by Lester D. Crawford
The day came when she realized her Dragon was not a pet; he was as much a person as she was, even if he was not actually a person, and he deserved the same consideration and respect that should be afforded every person.
She gained this appreciation for her Dragon because of reading to him. Even though in her society teaching the poor was a crime, an elderly gentlemen, who had once been a teacher to the children of the rich, risked imprisonment to teach the skill of reading to the homeless, orphan girl. She took the books her mentor gave her to the cave where she kept hidden her young Dragon. There, she practiced reading by reading aloud to him.
As she read, the Dragon watched over her shoulder, fascinated by the strange marks on the pages, wondrous marks that weaved words. He listened attentively, captivated by the stories: stories of adventure, stories that fed his curiosity, stories that taught him knowledge.
His favorite story was about a magical Dragon who lived by the sea in a far away, mist-shrouded land. The magical Dragon had a friend who would bring him gifts, and with whom he would sail on a boat, visit royalty, and scare pirates. Then came a day when the friend no longer came to play. The magical Dragon became sad. At that point in the story, the young girl's Dragon cried. Then a new friend came to the cave to play and the magical Dragon was happy again. Every time, at that point in the story, the young girl's Dragon rejoiced. The story always left him happy.
He liked holding the book, hugging the book. How gently he treated the book impressed the girl, considering how tough he was on his toys.
One day, he held the book out to her. She expected him to ask her to read the story again, but instead he said, "Mommy, please teach me how to read."
Darkness gathered. Nightfall was imminent. The Dragon climbed into his nest, walked two circles, and lay down. I joined him.
"Amy-Ann, stay with us tonight. The nest has plenty of room and Puff made it extra soft."
She hesitated, her emerald green doe eyes staring at me, an ear twitching, causing her to run a finger over it. Then, she climbed in. The Dragon curled his neck and tail around us as we made our bed in the crook of his neck.
Amy-Ann snuggled into my arms. I petted her, running my hand across the sleek contours of her warm, bodybuilder physique. Luxurious, silky soft, multihued hair covered her. I traced a finger along the color boundaries of her camouflage pattern. She shuddered, giggled, and nuzzled me. I returned the nuzzle. She sank deeper into my arms and purred.
The Dragon said, "The prey-animal is making noise."
"She's purring because she's happy."
"Food can be happy?"
Through our bond I felt an "oops." He turned away with an affectation of innocence as he made a show of looking around at nothing in particular.
Amy-Ann's eyes popped open. She stopped purring, laid her ears back, and growled at the Dragon. After a moment, she said, "Ignore him," closed her eyes, and resumed purring.
I wrapped my arms around Amy-Ann. I could feel her breathing and her heart beating as she cuddled closer. The Dragon opened his wing and spread it across us as a blanket, making a warm cocoon.
With the Dragon protectively curled around me and Amy-Ann in my arms, warm and snug, I felt content as never before, happy as never before, at peace as never before. All my life I had lived as an empty shell, heart and soul vacant, no meaning to my life. Now I was complete. I had my Dragon and I had my Amy-Ann. This was paradise. I wanted it never to end.
I did not know the Orcs were about to return.
Overhead, the Dragon made lazy circles using an updraft to soar to great heights until he was only a small silhouette in the cerulean sky. Then he sky danced an intricate ballet of aerobatic loops, rolls, spins, and hammerheads.
His favorite maneuver was to climb as high as his wings could carry him, and then simply fold his wings and fall, tumbling through the air like a plummeting rock. At the last moment, as he approached the ground at terminal velocity, he extended his wings, leveled out, returned to the updraft, and did it all again.
The Dragon truly was a creature of the sky.
After an hour of sky dancing, the Dragon spiraled down to land before me. I had always thought Dragons were supposed to land with dignity and power, but he landed as gently as a moth.
He nudged me. Taking that as a hint, I scratched him behind the ear, which elicited a happy Dragon rumble.
I said, "If you're such a creature of the sky and think flying is so wonderful, what brings you to the ground?"
"Gravity brings me to the ground."
"Oh, I thought maybe you'd say you came to the ground to be with me."
"Why would I want to do that instead of flying?"
He rubbed his head on me and rumbled again.
After hatching, the first thing a baby Dragon does is look for something shiny to sit on.
The little orphan girl rescued the Dragon's egg when its parents died. She did not know what she would do with the egg; she just felt compelled to protect it because, like her, it was an orphan. After a while, the egg hatched. Now she had a baby Dragon, the last Dragon. She hid the baby in a mountain cave, cared for him by bringing him food and water and toys, and taught him what she could.
Years passed. The girl and the Dragon grew. Then, one day, the Dragon realized he was different from everyone else.
He came to the girl, laid his head in her lap, and said, "Mommy ... what am I?"
The Dragon and I faced each other, each of us eyeing the other suspiciously.
He brought his head closer, tilted it, narrowed his eyes as he examined me, blinked using his nictitating membranes, and said, "Why do you have only one pair of eyelids?"
Spiraling rapidly as he descended, the Dragon approached the clearing. He pulled up into a stall, rump wings spread wide, and backwinged, kicking up a huge cloud of dust, as he landed precisely and softly.
I dismounted, said, "Nice landing," and then fell over. After the world quit spinning, I stood, said, "This shan't take but a moment. Wait here," and then I went into the Eldest Elder's hut.
When I came out, dozens of children were climbing on the Dragon. He looked at me with pleading eyes and said, "I seem to have attracted young prey-animals. Can you shoo them away?"
Having a bond with my Dragon has its advantages. For example, I can sense what he feels. This helps me keep watch over his well-being, but it also means when he is hurt, I feel it.
The problem is when he has a pain in his wings or tail. I feel the sensation in my wings or tail, except, I do not have wings or tail. This is Phantom Limb Syndrome. When he has an itch on his wings or tail, I feel an urgent need to scratch, but have no place to scratch.
I struggled to dig myself out from under the snowball that had flattened me.
New rule: Do not have a snowball fight with a Dragon. Dragons throw Dragon sized snowballs, using Dragon strength, and Dragons love to win.
