On a hill overlooking the vast ocean, an old man sat under a crooked cypress, telling story after story. Yes, this is a mukashi mukashi story. Taro watched, through the wispy strands of the old man’s long white beard, seaweed bobbing over undulating waves. He had heard another version of this same story. In fact, he’d heard it many times before. He looked around at his family and friends, his fellow villagers. They were entranced, deep inside their personal visions of adventure. The old man’s beard tossed the other way, and Taro peered deep into the horizon, the thin line between sea and sky. According to the old man’s stories, the archipelago was rich with life, reefs and other island landings. But no one on this island ventured farther than to fish, always close to shore, returning with dinner and to settle in for the next story. Since Taro could remember, the people fished and listened to stories. Taro traveled to other villages on the island, and it was the same—different old man, different stories, but same routine: fish and stories. Taro had traveled from village to village to hear new stories, circling round and round until he thought he’d heard them all. On this particular day, Taro waited for the sunset, the end of the story, and the dispersal of the villagers. He sat close to the old man and asked, That story about Taro visiting the sea princess, could that be about me?
My name is Taro.
Yes, that’s your name.
So what if?
The old man turned toward the sea to watch the sun slip into the ocean. If?
Yes, if I left this island.
Once upon a time, I left. But no one leaves.
I want to leave. Tell me how to leave.
If you want to leave, you leave.
It’s that easy?
Yes and no. The old man pulled out a small box hidden in the folds of his robe. Take this. Perhaps it’s time to return it.
Taro opened proffered palms and stared with wonder. Return it?
Yes. The old man pointed a craggy finger.
Taro felt a strange tingling through his fingers. To whom?
The old man’s eyes opened tired lids with great effort, his head a twilight of gold. That is for you to discover.
Taro bowed his head.
Now you may leave. The old man shut his eyes. I will await your return.
This story appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Taro prepared for his trip, his fishing gear, a gourd of water, shoyu, the usual. He left a note for his folks. He’d be back soon. He crept out into the dark before dawn, but as he pushed his small boat into the surf, a gigantic turtle swam toward him and said, If you can ride, why paddle?
Do you mean?
The turtle’s yellow eyes rolled around sardonically.
Can you take me to another island?
Taro climbed onto the turtle’s broad back, and the turtle, slow on land, sped away, skidding over seawater. Taro looked back to see his island home grow small, become a spot, then disappear. He felt a hard knot in his chest, but the turtle said, All right, now that I’ve got you out here in the big void, tell me, what is your question?
Where are we going?
Not bad. I often ask myself the same. So that’s it?
What’s this question for?
That’s a good one too.
Why do I need a question?
I don’t understand.
Look, when I show up, it’s because you have a question, and I give you a ride to find the answer.
Can I still ride without a question?
By and by, a pinch of tower in the distance grew into a skyline of great towers and buildings. It was a vision Taro had only imagined in stories. It was an island city. He stepped from the turtle’s back and stood on the beach in awe. He started to ask a question but stopped and said with some determination, I will search for a question, and when I find it, I will return to this same beach to meet you.
The turtle shrugged a turtle shrug and plodded back into the sea.
Taro wandered into the city, peering into windows and doors, too shy to venture within. But then, becoming confused, he retraced his steps backward and forward, thinking he had passed the same storefront, the same display of books, but there were differences, however slight. A woman emerged from one door, carrying a stack of books, securing the top book under her chin, and thus, not seeing Taro, stumbled into his path. The books scattered kerplunk-plunk-plunk everywhere, but Taro caught the flailing woman. Oh, oh! The woman pried herself from Taro’s arms and ran about gathering her books.
Let me help. Taro gathered books and followed the woman to another storefront, crossing the street. Through a revolving door, he followed the woman up moving stairs and down, on every floor exchanging her books for others. And encumbered with another stack, Taro followed her back to the original store. She explained, We already have copies of those books, so we trade them for others. She pointed to stacks of books everywhere, surrounded by shelves climbing to the ceiling. Those books are old and valuable, and we will take them to a bookstore that deals in rare collectible books. That pile there will be donated to the library. Those are scientific texts. Those, science fiction. Those romance novels. Those philosophy. That poetry. Cultural studies, religion, politics, history, biography, et cetera, et cetera. Off they go to their proper stores, libraries, collections, and their proper shelves. It’s never-ending. Shelving, distributing, mailing, exchanging. She sighed.
Hmmm, she paused, sizing up the stranger. You are new here, no?
What book are you looking for?
I don’t know.
We can find any book. It might take a while, but if it’s a book, it’s archived here somewhere. If it’s not on this island, she paused with perfect confidence, it probably doesn’t exist.
Taro fingered the small box in his pocket and thought of the old man and his stories. But somewhere someone has told a story that is not yet in any book.
The woman had returned to her book business, lost to that world, but cast her words to dusty air: All knowledge is stored in our books. Trust me, there is nothing in any new book that has not already been thought of and written.
Taro felt a pang in his gut. Food? he inquired.
Oh, the woman replied, over there on shelf 10 on the other side of Travel. Watch your step.
