Posted on March 1, 2018
‘But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.’
— Ursula Le Guin
The Girl and the Seven Dragons of the Deep
Once upon a time there was a girl. A girl whose heart was weighed down with a heavy cargo of sadness. One day, she found herself on a cliff edge with her heart screaming in her throat.
The water was still. A jewelled sheet of glass. The sun teased out diamonds on its surface which blinded her momentarily. She blinked and peered into it hopefully, thumbing the pebbles in her blue jean pockets. She had picked the smoothest ones she could find. Eventually, she reached her arms over her head and bent her legs slowly, purposefully, feeling the muscles tauten and engage. Then all of a sudden she sprung into the air with a neat cursive flourish. A small crown of ripples formed around her as her lithe body sliced through the cool icy water. A murmur.
Then it was still again.
With a dissonant heartbeat she had unlocked the secrets to the horizon; the place where the sky meets the surface of the sea. She swam, tugging herself down through the fickle currents which taunted her and tried to push her away. Finally she reached the abyss, where all around her was thick and velvet with profundity. There was no more after this — she had found the end — and she gasped, clamouring for air as her lungs filled up with water. But there was none.
As she drifted, one sly little current came across her and carried her to a place where seven dragons breathed the fire of eternal life. They had lived for thousands of years these dragons, undisturbed and peaceful, nestled in an underwater cave. The current left her at the entrance to the cave where her body settled on the sandy surface and then the jittery little thing swam off, restless to be away.
When the dragons awoke and saw her they were afraid, for they knew she was a sign.
Still, they could not reject a gift from the sea, so they took her in and tended to her, breathing life into her lungs with their fiery breath. Though they knew that this life would be their end and the knowledge of this made them weep with anguish. When the girl awoke and found herself tightly coiled in the tail of a dragon she was afraid, but they were so overjoyed to see her alive that they fussed around her, bringing trinkets of emerald sea glass to match her eyes and cockle shells to lace around her pretty neck. Her fears left her and she rejoiced with them in the life that they had breathed into her.
She lived with the dragons for many contented years. She grew to love them and they grew to love her. More than anything though she longed to be like them; she thought her own stumpy limbs awkward and cumbersome. She especially admired their supple tails which could propel them across the sea bed with one flick. She would spend many lazy hours polishing their smooth glistening scales which shimmered like opals and combing their long golden whiskers with her fingers, all the while singing to them a haunting song of the sea which told the story they knew so well.
One day the time came that the current returned to reclaim its gift (they knew it would come), but the dragons couldn’t relinquish her into its arms though it begged and solicited, using all of its powers of persuasion to beseech them to give her up. In the end they said their sad farewells and hugged her and went with the current in the place of the girl. The current wasn’t choosy and it didn’t hang around, scooping up its hefty prize and somersaulting away in one deft sinewed movement (for it had grown strong over the years).
The girl stood alone watching the magnificent creatures disappear into the abyss, one by one, until the very smallest dragon tussled and tugged and managed to struggle free for a brief moment, twisting its head around towards her for one last farewell. She reached her arms up, holding its muzzle in her hands, and gazed into its blazing auric eyes as they both wept for the life they had sacrificed. The dragon’s hot tears mingled with her own and she bathed in their warm salty solace.
At last, the little dragon was dragged back by the querulous current and the girl found herself alone again. But in its last moments it was able to bequeath one last gift to her. The dragon knew how much the girl admired its strong muscular tail and glimmering scales; as it disappeared into the surface it give an almighty shudder which rocked the sea, causing all who lived there to roll and reel about wildly. Then it whipped its tail into a spin, gathering up two passing currents and smacking them off course. Each was convinced the other had provoked them and they lurched towards one another furiously, ready to attack (for currents are burly and fearsome). As they chased each other, full of rancour, they span around snapping at each others’ heels faster and faster, creating a maelstrom which bore down into the centre of the ocean, towards the girl.
The girl was sucked into the vortex and as she too span — a giddy dervish — a cluster of shimmering dragon scales spiralled down through the water towards her like a blossom flurry caught on the wind. She saw them and laughed through her tears, reaching out her hands to touch them as they fell. Each one gleamed and shimmied with a luminescence which lit up the entire sea. The scales pressed against the whorl of her as she span, and span.
‘Goodby fair maiden of the sea!’ the little dragon rumbled out its last breath. And all the dragons roared in agreement, filling up the sea with their thunder.
