When I was a kid, I loved Kipling’s Just So Stories. Aside from being ripping good yarns, there was just enough fictional cosmogeny in them to keep this kid asking questions about the origin of the universe and her creatures.
The following story is a bit of a Dragon Just So tale. At least I like to think of it that way. Truth is, I don’t know where it originated or even remember when I first heard it. [If anyone knows, please tell me!] That said, I always felt it had a Japanese flavor to it, and have retold it as such. I hope you enjoy.
The Paper Dragon or How the Dragon Found Her Wings
Long, long ago, there was a village on the shore of the Emerald Ocean, and in the village lived a family. One of a hundred. There was nothing extraordinary about the family, mother, father, a daughter, and, of course, Grandma Hoshi and Uncle Jiro. Like their neighbors, they lived in a cottage, thatched and neat. Like their neighbors, the grownups harvested fish from the sea, eggs from the chickens, and vegetables from the garden; the child went to school, did her chores, and climbed trees with her friends. Even the cats kept their place, sleeping in the sun and shooing mice from the pantry. When needs be.
Of course, ordinariness is never as truly ordinary when dragons are around, and the most exquisite dragon lived on the wall of their cottage.
It was a paper dragon, with folded wings and a long tail that fanned out like a peacock’s. Each individual scale was painted in pearlescent shades that shimmered gold and silver, lapis blue and soft damask rose as the sun poured through the window on its course across the sky. Every now and then, the family would hang the dragon on a different wall, give it a different perspective on the world. This always gave the family a thrill, as if dragon energy flowed from every crease and fold, free as the sea breeze, blessing the household, grateful for the change of view. After all, being stuck in one place is no fun for anyone, especially not a dragon.
Visitors to the cottage marveled at the dragon, remarking on his sinuous curves and brilliant hues. “Where did he come from?” they would ask. But no one knew, not even Grandma Hoshi, and she was the oldest person in the village. But that’s as it should be with dragons.
One day a stranger from the North came to the village. He had a well-traveled air about him: tousled grey hair tumbling over a frayed collar, shoes scuffed and sole-worn. Not to mention a beard that had not seen a trim in donkey’s years.
Still he was polite and thoughtful and was made welcome.
“What brings you to our corner of the world,” the innkeeper inquired, placing a bowl of tea in front of the wanderer.
“I heard,” he said between steaming sips, “there is a rare and beautiful dragon here in the village.”
“Oh, yes!” she beamed. “It is the most amazing dragon. Go down towards the harbor, take the second left, then go all the way to the end of the lane. There’s a little cottage with a persimmon tree in the front garden. You’ll find the dragon there.”
The stranger thanked her, picked up his pack and staff, and coin on table, went on his dragon-seeking way.
Stopping at the garden gate, he peered in through the cottage’s front window. On the other side, the paper dragon hung all ashimmer on the wall.
The family came around the corner. “Young man,” Grandma Hoshi said, her arms full of ramps and radishes, “if you’re going to stare like that, you might as well come in. He looks much better up close, I promise you.”
And she was right.
The wanderer had never seen such a dragon, so perfect in every detail it fairly crackled with a mystical light.
Deft as a magician, he slipped the dragon from the wall, draped it over his arm, and went out into the yard. He tied a string around the dragon’s body, then, with the family close on his heels, he headed to a stretch of open shore.
As the breeze rolled off the sea, he let the string out and ran into the wind. Gusts filled the dragon’s wings, lifting it up over the harbor. The whole village poured down to the shore to watch the stranger with the dragon. Who would have imagined the dragon could fly?
Higher and higher it soared. With wings billowing, tail fluttering behind, it danced among the clouds. Then, suddenly, the string broke.
Untethered, the dragon continued to climb. Necks cricked, mouths open, the family stared at their beautiful paper dragon, rising into the heavens, a tiny speck, back-lit by the setting sun.
Squinting beneath shaded brows, the village was all-but sure the little dragon had kited away. But on the back of their collective remorse, the painted dragon began to grow right before their eyes. And not just a little, either. Wings stretched wide, their fragile paper shed for sturdy leathern sails; body muscled, all covered by hard, iridescent scales. Her tail arced like a rainbow, then flicked and twitched, ruddering her across the sky. She was a real dragon now. Wild as the wind and big as childhood dreams.
She dipped her wings into the cove, then flew away.
Rolling the string back into a ball, the stranger turned to the family and smiled: