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“Gentle Dragon Fires” © 2022 by Kring Demetrio

ah-eh-ah- ay ay

The land burns so hot and high tonight that Let can see its orange glow even from the heart of The City of Birds. It burns so thick she can taste the whole year’s growth of leaves and branches on her lips. It burns so fast she can almost hear the deer and cottontails scream as flames outrun them and devour them whole.

But Let can’t dwell on this, not tonight. She has a song on her tongue and the streets of The City of Birds are thick with smoke and strangers in her way. A ham of an arm knocks into her arthritic shoulder and almost makes her drop her cane. She curses but the curse is drowned out by the rattle of carriages and clop of hooves in the street.

She mutters and moves on. “Damned newcomers, only here to profit, never even appreciate this city, never even cared what happened to it, just planning to go back to whatever humid swamp they came from the moment their pockets are heavy enough. Don’t even appreciate it when the rains come. Just like the miners all over again.”

And the rains are so late this year, Let suspects they may not come at all.

The next block is clogged with a long line of hungry souls awaiting noodles. Let can almost smell the broth through the smoke.

“They’ll still be open on the way back, no sense stopping, if you stop now you’ll lose your nerve again …” Her muttering trails off into a hard, thick cough and she swallows the rest of the thought, pushing past the pull of noodles, striding her three-step stride through the crowded street. Left-cane-right. Left-cane-right.

Ah-ay-ay. Ah-ay-ay. An echo of drums in her pace.

Old lyrics, hummed in Hantmekt, scratch the back of her throat.

I have seen you on the winds of morning

I have known you all my days

ah-eh-ah- ay ay

She turns into an alley and a carriage filled with loud and drunken song rolls past, pulled by a horse who glances at Let with scorn as it trots by and shits on the cobblestone.

The building where all the memories are locked up safe is just ahead, three stories high and built from yellow brick that blackens near the top. The memories should stay where they are, and they will, they will, except for one. There is one memory, one last flying hope, that she has waited far too long to free.

The attendant is a girl, barely more than a child, young enough to think the fires past the city wall are normal. Young enough to have never stepped a single foot beyond the wall.

Let approaches. “I need to get something out of storage, it shouldn’t take very long, I know you’re probably closing soon, but it’s imperative I get it tonight, do you see?”

“Impera …” The adolescent mouths the word like a giant wad of taffy she’s never tried before and isn’t sure she likes the taste of. “Um, we close in fifteen minutes.”

“Fine, fine. It won’t take long. Just let me back there.”

The tall infant rises from her seat and calls a rickety elevator that screeches like a dying seagull falling from the cliffs. The two women glare and wait. The whole contraption shudders to a painful stop six inches above the floor Let stands on. The girl stutters a key into the door and slides it open with all the grace of a racoon molesting an accordion.

Let steps into the elevator, grabbing at the rusty metalwork to pull herself up the last inch as her knees threaten to fail.

The larval human squints up at her as she rises high above the lobby. “Remember we close in, like, thirteen minutes.”

One story, two, three—

ah-eh-ah- ay ay

—and the dilapidated cage grinds to a braying halt. Let struggles with the door, using her cane to pry it open. “Either this ancient contraption hasn’t been oiled since the last time I was here or my arms have shriveled into jerky.” Hm. Maybe both.

She steps into a long corridor lit by flickering flames between large doors. Three twenty is the one she wants, should be down around that corner. She takes a left at the split, but the numbers seem to go the wrong direction. She grumbles and goes the other way. Five more wasted steps.

The door of unit three twenty has been closed so long that the spiders living in the cracks around the frame long ago gave up the ancient fables their ancestors told of it opening. The door has stood closed so long the dust on its hinges is considering becoming stone. It has stood closed so long the wood has forgotten it was ever a tree, and the tree it once was knew only gentle dragon fires, and never feared the flames.

It only needs a drop of blood to open, that’s the easy price, the written price. What they didn’t tell her in the contract was the heart price, the soul price. The price of locking something up so long you don’t know exactly what you’ll find when you come back for it.

I hear your cry

I hear your cry

She wipes the sharp point above the knob clean with the end of her scarf and pricks her arm on it near the elbow. Let the blood stain her sleeve. She’ll need her fingers for rummaging.

