In American Gods, Neil Gaiman wrote: “A story’s a good way of getting someone on your side.” And few have needed someone on their side like Dragons.
So, it feels only fitting to wrap up this year’s Month of the Dragon with a celebration of Dragons in fiction. All stories are welcome–and don’t forget, for all of you who comment/contribute, at the end of the month one lucky person will receive a signed copy of The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook.
To kick things off, I offer a story in two parts. (Got to keep you coming back!) It’s the tale of a remarkable Welsh Dragon and the poet he called friend. Enjoy.
BECAUSE THE PLEASURE-DRAGON WHISTLES
I should have put my paw down. Hard. Sulfur spit and Wyvern fire, I should have said, “No. I’m not leaving our bosky hills, not this time. Not for Gotham’s angled wastes. Go alone if you must, but I’m staying home.” I should have said so.
Not that we hadn’t travelled before, Bardd Marlais and Ddraig Cynon, together.
Mostly around the Isles, true, though there was that jaunt we took to the Ancient Lands a couple years back. We trained through Europe and then took a steamer cross the sea to the Levant, through the Suez, and on to Persia. A leisurely cruise. Delightful! Nothing pleases this Cymraeg Green quite like an ocean voyage. The rise and fall of the waves, the unhurried pace of ship-board life, not to mention the abundance of fresh, scaly fare swimming just beyond the rail. All snorts and whistles that trip was.
But not this time.
I knew it, too. I did. I read the world with Dragon eyes. Read people like Marlais in ways his fellows cannot. Oh, they might be familiar with his fame, his celebrity curls kissed by the fleeting sun. His words. But that’s scant knowledge come all too late.
And so I wend my tale along Dragonish rills, with leaps and starts and time aflow through blood and distant song.
We first met during Yule of 1919.
For over a year the guns of your War to End Wars had been silent as the rows of steles you rimed with grief. And in that silence, we Dragons of the Anglesey Enchantments slipped back through the secreting mists into a world transformed by monstrous waste.
I was a young Dragon of fifteen when, quite early one morning, my Pater Draconis came to me. His brow ridges caught the pale winter sun and held it for a perfect moment and a breath, letting it seep across his carmine scales. No one could hold the sun like he. Nor spill it with such pleasure on those around him. That day he wrenched me from my play in the frosty surf of the Tall Trees and plunged me into elder realms beyond the Sinking Lands.
“Time we learnt just what the humans have done to our world,” he said. And with dawn a still-distant promise, we did just that, squadroning above the snows of Snowdon and skirting the Cambrian crest. We broke fast on silver gwyniads and the sweet waters of Llyn Tegid. Then, bellies full, we parted company with Dragonish farewells, fanning out across the Isles as desires ordained.
Drawn to warmer seas, I chose to journey south: a stop in Brecon Beacons, then on to the coast.
“Be smart and vigilant. Keep to the shadows,” Pater rendered his parting wisdom with a stentorian roar. “Most people are as blind to us Dragons as to a Passion of Unicorns. But those who can see are apt to take fright. Size and fire make for easy misunderstandings.” He puffed up in hyperbolic illustration of the point, a curl of smoke pluming from his nostrils. I tried not to laugh – doesn’t do to laugh at the Pater. “And stay clear of Cardiff. The Channel Serpents sent word of a new group of two-foot watchers and catchers. I don’t know what they’re after, but I want you out of their clutches. Understand?”
Not waiting for an answer, he and Mam shot aloft, wings billowing, snouts tipped towards Aberystwyth and beyond to our Gaelic cousins at Mizen Head and Lonrach Ben.
I was alone with far to go.
Aloneness is a transient state for Dragons.
I found the boy the next day in a park off Cwmdonkin Drive, Upper Swansea. Sallow gaslight laced through the December trees and bounced in accidental hues off shaded drifts, a lure to any wing-weary Dragon. I hid amongst the skeletal branches, cloaking myself in the evening light until I felt almost invisible. And there, below, I saw him, all of a slight five years old, flake-dusted from wellingtons to red cap tight over curly mouse hair. As lost as I. His nose was cold-red and bloodied, the battered corpse of a snowman decaying beside him. He’d been bested in a terrible battle, that was clear. But with Dragonish valor, he bore his lumps and shed no tears, not even for his crumbled comrade.
Suddenly, as if I’d called his name, he looked up and stared right at me, his eyes quick with defiance and more woe than a creature his size should have to bear. Quite the portrait of a young dog thrashed for ravaging the roses.
He inhaled an admiring ‘’Oly Diws!’ through the gap in his teeth, his dejection etreating under the weight of Ddraig-inspired awe. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I’m Cynon, a Dragon.”
The child sneezed, a fine spray of blood dotting the snow, then wiped his wounded snout across his sleeve. “Well, of course you’re a Dragon,” he snuffed. “I’m a boy. You’re not very big for a Dragon.”
“You know a lot of Dragons, do you? You’re one to talk. A right scrub you are!”
“I’ll get bigger.”
“So will I.”
A half-toothed chink of a grin flamed through then faded. “You can call me Marlais if you want.”
“That’s your name?”
He nodded. “Marlais the Poet.” It was a proud declaration in words he seemed to barely understand but would, in time, wrap his imagination round like an India-rubber ball. “Come down from that tree,” he ordered.
“Pruffchuffff!” I sputtered, singeing the bark between my toes. “You cheeky morsel of human!” I flashed my incisors in menacing humor and waited to see what he’d do next.
His grin widened to a smile. “That’s brilliant, ‘cheeky morsel of human.’ I don’t think I’d taste good, though. Too stringy.” Mirth rippled through his words, the thought of bravely staring into the teeth of Draconian doom giving him more pleasure than finding a sovereign in the Christmas pudding. “But why not come down? You can’t be very comfortable up there.”
