Flowers at Dragon’s Pool
by Daniel Hardwick
The dragon is alert, but slow enough to seem unworried, merely curious; he — or she — carries a front leg heavily off the ground, steps forward and rubs against a tree as it — he? she? — comes out of the forest. The clearing is wide and secluded: there are woods curving on all but two sides: a river splits the trees to one side and connects to a pond, the trough of a waterfall that descends along the side of a cliff high enough as to veil the summit with clouds. The water’s thunderous impact is deafening.
I stand on one bank of the river, the dragon on the other. He — shall I call it he? That’s my impulse, probably a product of that old prejudice linking power to masculinity. Better not indulge the prejudice. I shall call it she. She comes towards me, stops at the bank of the river, a natural barrier. If she wished she could fly, or perhaps simply jump, to my bank. Her stillness encourages me. She obviously does not wish to eat me, not desperately at any rate.
We are in a cocoon. Geographically: towering trees to all sides whose branches reach eerily inward, as though trying to cut off any concept of a world outside; and a cliff with no top. The only inkling of escape is the river, leaking out, but it is swallowed almost immediately and taken to the unending dark inside the forest. Audibly: the thunder of the waterfall monopolizing the sound. Isolation is stillness: we are content to regard each other, she and I, wrapped in our cocoon.
My goal is stilled as well. I have never seen a dragon before. Drawings, of course, but this is quite different. Her movements, powerful yet heavy. Do large animals sense how heavy they are? If she were proportional to me, if her strength increased with her size and weight, she would walk much faster. The speed of a dog, meanwhile, compared to its size, is much faster than mine. Yes, she senses her burden. But also her strength: she is confident. My thoughts run thus, my goal temporarily forgotten.
Perhaps she has never seen a human before. Not very many people have made it far enough into the forest to see a dragon. Fewer still have made it back to civilization. Certainly many of the dragons that live here saw none of those explorers. She still regards me. Can I detect in her face whether she has ever before seen such a beast as me? No expression. She just looks and looks through her helmet of scales. She sits now like a cat, hind legs bent, front two straight and sturdy.
Most of her body is green. The scales point up and out in some places — the shoulders, the face — like elaborate armor. From near her eyes a pair of dagger-shaped horns stick up and slightly back, followed by a pair behind, then another and another, all the way down her spine. The largest extend up from her shoulders, so long that the wings seem to have adapted: they start from the back and make a wide curve backwards to avoid the shoulder spikes, then forward again to their claw-like peaks.
The wings, resting upon her back now, are the only noticeable deviation in color. The rims and long ridges, between which the thinner substance of the wings is webbed, are green like the rest of the body, but the webbing has a sprinkling of red, like hardened lava, and a lacework of thin blue veins. She is dirty, muddy. Perhaps she has come here to bathe. Could that be why she stares? Better not run the risk of testing her patience. On to the flowers.
I spotted them when I first entered the clearing. To my right: a large thick flower patch on the edge of the pond. I go, not looking at her. Because of the waterfall I cannot hear whether she is following. I kneel and pick a flower that looks healthy. The flowers are yellow with intricate black designs, which legend says is the language of the gods, put there by the gods for those few wise enough to decipher it. Legend also says that the flowers cure the worst diseases. They only grow at Dragon’s Pool.
There it is, father, our journey is half over. I have climbed the mountain of my adventure and picked the flower at its peak: stay alive long enough for me to reach the bottom. I pick twenty more, dip a piece of cloth in the pond, wrap them up and put the lot in my sack. Then I turn. I see her. She has crossed to my bank. Her scales are dripping, cleaner now; some patches even glimmer when the little sunlight to break through the clouds hits it. And she is considerably closer, about ten paces away.
Still the same stone countenance: she is sitting again. Well, dragon, do you want to eat me or don’t you? If so, why sit? Perhaps, like a cat, she wishes to play with me a bit first. Or perhaps she is, as I hoped before, merely curious. I take a large piece of meat from my sack, the remains of a deer I killed this morning, and toss it to her. A good toss: she does not have to move her feet, just lurches forward and snatches it from the air. Her huge jaws finish quickly; she swallows, then looks at me again, unmoving.