The door, wide as a horse and tall as a newcomer’s ego, creaks like a hundred hungry cats. A cold odor of dust and long-gone lives penetrates her scarf, and she sneers behind the fabric at it. Visions of a house that had that smell threaten her from the dark edges of her memory. Wool and sweet black walnut oil, nettle tea and drying bay.

It’s one of these crates. How much time does she have now? Ten minutes maybe. “Which one are you in, you ornery beast?”

The lid of the closest one is ajar and easy to shove aside. Books—it’s all books. Damn.

She doesn’t want to dwell but the titles sing out to her in Grandma’s voice, warm and clear and strong through the depths and the weight of so many fire seasons the land side of the city walls has darkened black. She doesn’t want to dwell but the books call out to her heart as if her grandmother were right here, holding a cup of tea with a delicate, steady hand, only a bit more wrinkled than her own.

The Nine Lives of Cattails: Recipes for Every Meal

A Gift of Acorns

The Last Firetenders of The Faultlands: An Ethnographic Study

“I’ll come back for you, books. Don’t worry. Just wait a little longer, I just need one more bookshelf and then you can come back home with me.” Her small apartment won’t fit another bookshelf and she knows it. She pries her eyes and heart away from the stack, already sorry for the lie.

The next crate is opened, and she gets a splinter pushing it. “Damn this whole plan!” She sucks her palm where the sliver of wood went in. She pulls out what she can with her teeth and spits it to the floor. The flickering light in the hall is too dim and the lenses of her eyes have grown too thick with age to pull the rest out now. She’d only make it worse.

“Where are you, egg? Come out come out, here eggy eggy eggy!”

She pulls out crumpled newspaper from a year she’s certain never happened, the number doesn’t even look like a year anymore. All the digits are wrong.

The faded headlines cry out like sirens on a long-forgotten shore.

Dragons May Go Way of Griffins

Faultlands Reconstruction Halted Due to Lack of Funds

Mayor Proposes Wall to Keep Out Fires

Let tosses each crumpled crying thing to the dusty floor until the treasure they protected shows its face.

It’s not the egg. It’s a jar, a stupid old pink painted jar with poppies on it, delicate orange things with leaves like green lace that only grow where gentle dragon fire clears the way. Haven’t seen those in … in a lifetime. Haven’t seen those since the wall went up and the last wild dragon was skinned for a gold miner’s boots.

“Stop tormenting me, you damned old vase.” She can’t look away, and her throat starts to burn, and angry, guilty tears well up. “I should have left you on the mantle and let you burn to ash along with the rest of the place.”

She leaves the crate open, no time to repack now, no time to search all of these. Please, please let it be this one.

She pries the third crate open, careful of the splinter in her palm, and sees only old knotted yarn. No, no, it’s knitted yarn, you old bat, that’s the blanket from the back of the sofa.

The one Grandma made in all Let’s favorite colors, and gave to Let, and Let gave it back because it didn’t go with her decor. Idiot girl, that Let. That stupid infantile girl who was more concerned with the aesthetics of her modern lifestyle than with the feelings of her last living grandparent. Idiot girl.

She touches the yarn, old wool from a sheep made mutton long ago. Dyes made of mushrooms and twigs she collected as a child, from the woods by Grandma’s house, the woods that made the place feel so far away and peaceful.

The woods that were left unburned too long.

She pulls the blanket away and lets it drape off the edge of the crate, one corner falling to the floor to reveal something indigo and round.

Let cheers, “Oh good gracious rain clouds, thank you! Yes!” and pulls the egg from its nest, gathering it up like a child, if a child were a hard dark ball.

Life calls to you this day

Life calls to you this day

ah-eh-ah-ay ay

“Helloooooooo!” The attendant’s voice claws up the elevator shaft and down the hall, around the corner to Let’s ears. “We’re closed! Do you need help?”

No, no, stupid girl, I have this under control. Just have to put the egg—well, of course she forgot a bag to put it in. It was hard enough finally getting up the courage to face all these memories, she can’t be expected to get it all right in one go.