At last the whirlpool released her, spitting her out onto the seabed where she lay, spent and exhausted. She remained there for several days, a shipwreck adorned with sea shells and silt until a slender crab, disguised as a rock, came across her and pinched her nose, mistaking it for some tasty morsel.
‘Ouch!’ she shouted loudly, annoyed. She had been exploring the watery depths of her dreams where she had found that she had access to things she had not known before: other worlds, new truths, ancient falsehoods. A rich, colourful scene like an underwater reef. She had explored the beauty of drowning. The seduction. The thick, opaque, shimmering allure of it. It all came back to her then, in the blurry gaps of consciousness: the rousing, the falling. She had felt a pleasant fog of sweetness blooming at the very edges of her skull. And in those shifting moments it was hard to tell what was real and what was fantasy.
It didn’t matter; she was not to remain there (after all, she had been there before). She was awake and once more had to teach her heart to beat out a new rhythm.
She tried to bend her legs to propel herself upright but found that she could not; instead she slipped and skidded uselessly on the sand. When she looked down she discovered that her legs had fused into a tail: a glittering dragon’s tail covered in thousands upon thousands of shining scales. She stared in awe, mesmerised by its scintillating brilliance. At first, she was scared. She could not believe the truth her eyes told her. Gradually though she grew braver and began tentatively to caress her new tail, exploring the thrill of its power with her fingers.
She marvelled at it: the way it twisted and turned and glistened; the way it tapered elegantly into a delicate quivering fin. She whipped it this way and that, testing its strength; writhing and tumbling; playfully batting the currents to and fro. Delighted, they responded to her teasing games, jostling with her and falling in love with her instantly (who wouldn’t?). Then, on her request, they carried her back to the dragons’ cave.
But when she arrived there and looked around the empty cave which had once been full of seven splendid, snorting dragons, she felt a shard of loneliness wedge in her heart. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake it free. She found she could no longer bear to remain inside the cave so she swam out and up, up, up, through the sea, her new tail pulsating swiftly through the water. Up towards the horizon. The currents willed her along, gently buoying her upwards with chiffon-light fingers. When she broke the surface she gasped, struggling for breath. She thought for a moment that she might be suffocating, but then her rasping accordion lungs snapped and wheezed into life, squeezing out a small jet of water as they slowly found their familiar ebb and flow.
The cave narrowed out into a rock which pierced the sky like a jagged knife. The girl grabbed the rock face with her hands and yanked herself up with all of her force, pulling and heaving, until finally she reached the very tip of it. The soft flesh on her palms and belly was shredded into tattered red ribbons by its craggy hull; her glossy scales, fine as fingernails, snagged on its jutting knuckles and scattered confetti showers, spiralling a serpentine trail of stray sea treasures which illuminated the twisting distance — like smiling splinters of the moon — up to her rugged throne.
And to this day she reclines there still, queen of the horizon world, keeping watch for her friends. They call her the fair maiden of the sea with the dragon’s tail and the currents are her willing servants. She sits, polishing her scales, combing her long golden hair with her fingers, singing her sad haunting song for the dragons, and for all who care to listen.
© story by Emily Hughes, 2018
I’m afraid I don’t know where the image is from although I have searched for it. It was borrowed from another friend’s page out there in the vast, deep ocean of the internet. I am happy that it found its way to me.
Posted on December 21, 2017
Detail of the Nine Dragons scroll painting by Chen Rong, 1244, Song Dynasty.
I looked up and saw a man standing there. He was holding an old-fashioned paraffin lamp which cast a dim glow around us. His hair was snow-white and he wore thin wire-rimmed glasses; even so he squinted at me as he spoke. He seemed old and young at the same time, which was odd in itself; his hunched demeanour suggested he was elderly, though his eyes sparkled like polished jet stones and his voice was soft and gentle. He was wearing a tatty suit made of tweed and a jaunty, bright red bow tie. He was holding out his hand to me.
I took it without speaking, mute with shock, and he helped me up to my feet. He seemed to understand.
‘Come. Come with me,’ he said simply and led me into the darkness. He didn’t let go of my hand.
I stumbled a few times as we walked, but he was sure-footed and I felt safe with him. He had a faint smell of sweet woody tobacco about him.
After some time walking (maybe half an hour? It was hard to tell) we came to a halt outside a shop front. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realised we were on a street and there was a whole row of narrow shops before me along a terraced facade. I looked up at the sign on the wall and could just about make out the letters: ‘Curzon Street’. Underneath my feet were cobble stones and the hushed gleam of the gas street lamps burrowed through the gloom like a row of gently glowing coals. A thick mist obscured most of my vision; I could just make out vague shapes of people going about their business, walking in and out of shops, stopping to chat. Out of nowhere, a young lad on a bicycle shot past, almost sending me flying. The man, who still had hold of my hand, swiftly pulled me out of the way and onto the safety of the pavement.