"Are you coming with us?"
"By walking?" The Dragon stepped back, shook his head, and extended his wings. "I am a Dragon, a creature of the sky. I do not travel by walking." A great flap of immense wings launched him skyward.
After the dust settled, my coughing subsided, and I put my hat back on, I mumbled, "Okay, then. See you later."
"You have more confidence in me than I do."
The Dragon said, "Believe in yourself. You are the most capable prey-animal I have ever known."
"How many 'prey-animals' have you actually gotten to know?"
"Only you. The others, I ate."
The Dragon gnawed a bone as I ate my bread.
"The superior species in the Universe, huh. You Dragons sure have an inflated opinion of yourselves. Admit it, you need me. What would you do if I weren't here?"
The Dragon looked at my companions who sat around the campfire and said, "Eat better."
"Give it back."
The pickpocket had taken my amulet. I wanted it returned.
The Dragon sat behind me, indifferent — the amulet was not shiny enough for his taste so he had no interest in it — but the charm had sentimental value to me. I wanted it returned.
"Give it back!"
Through my bond with the Dragon, I felt his excitement spike. He moved forward, jaws gaping.
"Don't bite him."
"He said to bite him."
"That's not what he meant."
The Dragon snorted.
The would-be thief had flinched when the Dragon moved, which gave me an idea.
"Give it back."
"Go ahead, bite him."
The Dragon pricked up, opened his jaws, and started toward the man.
"Okay, okay, here, take it." The thief held out the amulet in a shaking hand.
I took the keepsake and said to the Dragon, "Don't bite him now."
The Dragon was indignant. I knew what he wanted.
"No, you can't eat him."
A hot huff heated my face.
"You never let me eat the good stuff."
Riding on the Dragon's back was scary, and although I had not yet fallen off, I constantly feared falling off. Tying myself to the Dragon seemed to be the solution. My first attempt was to use the technique surfers used: a surfboard leash and ankle strap. I tied a line to the Dragon and to my ankle. Now, if I fell off, I would not fall far.
The Dragon and I were flying south. The day was warm, the sun bright, and I was drowsy. I nodded off and promptly fell off. I awoke with a start when the line tied to my ankle went taught. My first thought was, "I'm sure glad I tied myself to the Dragon." As I dangled below the Dragon, hundreds of meters in the air, my second thought was, "Now what do I do?"
The Dragon dove then pulled up and back causing me to surge forward and into the air before falling again with the rope jerking my leg. He did it again, this time tossing me a little higher.
"Stop it! What do you think you're doing?"
"I am trying to put you on my back."
"Well, stop it. I am not a ball-and-cup game."
I opened my eyes not knowing how long I had been unconscious. The Dragon held me in his arms. He was crying. I had not known Dragons cried.
Eyes closed, near to taking a nap, I rode on the Dragon's back as we flew west. Honking sounds prompted me to look up to see a skein of geese, their great V pointing south. We collided. Squawks and squeals, and a shriek that I think came from me, filled the air along with feathers and bird bodies as we plowed through the flock.
I poked the Dragon and said, "Hey, come on, visual flight rules, pay attention."
The Dragon said, "I wanted a snack."
When I see the Dragon, I always have a rush of emotions. At first, I felt fear. Now, I feel joy.
The Dragon made straw men on the ground. He then flew up, swooped down, and snatched up the straw men as if he were plucking prey off the ground.
It never occurred to me that Dragons practiced.
I awoke to the stench of singed hair. The Dragon sat by the campfire. In the fire blazed a lump of fur.
"What are you doing?"
The Dragon said, "I am preparing food for you."
"You're burning a rabbit."
"I noticed you like to eat burnt, dead prey-animals."
The Orcs had us pinned down.
"We need the cavalry. You think a flock of Dragons might come flying over the ridge?"
The Dragon huffed and said, "Dragons do not flock. We may occasionally thunder, but we never flock."
The Dragon stood and spread his wings.
"You going somewhere?"
"I am going hunting."
"Yes, I am going to hunt for food."
I blurted out, "No people!"
He creased his brow and said "Of course not."
Through our bond, a bizarre image flickered in my mind.
"I am not a pain ... at ... the ... base of the tail?"
His expression shifted toward surprise. "I did not say anything."
"You wanted to."
The bushes rustled — some kind of monster was about to emerge. I tried to run, but my fight, flight, or freeze reflex selected freeze. I strained to move my petrified legs and thought to myself, "This is useful."
The crazed creature charged. I back-pedaled and fell as the beast bore down on me, its fangs flashing and rage filling its eyes. The Dragon dropped from the sky, landing between the monster and me. He grabbed the brute and ... ate it.
The Dragon turned toward me, licking his lips. When he saw my expression, he said, "What?"
"You ate it!"
"Eating the prey-animal was the prudent thing to do."
"Is your solution to every problem to eat it?"
"If the problem is edible, yes."
We sat and shared silence, the kind of silence that was not a true silence, but rather a subtle communication of affection between old friends. Simply being together was all we required.
Rule Number 1: Do not argue with a Dragon.
Rule Number 2: Do not have a staring contest with a Dragon.
I learned Rule Number 2 because I had a staring contest with a Dragon. When he blinked using his nictitating membranes, I said, "You lose." He disagreed. He said using his nictitating membranes did not count as a blink. I said, "It does too. You lose!" That was when I learned Rule Number 1.
We were both tired from our efforts. Making a heavy sigh, the Dragon lay down, resting his head on the ground. I walked over and sat on his snout as if it were a bench. A growl prompted me to get up.
To these people I was an alien animal, Amy-Ann's pet alien animal; yet, as I stood at the counter and dipped large servings of the best food I had ever had onto my plate, no one seemed to mind. I do not think I would let a pet serve himself from my buffet.
Amy-Ann and I were to meet in this glade. I was excited. Why I felt the way I did for the cute, little, alien lady, I did not understand, but the feeling was good. I paced and fretted. What if she did not come?
Along the edge of the forest grew a swath of iridescent purple flowers that had a thick, sweet smell. Amy-Ann liked flowers; her hut in the village was always full of them, although none like these. I collected a bunch and patiently waited for her to arrive.
