A Tale of Two Tarōs
By Marie Brennan
The boy’s name was Tarō, and he lived on Urashima. Men there were fishermen, mostly, and boys learned that trade from their fathers and grandfathers; but this Tarō was not a fisherman, because he had neither father nor grandfather to teach him. He was an orphan, and a beggar, and sometimes a petty thief— but that last only when he was struggling to get by.
It was best to beg from old people, and safest to steal from visitors, though Urashima did not get many visitors. It had plenty of old people, though, their hands too gnarled by wind and weather to mend the nets or gut the fish. Tarō knew how to be respectful, and when he scrubbed his face in rain puddles he could pass for appealing with a few of them, so most days he wasn’t so hard up as to need to steal from anyone.
But one cold and rainy spring, one of the other boys in the village —Genta, who had not only a father and a grandfather, but a mother and grandmother too— decided he didn’t like Tarō. Genta had gotten his very own boat that spring, and this made him feel he was now a man, with a man’s duty to show his strength. It stopped being safe for Tarō to seek out the friendly old people, to sniffle artfully (and often truthfully) until someone gave him some food, because all too often the other boy found him. If it was before Tarō begged, Genta bloodied his nose or blacked his eye, making him look like a troublemaker rather than an appealing waif to whom one might give some dried fish. If it was after Tarō begged, Genta bloodied his nose or blacked his eye, and took his fish to boot. If Tarō had already eaten the fish, Genta punched him in the stomach until he gave it back.
So Tarō had grown very hungry indeed by the time the stranger came to his village.
He could tell the man was a stranger even from a distance, because he did not dress like a fisherman. No short jacket and knee-length trousers for him; instead he wore a silk robe with wide sleeves and pleated trousers down to his ankles. He was standing on the little bluff that overlooked both the sea and the village, and he was staring at the latter.
Tarō came up and bowed. Visitors were the safest to steal from, and he could see something weighing down the deep pocket of one of the man’s sleeves, but it was polite to make conversation first. “Hello, uncle,” he said respectfully. “Welcome to Urashima.”
The man startled, glancing down at Tarō. “This is Urashima?” His gaze went back to the village, his brow creasing. “But ...it doesn’t look right.”
Tarō didn’t know what the man had expected. Something grander, perhaps. Helpfully, he came forward to stand at the man’s side, gesturing with one hand. “Down there is where the fishing boats come in, but they’re all out at sea now. The building you see with the taller roof takes in guests sometimes, if you need a place to stay. It’s run by Old Aki, and if you greet her by name she’ll think you’ve heard of her. She likes that.”
His words were a cover for one hand slipping into the open back of the man’s wide sleeve. His searching fingers closed around a small, cornered shape— a box of some kind.
“Thank you,” the man said, sounding dazed, and Tarō wondered if he was right in the head.
Not until after the man was gone did it occur to Tarō to wonder where the man had come from— for Urashima was an island, and he had seen no ships arrive that day.
Scar-faced old Masaru traded for the things Tarō stole, because every few days he went to the mainland where there was a town with an actual market, and because everyone said he had no morals. But Tarō couldn’t give him the box right away, because the stranger was still around, and the box was extraordinary.
Tarō had never seen anything like it. He thought it might be of coral, inlaid with shimmering patterns of shell. As soon as he saw what he’d stolen, he felt like his grubby hands had no right to touch anything so fine. And besides, he did not want Genta to find it and take it from him. So, he immediately hid the box in the safest place he knew of, the hollow of a tree away from the beach, wrapped in a bit of old cloth to protect it. But the box should have had something finer, like the silk of the stranger’s sleeves.
He could not risk trying to put it back, though. The stranger was going around the village, asking after people Tarō had never heard of, and getting more and more upset every time someone said there were no people by those names there. Or sometimes there was such a person, but it seemed not to be the right one, and then the stranger got even more upset. Tarō did not understand, and he did not want to be caught by someone who behaved so peculiarly.
