MAKE TOTAL DESTROY!
Out there on the coast of the deep faded blue Pacific Ocean they waited every night for the arrival of the fog, and when it came they always made sure sure that the wicks were trimmed, the fuel replenished, the clock-works wound, and the brass machinery of Japan's oldest lighthouse were oiled and its lens spotless.
Like two ravens high up in their roost, twenty year old Ryo Mikoto and the lighthouse keeper Ryujin, a stooped old man with skin like dried leather and eyes of azure stones, sent their light reaching out to warn any wayward ships. And if they by some chance missed their light, then there was always their voice; the giant, deep drone of the fog horn echoing through the veil of mist like some ancient, wailing deity.
"All's quiet on these Eastern fronts!" said Ryujin, lighting his pipe. "Thinking 'bout turning you loose early tonight. Go slam back some sake and spend some time with the little misses eh?"
"I don't know old man, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be on a Friday night than babysitting the ocean." Ryo quipped.
"Bah! The sea ain't going nowhere, same tides have washed these shores for generations, but a young lads life? Like sands in the hour glass, so enjoy it while you can!" Ryujin said, sarcasm obviously lost.
Truth was that there were only three things Ryo Mikoto needed in his life: his electric guitar, his motorcycle, and "the little misses" as Ryujin adequately put.
Ryujin rambled on about mystical fish as Ryo kicked back, the great ball of wonderment and cheese overhead spilling moonlight the color of unbleached silk across the water.
He remembered the night he had first met Ryujin fondly. It was the night before high school graduation. Ryo and his childhood friend Keiko Harasaki strolled along the broad stretch of beach in the shadow of the lighthouse. Ryo had first met Keiko in second grade music class and while he had turned to heavy metal and baseball and she soccer and knives (don't ask), they had forged a friendship with their rebellious care free spirits and time.
The surf was gentle on that night. Widely spaced, the low breakers lazily slid to shore and spilled their phosphorescent crest up to their bare feet. Further along a lonely stretch of road Eagle Ridge Lighthouse loomed jagged and forlorn against the night sky, its magnified lens slicing through the darkness. It was a very old lighthouse indeed, with some folklore dating its construction to the sixth century and the reign of Emperor Jimmu, but the real mystery surrounding Eagle Ridge was its vitrified surface, the once smooth mortar and brick scorched to such an extreme degree that its surface was forever coalesced into shades of mottled glass and scorch marks.
"Who do you think runs that lighthouse Ryo?" Keiko asked, both their gazes fixed upon the burnt out edifice.
Ryo feigned thoughtfulness and said, "Most likely the Yakuza, they use it to guide their heroin ships into the country."
Keiko giggled, a pleasant sound among the breakers. "Did the coast guard try to burn them out with flamethrowers, that thing is toast!"
"Actually they used their genetically modified dragons, you gotta think outside the box!"
They exploded with laughter. They were simple kids about to be cast under by the not-so-simple tidal wave of life and once that happened, it was sink or swim.
After more small talk they sat in the sand and watched the surf ebb and flow against the shore. Ryo didn't want to think about graduation but it tumbled through his mind ceaselessly. He glanced at Keiko, a slight breeze wisping through her mousy brown hair, her soft fawn eyes locked upon the ocean.
Ryo didn't need to ask what she was thinking. He already knew. How long before the NEETs (No employment, education, or training) workforce programs grind them into just two more cogs in the system, how long before their childhood dreams faded underneath the thrill and joy of "lifetime employment" and literally working yourself to death. Yippee.
"Let's go swimming." Keiko said, breaking their silence.
Although it was April, the water temperature was quite inhospitable, especially in the chilled night air. Keiko undressed down to her under garments and Ryo didn't know which was more blushed, the cherry blossom dye of her bra and panties or his own burning cheeks, but he fumbled out of his T-shirt and pants all the same and waded after Keiko into the dark water. As they swam out against the tide, the lyrics to one of his favorite songs to play on guitar, 'Runaway' by Linkin Park, floated to the surface of his mind; "I wanna run away, never say goodbye. I wanna know the truth, instead of wondering why. I wanna know the answers, no more lies. I wanna shut the door, and open up my mind." Classic.
He wished they could just swim away and never look back, touch the shores of distant Western empires they would probably never see in their lifetime and just live their lives, Bonnie and Clyde, thick as thieves. Together.
They swam a dangerous distance too far from shore.
Even though they were both superb swimmers Ryo could sense a recklessness in Keiko's strokes and any second he expected her to turn north and swim parallel to the coast but instead she continued onward against the tide, against common sense. The water grew colder. His body temperature dropped.