She emerged from the forest, slow and hesitant like a deer, looking about to ensure we were alone. She approached, her movements gentle as gossamer threads floating on the breeze. I held out the bouquet of blossoms. She took them, made a heartwarming smile, giggled, and then ate them.
The Dragon said, "I am not your pet."
"We've already had this conversation."
"Being called a pet is an affront to a Dragon's dignity."
"Oh, come on, having a pet Dragon is fun. I'd like to take you home and show you off." I paused for effect before saying, "Of course, because of leash laws, I'll have to put a leash on you, but that won't be a problem since I'm going to make you wear a collar with the bell on it. I can attach the leash to the collar." I made a thoughtful expression and added, "I think I'll put bows on your ears, too. You'll be so cute."
The Dragon's entire repertory of expressions moved across his face before he finally settled on ears laid back, eyes narrowed, brow deeply furrowed, and a furious frown. Expression selected, he added a serious snort.
Amy-Ann's skill with weapons, her agility, and her strength combined to make her formidable, yet this cute and petite alien could be so sweet and innocent. While an enemy would run from her in panic, she easily melted my heart with a simple smile, a coy look with her big green eyes, and a gentle nuzzle on my cheek.
I enjoyed spending time with the alien lady. I admit, she was cute, as aliens go, but she was also smart, kind, and thoughtful. She seemed to enjoy our time together as well. She would brush my hair, play games with me, bring me tasty treats, and sometimes just sit and talk.
Then one day, she patted me on the head and said, "Alien animal good pet."
I enjoyed washing my Dragon. I scrubbed, smiled, and thought to myself, "How many people can say they have a pet Dragon?"
After splashing around for a while, apparently having a great deal of fun, the Dragon came out of the water, walking on his hind legs, looking like a giant horror movie monster emerging from the sea.
I look at him and see myself ... except for the wondrous wings, treacherous talons, terrifying teeth, and horrible eating habits.
I watched the hunter meld into the woodland clutter. As he slipped away, he became a breeze gently stirring the shadows, silently flowing through the forest, an ephemeral apparition perceived only as an illusion. He vanished leaving me in awe of the magic of his and his people's adaptation to this environment.
She and I were meant to be together, but the Universe erred by placing us on different worlds and making us different species. Fate found a way to bring us together on the same world, but Fate could not fix the species error.
Amy-Ann provided snacks. She handed me a container of the chocolate fudge-like confection she knew I liked. Hers was the purple pit looking oos treat she liked, but that I thought was disgusting. She sampled the stuff's aroma and beamed with joy.
With a cheery voice, she said, "Oos?" She offered me the container.
I shook my head and leaned away. "No thanks."
She laughed then said, "Choichoichee make oos." With glee, she ate the stuff.
I was shocked to learn a tree octopus made the horrible purple pits. I wondered if the pits were eggs ... or poop.
Dead quiet and stone stillness permeated the darkness that hid the gloom and doom that dwelled in shadowy places. I walked as quietly as I could so I could hear and would not be heard. The silence supplied its own dread and overwhelmed my senses as I strained to hear any sound that would warn me of the Dragon's presence. Every noise caused me to flinch. I could not remember ever being in a spookier place.
The creek wound around and over the rocks in its course and entwined boulders that littered the stream's alluvial fan. As the wind stirred the trees above, shafts of sunlight danced a mosaic pattern of dark and light across the low-lying vegetation and made the cascading water twinkle and sparkle. I sat upon a pink granite boulder, watched the water flow, and pondered the boulder and his brethrens' origins and history — many millennia of debris washed from the highest peaks. Ancient, beautiful, and tranquil, the peace of this place was palpable; I felt the serenity.
I started to tell the Dragon what I ate for dinner, but I decided not to. I was afraid he would tell me whom he ate for dinner, and I did not want to know.
The Dragon said, "I am smarter than you because I have a bigger brain."
I gave the Dragon an incredulous glare then said, "Big beast means big brain. Big beast needs big brain because big beast has big body to bandy about. Big brain in big beast does not mean big beast is smart. It's the wiring in the brain that makes one smart." I tapped the side of my head.
The Dragon's wide-eyed surprise melted into a look of narrow-eyed skepticism. "You have wires in your brain?"
As darkness grew, the sounds of the daytime animals faded away, but the sounds of the nighttime animals had not yet begun. This time of transition had an eerie silence about it. All I could hear was the Dragon's steady breathing as he slept by my side.
I did not mean to irritate her, but I could tell by the subtle squint of her eyes and the slight flex of her ears that she was about to make an irritation growl.
I noticed next to me, in the leaf litter, was a leaf with six legs. It was a very good leaf. I poked it with a stick. At first, the leaf resisted, but then it dashed off to another pile of leaf litter where it again became a very good leaf.
When Amy-Ann saw me, she glared, growled, and then turned toward Broechi and Flurfy with a gritty look on her face. She marched over to them, exchanged words with them, and pointed at me. The discussion was lively, to say the least, until Broechi straightened and dipped his head to avert his eyes. Flurfy and Amy-Ann looked over their shoulders then jumped to attention.
As Veloqui approached, the verbal brawlers tried to act like the Three Wise Monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil. With furrowed brow and ears laid back, Veloqui glowered and growled at the three angels as they feigned their innocence.
The Dragon settled into his nest then said, "Will you sleep closer to me?"
"I'm a little concerned you might roll over and squish me."
He gave me a pleading look.
"Okay, I'll sleep at the head of your bed. That should be safe."
The Dragon smiled. He had returned to showing too much teeth.
He laid his head on the edge of his nest, so I moved my bed to that spot. The Dragon appeared happy. I liked making him happy.
Little puffs of hot air on my face woke me up. Opening my eyes, I saw the Dragon's snout within arm's reach. He stared at me, and exhaled on me.
"What are you doing?"
"I am waiting for you to wake up."
Overcast and fog concealed the blue sky and the sun, so I could not judge the time.
"What time is it?"
"It is wake-up time."
