Box of Smoke

Once there was a river. It was wide and plentiful. It  was so wide that.. it formed a delta which formed a bay into the ocean, where all rivers meet, and so plentiful that it built thousands of alluvial thousands in that bay.

On each island there were hundreds of fishermen who set out in their boats each day to catch ten of thousands of fish and millions more fish lived in the sea. Millions and millions and millions and millions. At the back of one of the islands, in a small bay lived a fisherman called Urashima. Urashima was a good and virtuous man. He did not not steal or lie or speak or act vexatiously with his neighbours and he was honest in all his dealings with people.

He was walking on the beach one day and he came across some children. They were torturing a sea turtle. Urashima lectured the children on the virtues of compassion, kindness and humility and told them to free the turtle. The following day he was out checking his nets and the same turtle put its head above the water and spoke to him in a human voice. It was a magical being. The magical being was a servant of the Dragon King who lived in a magnificent palace at the bottom of the sea and he invited Urashima to travel there with him. 

Would you be comfortable living in palatial surroundings with servants at your beck and call and magical beings on hand to carry out your bidding?

Urashima agreed to travel to the bottom of the sea and the magical turtle enclosed him in a protective sheath which carried him through the watery realms and enabled him to meet with the beings who lived in the palace of the Dragon King. At the palace Urashima was presented to the King and the royal court and as repayment for his service to the magical turtle, he was offered the hand of the King’s daughter in marriage.

Urashima was ambivalent. He did not want to reject the King and his daughter and cause offence. At the same time he felt a duty to his own family in the village which he had left. He wondered what to do.

The daughter of the Dragon King was charming. She saw Urashima sitting beside the window, gazing out at the  passing water and staring at the world above. She knew that he was perplexed and she sat down beside him and offered him advice. She told him it was important to learn and travel and grow. She told him that he could not continue to grow and develop in the village which he had left. She said that it was necessary for him to leave and to go out into the world and to seek a new life and become a new person.

Urashima reflected. It was true, he thought. Often as he sat among the other men of the village and listened to the conversation, he felt that there were limitations. He felt that certain ideas could not live there. He felt that it was an environment where only a certain kind of life could be lived. But what kind of life was Urashima to live? He came from an island at the back of the bay. Was he to live his whole life on that island at the back of the bay? Was it his destiny to remain there? He wondered. He wondered what to do.

The daughter of the Dragon King knew what he was thinking. He could not hide anything from her. It was useless to try. It was useless to try to hide anything from the daughter of the Dragon King. She could read his mind. The magical turtle and the people in the royal court at the Palace of the Dragon King did not really speak in human language as we know it. They communicated by thought. They were able to speak with the people of any nation because they could communicate simply by thinking their thoughts into another person’s mind. And of course they were able to read other people’s thoughts too. That was how they communicated with each other. That was how they communicated with everybody.

Urashima too learned to communicate by thinking and reading the thoughts of others. He studied the ways of the people in the Court of the Dragon King and he found them to be wise and compassionate and he knew he could live among them. He agreed to marry the King’s daughter.

The ceremony took place and there was a great deal of rejoicing. Urashima lived in a wing of the palace with his new wife and he learned all the arts and music of the palace and delighted in the company of his wife and of all the people who lived there.

Time passed quickly and there was great gaiety and merriment. Urashima passed his time alternately in celebration and in study and his charming wife was ever at his side, a delightful companion to answer any question and banish any misgiving. It seemed there was never any cause for worry or care.

Then one night in the middle of the night Urashima awoke as if from a dream and thought again of the home he had left. He thought of his aged mother and the little ones in his family who he was to take care of. He lay awake thinking of them and in the morning in told his wife that he must make a journey to his homeland to see the people who had been dear to him in that life before. His wife tried to convince him that it was not possible and that the world of the past had already vanished. She told him that the world of the past had been a prison and that he could never return there. Not really.

Urashima was grief-stricken. He pined for his lost home and family. He could not get them out of his mind. He told the King of his sorrow and the King immediately ordered the magical turtle to ferry Urashima to the world above and see life upon the surface once more.

Before he left, his wife, the King’s daughter came to him to say goodbye. She left him with a parting gift. It was a small box. It had ornate carvings on it and intricate brass hinges which held it together. Urashima’s wife told him that he must never open the box. Then the two separated and Urashima travelled to the place that he had come from.

