It takes time for new places to seep into my dreams. When I’ve left a place, my dreams take me back instead of forward.
Places go first – the familiar coffee shops, restaurants and bookstores stop serving as backdrops. People from the past populate new places, meet new people and occasionally trade faces or bodies.
Dreams about places in Japan have taken about 8 months to catch up. First was the shrine near my house, dreamlike even in life and never the setting of anything in either world.
And this is where I met my first kappa.
I’ve never dreamed of the office where I spend 8 hours a day. Instead I’ve had dreams with a fully formed mythical creature from Japanese folktales I’ve never read.
Kappa blend turtles and ducks. They have shelled heads and bodies, and wide beaks like a platypus. The head shell is curved to carry water, which lets them move around on land. If the kappa is jostled and the water splashes out, the kappa freezes until someone helps it out.
Which few people do, because kappa are not safe to be around. They have malevolent schemes. They’re accused of eating babies, molesting women and tricking people into their own deaths.
Mostly, though, they want to eat any kind of human, because as humans we have something called a spirit ball in our rectum. (Yes. For kappa survivors, their rectum did, indeed, nearly kill them).
But kappa are polite and friendly. They bow, they speak with respect and make pleasant conversation partners. They’re very interested in you, in people in general, but you know, they also gotta eat.
Dreams – and Japanese folk tales – can be pretty weird. So, saying “OK, as long as I keep in mind that I should be careful around this thing, it will be fine” makes sense in a dream (and in a Japanese folk tale). “Really, that’s just its nature. No need for hard feelings.” Plus I like him. I genuinely like him. I just shouldn’t fall asleep near it.
I give the kappa some credit. I assume it’s not guilty of everything it’s accused of, that maybe it has never eaten any babies, or at least any babies that didn’t deserve it. Nobody’s perfect.
I’m standing on a beach at night, a rocky Japanese beach with orange sand and distant palm trees. Walking along the shore I almost stumble into a hole large enough for a small boy to sleep in, curled up.
In the fog I see the curves and color of an enormous egg in the hole. A hole the size of a boy is small, an egg the size of a boy is not.
The beach is covered in kappa eggs. I arrived at the tail end of kappa mating season, just missing the Bosch-inspired horrors of a reptilian orgy on the seashore.
I walk toward the city lights outlining distant palm trees. There’s a sound like leather being rubbed on sandy glue. Three feet in front there’s half an egg lining a hole, strands of yolk stretching out to creases in the sand a few feet ahead. I don’t see it. I’m a little disappointed.
Walking home from work I climb the stone stairs to the shrine hidden in the bamboo forest. I stop to wash my hands in the fountain and I sit on a log and open a book.
The sun sets fast enough that I don’t read a single word. I hear something moving in the brush about nine feet away. I stare at the spot and see the head of a kappa, its body moving toward me.
The kappa sits next to me, kneeling like a respectful waiter at an izukaya. It’s small, the size of a raccoon, but leathery like a turtle. It has brown eyes brimming with curiosity. I don’t know what we talked about, but the kappa was funny. Good jokes.
I asked if it wanted to eat me. It doesn’t. In fact, it wants to eat everyone else, but it doesn’t want to eat me. I helped it out, he says. It never moves its beak. I don’t know if it’s ventriloquism or a limitation of my dream’s CGI budget.
Helping a Kappa Out
Helping a kappa out is something plenty of people do. If you see a kappa frozen in a bowing position, find water from its home and pour it back into its head. The re-animated kappa will be fiercely loyal – in fact, it cannot break a promise – though it still, by nature, wants to eat you.
There’s even a practice of depicting meditating kappas at shrines and train stations. I like to think of this kappa when I feel like something in my primal nature is flawed. I like to think that this kappa, so predisposed to eat children and trick travelers, wants to change.
Kappa survival tactics (from real folk tales)
If you give a kappa a cucumber it will be pretty excited and help you out, usually by agreeing to refrain from doing something horrible to you or you children. That’s why cucumber sushi is called kappa maki.
If you catch a kappa trying to drown a horse, it will stop and apologize. In some cases it will even write a letter of apology.
But the best thing you can do when you meet a kappa is be polite. Give it the benefit of the doubt. Have a conversation but don’t trust it.
And if you start to get in over your head, respectfully end the conversation with a bow. Losing itself in its love of formality, the kappa will bow in return, spilling the water from its head and freezing, trapped forever in the amber of its own courtesy.
And it might be a good idea to wear jeans.
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