I began preparing my sleeping bag for a nice night's sleep. The Dragon fluffed his nest then climbed in, walked his two circles, and lay down. He looked at me, glanced at the spot next to his nest where I had slept the previous night, and then looked at me again using his pleading expression. I sighed and moved my bed to that spot. I had wanted to sleep there anyway.
Eyes, what I remember most were the eyes. The Risirid gazed upon me with wide eyes of chartreuse, olive, aquamarine, teal, all variations on a theme of green.
A voice cried out from behind the encircling crowd, stopping their advance as everyone turned toward the voice. The inner most ring of people parted as Amy-Ann stepped through to join me in my small circle.
Amy-Ann's eyes were different from the other Risirid. Her eyes were a saturated shade of green so pure they defined the color, a green so vivid her eyes seemed to glow, a green of gentle innocence that contradicted her intense nature.
Having her at my side was comforting and made me feel safe since I believed she would do anything to protect me.
For my entire life I had looked up to the Elders, I had listened to the Elders, I had learned from the Elders. Then one day I awoke to discover I was now one of the Elders.
I really was fond of the Dragon, even if he scared me. The like and fright seemed to go well together, like sweet and sour.
Loud crunching and snapping sounds accompanied the Dragon's collision with the tree. Branches, some rather large, exploded into the air and spun rapidly and wildly as they fell to the ground. Because of the overlapped and interlaced branches of the forest canopy, vibrations swept out from the impact point moving as waves through the forest. Leaves rained down beneath the trees, from the treetops, birds, with frantic sounding squawks, burst skyward, and the startled screams of scared animals echoed out of the deep woods. At the last instant before impact, the Dragon had tried to pull up, resulting in a belly flop into the tree. For a moment, he hung suspended then he peeled away to fall to the ground, bringing more tree limbs down with him.
I ran across the glade toward the stricken Dragon. "Puff!"
As I approached, sticks and twigs snapped under my feet. A few large branches required straddling to climb over. The air smelled of pine-like tree resin. The Dragon lay on the ground, on his back, wings still out, with several large tree limbs on top of him, and he was laughing his strange sounding laugh.
Coming up to the Dragon, panting, I said, "Are you okay?"
He looked at me, smiled his toothy grin, and then said, "Oops."
The Dragon's attempt to appear harmless made him appear ludicrous instead.
I started whittling.
The Dragon said, "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to carve a chess set."
"May I help with the sculpting?" He held out a hand and extended a talon on his index finger. "I enjoy sculpting."
I looked skeptically at the Dragon. "These pieces are not very big. Can someone as large as you carve things this small?"
"I will show you."
Using a razor-sharp talon, he started shaping a random piece of wood. After several quick shaves that made little curly wood chips, a wrong move caused the top half of his figurine to pop off. He paused to stare at his failed carving.
I smiled at the Dragon and sarcastically said, "Oops."
He mirrored my smile and mockingly echoed, "Oops."
Putting down the failed piece, he started on another. After a couple of minutes of precise manipulations of wood and talon, he handed me a carving about the size of a pawn.
"This is amazing; it looks like me. How can you put such fine detail into such a small carving when you are as big as you are?"
"I am a Dragon."
"You're a Dragon? That seems to be your answer to everything."
"Being a Dragon means I am the superior species in the universe. I can do anything, and everything I do is done better than any prey animal could ever do it."
I rolled my eyes and sarcastically said, "Anything you can do, I can do better." I waggled my finger at the dragon. "Tell ya what; you make pawns. Let's see how you handle them.""
"All right, I will make pawns. ... What are pawns?"
I turned to where the Dragon had gone. He still hid behind the not-big-enough tree. "Come out, Puff. I'm sorry I screamed — and drew my Dragon Blade. I'm sorry."
The Dragon peeked out from behind the tree.
"I'm sorry I screamed and drew my blade. It was a reflex because you scared the daylights out of me."
The Dragon came out from behind the tree. "I thought I had already scared the daylights out of you. Did you make more?" He had an inquisitive look.
I paused a moment, bemused by his statement, and then waved a hand toward the glade as I said, "What was all that about?"
He came a little closer then stopped and looked away as if he was embarrassed. "I should not have shown you affection. Showing affection to a prey animal is not appropriate." He crouched, tucking his feet under him.
He held his hands together and rubbed his head against them. "A Dragon shows affection by rubbing his head on the one for whom he has affection." He bowed his head and shook it. "It was inappropriate that I performed this action on you. Having affection for a prey animal is wrong. Expressing affection for a prey animal is worse."
I felt relieved that he used head rubbing to show affection instead of licking me as a dog would have done — I think open jaws and slobbery tongue would have been a worse experience than just having him pick me up and rub his head on me.
"Affection? You feel affection for me?"
He started shaking his head more intensely and repeated in his distressed voice, "Having affection for a prey animal is wrong."
We moved to sit by the campfire where we watched the flames dance chaotically in the breeze.
I said, "Please don't be upset."
The Dragon remained silent, the tip of his tail twitching, as he stared into the fire.
"You come to visit me every night. I believe you do that because you like me. There's nothing wrong with having affection for someone of another species."
He turned to glare at me with his ears laid back. "You do not understand the ways of Dragons. Having affection for a prey animal is wrong. Only affection for other Dragons is acceptable." Glancing away, his ears went from laid back to simply drooping.
"You're right. I don't understand the ways of Dragons, and probably never will, because you're so alien and incomprehensible to me."
Nice flames sprouted from the bits of twigs and sticks in the campfire. A fleeting image of marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers flickered across my mind.
Turning to the Dragon, I said, "Is there anything wrong with me having affection for you?"
The Dragon gave me a surprised look. "Prey animals always have affection for Dragons. Affection for Dragons is a natural part of prey animal behavior. Prey animals worship Dragons and want to be eaten by Dragons."
I discovered my jaw was hanging open. Finding I was dumbfounded into mute silence, I closed my mouth and looked elsewhere. His genetically programmed view of life was never going to change.
