A Fish Tale: What I wrote to my kids at camp
(This was a 3-part series by Father Goof from last summer. I’m putting it all together into one as I prepare a new series of dispatches for the gone Little Goofs.)
While others complain or laugh at the letters they get home from camp (although none can quite compare to what I wrote my mother over a quarter-century ago), I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should write to my kids. When the little Goofs are at sleep-away camp they insist that I send them lots of letters because apparently they are entertaining. Sometimes I try to tell stories. Last summer I wrote a little mystery for them in a genre they particularly love. But I also relate adventures with the far-flung branches of our family. Last summer I visited Scotland to join Clan MacMannes as we faced off against our ancient enemies the McGoofs. Turns out there is a real clan McManus in Ireland. This summer, family duty called me elsewhere:
Don’t tell mommy. I didn’t leave the airport after I dropped you off. I had my own flight to catch. The Mannesushis (our family in Japan) are in trouble. Since time immemorial the Mannesushis have been guardians of a vast nature preserve for the gentle snow monkeys who live in northern Japan. We live at peace with them, sharing sashimi, playing games, and enjoying the natural beauty of our home. There are places where you can visit the snow monkeys (they look like little white gorillas), but not at our family’s nature preserve. These are sacred monkeys that must be left in peace.
Unfortunately, a big development company in Tokyo wants to develop our preserve for tourism. They promise not to build, just to let tourists come. But they do not understand, these snow monkeys are under the personal protection of the emperor and must be left in peace.
Understand, though it isn’t just about leaving the snow monkeys in peace. When they are at peace Japan is at peace. During WWII someone had caged them and all of Japan (and the world) suffered. More recently, a poacher killed one and Godzilla attacked Tokyo.
What does all of this have to do with me, you wonder?
The developers are challenging the Mannesushi stewardship of the sacred snow monkey preserve. Under an agreement established under the Tokugawa shogunate five hundred years ago, if the Mannesushis introduce unwarranted innovations into the preserve they can no longer be stewards. The developers are arguing that cel-phones are a modern innovation that disrupts the the natural life of the sacred snow monkeys. (The monkeys like to play games on the phones, like SushiChef and Angry Birds — and especially Hello Kitty! One snow monkey has a Twitter account!)
Under the agreement, the only way to settle the dispute is through a sushi eating contest. Now you can see where I come in. They sent a charter jet and Pop and I are heading to Japan to eat sushi and save Japan (and maybe the world.)
Anyway, the plane has an onboard sushi chef and some great Japanese beer. So Pop and I are warming up!
We landed in Tokyo, it was a great flight! But really long, then we were whisked north on one of the super-trains (it is almost as fast as an airplane.) Pop and I were having a great time and looking forward to the sushi eating contest. We thought it would be a blast.
Turns out things are much more serious than we realized. When we got there, we learned that there had just been a ninja raid on the nature preserve and one of the snow monkeys was kidnapped! This is very bad, it undermines the Mannesushi’s claims as guardians of the snow monkeys. It was then that I realized that something important was going on.
Pop, since he is a real estate attorney, was talking to the Mannesushis about the development plans and legal aspects. He also went over the sushi eating contest rules.
There was a beautiful and peaceful Japanese garden at the Temple and I began walking along the trails. The garden didn’t look very big, but as I was walking the garden seemed to get bigger and bigger. It also got wilder. Before I knew it I was in deep woods with enormous, ancient trees. A pair of snow monkeys stood in front of me. They had spears. They looked fierce, but at the same time oddly gentle. They gestured for me to follow them. They took me even deeper into the woods.
We came to a clearing. The circle of great trees were like the pillars of an ancient temple and the leaves filtered the sunlight like stained glass windows. The shadows on the ground shifted slightly in the breeze like a vast kaleidoscope.
In the center there was a snow monkey. He looked like the other snow monkeys, but was somehow different. He was so perfectly white, it was as though light come out of her (somehow I suddenly knew it was a lady snow monkey.) She gestured for me to come close and sit before her. She looked deep into my eyes. She did not speak, but somehow I heard her voice. Low and gentle, but firm.
She told me it was very important that I prevail in the sushi eating contest. Japan is a modern nation that makes cars and electronics. But it is also an ancient place with deep magic. Somehow, these snow monkeys bind the two and if they come unbound Japan, and maybe the world, will be in great danger.
I said I understood, even though I didn’t and would do my best.
