Dragons are the heart of once-upon-a time and, as such, go hand in hand with faerie tales around the world. On the last day of Tell a Dragon Tale Week, we’re turning to the East and a story of a beleaguered Dragon King from the Isles of Japan.
Note: Today is the last day of Tell a Dragon Tale Week (10/21-27). That means it’s your last chance to leave a comment here and have the possibility of winning a signed limited-edition copy of Shawn MacKENZIE’s short story: “Because the Pleasure-Dragon Whistles.” The lucky winner will be announced on October 28th.
MY LORD BAG of RICE
Once upon a time, when things in the world still made you go “Wow!” there lived in Japan a brave samurai warrior, named Hidesato. He had a wife and three children, and should have been happy, but hanging around the house just wasn’t for him. He wanted adventures! So one day he took up his sword and bow, kissed his family good-bye, and headed out into the world.
He walked and walked until he came to a bridge by a beautiful lake. Coiled around the bridge, right in his path, was a great sleeping dragon. His body was as thick as a giant pine tree, his claws sharp as sabers, and when he snored the ground shook, and smoke poured out of his nostrils.
Now, Hidesato was not about to let a dragon stop him, oh no! He also knew it was very bad luck to hurt a dragon—especially one who wasn’t hurting you—so, one foot after another, he stepped lightly between the dragons toes, across the dragon’s scales, until he’d made it to the other side of the bridge. Then, without looking back, he went on his way.
He hadn’t taken a dozen steps when a voice called out to him: “Noble knight, please wait!” He turned around and there stood not a dragon, but a curious looking man with long red, red hair, wearing a crown shaped like a Dragon’s head and robes of sea-green silk. The man bowed to the warrior and Hidesato knew at once that this was no ordinary human being. Then he wondered, where had the dragon gone? Had it changed into this man? What did it all mean? While these thoughts raced through his mind he walked back across the bridge. “Did you call to me just now?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, I did,” answered the man. “I am the Dragon King of the Lake, and I have a favor to ask of you. Will you grant it?”
“If I can, I will,” answered Hidesato, honored that a Dragon King would think him worthy of such a request. “What can I do for you?”
“Kill my mortal enemy, the Great Centipede, who lives on that mountain,” the King said, pointing to a high peak on the opposite shore of the lake.
“The monster has discovered my home beneath the bridge and, night after night, he comes down with his hundred grasping legs and carries off my children and grandchildren. My heart is broken! I know what you’re thinking: I’m a Dragon—what is a Centipede to me? But I am only a lake Dragon and this beast is far more powerful than I. I thought, a human, one who can face a Dragon without fear, would be able to help me. Many men came this way, but you are the only one who did not shake and quake and run for the hills. You must be very brave. Will you kill my enemy, the Centipede, before it’s too late?”
Hidesato felt very sorry for the Dragon King. Gripping his sword in one hand, his bow in the other, he said, “Where does this monster live? I will attack him at once!”
“Oh, no,” the Dragon King replied. “He lives far up in the mountain. By the time you found him, you’d be too tired to fight. But every night, he comes down to the lake. Wait for him here, in my palace.”
At the Dragon King’s word, the waters parted and he led the warrior down to his home under the lake. Never had Hidesato seen such a beautiful palace, all white marble and crystal. Schools of goldfish, red carp, and silvery trout waited upon the Dragon King and his guest. A great feast was spread before them and there was music and dancing and the warrior quite forgot about the terrible Centipede. But at the stroke of midnight, just as the Dragon King was about to toast his guest’s good health, the palace walls shook with a tramp, tramp, tramp! It sounded like an army of thousands marching their way.
Hidesato and the King rushed to the balcony. From there, the warrior saw two great balls of glowing fire coming ‘round the mountain, nearer and nearer.
“The Centipede! The Centipede!” the Dragon King yelled. “Those two balls of fire are its eyes. It is coming this way. Now is the time to kill it.”
The samurai peered through the night and, behind the two balls of fire, he saw the long body of an enormous Centipede winding from the top of the mountain down to the valley. The light in its hundred feet glowed like lanterns parading towards the lake.
Without a hint of fear, Hidesato called for his bow and arrows. “Don’t worry, good Dragon. I shall kill the monster.” Then he noticed he had only three arrows in his quiver and knew he had to make them count. He took careful aim and shot the first arrow. It hit the beast right in the middle of the forehead! But the Centipede’s shell was thick as armor and the arrow bounced off. Hidesato tried again, and again his arrow fell to the ground.
The Dragon king was beginning to worry. Things were not going as planned. The huge creepy-crawler had wound its horrid body seven times round the mountain. Nearer and nearer came the fireballs of eyes, and the light of its feet began to throw reflections in the lake.
The warrior had only one arrow left. If that one failed they’d be the Centipede’s dinner, for sure. Then he remembered something his father told him: human spit is deadly to centipedes. Hmmmm, he wondered. Could it work on such a giant creature? No guts, no glory: he had to try. So, taking his last arrow, he spit upon the tip, then, fitting the notch to his bow, took aim and let fly.
This time the arrow hit the Centipede right between the eyes, and he crumpled in a heap. The fire in his eyes and hundred feet faded to black, and, with a shudder the hulking body breathed its last. Darkness spread across the heavens, followed by a terrible storm with thunder and lightning and wild winds. Then the sun rose, shining off the lake like a diamond. The centipede was gone from the mountain and it was a beautiful day.
The Dragon King and his family danced with joy! (Dragon love to dance!) They bowed in thanks before Hidesato, and the King proclaimed he was the bravest man in all Japan! There was another feast, more delicious than the first. And when they were finished and very, very full, the King presented the knight with four rare and curious gifts: A large bronze bell was the first; the second was a roll of silk; the third a cooking pot; and the last a bag of rice.
“This is much too much,” the man said. But the Dragon King insisted and you don’t say no to a Dragon. And so, with the gifts bundled neatly in his pack, Hidesato said farewell to the King and his many children and grandchildren and made his way home.
His family came running out to meet him. “Where have you been?” they asked. “What have you done?” He told his story of dragons and centipedes and underwater palaces, and they listened with eyes wide and mouths open.
“And these are the treasures the Dragon King gave me,” he beamed, unloading his pack. And it turned out that the Dragon’s gifts were not in the least common; they were magical. The roll of silk never grew shorter no matter how much was cut from it or how many robes were made. The pot was a cook’s dream: no matter what was put into it, it turned into the most delicious food, exactly what was wanted. And the bag of rice was bottomless! Day after day, scoop after scoop, it fed family and friends and remained always full.
Word of knight’s bravery and good fortune soon spread across the land, and since he did not need to spend money on rice or silk, he grew very rich, indeed, and became known as My Lord Bag of Rice.
As for the bronze bell, it was beautiful but turned out to be quite ordinary, so Hidesato gave it to the local temple. And there it rings out the hours, to this very day.
(retold by S. MacKenzie)
And don’t forget: everyone who leaves a Comment on a Month of the Dragon post this October gets their name put in the hat for a signed copy of either Dragons for Beginners or The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook. Winners to be announced November 1, 2012.