Recently, a friend inquired about my Dragon stories. While there is a fresh brace of tales in my new book, Llewellyn’s Little Book of DRAGONS, I realized that I haven’t posted one here for a while. Never a better time than the present, as Dragons say.
So, I thought I would repost an older tale of mine, one born of my love of Dragons, language, and Dylan Thomas. A story of a Welsh Dragon and the life he shared with his bardic human.
Because The Pleasure-Dragon Whistles
I should have put my paw down. Hard. Sulphur 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 the next day, 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 more of a 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 valour, 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 ‘Cor Blimey!’ through the gap in his teeth, his dejection retreating 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 humour 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 the 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 harbour 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 world 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 recognise 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.
And over the next two decades we did – quite often, by Dragonish measure – our paths criss-crossing through highs and lows, through sullen seasons when his pleasures turned more Dalwhinnie than Dragon. True, there were lapses: a fortnight’s absence might roll into a month, into a year, in the wilderness of our swirling worlds. I flew without his path when he traded broadsheet scribblings for literary laurels, Cwmdonkin Park for Covent Garden. It was his time, his orbit wobbling round high London life. I am not an urban Dragon; I would not follow him there. And when the Isle Enchantments convened at Wyre Weyr in the Orkneys to sort our choices for the coming troubles, well, that was a long year’s Dragon business, pure and simple.
Still, we were connected. Not that I was at his beck and call. That’s not the Dragon way. I chose to keep Marlais in my life and that was enough. I knew of the swath he cut from the Kardomah to the BBC, from the West End to Penzance. And when the roiling in his Cymraeg blood steered his return to our bosky hills, I was little surprised to find him cross the estuary from my old Carmarthen haunts.
But he shook me off. He was round and happy, with his swanning mate and milk-breathed son and poems to walk through by the mile. He did not want to see the coming darkness, to hear grief soft-padding up the street, to even imagine my absence at end of day. Don’t dare spoil my cardiganed bliss, he begged through brilliant eyes.
So I let him talk instead. Of sex and babies and blue-windowed boat houses. Of darts, draughts, and peat-layered malt. Of musty scholars and blighted critics with tin-tipped ears. Of dreams and tremors. Of owl-light and words….
That day our parting travelled no usual route, sang no intimate litany.
“Just remember to whistle now and then,” I called out, hovering over the castle green, my breath burning like a bush.
“My pleasure!” He smiled, half-masked and cocky-self-sure. “And you – ”
But there would be rare pleasure-whistles heard for years to come.
Tapestried fears hung between us as I veered north to kin and sanctuary. Were I not Dragon-bound by Dragon ways, I would have swept Marlais and his family up into the temporal mists with me, kept them safe through the coming madness. But even Dragons have rules, the ancient harmonies of life and death, which cannot be broken. And though I never gave them voice, they were always understood. My poet knew not to ask for more than was mine to give.
I choose not to talk about the war. Your next war. Your World War Two. You humans having just packed in your quaint superlatives, preferring to list your hostilities in endless series, each longer and bloodier than the one before. Such passion for self-destruction gives the Cosmic Dragon pause. Such blind hatred calls even wise Ddraigs into the fray. Your next war became our war. We led sorties in the Battle of Britain, kept watchful eyes from Anglesey to Cardiff. No one asked us. No one had to.
And I will not talk of the after years when the dead were counted as sands upon the shore and nations rebuilt but did not learn. Of the Dragon losses cutting deep across every Enchantment. Of nestings smashed and hatchlings broken. Of my father, raging in explosive skies. My father slain over Lough Neagh with a fiercesome score of Gaelach Golds.
Dragon plagues on you, you scaleless sods! How many tears would you have us weep for your lunacy?
No, that is out of my tale. I will never speak of that.
Healing takes time. Forgiving takes distance.
For years I licked my wounds and shed death’s stench with my brittle skin. Still, it was not enough. Europe remained poisoned to me, her air toxic to every flick of my tongue. I had to burn myself clean in a landscape ancient and wild. Amongst the Sand Dragons of Dasht-I-Kavir where noble Kur, black and sinuous, once danced in the desert sun.
“Oh, Cynon, I envy you, all wing-wide, catching the flying seasons in your open claws.” Bow-tied and tweeded, Marlais was still round but no longer happy. Fame, family, and spectral friends ghosted round the edges of his mind, each vying for dominion. They would batter him bloody, sure as the Murray boys. “How I long for our tree in Cwmdonkin Park, to climb into her branches and just disappear.”
“America wasn’t enough for you?”
“America. It was shiny and new as a fresh-mint sixpence and paved, coast-to-coast, with distractions. The flesh is weak. It’s complicated.”
“Isn’t it always? My friend, you are a scraggy mortal itching in an ill-fit skin. Come away with me. To exotic worlds beyond your imaginings. We’ll escape to the East, where the land meets a seamless sky and spilt blood and tears filter clean.”
So we went away from rations and rubble, temptations and shades. Two truants running from unkempt memories until, exhausted, we fell into a fragile laugh.