"Keiko! Keiko!" He shouted through deep, shuddering breaths. She seemed to stop for a moment, treading the water in a lazy dog paddle and then she was gone, swallowed up by the incoming swell of water.
"Keiko!" Ryo's heart beat as ferociously as the riptide and he pumped harder than he had ever pumped in his life because he knew if the roles were reversed she would die trying to save him as well. He found her floating face-down, her hair gently bobbing like a halo of seaweed about her head.
She wasn't moving.
Ryo scooped her in his arms and half paddled, half drifted her back to shore. Although the tide was just as gentle as it had been when they first entered the water, the extra weight made his limbs heavy with exhaustion. Faint yet frightening cramps contorted throughout Ryo's stomach and the Tokyo skyline sprinkled as far as the most distant stars.
Miraculously, he had managed to drag her out of the hostile water without going under himself. She lay there, as pale as the sand, lifeless. Shivering violently, Ryo placed his mouth against hers, the bitter ocean taste heavy upon her breath, and performed CPR...chest compression, breath, chest compression, breath...nothing.
"Keiko don't do this!" A dread as dark and palpable as the ocean swept through, all hope sluicing from his heart when out of nowhere came this grimy, shuffling hermit of an old man, bumbling on and on about kids and their trespassing.
"These waters don't be safe for swimming on this night eh?" The old man snapped. "Stand aside sonny boy, I got just what Sleeping Beauty needs!"
Ryo watched in stunned helplessness as the old man took a monstrous breath and plunged onto Keiko, his shaggy beard completely covering the lower part of her face. He breathed once -
-and Keiko convulsed forward, a torrent of seawater erupting from her in great shuddering breaths.
"Thar' she blows!" The old man cried joyously as if he had just reeled in the catch of the century. Keiko plunged into Ryo's arms, her body as tremulous as a leaf, cold, alive.
"Aye there sonny, either there's a pickle in your shorts or you're just really happy your lady friend is alive!"
Ryo never thought he could blush as hard as he did in one night. "Shut up old man!"
Keiko never liked to talk about her misadventure since that night and as far as Ryo was concerned she didn't have to; they began dating the day after graduation and Ryo had become an apprentice under old man Ryujin, the lone lighthouse operator who had saved his best friends life.
Ryo shivered, the long indigo ink slab of the ocean roiling into nothing and nowhere.
"Whaddya' think when you look out over that big ol' pool eh?" Ryujin asked, the great eye of the light humming incessantly in its oiled socket.
"How much time 'til I can leave?"
"Oh hush up before I make you do OT, no pay! That lens can always use a good spit shining!"
"Relax old man! I guess I always wondered about the mystery of the ocean, what's really down there and all you know?"
Ryujin nodded, the smoke from his pipe curling about his head. "Aye...down there. Well what if I told you there was an entirely new world 'down there?' A world not separated by leagues or depths or what-have-you, but by the beliefs in our hearts?"
"I'd say someone's never heard of a submarine before."
"And you'd be stark raving mad to even think about using an oversized sardine can to look for where I'm talking about! Down there in the vast ocean of the human heart beats the pulse of our legends, our myths, and while many a great civilization have come and gone throughout these watery domains, their stories still lives with us. Hear these words son, and know that these myths are as real as you and I. In times long, long past there was a man named Urashima Taro who helped save a small turtle from a group of mischievous boys. The next day this big ol' slobber of a turtle appeared and told Urashima that the small turtle he had saved was a princess, but not just any princess, she was the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, who wanted to thank Urashima for saving his daughters life. The turtle magically gave Urashima gills and brought him to the bottom of the ocean, where he stayed for three days and three nights before becoming homesick. He begs the Emperor to let him leave and tend to his aging mother and as a token of gratitude the Emperor gave Urashima a mysterious box and instructs him not to open it until he reaches the surface. When Urashima returns to land, he discovers that everything has changed. His home was gone, his mother gone, and the people he once knew are nowhere to be seen. He learns that 300 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the ocean. Grief stricken, Urashima turns to the only thing he has left: the Emperors gift. He opens the box and finds a magical instrument inside, made from a bone of one of the most powerful guardians from the sea. So every night for the rest of his life Urashima would play his instrument and across the ocean, across 300 years of time itself the turtle princess and her friends would visit Urashima so he would never be lonely, because Urashima believed."
Ryujin sighed, a deep nostalgic sound as if he were recalling days long vanished like words in the sand at tide. "And now I think it's nigh time you believed too son."
Ryo watched in silent wonderment as Ryujin ambled over to a deep pocket of shadows tucked away in a corner of the room and returned with a highly polished teakwood box.