Taro wandered to the back of the shop and found the heading: Cookbooks. His mouth watered, and his stomach growled.
He left quietly, then attempted to retrace his steps, but wandered deeper into the labyrinth of bookshops and libraries, the glut of everything already thought of and written. This city of books ran east and west, north and south, impossible to leave. If he inquired in any bookshop about the beachfront or a map or even a market, he was shown the appropriate shelf of books to match the subject. Finally, he thought he heard the sound of waves, saw the flight of a gull, and followed his senses to the sea and a pier. There he tossed a line from his fishing pole and contemplated a fine meal.
Presently, the turtle appeared, bobbing near the fishing line. Caught anything?
Taro clicked his chopsticks and lifted a small tender fillet.
The turtle observed, Nothing on this island to eat except books.
Books are edible?
Is that your question?
How do I know?
Taro tossed a piece of fish into the turtle’s open mouth. I’m ready to leave.
The turtle gulped. Hop on.
The next island spread out casually with outdoor cafés, garden arbors, meeting spaces, and cushioned living rooms. Taro walked past plazas and broad street corners, observing people sitting in groups around tables, all hugging books and earnestly listening or speaking. Taking a left turn down a side street, he arrived outside a large bay window; lighted within were seated people with glasses on chopstick posts or handled cups filled with muddy liquid. Someone was gesticulating and speaking over a book. A man scurried over the path to the house, then paused to tap Taro on the shoulder. Going inside? Sorry, I’m late. Just as well. I haven’t finished reading it. He pointed at his book. How about you?
Taro looked confused.
Oh, forgot your book? Don’t worry. You can borrow mine.
Taro followed the man into the house, both squatting to sit on some pillows near a fireplace. Someone handed him one of those glasses. He sniffed the bubbly liquid and sneezed. The person gesticulating and reading from his book looked up and said, Bless you, then raised his glass and sipped. Everyone else did the same, so Taro did too.
The conversation proceeded in an orderly disorderly fashion. Taro listened and sipped the water bubbles. Someone came around with a bottle and poured more.
I find the character simplistic and without the kind of complexity I look for in the protagonist.
But it’s not that sort of story. The quest itself is the complexity. The character is a vessel.
The quest? Did I miss that? He’s searching for something?
True, it’s not clear.
It’s a mystery.
Can someone explain the box?
He’s pursuing adventure.
But where’s the adventure?
Where is the tension? I mean, there’s no adversary. Something he has to overcome.
I agree. If it’s an adventure, I want action. A little violence would be nice.
Violence? Can’t life be an adventure without explosions and killing someone?
I don’t mean killing anyone, but you know, some excitement. Danger. It could be physical or psychological.
In any case, a page-turner.
Can someone explain the box?
Really, every story is a kind of war, antagonistic—for the protagonist a test of character, for the reader an epiphany.
But the protagonist, this Taro fellow, what does he do? OK, spoiler. Spoiler, everyone. He happens upon a reading club, drinks their wine, gets drunk, and falls asleep.
Total disappointment. What was the point?
It’s not your genre, so why complain?
I prefer books that teach you how to live a good life.
I prefer books that take you to another world.
I prefer books with sociopolitical relevance.
I prefer books that re-create history.
I prefer books that trace ideas to their probable and improbable consequences.
I hate this book!
Who recommended this book?
Can someone explain the box?
Taro awoke stretched out in front of the fireplace, a cat cuddled over his chest. The cat rose with digging paws, stared into Taro’s eyes, and said, Do you have a question?
Where am I?
This is the island of readers. They read and talk and argue about reading. Then, they read and obsess about what they read while eating, working, having sex, exercising, playing, socializing, living their lives. Do you read?
You don’t have to lie. People here say they read, but they don’t know the first thing about reading; most pick up knowledge from hearsay. But, on an island of readers, who could admit such a thing.
Do you read?
I am a cat. The cat settled down into Taro’s vacated pillow and closed its eyes. Taro looked around the room, empty of its readers, and slipped out the door.
Taro spotted the shell of the turtle buried in the sand and knocked. The turtle rose, sand cascading over the full mound of his great self. Oh, the turtle said, it’s you.
I guess we both had a nap.
Speak for yourself. The turtle trudged into the waves, Taro following.
Taro scanned the landscape of the next island. It looked strangely blue. The foliage, the trees, the sky, the small houses, all shades of blue. And a bluish cloud floated, dipped down in a soft fog, wafting in fluffs off the blue ocean. Taro slid off the turtle’s back, which had turned an aqua blue. A runner in blue was running over the wet sand, the imprint of feet chasing behind.
The turtle snorted and dragged his big body in the opposite direction. Taro walked with purpose onto the blue island and turned blue.
All along the beachfront were tiny blue one-room cottages, numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. In front of one, a woman was doing a dance of calisthenics. Taro waved. Hello! But her ears were covered with some odd mitts, and she seemed deep in concentration. The neighboring woman emerged from her next-door blue cottage with a jump rope, which the first woman immediately turned to see, and with anxiety, rushed into her house, slamming the door shut. The jump-roping woman noticed Taro and said, What are you looking at?