The turtle set Urashima ashore and he waded onto the beach and found his clothes miraculously dry. He walked up the beach but it had changed. It was dirtier and there was an esplanade which ran along the side.

Crowds of young people milled about noisily. They wore strange clothes and they stared at Urashima and did not return his smiles and looked at him oddly as if he was a fool. Then one of them pointed and laughed at him. Somebody said something about his clothes but the way he spoke was strange and other-worldly as if one were listening to him from under the water in the bathtub, and the words he used were new and seemed not to fit his mouth for they came out differently and gave him a strange accent as if he was a foreignor, but he was not a foreignor. He was a person from this place. He was a native of this soil.

Urashima walked further along the Esplanade. There were crowds of people and there was lots of traffic. He did not recognise anything. There were new buildings everywhere. He found the place where the main path cut inland from the beach and there was a huge intersection with a shopping centre and flashing lights and more crowds of people. So many people. People everywhere.

Urashima longed for the quiet rooms of his wing in the Palace where he had sat so many hours and reflected quietly when he was tired of the company of others or simply wished to be alone. And where now was the gentle princess who had calmed his heart with logic and gentle ministrations of music and poetry. He walked further along the busy street and came to an old building that he recognised. It had been the new town hall but now it was a weathered and aged derelict, beaten by the sun and rain of many years. From that corner he followed the street past unfamiliar houses until he came to the start of his own street but the only thing he recognised was the name on the sign. The sign itself was different and the lettering was done in a style he had never seen before. Here and there he recognised a wall or the facade of a building that had once stood there but nothing including the house where Urashima and his family had lived was in the same style as before and the house where Urashima’s mother had lived was gone. It had vanished. Urashima pounded on the door of the building which stood in its place and asked the man who answered about Urashima. The man had never heard of him or his family. At the next house the answer was the same. Nobody had heard of him. Nobody remembered him. Not even his family name. No member of his family had survived. Everybody was gone and the name and even the building had vanished from this place. Vanished. Completely.

Urashima knew then that a year in the Palace of the Dragon King is equal to a hundred years in the world above. He felt his shoulders sag and his lungs crumple as he staggered and shuddered beneath the weight of this revelation and felt the shock of it sink into his bones. He was completely and totally lost.??He wandered for a while along the street like a man in a dream and after a while it seemed that he could have been anywhere because he did not know anybody and nobody knew him and he recognised nothing although this was the village in which he was born and where he had grown up. He walked on. The great sadness of his loneliness came on him like a wave and he wept beneath, it as it crashed on his shoulders and rocked his feeble human frame. Then he felt liberated and walked on further. He came to a place where the road turned back towards the beach. He followed it.

There were some girls in the way. They looked at him strangely. One of them smiled. He gave him an odd feeling. He walked on further towards the water. At the beach he looked out to sea and left the road. He kicked off his shoes and walked in the sand, forgetting the shoes, just letting them lie there, abandoned. He walked on. He remembered then the box that the Princess had given him. He took it out of his sleeve and looked at it. It was beautiful.

Suddenly he heard a voice behind him: “Don’t open that box!”

“Who are you?” said Urashima.

“I will be, whoever you want me to be .. only … please don’t open the box.”

“I am not supposed to open it” said Urashima.

“Don’t!” said the woman, for it was a woman.??”Who are you?” said Urashima again.

“A friend” said the woman. “I am a friend. There is no need to be afraid of me.”

“I am not afraid of you” said Urashima. The woman said nothing. She just stood there.

“What are you doing? said Urashima.

Just waiting for you.

What do you want from me.

Nothing. She turned and walked away up the beach.

He followed her.

Why are you following me?

I was just walking …

She turned and laughed at him. “Where are your shoes?” she said.

He realised then that it was the Dragon King’s daughter, his own dear wife, the princess who he had left behind in the Palace in the Kingdom at the bottom of the sea. The whole thing had been a dream. Now it was morning and he was sitting in bed beside her and bright emerald light was streaming in the window.??”You cannot go back now” she whispered. “A year in the palace of the Dragon King is equal to a hundred years in the world above … That world has vanished.??Urashima watched the lights dance on the ceiling and listened to the music of the Palace echoing and reverberating and felt it mingle with his own thoughts.??The Palace at the Bottom of the Sea. A year in the palace at the bottom of the sea is equal to a hundred years in the world above. The world of the past has vanished.