I rose, intending to walk over to the Dragon. I leaned into a step, but then pulled back. My primal instincts regarding avoiding predators wanted to surface. I hovered between light fright and severe fear, but I had no reason for the feeling; the Dragon would not harm me. No matter how scary he looked, no matter how terrifying his jaws, no matter how horrific his talons, the Dragon would not harm me. With my chin held high, I boldly walked to him, motioned for him to lower his head to me, and then I wrapped my arms around his snout.
"Puff, I don't know what I would do if I lost you."
The Dragon remained patient as I hugged him. When finished with the hug, I returned to my sitting spot.
The Dragon looked baffled with his head tilted, his eyes unevenly wide, one brow lowered more than the other, and his ears each at a different odd angle. I am sure he had never had a prey animal say that to him before and he was perplexed.
He said, "You have affection for me? You have a kind of affection that is not the normal kind of affection prey animals have for Dragons?" He sounded bewildered.
When I accused the Dragon of being a reptile, he was offended.
He said, "What if I said you are an ape?"
"I am an ape."
"I do not know the natural history of your world and your species. What can I accuse you of being that would insult you?"
"You expect me to give you something to use to insult me?"
The keening of a dragon whose rider has died is the most heartrending sound you will ever hear.
As I regained my senses, I saw I was lying on the ground where I had fought the tiger. I must have passed out after the tiger ran off.
"Dakquagomi drink." Amy-Ann sat me up and lifted a cup of purple liquid to my lips.
The concoction tasted bitter and sour, smelled of grease, and almost made me gag. "Gaaa, what is that?"
"Patigris poison medicine. Dakquagomi drink." She poured more of the disgusting brew into my mouth causing me to cough and sputter.
"Patigris claw poison." She laid her ears down, made a cat-like hissing sound, and moved her hand, with fingers bent, in a clawing motion.
"You mean the tiger was venomous?" My speech was slurred.
"Patigris poison make Dakquagomi sick. Dakquagomi drink." She continued pouring the crud into my mouth.
I resisted, but Amy-Ann was insistent — and she growled.
"How much of that stuff do you expect me to drink?"
Amy-Ann paused a moment as if she was interpreting my words, and then she said, "Dakquagomi drink all." She forced the remainder of the foul fluid into my mouth. As she laid me down, she said, "Dakquagomi sleep."
"Sleep? I don't want to sleep." I was starting to feel drowsy.
"Patigris poison medicine make Dakquagomi sleep."
Amy-Ann's ears drooped oddly, the corners of her eyes were pinched, she batted her eyelashes, smiled a silly smile, and made little whimpering noises. I think she was terribly embarrassed. I was convinced that when she was angry with me, she had referred to me as dapoecha-queequoo-tigemniti, which roughly translated as disgusting-rat-droppings, and the little boy had heard and thought it was the correct name to call me.
Regardless of how he seemed to behave toward me, he was a Dragon, and I needed to stay aware of his Dragon nature, knowing his genetic programming made him think and act like a perfect Dragon, a perfect predator.
Trying to put another log onto the fire, I picked up a piece of firewood and tossed it into the fire pit. The wood bounced and landed to the side where it was not going to feed the flames. The Dragon reached out, reaching through the flames, retrieved the log, and placed it on top of the fire.
"You stuck your hand in the fire."
"It'll burn you."
He looked at his hand. "The fire will not burn me."
I stammered. "Please don't do that again. It disturbs me."
The Dragon gave me his narrowed eyes inspection look. "Poor pitiful Prey-Animal is not fire proof."
"No, I'm not."
The Dragon shook his head as an expression of pity.
A Dragon can be your best friend, or worst enemy. You choose.
As the Risirid prepared to return to the village, I saw my opportunity to contribute; Amy-Ann was about to put on the cart harness. Intending to take the harness and pull the cart myself, I rushed toward her.
Everyone jumped. Flurfy and the other hunter drew their swords with blurred swings of their arms and flashes of polished steel that rang pure tones. The rest of the group, even the littlest, pulled their daggers. Flurfy barked a word and placed herself in a fighting stance between the Risirid and me. She had the look of death-to-all-comers on her face, the hair frill around her neck stood out, and she made a horrible hiss that chilled my blood. I wondered if the word she had shouted was like a fielder calling a fly ball with mine. At the sound of Flurfy's call, the second hunter turned his attention away from me to focus on the surrounding forest looking for more threats, apparently concerned the attack might be from a pack of animals. The other four adults and two adolescents pushed the two youngest Risirid into the center as they clustered into a circle ready to fight whatever came at them.
Their reaction demonstrated that these people trained and drilled how to respond instantly and in a coordinated fashion when attacked by wild-things. This incident revealed a great deal about the dangers the Risirid faced, dangers I had barely experienced, dangers I could not even fathom. These people lived with constant peril and I regretted having startled them.
"Oops, sorry, sorry, sorry." I held up my hands to show I was not a threat.
Breathing hard, all ten Risirid growled at me, but they had looked at me. Regardless of how much they tried to act as if I did not exist because of ostracizing me, for a moment, I did exist; for a moment, I had their full attention. However, I felt bad; I did not want to gain their attention like this.
I continued to Amy-Ann's cart. As I walked past Flurfy, with her frill still extended, her sword flashed and swished as she twirled the weapon in a flourish that flaunted her strength and skill before she slid the blade back into its scabbard. Then she laid her ears flat, made a scary snarl that showed her sadistic teeth, and grumbled a serious sounding growl.
With as much of an apologetic look and tone as I could muster, I repeated, "Sorry."
I smiled at the Dragon and wished I had the nerve to get close enough to give him a hug, but when he smiled, showing his vicious teeth that reminded me of his voracious nature, I decided to stay back.
After the Dragon finished his account of why life here on Risiria appeared similar to life on Earth, I said, "So, we're the same."
"I did not say we are the same. I am a Dragon and therefore I am perfect. You are a prey animal and therefore you are food."
As I turned to face him, the Dragon froze in his tracks, eyes big.
He said, "I am sorry."
"Don't you understand that you scare me when you talk like that?"
"You have expressed that feeling to me, but I do not understand why you feel that way. You are a prey animal and should be happy to fulfill your purpose."