‘Scuse me miss!’ the boy called after him, waving his cap by way of apology. I narrowed my eyes, trying to remember where I had seen him before. He seemed familiar somehow.
All in all, I felt like I had just walked into a Dickens novel.
So many questions raced through my head, but still no words came to me.
He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze and led me into the nearest shop. The sign read:
Chinese Armoury, Dr. B. Sharp
It was painted in simple, bookman lettering.
A little bell tinkled brightly as we entered, announcing our arrival. The room was small and welcoming. I shivered, realising how cold I had been. I was glad of the sprightly fire dancing in the hearth, cheering the air to a genial, fusty warmth. I checked out the cosy space before me: a large oak sales desk dominated the room. There was no cash register, but the desk was heaped with tall piles of papers, somewhat in disarray. The wall opposite was decorated with a stunning display of shining swords and daggers, all mounted rather precariously on the wall. The window was crammed with antique-looking Chinese suits of armour, like the ones I had seen on the internet. I would have liked to take a closer look, but the man had let go of my hand and was gesturing to me to sit, so I did.
He disappeared for a few moments and returned with a steaming hot cup of fragrant jasmine tea, which I accepted gratefully. Neither of us had said a word.
He took a stool from behind the desk and sat opposite me, letting me sip the tea and warm up. He waited.
‘Mr Sharp?’ I began, after an uncomfortable pause.
‘Call me Ben.’
‘Ben. Ok. Um. Ben, I—’
I stumbled and shifted uncomfortably on my chair.
‘Perhaps I could ask a few questions, if it’s ok with you?’
I nodded, relieved.
‘I notice you are wearing a suit of armour.’ I looked down at my armour, embarrassed about its ordinariness. No-one else had ever commented on it before so I had always assumed it was invisible. ‘May I ask how long ago you acquired it?’
I thought for a while. ‘It’s hard to say… I can’t remember exactly… but it was a long time ago. I was very young…’
‘And do you know why you are here?’
‘Well, um…’ I felt awkward. ‘I–I fell through the gap–’
‘–Yes. Yes. But you see, that sort of thing doesn’t just happen to anyone. I think you understand?’
‘Yeah, I think so…’ I replied weakly, ‘well, actually, maybe you could explain a bit more?’ I looked at him hopefully.
‘Of course. Of course. Well. Let me see. It’s customary for people to seek me out for my specialist services, but in your case it was necessary for me to send someone to look for you.’
‘You mean the boy?’
‘Yes. The boy. He is my assistant. I’m sorry he nearly ran you over back there by the way. He can be a little reckless on his bicycle.’
‘Oh. I see. So you thought I needed help?’
‘You were sending out the right signals.’
‘Was it that obvious?’
He smiled by way of response. It was a friendly smile.
‘I expect you’re tired. This has all been a bit of an adventure.’
‘Well that’s one way of putting it!’ I felt suddenly agitated. ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you going to do with me now that you have me here?’
‘Shall I tell you about what I do? Maybe that would help.’
I folded my arms across my armour defensively and a scowl settled on my face. This had better be good.
He got up off his chair and went over to the sword collection, carefully selecting a most stunning example. The scabbard was carved from ebony and gilded with bronze filigree. He unsheathed it and carried it carefully and reverently, palms outstretched, as if it were a gift, and presented it to me.
I looked at him quizzically.
‘Go on. Take it,’ he urged.
Hesitantly, fearfully, I took it from him. The polished ebony hilt was gently curved and decorated with intricate bronze patterns, like the scabbard. Surprisingly, it was wrapped in rather prosaic brown cord, which coiled downwards into a loose tassel, but I supposed it made it easier to handle in battle. I gripped it firmly. The blade, long and sleek, flared out into a gentle curve in the opposite direction of the hilt. It felt strong and cool and thrilling in my hands. A shiver of excitement tingled up my spine. A flash of dragon’s fire in my belly. I turned it around and around in my hands and marvelled at how powerful I felt, watching the steel blade glint by the flickering fire light.