If I never move, neither will she. It is not her desire to eat me, not her drive, at least. But if I move she’ll attack. Her beast’s brain has cocooned a moment of existence, cocooned it against Time. She will not allow it to be punctured. What is this wish for stillness that humans, too, harbor — to slow the chaos of melee to the stillness of civilization, uncertainty to the stillness of law, to stop Time by recording it in consciousness? Clearly it has done its fair share of good in the world. So why does it make me shiver?
The water’s roar is beginning to hurt my ears. A low ringing has begun. I fear there will be permanent damage. When the dragon looks back across the river I follow her gaze: another has come out, slightly bigger. She looks the same as the first except that one of her colossal shoulder spikes is broken off, I suppose from a fight with another dragon (I cannot imagine what else could have done it). The flaw only makes her look more formidable. It is me she looks at, not the other.
Then mine looks at me too and takes a step forward. The one with the broken spike lifts off in an incredible bound: in another second she lands behind the other, shaking the ground so impressively as to nearly knock me off my feet. Mine spins about: I duck the giant tail as it swings past. Are they quarreling over who will eat me? Most likely. I’d like to think mine is merely protecting me. Not that it would make much difference. She can’t possibly be a match for the bigger.
Her wings lift up, stretch out, evidently her fighting stance, shielding the other from sight. Then I see the other’s wings stretching out farther. They plunge forward. I run to one side as mine is brought mightily down (nearly upon myself). I gain a good distance and turn to look: the bigger has mine pinned on her back; one of her wings appears to be broken. It is, I would say, high time to leave. Turning my back on the battle I dash as quickly and as blindly as I can to the trees.
Heat blasts me from the left with the power of something solid, as of a stone wall. A cyclone of fire the size of a huge tree trunk moves from the waterfall along the base of the encircling forest. The dragon with the broken spike is burning my escape. Her blaze comes closer as its aim approaches the trees on this side of the riverbank. Mine, now pinned on her stomach, blazes helplessly across the river, incidentally burning the trees on the other side. The other’s fire becomes too close. I dive into the water.
The current is mad with strength. It crashes me over a submerged boulder and moves me forward. I manage to grab a sturdy branch leaning out from the shore and bring my head above water. The trees are an inferno, towers of flames to all sides of the clearing. The dragon on top releases a river of fire upon mine’s face. It pours out like water through a broken dam, spreads to all sides, envelops the two in a cocoon of smoke, which pulses, as of something alive, here and there with light. I release the branch.
The river guides me to its deep center. No rocks, no branches. I begin to sink with the weight of my clothes. Looking back at the surface I see hints of the retreating light. Finally it is endless black, nothing. I curl upon myself, sinking and sinking and not reaching the bottom. For the smallest of moments I savor it. I imagine reaching the bottom like a stone. My coldness and exhaustion will let me slip into unconsciousness. The drowning will be almost unnoticeable.
Darkness. Coldness. If I prayed to a god it would be the God of Darkness. If there were no such god, I would invent him. God of Stillness, Unworry, Finality and Silence. I would pray to the dragons of Dragon’s Pool — Guardians of the Cocoon, of the dark inevitable end of the journey. That god fills me with a deep, dark, insidious, sickening terror that I cannot stomach when it is part of my world; but how sweet it is when tasted from the unattainable heights of the divine.
Well, enough. Inertia, a perhaps unaccomplishable goal, not to mention the current of the water, yanks me forward. My lungs ache; I swim until the blindness of sight is mirrored by a certain blindness of mind, until my head feels air and my hands earth. I crawl wearily to the shore and lay beside the trunks of two trees as consciousness, with breath, reenters. I glance emptily back to the Pool. Nothing. Rising, and clutching my sack of flowers, I run.
Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Hardwick