"Stop that. I'm not food!"
He bowed his head. "Yes, Prey-Animal."
I continued downhill.
"Why do you think you're perfect?"
The Dragon followed.
"Long ago, even by our measure of the passage of time, Dragons performed — wait — genetic engineering — to make ourselves perfect."
"Perfect? I can think of a few things that would improve you."
"What would improve a perfect Dragon?"
"For one, turn yourself into a vegetarian."
"You are again speaking as if you are crazy."
"Why can't you be a vegetarian?"
"Do you not understand the energy requirements to maintain the metabolism of a Dragon and how much plant material I would need to consume to achieve that? In addition to their poor energy and nutritional content, plants taste terrible." He made a disgusted grimace and shuddered. "Prey animals are wonderful." A twinkle came to his eyes. "Prey animals have high energy and nutritional densities, taste terrific, and feel fabulous as they struggle going down."
"Stop that!" I glared at the Dragon.
The twinkle disappeared from his eyes as his ears drooped and he dipped his head. "I am sorry." He crouched meekly.
I had much to learn about how to train my Dragon.
We had reached the fruit trees.
"Can you pick some of those fruits for me?"
"Yes." He did not move.
"Will you pick some of those fruits for me?"
"Yes." He still did not move.
"Okay. — Puff, please pick some of those fruits for me."
The Dragon was learning how to train his Human.
"All right." He stood and picked a half dozen of the fruits. "You can eat these?" He placed the fruits on the ground between us and moved back several steps.
"I can, if they're what I think they are." I cut one. The fruit was the type that tasted like grape. "Yes. These are good." I took a big bite.
The Dragon recoiled. "Do not do that in front of me."
"What? Eat fruit?" I took another bite.
"Disgusting." He turned and walked away. "I will go over here while you do that." The Dragon went about eight meters, sat with his back to me, and made gagging sounds.
Looking out over the smoothly flowing water of the river, perturbed here and there by slowly spinning eddies and little disturbances on the surface where fish were snapping at insects, I was reminded of an incident on one of my backcountry trips back home when a volcano erupted up wind from where I was hiking. The ash cloud that came on the wind turned the bright and sunny midday into the pitch-black of midnight. I saw someone on the riverbank with a lantern. I went to check that the person was okay. As I approached, I saw an elderly gentleman sitting on the shore, casting his line. Before I could speak, he looked up at the sky, and said, World's comin' to an end. I don't care. I'm gonna fish. I left him to his doomsday fishing.
Trust was not something I had ever been able to give. I trusted no one. Everyone was out to get me. Everyone wanted to take from me. They wanted my money, my property, my skills and talents, anything that they felt they could use to make a profit for themselves, and in so doing, they did not care what happened to me, even if what they did resulted in great harm to me. The axiom I lived by was: Trust no one who stands to profit by causing me harm.
Now I faced an alien so different from me that I could not comprehend him or his worldview, a being who sustained his own life through the deaths of creatures like me, the most powerful being I had ever known, a being who could have taken whatever he wanted, anytime he wanted, and yet, I trusted the Dragon.
I felt trust. I had never before felt trust.
"Am I glad to see you."
The Dragon gave me his puzzled look and said, "Are you asking me if you are glad to see me? It looks like you are. Does that answer your question?"
I was not me. I had no idea who I was, but I was certain that I was not me. I had become a stranger whom I did not recognize. A crazed and uncontrolled insanity permeated the stranger. He was demented, deranged, and psychotic, filled with rage, hatred, and an overwhelming desire to commit violence of the most brutal and savage kinds. The stranger was not me. I was not me. The rain washed the Dragon blood from the grass, cleansing the grass and erasing the evidence, but not the memory, of the stranger's madness. Who was I? What was I? How had I become this stranger?
Five days of arduous hiking, covering as many as five leagues each day, had taken me deep into rarely visited country. This wild and pristine mountain range was one of my favorites and I had visited often. I came to a tributary of the river I had been following. The side stream was a river in its own right, and from its size, it was obvious that its drainage basin was extensive. I stopped by the jubilant water that tumbled its way toward the sea so I could eat a bite and muse over my map.
I looked up to see a beautiful black bird perched on a branch of a large pine tree.
I said, "What do you want, Mister Crow?"
"Of course you're a crow."
He repeated, "Caw, caw," extended his wings to flaunt his impressive stature, the bluish sheen of his glossy black plumage, and his almost one-and-a-half meter wingspan. Then he again said, "Caw."
In response to the inspiring pose, I said, "Okay, very impressive. I admit you're probably a raven, but ravens are crows."
"They are, too. Ravens are in the family Corvidae, and birds in that family are all crows."
"Caw." He folded his wings.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but you have little choice when it comes to choosing your relatives. Besides, you should be proud to be in the same family as crows. Crows are smart and adaptive. They are noble creatures."
"I'm glad you agree." I eyed him for a moment then said, "But, you still don't consider yourself one, do you."
I tossed a piece of my beef jerky to the raven. He caught it in his beak, manipulated it, and then swallowed it.
Dipping his head, he again said, "Caw."
I chuckled a little. "You're welcome."
I did not normally feed the animals when I hiked, as it was not good for them and could cause them to become a nuisance to people. However, I had felt compelled to share with Mister Crow. I briefly watched him watching me, his eyes keen and curious. I liked communing with animals and often would talk to them if they hung around, but I did not have anything more to say to the raven. I returned to studying my map.
"I'm trying to decide how far I want to go this afternoon."
"Yeah, that's a thought." I looked up the river cascading down the side valley and said, "Getting off the main trail might be a good idea."
Trails are the expressways of the backcountry and are where you will most likely encounter people. I did not want to encounter people. Most hikers, even those willing to hike this far, are not willing to expend the extra effort required to hike through untracked wilderness. This meant that getting off the trail and bushwhacking was an excellent way to avoid bumping into other backpackers. The drainage of this side stream had no developed trails, and I was betting I could maximize my chances of not meeting anyone if I went up that valley.