“Well, blast it,” she mutters as she grabs the blanket her grandmother knitted and wraps the egg up in it, “You’ll look fine in my apartment now, smoke knows everything else there is old as dirt now too, you’ll fit right in. You’re probably pretty warm, too, aren’t you?”

She ties the ends of the blanket together in a knot and carries the bundle over her shoulder, sending the old door creaking closed and locked behind her, sealing everything she took that night inside. That night a life ago.

One last glare at the attendant, who looks eager to make some stupid twenty-something choice this very night. She was that girl, once, long ago, hell-bent on belonging in a world strangers forced into existence. Her mother’s world.

But there’s something on her desk, half-covered with a file folder, a book that she was reading right before Let got here. Introductory Hantmekt lays across the spine like something pretending it’s asleep. She gives the girl another look and now she sees it, jawline like her mother’s, eyes from long-lost relatives. The girl frowns at her. Let gives her one short nod, and turns, and leaves.

Then she’s free, back on the street, left-cane-right, left-cane-right, ah-eh-ah-ay ay, toward the crowds and noodles and the apartment with no room for Grandma’s books.

Banana greets her yowling at the door, tail high and whiskers taut. “I know I know, I missed your dinner, well I missed mine too. More important things than eating sometimes, I know it’s hard to believe.”

She leans her cane in the corner by the door and sets the blanket-bundled egg on the small wood table she once thought was very modern. A paper rustles to the floor, folded still to the article she read this morning.

Firetending Reconsidered—Banned Practice Kept Faultlands Fires Low, Scientists Discover

Banana leaps onto the table and sniffs the egg. “Yep, that’s a dragon egg alright. Bet you never seen one of these before, huh, cat?”

“Mrrow!”

“That’s what I thought.”

The two mammals stare at the egg for a moment, taking in its unlikely and sobering existence.

“It is still a new moon tonight? That’s important.”

“Rowowr?”

“Well I can’t see it either through that smoke. Hell, the sun could be up right now and I wouldn’t even know, the way this season’s gone!”

“Mrrrrow?”

“Well let’s hope it’s still the right time, otherwise we’ll have to wait another month, and this has taken far too long already.”

She pours cold pigeon soup into the cat’s bowl and eats three spoonfuls herself before putting it away and bundling the egg back up.

“You stay here and guard the place, I have a dragon to hatch.”

Back out and up the stairs, left-cane-right, left-cane-right.

I hear your cry

I hear your cry

ah-eh-ah- ay ay

Up up all the way to the door that opens to the roof. She pulls her scarf back up over her nose and mouth, and steps outside.

The haze is so thick she can barely see the street below. The glow of wildfire fills the hills beyond the wall. Only the horizon in the west is dark, because there, the city ends in sea.

Let gently sets the blanket in the center of the rooftop, and sits to catch her breath.

“You’ve lost it, Let. No way in the whole great inferno is this going to work.”

She stares at the egg, nested in the work of Grandma’s hands, and takes a deep breath, coughs a little from the smoke that filters through her scarf. “Gotta try anyway.”

There is a way to hatch a dragon, Grandma told her, the way my mother taught me, back when so many dragons flew the Faultlands you could steal an egg from a wild nest and its parents would barely know the difference.

Let takes a small obsidian blade from her pocket, pulls it from its cracking leather sheath.

In those days every family had a dragon.

She holds her hand above the egg and grits her teeth, then slides the black glass blade across her palm, the one without the splinter.

The Faultlands were one vast garden, tended by our people with the help of gentle dragon fire.

Blood drips from her hand onto the smooth shell, splattering it like dripping wax. She begins to sing the song out loud, in Hantmekt.

“I call to you heart friend

I call to you heart friend

ah eha -ah -ay ay”

She doesn’t remember all the words exactly, but hopefully the spirit of the dragon will overlook that.

As she sings, she tries to picture the last dragon she ever saw alive. An ancient, well-tamed thing just barely bigger than a horse, scaly and golden-red like sunset on a calm ocean on a smoky day.

“I hear your voice in my ears

eh haha eha hah

I hear your voice in my ears

eh ha hah ah ha”

He had eyes like thunderstorms. His name was …

What was his name?

Her chant falters, and a static sizzle in the air that she hadn’t noticed before cracks, then calms. She starts the song again.

