Once upon a time and a very long time ago, an old man lived under a hut in the hillside of Kaesong. All the long armed trees and flower faces knew his name because his family and all their green creatures had been sprouting from the earth for as long as either could remember.
“Ruka, Ruka, Ruka,” the frogs would call to him as they hid behind green rushes and called for him to find them. Silly polliwogs… when they did that, he always found them hiding behind slippery river stones and mosses. It seemed that the fun for them was not in the hiding… but in the jumping out of his hands once he caught them.
Even the weeds enjoyed remembering how his mother would call the old man when he was just a boy at supper times.
“Ruka,” she would call, “Ruka, come eat rice with us.”
And because the bark wrapped around his topknot would always fall off when he swam with fish, his hair would stream like long black magpie feathers as he flew past his grassy friends to eat with his family.
At sunrise, he would once again rush down the grassy slopes to search for fresh water snails, because as it turns out, they were wonderful teachers.
“Don’t ever think the Shelled Ones are stupid because they move so slowly,” he would later tell the villagers who came to him to buy beautifully painted characters of their family names. “You see, they are the ones who gather thought-bubbles from river ripples as they float to the pebbles beneath. So of course they can’t afford to rush about, lest they overlook one in their hurry.”
The villagers would laugh at him. But he remembered the snails who taught him how to paint the pictures he painted, pictures he could use to conjure up a name…without ever opening his lips! And though the villagers laughed at him for being a stupid hill boy, they bought name paintings from him just the same.
Eventually, there was a time when the Fairy Folk became curious about his friendship with the Shelled Ones, and flitted circles around them like dragonflies. Of course, this attracted Merfolk, which turned out to be a very good thing. They taught him how to breathe through reeds while he was yet in the water!
The fairy kingdom is full of folks who teach each other secrets entrusted to them by Heaven. And somehow, Ruka, the boy with hair like magpie feathers, became one of them. And so Ruka learned the ways of the world, of men and goblins and wars…
After his youth, there came a time when the Northern Kingdom was invaded by wave after wave of powerful soldiers. The invaders scoffed at the villagers’ ways, destroyed the village potteries, and sent a decree throughout the entire Kingdom that only the holidays chosen by the new monarch would be celebrated. The villagers thought perhaps it was better to let their traditions die rather than die themselves.
The village children asked, “What is happening to our Kingdom?”
Mothers sadly answered, “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.”
And eventually a decree was made that all the families of the Northern Kingdom would be renamed, “Shrimp.”
The fairies laughed when they told Ruka this, and the snails shook their antennas sadly.
Ruka was enraged. “Not even the jungle Lion forces his subjects to be called by another name than what they are! Why are my people’s names changed to Shrimp?” As Ruka yelled, he shook his fist with rage and took a swing at the air.
“See that you don’t knock the ears off the fairies,” Arden the gnome cautioned. “It is the way of Man to name things, isn’t it?”
“This is why we play tricks on the sons of men…because they choose Power over Love,” Arden added.
“And why we blow pixie dust up their noses when they try to steal our flowers,” giggled a fairy named Lullabye.
“Well, I’m not a Shrimp!” Ruka yelled.
“Would you rather go by Snail?” Mother Pearl teased, raising her antennas like arched eyebrows.
“Yes, yes, I think I would!” Ruka exclaimed “…But that would be a lie. I am Ruka and I am a name painter, and I suppose that is all there is to it. I will never go down to the village, again!”
Hesitantly he asked, “Have the ‘Whales’ torn down all my paintings?”
Arden slowly replied, “What they haven’t torn down …they will.”
And Ruka’s friends grew silent.
Of course, Ruka was no longer able to sell painted names to the villages beneath the slopes, but he managed to get by in a poor but happy peasant kind of way, in the forest where he hid.
“Ruka, Ruka, Ruka.” The frogs called his name. And for Ruka, that was enough.
Down in the villages, folks eventually grew tired of being called Shrimp.
The only thing that surprised Ruka and the Fairy Kingdom about this was that it took them so long to do so.
How confusing it must have been for so many people to have only one name!
“How do they know who is being spoken to… if they all have the same name?” Ruka asked his friends.
“The whales don’t care about who is who…as long as when they call ‘Shrimp’
someone runs to do their bidding. I’ve seen it myself,” a fairy called Curtsie replied.
“The jungle Lion rules better than this.” Ruka clenched his fists…and sighed.
But one cannot remain angry forever, so Ruka made up his mind to grow as contentedly as he could, from a peasant lad into a pleasantly free man.
But the villagers were not content, for how could they be? So they gathered together and harpooned the ‘Whales’ and threw them back into the sea. The kingdom celebrated with rice cakes.