I turned to the raven, nodded, and said, "Okay, I will. Thanks for the suggestion, Mister Crow."
"Well then, how 'bouts I call you Mister Nevermore?"
With one last "Caw," Mister Nevermore leaped off the branch and flew away.
I donned my pack and started hiking into what for me was new territory that promised new sights and new experiences. I was embarking on a fresh adventure.
After taking several steps, I paused and looked back in the direction where the raven had flown. A thought crossed my mind: Quoth the raven, "Nevermore." That bird had been eerie and had left me feeling strange with a tickly tingly sensation running up my spine and neck. I now questioned if I was doing the right thing and my doubts weighed heavily upon me.
I had heard traditional teachings that spoke of how Raven could give you the courage to enter the darkness of the unknown, and if Raven appeared, you were about to experience a change in consciousness that might involve walking inside the Great Mystery, on a path at the edge of time, with an awakening possibly resulting from the journey. The foundation of the myth originates with the Great Spirit who lives within the Great Mystery. Raven brings the message that you have earned the right to see and experience more of the universe's secrets. You should not try to figure it out; it cannot be understood because it is the power of the unknown at work. How you respond determines the outcome: accept the gift and grow, or limit it by explaining it away.
Was that raven delivering a message? Was he trying to manipulate me into going this way? How could he? The raven was nothing special — he was just a big crow. Then I wondered about the origins of the knowledge in the traditional teachings. The saying was that behind every myth was some truth. What was the truth of that raven? What did he know? What kind of trouble was he trying to get me into? After a moment pondering this, I decided I did not believe any of the myths and that the raven had not brought a message, could not have had any motives, and could not have been manipulating me. I shook off my doubts and pressed onward.
I headed into the unknown, hoping I would not regret it.
In a halting voice, pausing briefly on each word, the lizard said, "Speak more, Prey-Animal. Help translator select dialect."
It shuffled its feet and moved closer.
I shuffled back an equal amount.
"Speak!" It was insistent as it said, "Translator needs hear speak." It sounded as if it was being told each word to say, one by one.
Was it implying that the thing by its ear was a translator?
I stammered then said, "I'm not used to talking to giant lizards. We don't have talking lizards where I come from."
"Lizard? Wait.... I am not lizard. I am.... Wait...." It must have been accessing the translator; its eyes kept shifting to the side, toward the object. It continued, "In your language I am Dragon."
This creature did not look like a dragon to me. It had no horns nor spikes nor glistening scales, nor did it have fangs or rows of dorsal spines, and I did not want to learn if it could breathe fire. I still thought it looked like a giant lizard.
"You're a lizard."
The lizard seemed puzzled. "Wait.... My translator insists I am not lizard. She says in your language I am Dragon."
As it glared down at me, the pitch-black pupils of its ember colored eyes contracted and made its eyes look as if they were on fire, the inner edges of the brow ridges above the eyes dipped in a scowl, and it laid back its ears.
Not wanting to rile it further, I decided to agree. "Okay, Puff, you’re a Dragon."
This seemed to please it immensely and I swear it smiled.
The Dragon said, "Thank you." A serious look returned to its face. "From where did you come?"
In my confused and fearful state, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: "My parents."
The Dragon had another puzzled look. "Wait...." It dipped its head as it again glanced to the side, paused, and then lifting its head to look at me with eyes narrowed and brow pinched tight. It said, "No, that is not what I am asking." It laid back its ears again then snorted.
I pondered the last of the Earth water in my canteen. It was no different from the Risiria water, but having come from Earth made it special. I suffered a surge of sentimentality. I am not on Earth anymore. I am a stranger in this strange land. Am I forever doomed to wander this alien world, a lost soul, never to return home, never again even to have a home? What am I going to do? I scuffled with the sadness that entwined me in its twin tendrils of grief and gloom. With tears in my eyes, I drank the last of the Earth water.
The story of the Krakoki Apocalypse had been told again, lived again, to be repeated year after year, to be handed down from generation to generation, never to be neglected, never to be forgotten, until the end of time.
"First thing we need to do is decide upon a coordinate system for the universe, one on which we can agree."
"We Dragons have a—"
I interrupted the Dragon before he could say more. "Let's start with something logical: the center of the universe."
"The universe does not have a—"
I cut him off again. "Is it true that from the center of a sphere, the distance to the edge of the sphere is the same in every direction?"
"And, is it true that from me, it is equal distance in every direction to the edge of the universe?"
I continued, "Therefore, it is logical to conclude that I must be the center of the universe." The Dragon gaped. "Close your mouth. You look undignified."
Using the distraction caused by the tiger-like animal's intrusion into the village, I tried to make my escape. As I made my break, I heard Centaurs yelling Dakquagomi and saw them pointing my way. When the tiger fled, the armed Centaurs turned their attention to me. I was almost to the gap between the buildings that led out of the village when Heart-Centaur stepped in front of me. I stopped. I saw that the others were nocking arrows. I was going to escape and no one was going to stop me. I only needed to charge past the Centaur to gain my freedom.
Heart-Centaur barked something to those who were about to shoot. All of the armed Centaurs lowered their weapons. It then held up its hands and said, "Dakquagomi chaachoe." It frowned at me. "Dakquagomi tatzy!" It pointed toward the cage.
I stood my ground. There was no way I was going back into that cage. Heart-Centaur growled, glared at me, and pulled out its dagger. That worried me, but then it tossed the dagger aside. I did not understand why it would do that.
The other Centaurs had lowered their weapons and only Heart-Centaur, unarmed, stood between my freedom and me. I could easily push my way past the petite Centaur, but I decided to do more than that. Now, as I fled, was my chance to kill the filthy fiend.
I charged. The Centaur grabbed me and tossed me over its head. I landed hard on my back, knocking the wind out of me. Before I could get up, Heart-Centaur grabbed me again and tossed me back toward the cage. I must have made two complete rotations before hitting the ground, the impact cushioned by the thick sward of the yard.
"Dakquagomi tatzy!" Heart-Centaur was pointing toward the cage, again, and slowly walking toward me.