She looked at me again and told me not to eat the sushi.
I didn’t understand.
If you eat the sushi, it will fill you. You must be the ocean to which the fish return.
I know that sounds strange, but I swear it made sense.
Then, in an instant, I was back in the garden and old Miyamato Mannesushi was walking towards me.
“Where have you been?” Old Mannesushi said, in a very, very quiet voice. When anyone is this quiet, you know they are very, very angry.
“Um, I went for a walk, in the woods.” I sputtered.
“For a week?”
“I was only gone for an hour…” I tailed off. There were puddles in the garden, it had rained — a lot. I must have been gone a long time.
“We have been looking for you. The contest is in an hour — you could have missed it. You need to prepare.”
“I think I’m ready, the snow monkey told me…” I wasn’t sure how to explain what had happened.
Mr. Mannesushi bowed to me and said, “You will be the ocean. That is good.”
I suddenly realized I was very hungry, “Let’s go, I’m ready!”
“Wait,” Mr. Mannesushi said, “There are things I must tell you. Your father looked into the developer who is trying to take over this reserve. It is what you might call a dummy company. Some interest, from outside of Japan, it is trying to take over. We cannot figure out who it is. But there are other nations that would destroy Japan and now you know that there is more to the snow monkeys than at first appears.”
“So, I study international affairs. I know things have been tense with China. Is this something they might do?”
“Your father said you studied international affairs. I am glad you are here with us. We do not think it is China. We and China are like two sumo wrestlers who are ancient rivals. We hate each other and fight as hard as we can. But China too has ancient magics. They know better than to toy with such deep things.”
“Hmmm. Russia has their hands full with the Ukraine, but I know you’ve tangled with them in the past.”
“No,” Old Mannesushi nodded, “They tried once. Baba Yaga’s hut tried to water-sky across the Sea of Japan. But we destroyed it with Harpoon missiles. Russia will not try that again. They are far behind in magics since then.”
“Well that only leaves North Korea, that I can think of. Are they strong in magic? Could they do something like this?”
“No, they lost all of their magic when the country divided. That is why the north is so poor and the south is so rich.”
“It isn’t because of the failures of embracing a centrally planned economy?”
Mr. Mannesushi looked at me, “There is what we can see and understand and then there is what is beyond. That is where there is magic. Like how you can go away for an hour and come back in a week.”
“You know, we always underestimate North Korea. With no money they’ve built nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles out of duct tape, paper-clips and moon-sand. I don’t know how this sacred magic stuff works, but I wouldn’t put anything past them. They might even have ostrich bombs!”
“Wait, what was that last thing you said?” Mannusushi asked abruptly.
“I was joking. Couple years ago, Kim Jong-il, you know the father of the current ruler, started building ostrich farms to revive the economy.”
“Ostriches…” Mannesushi muttered, “That must be it, they are ancient enemies to snow monkeys. It is North Korea plotting to destroy Japan. This is very serious. Now, anything can happen!”
As he said that, one of our other cousins ran into the garden. His face was white with terror. “Uncle, they are here! They, I don’t know how to explain! You must come quick, it is time to start!”
I followed them into the pagoda. It was large, but simply built of wood with paper walls. Then, we went into the basement and came upon a giant steel door. We went through it and what felt like miles of tunnels. Then we opened another giant steel door and entered an enormous underground arena. It was packed, but you’ve never been surrounded by so many people who, at the same time, are so very quiet.
Miyamoto Mannesushi whispered, “Many are ghosts. Some are living, but many are ghosts. If you fail, this will not only change Japan today and in the future, it will change the the past. The ancestors too are worried.”
I noticed a booth with curtains in the stands. Because of all the coverings, I couldn’t see if someone was inside. Miyamoto saw me looking at it, “That is the Imperial Booth. The Emperor himself is not here, it would raise too many suspicions. But a representative of the Imperial Household is in attendance.”
As I made my way to the arena I saw Pop, right in the middle at a table piled high with sushi. He had the biggest smile you’ve ever seen.
Then, the other team entered and our faces froze.