At sunset Tarō saw the man sitting on the beach, looking over the fishing boats now drawn up on the shore. He sat directly in the sand, despite his nice silk clothes, and he was clearly crying. Feeling guilty, Tarō crept close. He thought that perhaps the man was crying because he’d lost his beautiful jeweled box, and that made Tarō feel like a worse person than Masaru.
“Hello, uncle,” he said hesitantly.
The stranger wiped away his tears with the back of his hand and sniffed thickly. “You’re the boy from this morning.”
“Yes. My name is Tarō.”
The man’s laugh was almost a hiccup. “So is mine.”
Warmed by this unexpected connection, Tarō said, “Why are you so sad, uncle? Can I do anything to help?” It had occurred to him that he might suggest the box had fallen out of the man’s sleeve, and he could offer to search for it; then he could “find” it and return it to the older Tarō. Masaru should not have anything so fine.
But the older Tarō shook his head. “You can’t do anything. You probably wouldn’t even believe me.”
The young Tarō sat cross-legged in the sand. “I promise to believe.”
After a long pause, broken only by the quiet conversation of the waves, the man said, “I was born in this very village. Not that long ago —or so it seemed to me— I rescued a turtle that some other boys were tormenting.”
Tarō immediately wanted to ask if one of those boys was Genta, because it sounded like something he would do. But he surely would have remembered this man being around, especially since his name was also Tarō.
“Later,” the man said, “the turtle came back and revealed herself to me as the daughter of the Dragon King, who rules the realm of the sea. She thanked me for saving her and took me to her father’s palace. A place so beautiful, I can hardly describe it to you. And I was happy there, with the princess as my wife...but I had left without saying goodbye to my old mother, and that made me feel terribly guilty and homesick. So, I told my wife I wanted to come back.”
The tears were beginning to flow again. “I thought I was gone only a few months, a few years at most. But everything here is different, and none of the people are the ones I know. Someone finally said they’d heard a story about a fisherman named Tarō who vanished into the sea on the back of a turtle.”
His last words came out in a whisper. “The story is three hundred years old.”
The young Tarō sat quietly, not sure what to say, as the man broke down. How could anyone go to the Dragon King’s palace? That sort of thing only happened in stories, not to real people. And three hundred years away— shouldn’t he be very old now? Far older than anyone Tarō knew, even Old Aki.
But he also thought of the box. Precious coral and beautiful shell, shaped with more expert skill than anything Tarō had ever seen before. He could believe it came from the palace of the Dragon King.
“Everyone I knew and loved is dead,” the man said, his words coming between sobs. “I never had the chance to speak to my mother again. No one here knows me. I left my wife to come here, and now I’ve lost her. I’ve even lost the box she gave me— a box she swore would protect me. It was the only thing I have of her. What can I do but kill myself?”
In the face of such grief, Tarō could not bring himself to spin a hopeful lie about the box having fallen out somewhere. Instead, he bit his lip. Then he said, “I have days like that, too. Not the same— but both of my parents are dead. I have no family. There’s a boy who beats me up just because he can, and sometimes I don’t even have anything to eat.
“But...there used to be an old woman here who was kind to me. And she made me promise that when I felt like killing myself, I would wait until the next day. Because the next day, things might look different.” Tarō hugged his knees. “Nothing has actually gotten better for me. Every day that I wait, though, I get older. And when I’m old enough, when I’m a man, I’m going to leave this island. I’ll go to the mainland, and I’ll find myself a better life.”
No amount of sniffling could clear the man’s nose. Voice thick, he said, “Tomorrow I will still be the man I am now. Nothing will have changed.”
Tarō hesitated, then made bold enough to put his hand on the man’s silk-covered arm. “You’re still a Tarō. Good advice for one Tarō is also good for another, I think. Wait until tomorrow, at least. Will you promise?”
After a long moment, the man nodded.
“Thank you,” Tarō said, and they sat and watched the sea.
Crying tires a person out, be he a boy or a man. Tarō waited until the man had fallen asleep, and then he slipped away to the tree with the hollow in it, where he had hidden the box.