"Is that what I think it is?" Ryo breathed.
"Hehe, indeed it is m'boy." Ryujin unclasped the gold latches and opened the lid. Nestled against the foreign crimson velvet was a Shakuhachi flute which looked as if it belonged in a museum rather than stashed away in a sea hermits lighthouse. It was about fifty five centimeters long and the color of weathered bamboo. Etched between its crude finger holes were Kanji inscriptions so ancient Ryo could not decipher them.
"This here is the one and only Shakuhachi of Urashima Taro, the voice of the sea itself! Urashima was a natural at that there flute, could swoon the kimono off of a dame just as well as he could a school of fish!"
"Yeah I bet I could pull mermaids if I had my Fender Guitar." Ryo said, gingerly inspecting the flute.
"And I bet Urashima would still play you and your electric banjo under the table!"
"You've never seen me shred old man."
The great eye of Eagle Ridge revolved slowly through the night as the fog horn steadily bellowed.
"Sounds like a lonely ol' animal now does it?" Ryujin asked. He nodded to the flute in Ryo's hand. "How's 'bout you go ahead and play us a funky tune?"
"So we can party with all the turtles and fish, right?"
"Hehe believe you me it won't be the turtles and fish we'll be partying with. Three times I've played that flute and three times I've summoned it from the depths of legends itself. You may think I'm daft but believe you me: I know what I saw, I know what darn near turned this lighthouse into a barbeque pit and most importantly I know what I believe! So go ahead, let's see how you shred on one of those!"
Despite the chill of the night air high in their roost, Ryo began to sweat under the collar. "Summoned what exactly?"
Ryujin grinned, a twinkle in his eye. "Oh you know what."
Ryo licked his lips, his throat as dry as the piece of crafted bone he was holding. It had been years since he last played a Shakuhachi and he would have given up the instrument altogether if it wasn't for Keiko who begged him to keep at it so she wouldn't lose her only friend in music class. How he loved that girl so.
"This is crazy old man," Ryo muttered and placed his lips to the Shakuhachi. He blew a melodious note that reverberated preternaturally through the lighthouse chamber before escaping into the night air.
Ryujin hooted, "Hehe, that's the way! Keep playing! Keep playing!"
Ryo continued to play, his notes echoing flat and sharp, sweet and mournful from deep within him and out there in that vast pool Ryo saw it.
"Shhhhhh!" Ryujin said. "Look!"
Something was rising from the deep.
The water rippled, then the waves began to rise and froth as a large, squashed head broke the surface, immense eyes of pure crimson rolling in a reptilian like skull. First the head, then the neck, and more neck, and more neck! The beast rose fully from the ocean, dark rivulets of water cascading from its colossal, serpentine body, a body that glistened like billions of coins and scales of black coral and crayfish. It flicked its enormous feathered tail, flexed its vise like claws and roared, a deep, anguished cry that split through hundreds of years and made their fog horn sound like a whimper.
The Shakuhachi hung like a limp noodle from Ryo's mouth.
"Easy now lad, no sudden movements." Ryujin warned
"That's a...a...a dragon! A dragon!"
"Indeed it is m'boy, from the deepest part of the ocean it's come back, just like it came for Urashima all those years ago. How 'bout you give 'em a nice welcoming tune eh?"
Ryo took a deep breath and whispered more musical notes into the night air. The dragon uncoiled through the mist in a lithe, majestic motion and wound itself around the lighthouse like a snake until its stone sculptured like head was level with the light chamber. Ryo gazed upon its terrifyingly ancient visage in awe, its great lantern eyes radiating fire and ice, ice and fire. From its jaws hung wizened whiskers of pure silk, and inside the mouth rows within rows of razor sharp teeth. The dragon chuffed its powerful nostrils, a rumble in a volcano. It reared its head back and fourth, as if seeking the notes now dissipated by the wind.
Ryo obliged the dragon.
His notes echoed deftly and with passion, a lullaby, a symphony, a dirge, and the dragon swayed to and fro in a gentle figure eight as if dancing to his sweet tune.
"You're a natural m'boy! Makes my work sound darn shameful in comparison. They can always use an extra fluter under the sea. If you want, he can take you there to a new job, a new life."
Ryo stopped mid note. "You mean...I can take the dragon down there?"
Ryujin nodded. "Aye, When I first saw you pull that gal outta the water I knew there was something special about you. You've got a burning spirit son, brighter than any fire, that's why I shared this gift with you. Tramps like you were born to run, to be free, and who knows? Maybe one day they'll write legends about the flute tootin', swaggin' dragon riding Ryo Mikoto!"
