At this time of year when little goblins and werewolves prowl the streets in search of candy, I am thinking of a Box. Not an ordinary box, mind, but one crafted by the mer-folk in a long ago fairytale about a young Japanese fisherman called Urashima Taro.
I’m also thinking of Rip Van Winkle.
Taro and Rip come from opposite ends of the earth, but they walk along the same imaginative storyline. That storyline takes them to an unexpected place where they enjoy themselves, then returns them to their homes where they discover that many years have passed. But their stories go separate ways.
The difference starts in their characters. Rip is a cheery, lazy chap who is more fond of the bottle than of doing a few chores around the house. One day whilst escaping his wife (who wants him to fix something, probably,) he encounters some individuals dressed in costumes of a by-gone era. These silent, spooky people invite him to play nine pins. That this game is enhanced with lots of booze makes Rip happy—until he wakes up next morning, all alone, and many years older! When Graybeard Rip totters back to his home, he finds that his son has grown and that the world has changed.
It’s said that Rip’s fellow nine-pins players were the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, and that makes it a grand tale for Halloween. Some writers also point out that Van Winkle moves from his first childhood to his second skipping maturity along the way—and perhaps this is true. Urashima Taro, though, is a completely different personage. He is a fisherman, a responsible son, a lover of animals. He saves a small turtle from being stoned by a gang of children, and it is this turtle which returns—now as big as a table top—to invite Taro down to the undersea palace of the Sea King.
In that wonderful, fabled place Taro is thanked for his kindness to the turtle, entertained, wined and dined. In a little while, though, he starts to miss his family and asks to return to his village.
In my book Yuri’s Brush With Magic I have the Sea King’s beautiful daughter trying to dissuade the young fisherman from hurrying home. When he won’t be persuaded, she gives him a box and tells him that he must only open it “when you are truly lost and lonely in your own world.”
So here is The Box… and you know what’s going to happen next. Taro returns to his village and finds an upscale neighborhood with condos and boutiques. His family has long since died, and he is remembered only as a young fisherman who was drowned during a storm. Lost and lonely, he opens the box and become an old and broken man.
Unlike Rip, Taro is given a choice. The choice is to stay in this brave new world and to go on with his life or to follow the people he loves. The choice is to reach out to the new or to cleave to the old. No easy choice, certainly!
Writers are curious creatures, so I naturally began to ask questions and polled my grandchildren since they had read Yuri’s Brush With Magic. The two girls both said without hesitation that they would open the box. My grandson considered a moment and then hedged his bets. “I bet he could have gone back to the Sea King’s palace if he asked,” he mused, echoing Tammy in the book. “So I probably would go back under the sea for a long time and then come back way in the future. That would be cool!”
So much for the optimism of youth. My adult frends were on the fence. Some didn’t know which way they would react while others said that since it was a done deal, anyway, it would be fun to stick around and hang out with their grandchildren. Still others felt that opening the Box would be their only real option.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure what I would do. Are you?
Which? to look forward
Or whisper to ghosts of the past?