We froze in horror. The first eater on the other team was a giant dinosaur. It looked like a T-Rex, until I realized. It was Godzilla! How was I going to defeat Godzilla in a sushi-eating contest. Then it got even scarier. Behind Godzilla, I don’t know how to say this…
Hello Kitty is real and terrifying. It is an enormous, ferocious-looking cat — the size of a row house! How could we ever eat more fish than a giant cat! And behind them, grinning evilly was North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
A referee in samurai garb came out and explained the rules in Japanese. Old Man Mannesushi translated for us. We did not have to eat what was in front of us, they would bring us any kind of sushi we wanted. But it absolutely must not be cooked. Any sort of food preparation would result in the eater’s expulsion. If an eater were expelled whatever he ate would be disqualified, but the team could substitute other eaters. Ultimately the two man team that ate the most sushi by a complex formula of weight and volume would win. One person had to be eating at all time. The other could rest. But if no one on the team was eating, the team was finished.
An ancient gong sounded and the contest was on.
Godzilla began tearing into the table of food, eating pounds at a time. The only thing slowing him down was his tiny T-Rex arms. Pop offered to go first, but I waved him off. Mr. Mannesushi reminded us, speed did not matter then he said, “I believe you Americans have a saying? Think outside the box?” He pointed to Godzilla and said, “You must now eat outside the box.”
I remembered watching Godzilla movies and cartoons and had an idea.
“Hey lizard brain, eat up! Get fat, we’re gonna make a lot of shoes out of you!”
Godzilla kept eating, but his eyes flickered over to me. I flipped him the bird.
“You think you’re gonna win — you can’t even beat mothra!”
He stopped eating for a second and looked directly at me.
“Sharktopus could KICK YOUR ASS!” I shouted and jumped under the table.
I felt a scorching heat all around me and a terrible sound like a giant piece of chalk on a blackboard the size of a mountain filled the room.
A huge gong sounded. Pop looked under the table and told me to come.
Godzilla had lost his temper and fired his eye-lasers at me. I had gone under the table but it had cooked some of the sushi.
Godzilla was disqualified!
But Hello Kitty moved into his place. Her meow was like thunder and drooled horrible slime down her enormous fangs. In one swipe of her paw he ate a ten pound tub of eel. I felt a hand on my shoulder, Pop was tapping me out and going in.
“What are you going to do, I asked?”
Pop just smiled, pulled out his phone and walked up to Hello Kitty. The enormous feline monster looked at Pop’s phone. She bent closer, her eyes were suddenly less fierce, rather confused. She looked for a moment more, then her fangs retracted. The horrible, hungry expression on her face changed and she became the Hello Kitty we all know and love. And then, she just walked away. Pop turned his phone around and I saw it was a picture of GoofGirl cuddled up with her Hello Kitty toy (the one Bubbe bought).
Kim Jong-un grinned, “You have tricks and I have tricks. But now let the contest truly begin.”
A pair of enormous sumo wrestlers stepped forward. One sat down at the table opposite Pop and began to eat. Pop calmly signaled and an octopus was placed on his head, like a vice president (did you really think I would write this whole thing without mentioning vice presidents?) The entire crowd, which had been silent till now, gasped. Pop began to work the octopus into his mouth.
They both ate slowly and methodically. The first sumo wrestler tapped out, but Pop kept eating. He finished the octopus and I tapped in. I took a deep breath, remembered what the snow monkey told me and I WAS the ocean. The fish returned to me. Tuna, salmon, mackerel, yellow-tail, red snapper, and my beloved Patagonian tooth fish all swam within me. I can’t tell you how long I ate. I dimly noticed the second sumo wrestler tapped out and the first one came back in. I kept eating. I noticed two men carry off a fifty gallon drum of soy sauce and bring a fresh one.
And then I was full. I could eat no more. I was sweating salmon oil. I looked over to Pop. He tapped my shoulder. He looked up to the sky and let out a mighty EE-EE-EE-EE like a dolphin. Then he leapt, like a playful porpoise, flying through the air and into the table full of fish. It was as though he was swimming through the fish, devouring them.
The sumo wrestler eating turned a little green, the other one tapped in. He started eating, but after a few minutes doubled over clutching his stomach. Pop kept swimming through the sushi.
The great gong sounded. The match was over. We had won. Kim Jong-Un scowled, “You have won today, but tomorrow will be mine.”
Then, he switched on his heli-pack and flew away.
I asked Pop about the dolphin noises. He turned to me and said, “The snow monkey told me to do it. But it was easy to become a dolphin when you are a Mannes-tee!”
Then all of the Mannesushis (hundreds) in the arena stood and sang the Manatee Song.
Originally published at forfathersonly.blogspot.com on July 10, 2016.