It was an appetizing thought to put down roots in the Salt dunes of Persia. But Marlais would not have it. Though the dry air did his lungs good, he was, at heart, a green-weather type, not a desert-loving Angle like Lawrence of the Seven Pillars. Besides, we both had families, obligations we could not ignore.
Being there was essential, but staying was not an option.
He smelt of Woodbines, whisky, and women. Success had not made him content, children not kept him home.
“Cynon, you must come with me to New York! They love me there. Fall at my feet! We’ll have a sojourn in the Village, a romp round Washington Square. Hobnob with New World Ddraigs – not that I know any. Don’t gruff and chuff and scorch my brows – I had a hell of a job explaining the last time you did that. Besides, you owe me for that trek through God’s dustbin.” His laugh was wanting, his eyes luster-lost.
I should have said no, at least tried to change his restless mind.
The line between us pulled taut. He was right: I did owe him. And perhaps, if I was there, if he’d let me, I could watch over him, make good on my unvoiced pledge to a snow-coated boy.
Magical thinking from a magical being.
New York is no place for Dragons. Hasn’t been, according to my American cousins, since the Lenapē were forced west of the Hudson. In autumn of 1953, it was noise and neon, sporadic trees marooned on islands of dog-yellowed grass, concrete fountains passing for pools. True, Central Park is bearable in its manicured way, save for the zoo, rank with imprisoned wildness begging to be free. And the view from atop the Empire State is impressive when the air blows thin enough to see beyond the tip of my tail. I admit I’m even rather fond of Coney Island from afar, and chatting up the Chrysler Building gargoyles is always a challenge. But, block for block, London’s a veritable Eden by comparison. Were it not for the Cloisters, I would have been rough pressed to stay, even for Marlais.
I circled high, watching. He sat on the fountain’s edge in Washington Square, waiting for me. To these smog-burnt Dragon eyes, he was bent and grey as the November sky, immortal longings oozing from every pore.
“You look like death warmed up.”
“And how was your day, Cynon?” He coughed, then lit another cigarette more out of habit than want. “Seriously. Tell me what you’ve done, what you’ve seen. We’ve been here over a fortnight and all that time I’ve been sentenced to work and the demands of people I hardly know. Talk to me, Cynon.” There was a plaintive desire in his voice, a quest for answers just beyond his weary half-pissed grasp.
So I talked. Of the New York I knew. Of the Cloisters’ anachronistic calm and the underground, lusty with Dragon thunder. Of hand-linked lovers, shoulder-huddled against the cold, strolling along the river and earnest, black-clad Hasidim, Yeshiva-bound along Delancey. How kaleidoscopic aromas tickled my nose, all hot-sweet, soft-savoury, and modern-foul. How my scales rippled with music in the night: cool Beat, hot Jazz, and the syncopated slap-pat of double-Dutch jumpers in the street.
And I talked. Of Bowery poor and Gramercy rich. Of musky Brooklyn waterfronts and spiky Bronx cheers. Immigrant dreamers and silk-suited thugs. Of Mingus and Monk, de Kooning and Rothko. Of Ginsberg, Berryman, Cunningham, and Cage. Of Ellison, Baldwin, cummings, and words….
For the longest time Marlais stared at me through soot-flaked evening, smoke, more Dragon than man, spewing from his nostrils. Hunching shoulders into tweed, he coughed again. “I was so angry with you, Cynon, all those years ago. When I was a boy, and you came to me, the most wild and wondrous thing! I was so angry when you did not return. When the other boys mocked my pledge to fly, to see town and sea from Dragon heights. So many years, I had to find my Dragon pleasures…elsewhere.
“I swore I’d never forgive you, Cynon. Never. But then you came back, and I did. I am glad of that. Glad of our travels, our twilit trysts. So glad to hear you whistle again. Better than bells.
“I shouldn’t have asked you to come this trip. It was selfish of me.” He looked away, his watch face safer than Dragon eyes, then stood, unsteady and small. “I must be going. Supper over at Patchin Place, then on….”
“Want a lift?”
“Oh, what an entrancing entrance that would be! Ta, but no. The walk will do me good.” He lied. “Sorry they don’t allow Dragons in the White Horse. I think you’d enjoy the company. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded, backing away towards MacDougal Street, his pale smile a tight, fraying string between us. “You are a poet, Dragon. I should have said it sooner.”
Then he was gone, sucked into the city, step after step, dying of welcome, women, and strangers from whom even I could not protect him.
I waited for him the next day, and the day after that. A near fortnight with no sign, no sound. Then, one day, as I kept vigil atop the Triumphal Arch, I caught his mourning’s inner bells pealing east from St. Luke’s, setting me free.
Promises are tricky things.
It takes time to heal. Distance to forgive. Forgetting, they say, takes a Dragon’s age in flight.
Tomorrow I go north to New Brunswick. I hear there is a Weyr of sea-loving Dragons who surf the deep waters off Gaspe Peninsula. Then on, perhaps, to chill my bones among the Snow Ddraigs of Hudson Bay, or further west to the Rockies….There are so many Dragons in this part of the world, so many new whistle-bards to hear.
I will dance my eternal dance with time and space, until, at length, I return, wing-tipping over Cymraeg hills.
I will find another child, perhaps, who laughs and calls me pleasure.