are left—if you’re trapped in the in-between. I still don’t know why you died, but I’m left holding these fragments of your story and they cut deep to the bone like mirror


     The woods in Alabama are dark like the forests of Japan we explored together. Pine trees splinter the blood-red clay, bending with the wind like bamboo. They reach for the sky with shoots of needles that look like hands clasped in prayer, begging a different god for a different kind of mercy.
     If you let yourself wander those woods, if you go down forgotten roads that weave the same path as the dark waters of the Tensaw River, you’ll find your way to the death masks of Mount Nebo. My wife and I went there one winter, when everything was dead but not-dead. When hunters camped out on the road, their rusted trucks kicking up cold clay, racks of rifles in
the beds. I think you’d like it there. It’s a kind of Americana you never got to know.
     The cemetery is unlike anything else in this world or the next; it’s a secret alcove of Alabama. I think you’d like the story of him, too—of Isaac Nettles, a Black inventor in the time of Jim Crow, someone who couldn’t belong in his land whether he wanted to or not. Someone who understood the frailty of the border between life and death, the space in between that we all

occupy. Someone who understood that we are at once alive, and at once dead—forever here, but not here.
     He wasn’t content with simple graves for his family, so he took plaster molds of their faces and used them to create stones that bore their likeness—death masks with shuttered eyes, lost in thought somewhere beyond themselves. One grave bears the disembodied faces of three children, aligned vertically in a column, all gone too soon. One bears the face of his wife. None bears the face of himself.
     Each year that goes by, wind and rain and time wear the death masks away. Even today, the faces are gouged and chipped. Features have smoothed away, eyes bleeding into temples, the whole face bleeding into the stone itself. I think they’re a lot like you, a lot like all of us—memories fading into mirrors until all traces of ourselves are gone and we reflect no more
than the world itself. Shadows on the cave wall, strange beasts that are both real and unreal, here but not here.


     Each year in Japan, there is a brief, beautiful bloom of cherry blossoms—sakura. After a week they drift down to blanket the earth, each one fading into the next to form a field of white-pink like fresh snow. The petals are a lush rot that feed the earth. When the trees bloom anew the next year, their beauty is even greater for it.
     We were both sakura. I mourn both of the boys that fell from the tree and sank into the earth. I bloomed again into something beautiful. I still wonder who you would’ve become.
     Sometimes I think I failed you, and sometimes I think we failed each other. Sometimes I think the world failed both of us, and it makes me angry that I’m happy when you’re nothing, not even a ghost. But maybe that’s what we all are—ghosts haunting a world that is constantly in bloom, living memories that fade with each passing year. Lush rot destined to return to the earth. Mirror shards that reflect parts of ourselves and each other, until we all blend together into one whole greater than any of us can be alone.
     All I know for sure is that somehow, it’s as if I can feel you, Ghost—and that somehow, you can feel me.

Samantha Sapp
Florida, USA

Samantha Sapp is a former middle school teacher and current MFA candidate at Miami University. Though she is originally from the Florida Panhandle, she has spent the last few years in the Midwest coping poorly with winter. Her work has appeared in Sinister Winter, Corvus Review, and Muleskinner Journal.

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