I staggered to my feet to face my advancing adversary. It hurt to clinch my fist, but I did, charged, and swung. I was going to crush this pretentious little beast. A dark scowl swept across the Centaur's face creating a fierce appearance that made it look like a different creature. It deftly blocked my punch then pummeled me with a quick series of hand and foot strikes. With each hit, it screamed. It hit and clawed at me repeatedly with the attack culminating in a dual foot kick that sent me flying back several meters and into the bars of the cage. I fell to the ground like a ruined rag doll. It walked over, picked me up, then, with a ferocious shriek, tossed me into the cage and slammed the gate shut.
I lay crumpled on the floor feeling I had been broken into multiple pieces. Breathing hard, Heart-Centaur glared at me through the bars with its eyebrows drawn down; its eyes narrowed into slits; its teeth, with fangs I had not noticed before, bared; its ears laid back; and the hair around its neck standing on end like a frill. It made a hideous hissing sound as it grabbed the bars and shook them. I had not seen before that its fingers did not have nails, rather they were equipped with claws. Then it growled. It was a different kind of growl than it had ever made before, a growl more menacing and malicious than any I had ever heard, a growl that made my entire body sting with fear. I thought I had seen the Centaur angry before, but now I knew what its true anger looked like — it was scary and made me cringe and cower.
When I provided Heart-Centaur with the answers to her questions, she smiled, and — she purred.
I had heard her make the strange noise before. Now I recongnized it as purring. The purring was an incongruous sound. I could understand her growling at me — even I have been known to growl — but this purring sound did not seem like the kind of sound a creature like her should be making. Since a smile and a happy demeanor accompanied it, I assumed it was a good thing, unlike the growling, which I always found disquieting, especially the kind of growl she used after beating me.
She asked more questions; I answered. She purred, again.
I liked the purring. It had an enchanting quality and made me feel giddy. I wondered if I should worry about the effect it had on me. One thing for sure, I wanted to get her to do it again.
The Dragon said, "There has only been partial training of my translator's neural network matrix for your language, which makes it difficult for her to handle some of your morphemes and semantics. You speak a dreadfully degenerated language whose definitude has deteriorated to the point of being incomprehensible. It is bewildering and ambiguous, full of inexplicable and deceptive words, and uses phrases with indefinable or incoherent structures and meanings."
I said, "Your translator is telling you to say that, isn't she?"
Looking embarrassed, the Dragon dipped his head and said, "Yes."
"Do you understand what she's having you say?"
"She explained it to me, and I am learning. The more I learn the less I depend upon her. She takes pride in teaching me so that I rarely need her help. However, I wonder if your language can actually be learned."
"I agree. I speak a wonderful language."
The Dragon tilted his head and looked puzzled. "I did not say your language was a wonderful language."
"It's called sarcasm."
"Sarcasm? Wait...." After a few moments conversing with his translator, he said, "Define sarcasm."
"Sarcasm is using irony to give apparent praise that conceals a contemptuous meaning. Do I also need to define irony? Irony is using words to convey a meaning that is opposite of their literal meaning. Any other words you need defined?"
The Dragon gave me a scornful look, laid back his ears, and snorted. "No. I believe you have proven the point that your language is incomprehensible."
The Dragon seemed surprised that I understood the science behind the device. "You comprehend such things?"
I was indignant. I said, "I'm not as stupid as I look."
He lowered his head, examined me with eyes of inspection, and said, "Nobody could be as stupid as you look."
As the Dragon and I waited, I idly studied the rope I was holding. "This Risirid rope is made exactly the same as my Human rope."
The Dragon snorted and said, "Of course."
"What do you mean, of course?" I mimicked his condescending tone.
"The strands of the rope are twisted in one direction, and then those strands are twisted together in the opposite direction to make the rope. The torque of the two sets of twist cancel each other out to keep the rope from unraveling. On every world where rope is made, it is made the same way. The rules of geometry are universal." He lowered his head to look me in the face with narrowed eyes. "Are you sure you are not as stupid as you look?"
Well, that did not work. Instead of wiping out that squad of Orcs, all I managed to do was get their attention. Now the Dragon and I were trying to escape with our lives. The interlocking branches of the forest canopy kept the Dragon from taking to the air, so we had no choice but to run.
As we ran through the trees, the Dragon said, "Prey-Animal, I have something important to tell you."
"What's that, Puff?"
"You ARE as stupid as you look."
I watched the Dragon sleep. I had an impulse that I quickly suppressed after remembering an old saying that says, "Never tickle a sleeping dragon." There might be a reason for that old saying and I did not want to learn that reason first hand.
Few things are more unsettling than being around a hungry Dragon. He gets a glint in his eyes with every prey animal he sees, and to him, everyone he sees is nothing more than a prey animal.
Amy-Ann and Broechi came to my camp with dinner. They both seemed troubled. Risirid delighted in social interaction, sharing, and gossiping. Most of this conversation occurred during the morning brushing ritual and at mealtimes. They were afraid that they would let the Krakoki secret slip if they spoke with their friends and must have been suffering substantially having to be silent about something so sinister. They carried a terrible burden of dreadful knowledge that could not be shared. Since I knew the secret, I was the only one with whom they felt safe at these times when the habit of spontaneous conversation put the secret at risk. I was lost in thoughts of doom for my home world. The two young Risirid appeared to be lost in their own thoughts of doom for those who remained of their world. We shared the meal in somber silence.
I stood on top of a tall mound of rubble. Below me, I could see a sleeping dragon sprawled out on the ground with his great wings draped over piles of debris. Surrounding him were the remains of a once vibrant city — shattered and burned buildings, crushed automobiles, and smashed mass transit railcars — destroyed in the apocalypse of forty-two years ago. Pockmarks of craters were everywhere as were the splintered bones of the victims of the tragedy. Spread amongst the wreckage, poking out of every crack and crevice, were clusters of pink and yellow flowers, promises of a new generation. The sapphire blue sky was full of fluffy and cheery white cumulus clouds riding on a warm breeze that smelled of a sweet spring day. I felt I was standing on the very precipice of my sanity looking into the abyss of my madness.