“I call to you wild friend

Fire burns in my heart

I call to you wild friend

Fire burns in my heart

Spellbound I am, to you I am”

Grandma called him Red, but his full name was something else, some Hantmekt word she can’t remember. We’ll call him Red for now.

She pictures Red, the old gold dragon that lived in Grandma’s barn when Let would visit as a child.

Red, the beast she never realized was endangered. Until he wasn’t there.

Red, the old blind dragon Grandma asked about when she’d forgotten he was dead.

“Fire burns in my heart

Spellbound to you I am, I am

Yuna yuna eha-eh-ay ay

Yuna yuna eha-ah ay ay, eia -ay”

She weaves the song through her blood, through the blanket that’s now stained with it, through the layers and layers of smoke above, all the way to the new moon. She knits the song, lyrics in the wisps of Hantmekt she remembers, with long rusted needles of memories passed down through a thousand generations of women who raised dragons.

She ties knots with the song, pulling its ends, teasing the sky. Her song becomes a string of sound, a yarn of sound, and it grows strong and taut against the new moon. A little pull with a trill and something catches.

“In my heart burns a sizzling fire, a gentle fire

I have seen you on the winds of morning

I have known you all my days

ah-eh-ah- ay ay”

She winds the chant down, down, back down through the smoke to just above the roof, and slow, slow, not to lose the spirit caught to its end. Into the egg, into the egg. Chanting the wisp-weak ancient soul into its new life. Please work, please work.

“I hear your cry

I hear your cry

Life calls to you this day

Life calls to you this day

ah-eh-ah-ay ay”

The miners don’t understand this magic, Let. They’ll never understand and they’ll hurt you if they ever see you use it.

Then why do I have to learn it?

Because someday I won’t be here anymore, and your mother never learned.

She chants her memories of woods. Trees as wide as buildings and tall as physics would allow. Wide open forest floors where ferns had room to stretch their fronds, and the eyes could roam between the trunks to catch the gaze of wolves and wyverns. Land that only lives in rumors now.

“Come, dragon, come, the new moon rises

Let us fly

Let us fly”

She chants the taste of blackberries from the huge bramble by the dusty road. She chants the chattering of the creek and the stillness of the pool where steelhead spawned at the base of an ancient, hollow trunk adorned with bright blue mushrooms.

“Sing! See! The dragon comes!

Sing! See! The new moon rises!

Eha -ah -aha - ehey ahey!”

She weaves into her song everything that burned, and it hurts to remember, and she weaves the pain in, too.

The egg begins to glow.

“Holy rainclouds, it’s working,” Let whispers, then remembers to keep chanting.

Too overgrown, Grandma said, shaking her head at the blackberry bramble even as Let filled her basket and stained her fingers. Not enough dragons anymore, Grandma said. It’s as good as tinder.

She sings louder and the glow grows brighter.

Why do they kill dragons, Grandma?

She sings even louder and the egg begins to rock.

They believe everything is here to make them rich and nothing else.

She squeezes one more drop of blood from her hand and imagines that old dragon Red in his prime, prancing alongside Grandma in her youth, breathing gentle fire at the underbrush, leaving the crowns of the trees green. Grandma singing as they go, feet light, hair long and dancing in the breeze.

“Eha -ah -aha - ehey ahey!”

In her mind, Red’s scales gleam in dappled sunlight. In her song he is almost as alive as he has ever been.

The glow deepens to a forest green, and huddles close around the deep blue shell.

It fades, and disappears. Is it supposed to do that? Something’s wrong.

“No, no, don’t stop!” She leans over the egg, cradles its sides in both hurting hands, presses her ear to its bloody, bumpy surface. Nothing.

What now?

She picks the chant back up, fighting back a coughing fit as long as she can.

“Sing! See! The dragon comes!

Sing! See! The new moon rises!

Eha -ah -aha - ehey ahey!”

Nothing. Nothing.

The spirit was gone too long. Or she got the song wrong. Or the egg was too old.

Oh, she was stupid for hoping. For thinking some old heirloom in a storage unit was going to make any kind of difference.

The cough takes hold and shakes her until she tastes metal on her tongue. So many years of smoke like this. So many years since the Faultlands ceded its wilderness to unchecked overgrowth and flames so high they kill the trees.