Sorry for intruding, but—
The jump-roping woman cut in, Do you mind?, turned her back, and went jumping away. A boy on a blue bicycle pedaled up to another cottage, #5, got off, and left a basket of food, fruit, and wine at the door. Someone appeared at the door briefly and quickly took in the basket. As the boy wheeled away, Taro ran after him. Wait! Wait!
The boy stopped. At what number do you live? I don’t have any other deliveries here. And just so you know, I don’t deliver drugs of any kind, including CBD. And if you require IT help, I don’t do that either. I don’t live here.
Suddenly a bloodcurdling scream came out of #1. Taro started to run toward the house, but the boy skidded his bike around to cut him off. Don’t. Really. Bother. Trust me, said the boy. It’s nothing.
From a distance, they heard laughter. And then out of #8, someone tumbled, rolled around in the blue grass, then jumped up gleefully and ran around the little house in circles of joy. The neighbor in #9 came out and looked on in disgust. Can we get some peace and quiet here ever? #10 came out too, bluesy jazz bursting from the open door. Shut up!
#9 said, Must have finished another chapter.
#10 said, So what? Do I go nuts every time I finish a poem? No, I sit and contemplate. I think maybe it’s done. I have doubts.
#8 ran around the house yelling, I finished my book! I finished!
#10 said, It’s a lie. You got a draft is all. Shut up!
#2 dropped her jump rope, entered her door, but not before giving everyone the finger.
The door to #5 opened, and an empty basket slid out.
Another scream came from #1 and laughter from #4.
The boy said to Taro knowingly, The question is how much joy, sorrow, excitement, or terror can you stand to experience in a room by yourself?
Suddenly a naked person ran out of #6 and into #7, followed by shirts, pants, underwear, socks flung from the window of #6.
The boy added, Or sex.
From behind, the runner, the one Taro had seen on the beach, was puffing and grunting toward the commotion, body glistening. He literally shook himself like a wet dog, salty blue sweat spraying in every direction. The runner then announced, I’ve got it! I’m writing about the dysfunctionality of the heteronormative family. Sucking off the tremendous tits of my epic family! He then strode into #3, hopefully to take a shower.
The naked lover emerged on the porch and yelled, What can I say? I’m a genius!
This provoked #6 to yell from the window: I’m writing for revenge. I’m going to get back at all those petty, foul, evil people who deserve my poison pen. And don’t try to dissuade me, or your character will have a teeny-weeny penis.
#2 came out with the jump rope and proclaimed, I have a responsibility to my people to write.
At which point, #1 looked out and spoke in a whisper: I’m just shy. I want desperately to escape. Actually, I don’t even want anyone to read my thoughts, my most intimate self. But aren’t you even interested? It was tiny, but nonetheless a tiny scream: Does anybody really care?
#10 sighed and confessed, If I write about my trauma, maybe it will go away or at least I’ll be reconciled to it. Then that writer turned, merging back into the room booming the blues.
#9 huffed and said, Frankly, I’ve got no other skills. I’m condemned to write. But I’m very good at hiding behind the speculative to expose the inequities of class, race, and gender.
#5 opened the door and pushed out another empty basket and two empty wine bottles and stuttered, I-I-I fear public speaking. I can never say what I think in real time when it’s necessary. So I write after the fact and say everything I wanted to say when I couldn’t say it.
#4’s head popped out and said, The thing is, I can’t remember a goddamn thing, so I’m forced to write everything down. The trouble is that, after writing it down, I can only remember what I write. Ha!
#8, exhausted from celebrating that finished book, lay in the blue grass looking into the blue sky. I just want to be alone in quiet contemplation. That’s all. Really.
Taro walked alongside the bicycle boy, hauling the empty baskets and bottles away for recycling. Here, said the boy. Camembert and caviar. Turns out the writer is vegan. You must be hungry.
Taro took the strange food happily. Suddenly, Taro remembered and riffled through his pockets, producing the small box. Here, he said to the bicycle boy. A small souvenir from my homeland.
The boy handled the box, taking time to notice its details. Nice craftsmanship, he observed. Thanks.
Taro bowed. My ride is waiting, he said, and their paths parted.
Back on his island home, Taro stood on the same shore where he had first met the turtle. How can I thank you? he asked.
Taro shifted uncomfortably.
Thanks, Taro repeated.
The turtle shrugged his turtle shrug. Don’t mention it, he advised, and slipped away with the surf.
Taro climbed the hill to the crooked cypress, but the old man was not there. He looked around and saw the villagers gathering as usual, and so he sat and waited, but the old man did not appear. When the villagers saw Taro, they became excited, exclaiming, He’s returned! The old man has returned! Word spread, and soon the hill was filled with folks who had come to listen to the old man’s stories. They sat and waited, and so did Taro. Finally, a small kid said, Why doesn’t he say anything? Taro looked around, but the kid was looking at him. Finally, Taro looked down and, seeing with difficulty through cataracts his wrinkled arthritic hands, touched his wrinkled face and felt the long strands of white beard flowing from his ancient chin.
Taro sensed the waiting breathlessness of the kid, and so he closed his eyes and began.•