I wanna run away...never say goodbye.
Ryo weighed his proposal more than he should've. This world may not have always been listening, but adventure raged in Ryo's heart as fierce as a typhoon, and now this was his chance to escape, to leave it all behind. Even Keiko.
"If I leave, will I end up like Urashima, trapped in time like that?"
"Well, I'll still be here, I ain't going nowhere but I see where your coming from son, you got obligations here, a life. At the end of the day you just gotta follow your heart. What does your heart tell you to do?"
Ryo listened to that vast, flowing ocean of his heart, to the rhythm of flesh and blood. THUMP THUMP. THUMP THUMP. And he knew in his heart of hearts that he couldn't leave, because a life without Keiko was a life not worth living at all.
Ryo lowered the Shakuhachi. "I guess I still got some work to do up here first."
"Hehe! Not quite ready to get your feet wet eh? Lads gotta a lotta livin' left to do up on these parts,and there's no time like the present! I got some barrels of eight-fold distilled sake, you ever seen a dragon drunk off its marbles?"
Ryo was about to tell Ryujin what a horrible idea that was until he saw it.
"Ryujin the light!"
"Wha-oh fish-sticks!" Ryujin fumbled at the light control but was too late as the high powered beam of light sliced through the air and into the dragons path, its right eye catching fire from the focused light. The dragon reared back its head and unleashed a roar thick with torment. It threshed the air wildly with its webbed claws and rushed at the lighthouse, its eyes burning like cauldrons. It seized the tower, its powerful jaws opening revealing a cavernous maw. There was a great vacuumed sucking sound, the air inside the dragons mouth distorting with heat.
"What do we do what do we do!?" Ryo cried. Flames of molten orange and white hot embers contorted and swirled inside its mouth, ready to be released at any moment -
"-Just take my hand son!" Ryujin said, his face a mask of grim determination. "And believe!"
Ryo dove into that outstretched hand just as the dragon spouted fourth its fury upon the lighthouse, the flames folding over and upon them, above them and through them. The tower was gone. The light was gone. The foghorn was gone. There was nothing left but the glorious, glorious flames of legend, a light brighter than the sun itself but a light that did not burn.
Ryo opened his eyes and sat up among the ruins of Eagle Ridge Lighthouse. There was nothing left save for twisted beams of steel and burnt out mortar here, pulverized stone and the forever lightless shell of the once mighty lens there. The dragon was gone, the ocean lapped empty against the shore rocks.
"Ryujin?" Ryo called. No answer.
He rose unsteadily to his feet, as naked as the day he was born, his lean body covered in greasy soot and ash as if he were trying out his best Gangoru impersonation.
"Ryujin!" Under the moonlight Ryo sifted through the debris of the lighthouse, his cries echoing off the waves.
"RYUJIN!" half buried beneath a blown out section of conduit was one half of the Shakuhachi. Ryo scooped it out of the rubble and ran his ashy fingers across the broken flute, which now lost all its luster, nothing like the mystical object Ryujin had first showed him.
A knot formed in Ryo's throat, not a lump of grief but one far less poignant and Ryo violently wretched, planting soot colored phlegm at his feet.
"I'm surprised you're not spitting up fire too after doing all that hawkin'!" A voice said behind him.
Ryo whipped around and immediately wished that he hadn't as Ryujin was buck naked as well and body resembled a sack of wrinkled, hairy potatoes.
"Whoa there sonny, I always knew you were a little crazy but now I can plainly see your nuts!"
"GODDAMN YOU OLD MAN!"
The following year they constructed a new lighthouse, but by that time Ryo worked as a forklift operator at Tokyo harbor to support himself and his wife Keiko, who was three months pregnant with their first child. As for Ryujin, he became master of the new lighthouse, built to his own specifications out of steel reinforced concrete.
"Just in case." Ryujin had said with a wink. The official story of the original towers collapse was chalked up to a freak tsunami that rolled onto shore that magical night. Yep. Tsunami...
The new lighthouse was ready in September. Ryo rode his motorcycle along that lonely stretch of land and parked at the coast where he watched the gray waters and listened to the new drone of the computerized fog horn, which still paled in comparison to the dragons roar.
Speaking of the dragon, it never came back.
"It's gone away in search of some new adventure," said Ryujin. "Oceans too vast to just waste away in one spot, you gotta get out and explore. There's a whole lotta learnin' to be done in those depths, and we've barely scratched the surface!"
Ryo sat on his bike and listened to the thunder of the waves colliding onto the shore rocks, to the venerable voice of the sea itself, beckoning him.
He wished there was something he could say back.