He wiped his hands on his trousers before touching it, and then on some leaves, because his trousers were not very clean. Still, he felt grubby, and he hurried down to the beach with the box cradled in his palms.
Wading out into the surf, he addressed the sea, saying, “I don’t know if anyone out there is listening. The Dragon King is a powerful god, very busy with storms and fish and things much more important than me, a boy who is not even a fisherman. But there is a man on the beach who has my name, and he has lost everything.
“I can’t give him back his family. I’m going to give him back this box I took, though. And...and I hope that someone out there, if they can hear me, will give him a second chance.”
Then he waded back out of the water, laid the box down in front of the man where he lay curled up on the sand, and walked away.
Tarō stayed awake all night and came back just at dawn.
The boats were not going out, because it was one of the days sacred to the Dragon King, when it is unlucky to fish. All the boats were still on the shore...but the man was gone.
Tarō stopped, squeezing back his own tears. Had the older Tarō killed himself after all? Had he waded out through the waves and then kept going, farther and farther until his feet could no longer touch the bottom, and let the sea drag him down?
Or— had something out there heard him? Had the dragon princess come back for the man who loved her?
He didn’t know. But on the beach, not in the spot where Tarō had left it, was the coral and shell box.
The waves were beginning to lick at the sand around the box, but the tide hadn’t yet risen past it. Something was scratched into the sand above it, and Tarō, coming closer, recognized it. The old woman who told him always to wait a day had also attempted to teach him to read, and while Tarō could not make out the beautiful calligraphy in the village’s shrine to the Dragon King, nor the handful of scrolls they had from the mainland, he could read this much.
The writing said, For Tarō.
He picked up the box, the beautiful coral and the inlaid shell. Although his hands were still dirty, he no longer felt wrong for touching it.
A box she swore would protect me, the older Tarō had said. Had he left it here for his younger namesake, to protect him against Genta?
As if the thought summoned him, Genta’s voice came from the village, shouting that he was going to go play on his new boat.
Tarō opened the box.
The lid fit very tightly, and his hands were not especially strong. At first Tarō could not get it to shift open more than a crack, and then his head swam like the waves had knocked him over-and-under; he instinctively grabbed for something solid, and since the only thing in reach was the box, he wound up pressing it shut again.
When he opened his eyes, the box looked smaller.
No— the box was the same. His hands were bigger. Not just longer but stronger, each finger thicker. Not the hands of a boy.
He looked down, and the ground was farther away. His short jacket, now strained open by his chest, revealed hair on that chest. Hair in other places, too, he discovered, and all over he was bigger.
The boy had suddenly become a man.
Tarō had been a reasonably clever boy, and now he was a reasonably clever man. How could someone spend three hundred years in the Dragon King’s palace and not be incredibly old?
If someone magical —like a dragon princess— put all those years somewhere else for safekeeping.
He wondered if the older Tarō, who was now a Tarō of about his own age, had known, but had simply forgotten to warn him. And what would have happened if he’d gotten the box all the way open.
Thumping footsteps behind him made him turn. It was Genta, who stopped and gaped. Even grown overnight into a man, it seemed Tarō was still recognizable as himself, and now Genta had good reason to flinch.
Briefly Tarō considered returning some of the beatings that Genta had given him, but it was not in his nature to be vicious. Even more briefly, he considered giving Genta the box. The other boy —that was, the boy, for Tarō himself was one no longer— would pry it open immediately. But it was not in Tarō’s nature to be cruel.
He’d waited. And today, things did indeed look different.
Tarō was standing near Genta’s boat. He pushed it back into the surf while Genta stood and gaped, then hopped over the rail once the hull was floating free. He set the box safely under a bench and pulled off his too-small jacket, found a paddle, and began to take himself out to sea.
He didn’t know how to sail. He had neither father nor grandfather to teach him, only the scraps he’d overheard and the things he’d seen others do. But the mainland wasn’t far away, so he prayed to the Dragon King to guide him, and went in search of a new life.