“I am comfortable wherever I am,” I lied. “It is the way of my kind. More to the point, how would you explain Dragon prints to your nemeses?”
“The humans who battered your nose. I assume it took more than one.”
“Oh, them. Just the Murrays. They’re not poets. Can’t see Dragons. But you might be right. Mind if I come up? I’m getting a crick in my neck.” He mooned up my tree, perched on a branch across from me, and stretched. “Ever see sheep on snowshoes? In the sweet shop? I have. A whole flock of them!”
And so we talked in our tree, about gob-stoppers and mutton and salmon and toffee, bullies and betters, Christmas crackers and mountain wolves, mufflers and scales, Dragons and words….
Over housetops, down lanes, from all the corners of the town, church bells serenaded us with a temporal call.
“The park-keeper will be ringing close-of-gates soon.” The boy sighed, then clambered down to the ground. On frosty footing, he closed his eyes and swayed in the carillon winds. “You hear that?” he asked. “The bells inside?”
Such a curious boy with bells inside. “Dragons hear thunder, not bells. Not inside bells.”
He laughed. “Thunder. Right. Horses for courses – Dragons for wagons.”
Suddenly his mind shifted as he cannibalized a scoop of snow from his fallen fellow and scrunched it into a ball, his eyes tightening in a fleeting image of playground revenge. Then, with casual indifference, he dropped his icy weapon, splat to the ground. “I have to go. Time for tea.” Such was the attention span of a child.
“Will I see you again?” he called out, backing into the deepening dark.
“If you like.”
“Oh, please, yes. Promise?”
Through the branches I nodded my assent.
“You are a pleasure, Dragon.” He bowed with a bardic flourish that would do Taliesin proud, then vanished across the green, through gate and door into fire-place warmth and a mother’s scolding care. His nose would be tended, his mittens dried, and, over roast lamb and leek soup, his mind would replay our first meeting and rehearse elegant phrases for our next.
Dragons do an intricate dance with time. We can live a year in the beat of a hummer’s heart or an instant in a lazy summer moon. This plays havoc with schedule keepers and, in my case, a little Welsh lad for whom “again” meant next day, at most next week. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been more careful with my words. Tricky things, promises.
I didn’t return to Swansea until 1933. For years I travelled the length and breadth of he Continent, flew wing-dragon for a human planing over the Himalayas, even took the occasional dip in the deep loch waters off Urquhart Castle – which caused quite a stir according to the Inverness Courier. But such excursions could not continue. The world was hurtling towards another bloody mess, rife with anger, hatred, and misery. “What sadness creeps across human faces,” Pater lamented long ago. “They call us daemons, yet harbor far darker daemons within themselves.”
I was drawn out of my fun, my wandering ways. Home.
I spent spring round the fingers of Bae Caerfyrddin, washing the rising muck of the orld from my scales. Then, one day, between crunches of periwinkle, I heard evensong pealing in from the kirk of Kidwelly. I remembered my word broken to the red-capped boy of interior bells.
Remembering is easier than finding. Dragons can’t exactly knock on doors and ask, “Do you know this Swansea tyke, this scrappitty general of snowmen? He’d be no child now, of course, but you’d recognize him by the rhyme in his smile.” No, I couldn’t do that. Ears open in the shadows, I was on my own, a Dragon detective in Wales.
It was a warm Bank Holiday when I finally found him. There I was, at dusk, hock-deep in the surf off Mumbles Pier. There, with patient farsightedness, I saw the man-once-boy trip lightly from the Mermaid Hotel, cigarette smoke infusing his still-curly hair, his nose stout-red, a raffish ascot tied where once mother’s muffler wrapped him warm. I watched as, absently, he took pen and book from his jacket and, scribbling away, crossed the cobbled road to the Devon-facing shore. When finished, he pocketed his tools and steadied himself against the rail, waiting, as for the arrival of something lost.
Could he still see me, I wondered, with his poet eyes? How could he not? I was standing square in front of him, the tide surging to my knees, my wings furled in the wind. Perhaps it was my fault. Perhaps in my absence he’d grown as beat down and myopic as the Murray boys in winter, his lyric visions wracked on a strand of shattered promises.
“Marlais – ” I whistled through my teeth, a whooff of Dragon heat scooping fog up over the seawall, flushing his cheek with memory.
Blush gave way to ruddy recognition as his eyes cut through the mist and found mine. The jetty steps could not meet his feet fast enough.
“Cynon!” In breath bitters-sweet, he spun delicious music round my name. “Ah, my pleasure-Dragon, where have you been?”
His words carried no censure. He’d long ago made a pauper’s peace with my errant neglect. “I had a tree-climb with a Dragon. Our talk in the snow! Not even Danny Jones can claim that, and he paints symphonies in his dreams.”
He’d grown adolescent-lean and hungry. A wistful aura flirted round his eyes, making him look older, soul-weary. But that flash of smile was still there, with all its bardic beauty. And, in the swirls of smoke and fog, we walked upon the sand and talked. Of Messieurs Jones and Stravinsky, of Surrealism, Cubism, Enchantments, and Matisse. Of art and religion and the tragedy of cinemas too small for Dragons. Of Picasso and Yeats, Garbo and words….
At the far edge of night, within sight of Mumbles Head, he turned to me. “Only you call me Marlais,” he said. “I’ve missed that. I thought I heard you whistle once, thought I saw you – flying over Thistleboon Drive – but it was only a hawk on fire-wings hanging in the air.”
He did not ask for my return. I did not offer promises. And yet, for all such lessons learned, we knew we’d see each other again.
End of Part I
Follow the Dragon to Part II…
copyright 2011 Shawn MacKENZIE