‘It is a Chinese Dao sword; a traditional sword used since the times of the Shang dynasty. This one is special though: it is forged by hand using ancient traditional methods, combining both hard and soft steels which are layered for the perfect marriage of strength and flexibility.’ He stopped and admired the sword for a moment. ‘So, it is both durable and resilient. It will absorb shock without breaking.’ He gave a small nod, as if convincing himself that he was satisfied with his choice. ‘It will protect you well enough.’
‘It’s beautiful…’ I admitted. Then a sudden sadness gripped me: ‘But I don’t need a sword; I have my armour!’
He shook his head soberly. ‘Your armour doesn’t protect you.’
‘Yes it does!’ I protested, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
‘No. It weighs you down. Suffocates you. With this, you will be free.’
‘Maybe I just need a different kind of armour’ I said, casting a longing glance at the window full of fanciful costumes.
Ben waved a hand dismissively. ‘Oh, I think you’ll find that one type of armour is very similar to another, in the end.’ He took the sword from me, put it back into its scabbard and placed it into a cotton drawstring bag. ‘Try it, please.’ He was quite insistent.
I shrugged my shoulders and took it from him, slinging it across my shoulder. Great. I thought. So I still have my armour to deal with and now I have a bloody sword too. More baggage!
But when I felt the poised weight of the sword on my back, I felt instantly calmer.
Ben was standing now as if waiting for me to go. He looked at his watch impatiently.
‘I’m so sorry, I have another appointment. My assistant will see that you get back safely.’
He didn’t move. He stood looking at me as if waiting for something else. I wasn’t sure if I should say something. Oh god, what have I forgotten? I racked my brains.
He gave a small cough, ‘ahem… there—there is just the small matter of, um, payment?’ He asked it like a question.
‘Payment?’ I hadn’t even considered that and I felt suddenly deeply ashamed. ‘Oh right, yes of course please forgive me,’ I rambled as I dug my hands into my coat pockets and fished around for some money. I managed to produce a few crumpled notes and some coins and stuffed them into his hands. It didn’t seem enough to me for such a rare, beautiful thing, but if he was disappointed he didn’t show it.
I turned to go and the boy was there waiting for me with his hand outstretched.
‘Pleased to meet you, miss. My name is Dexter – mos’ people call me Dex.’
I took his hand and shook it. ‘Hi Dexter—Dex. Can you take me back to the pavement?’
‘Sure,’ he grinned and he didn’t let go of my hand as he turned to lead me out of the shop. I was glad, because it was pretty dark out there and I would have been utterly lost on my own.
‘Bye!’ I called to Ben, glancing over my shoulder. He smiled a quiet smile and waved at me. In that moment an avalanche of questions I had forgotten to ask tumbled through my head: When would I see him again? How would I find him? How should I get rid of the armour? How should I use the sword – I had never used a sword before! I felt the panic swell.
Then he put his hand out to still me and brought his forefinger to his lips. It was as if he had heard every question I had thought, or read them in my face; I didn’t need to say them out loud.
‘Remember: live the questions and the answer will find you. And as for me; rest assured that I will always be here for you if you need me.’
Relief flooded me and I felt calm again. It will be ok. He won’t abandon me.
‘Thank you.’ I smiled a smile of genuine gratitude and then Dex dragged me away, keen to be off.
It seemed like only moments and we arrived back at the pavement. I concluded that maybe time worked differently down here, or maybe he knew a shortcut. I saw the daylight seeping through the crack above me.
‘How do I get back up?’
‘Use the ladder of course!’
And then I noticed the metal rungs of the ladder reaching up towards the crack in the pavement, which had opened up again. I felt a little foolish for not having seen it before: no need for the bruised bum next time, then. I climbed up and when I got to the top turned around to wave goodbye to the boy.
‘How do I get back here if I need to?’
‘You know the answer to that, silly!’
‘Oh I see,’ I laughed ‘ask a question, right?’
‘Yep – you got it! Gotta go. See yer miss!’
‘Goodbye!’ I shouted after him as he scampered back off into the blackness.
I slid back through the me-sized gap and squinted as my eyes re-adjusted to the brilliant daylight. I wondered how long I had been away, and checking my phone, discovered it was 11am. I had been gone for an hour. An hour? How can that be?
But, I was learning not to look for the answers, so I let the questions wander and stood and watched the sweeping tufts of the cirrus clouds drift lazily through the bright blue sky, and decided it was ok that I didn’t know why or how. Feeling suddenly energised, I practically flew the short distance back home, agile as a swift, my new sword clunking on my back against my armour.
I felt different somehow.
I felt as though I had lived a whole lifetime in that hour.
To read part one of this story, please see here.
© Emily Hughes, 2017