Ruka was very happy for his people and for his business! The villagers celebrated their freedom, and sons were sent up the hills to find Ruka, the family name painter. They asked him to repaint their family names over the banners that once had the word “Shrimp.”
For a short time…a very short time… Ruka was a very rich man.
And then the short time ended. He ought to have been prepared for it… hadn’t the fairy kingdom been sending out alerts about wars and rumors of wars to come? But how could this happen to his people? They had just fought a war. Surely they wouldn’t want another one.
So even though Ruka should have been prepared for it, he wasn’t in the least way prepared for the day the villager’s son pounded on his hut door. Oh, it wasn’t that this hadn’t happened before. Sometimes the village children tended to pound a bit heavily in their excitement to place a family order. But when Ruka opened the door, he saw that this child was different. He wore a scowl on his face, and spoke to Ruka as though Ruka was a polliwog, and not the child’s elder.
“Are you Ruka the name painter?” he demanded.
Ruka pointed to the painted banner which hung from the roof of his hut, where his name fluttered like a magpie wing.
“What of it?” the child asked scornfully. “ I am not here to play games with you. I want to know, are you Ruka the name painter?”
Ruka nodded slowly, and noticed that a hush had come upon the wild things of the hillside. Even the wind refused to whisper.
“Well,” the child went on, “my father is the new King of Kaesong, and that makes me your Prince. And you should bow before me, instead of point at a silly sign. What does that say, anyway?”
“It says Ruka, your Majesty,” Ruka said, and bowed deeply. He wasn’t sure whether the child was actually telling the truth or not, but just in case…it seemed the wise thing to do at the moment.
“I have come to order you to make family names for all the people of Kaesong,” the child informed him.
“You have come to place an order?” Ruka asked.
“I have not come to place an order, I have come to GIVE an order,” the child declared menacingly.
Still not fully understanding, Ruka asked, “And what names would you like painted, your Majesty?”
“Name…not Names!” the child said with disgust. “You are to paint the name “Whale” for ALL the people in the Northern Kingdom.”
“’Whale?’” Ruka asked in disbelief.
“Yes, ‘Whale!’ For is it not a name of great POWER? And haven’t we ousted the foreign ‘whales’ with our own hands? And wouldn’t that make us the greatest ‘Whale’ of all?” The child scolded Ruka, still treating Ruka as if Ruka was a polliwog, and not the boy’s elder.
And that is when the subjects of the fairy Kingdom…which had been holding its breath to see what Ruka would do… could no longer contain themselves. Their whispers and giggles were heard above the wind’s, “Shhhhh….”
“Are you laughing at me?” the boy demanded with eyes the size of a golfish mouth. He hit Ruka on the head. “I am Prince Whale, lord of all Created thi…” the child began, but was suddenly cut off as a sprite threw a bucket of wind in his face.
And the hillside erupted in full blown laughter.
And the Prince, who was still only a boy, ran down the slopes as fast as his small legs could carry him.
It wasn’t until he arrived at his village that he remembered he was a “Whale,” at which point he made up his mind to tell all sorts of nasty stories about the name painter in the hills.
As soon as the boy left, the fairies heard him speak, for fairies are not bound by time as we are. And because they loved Ruka, they sprinkled him with sleeping powder when he wasn’t looking. And Ruka fell asleep for a very long time.
When he finally woke, his beard was long and white, but it would grow whiter still in the earthen home where his friends had hidden him. In hopes to surround him with memories of safer, kinder times, the fairies had tucked him into a river rock home which lay directly under his childhood hut.
And although the fairies meant well, Ruka’s eyes streamed with tears as he prayed about the Northern Kingdom and the underground tomb he was forced to live in.
As his beard grew longer, his tears streamed…
until eventually they found themselves in the Kaesong river.
When Mother Pearl found them she hurried …at least as fast as a snail can hurry…to tell the frogs.
“Ruka? Ruka? Ruka?” the frogs asked.
“Yes, Ruka!” she insisted. “Now, get ready to croak as loud as you can while I glisten out this message. We’re going to help Ruka pray!”
And they did! Mother Pearl made trails out of Ruka’s tears up and down the bank of the Kaesong, and the frogs croaked so loudly that even the river stopped to listen.
Of course Heaven was outraged when He heard Ruka’s prayer and the wicked doings among the sons of men. So… just as a lion shakes his mane, Heaven shook the thrones of the Northern Kingdom, plunging the “Whale” Emperor and his son into the Kaesong River.
And the Kingdom was shaken so hard that the stones of Ruka’s hut tumbled…tumbled like fairytale stories down the hill and back to the watery circle where they had come from.
Ruka unclenched his fists, picked up his paintbrush and once again painted names for all those who asked…and they all lived happily ever after …except of course for certain whales who I suppose are better off left… unnamed.