Suddenly he was back on the beach again. The woman was gone but he was still not wearing his shoes. He could see them though. He could see where he had left them further up the beach.??He became aware of something in his hands. He looked down. It was the box, small, ornate, jewelled, carved, inlaid … and inside was the smoke …. eternity … smoke that and he was gone … but for now he stood holding the box and not opening it, standing on the beach and wondering if he was in this world or the next …. box of smoke.

He stood there dreaming for a long time and then after a while he came to his senses. He looked about. There was no sign of the woman. His shoes were still there further up the beach where he had left them.

He picked them up and walked to the road then wandered back into the town. The streets were wider and there was a lot more traffic. The vehicles were strange. he walked along breathing the strangely acrid air and after a while he grew tired and paused at an open glass door. It was the door of a downtown bar. It had just opened.

Urashima walked in. The guy behind the bar was fat and bleary eyed but looked friendly and inviting

“Hey Back -Island boy!” he said. He had great confidence and bluster. Urashima assumed him to be the owner. Perhaps he owned a whole chain of bars and this was the main one where he held court. But it was empty. Urashima rubbed his eyes with his fists.

“Where you been? Nobody dresses like that. Nobody wears them anymore.” He indicated Urashima’s clothes.

Urashima said nothing.

“So long as you are clean you can come in but man what a sight you cut! Man are you a sight for sore eyes? Let me tell you I will buy you one drink but you gotta go then. I got some high class customers comin’ in later and I don’t want any funny business.”

Urashima nodded. He had no money to pay .. he had the feeling money had changed like the buildings and people and the language.

The man had the same faraway underwater accent as everybody else. He seemed somehow unreal. And his strange looking clothes looked well-worn. Urashima knew he was the stranger here. There was no point walking around in shock. Whatever it was had happened. He pulled himself onto a stool at the bar.

The barman brought a drink of white liquor and Urashima put the box on the bar.

“Cigarette case, huh?” said the man. “You can’t smoke in here.”

Urashima did not want to smoke. He just nodded, raised his glass and said thanks and sipped quietly, letting the hot alcohol burn his throat. Then he lowered his eyes, lowered his head and let the warmth seep into his body.

What to do now? What sense of purpose to find here? The Palace of the Dragon King had been foreign and unreal at first but not as unreal as this. And after some time there the strange light and the constant music and the people and their ways … all seemed normal.

It was strange to be back. Urashima did not remember it having been like this. But then it had not. It had not been like this. It had been quite different. Something had happened. Something strange had happened. He was not sure what it was but something had happened.

A year in the palace of the Dragon Kiong is equal to a hundred years in the world above. That was what it was..everything had died. All the people and places had been completely replaced by new people and new buildings. Everything was new… but old… It sure was odd … Urashima missed the soft hair of his princess. She was gone now. He closed his eyes and he could see her, hear her, almost smell her .. he could smell something .. it was sweet .. he opened his eyes.

A heavily made up woman was eyeing him and staring at his clothing.

“Well what have we got here?” she said.

He smiled sheepishly and drained hisglass, letting it burn him.

“I ain’t seen anybody dress like that since my grandaddy passed on” she said.

Urashima looked at the floor then at her legs. It was easy to se them. She looked almost naked. Her breasts jumped at him. She eyed him. “You want another drink?” she said.

“Please” he said, grateful for the peace that drunkenness reminded him off. He breathed in deeply and let the blood and oxygen course through all his arteries and veins. He felt the strange magical movement of his life force inside and looked about, suddenly curious.

“Who are you?” he said to the woman.

Oh you don’t wanna know!” she laughed.

You don’t wanna know her!” echoed the loud barman as he poured another drink for Urashima and set it down. The woman paid. Urashima looked at he money. GHe did not recognise it.

The woman saw him looking at the money.

“You broke?” she said.

He nodded.

“You want to earn some money?”

“What do I have to do?”

“Just be quiet and keep your eyes open. I will introduce you to someone later.”

“You are very kind” said Urashima.

“Oh am I?!” she shrieked. The barman joined in. Urashima felt a little embarrassed for some reason, but he knoew nobody here, though perhaps he had known the woman’s great-grandfather and mended nets with him once. He looked at her face. It was oddly familiar.

What is going to happen next?

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