The City of Birds will stand behind a wall forever, and the land beyond will burn until there’s nothing left at all.

And then a voice falls through the night, deep and male and tinged with anger. “Why did you wait so long?”

She looks up. An enormous dragon, not quite solid, not quite real, but there, and orange, and scintillating, perches on the roof across the egg from her. It isn’t Red—it’s another spirit, older, better rested. He’s glorious and humbling, and for a moment makes her feel like prey. Wide spread wings fold neatly up and lightning eyes strike through her soul with a lifetime of unanswered questions.

“Firetending was outlawed,” she replies, as best she can.

“That’s not the reason and you know it.”

She stammers, clears her throat and says, “It’s not an easy answer, dragon. It starts with boarding school, meanders through self-loathing, and ends at breakfast with my morning paper.”

“You’ve grown old,” the dragon says, quite rudely, Let thinks. “You could die before I’m even big enough to fly.”

As the dragon spirit speaks, a forest starts to sprout around him, ephemeral and greener than seems possible for a smoky city night.

“You’ll have a bigger purpose,” she tries to explain, “than anything you’d do with me.”

“And what is that?”

His presence burns. She swallows hard and wonders if he knows what’s happened to his kind. “You’ll help make the Faultlands whole again.”

“I’d be stock,” the dragon says, huffing with a sigh of smoke. “I’d live a shrivelled life, breeding in the city zoo.”

“Well do tell me what’s so exciting that you have going on instead.”

He grunts, and instead of answering, he says, “What will you do with your short time left, woman who should have been my partner, while I’m busy reproducing?”

“I’m not much good for anything anymore. Haven’t thought about it.” And just to remind her that she’s right, her lungs complain again, and she falls into a coughing fit. She hasn’t used her voice this much in months.

The dragon’s great transparent paws reach forward in a deep long stretch, claws pass through the rooftop tar, and his jaws yawn wide, showing off his teeth, like knives, and letting a little bit of flame escape. “Then tell me, firetender. Why did you wait so long?”

“I told you, it’s a long story and not very interesting.”

“Oh, I disagree.”

“We really don’t have time for it.”

“I’ve been a spirit for a hundred years, I can wait another month. But you don’t have that many left to spare.”

“Fine! Fine.” She doesn’t want to do this, but of course there had to be a heart price. “I didn’t want my grandma’s life when I was young. I wanted drink and money, men and women, fashion, dancing. I wanted anything but to move out to the country where there’d be space to raise a dragon.”

“There’s more to it than that.”

“Yes. There is.” The way her mother never spoke in Hantmekt. The way the teachers in the boarding school would beat the girls who did. The way she tried to hide her heritage a hundred different ways, to get a job, to get a date, to get a loan. She nods, and says, “I used to be ashamed. But I don’t care what people think anymore. I’m too old for all that nonsense.”

“There’s something else,” the dragon says.

“I’m telling you, that’s all there is. Now do you want to live again or not?”

“I know your spirit, Let. Just as I’ll remember nothing of this conversation when I hatch, there are lifetimes you and I have shared before, that you now forget. I know your spirit well, and I know when it is sick.”

A chill falls across her skin like the cold water of a forest stream, making goose bumps all across her arms and chest. Grandma never told her that part, about the other lives. There were things, she said, only her dragon could explain. This must be one. Why did she wait so long? There’s so much, she sees now, that she missed. “Well,” she says, “it’s no surprise I’m sick. But that’s a more recent development.”

“It’s not your lung disease I’m speaking of. It’s something else, a guilt. A guilt you’ve carried many years.”

Damn you, spirit. She breaks her eyes away from his lightning gaze and settles on a blooming blackberry, transparent by his feet. The small, white flowers unfold as she speaks.

“It was my fault Grandma’s home burned down.”

And there it is. The burning in her eyes isn’t smoke for once. It’s simple tears. She’s never told a single soul about this guilt.

“Grandma’s dragon died the year before,” she tells him, “and they hadn’t burned the underbrush for many years. If I’d done what I was born to do, I would have had a young, strong dragon, could have kept the woods around her house maintained, could have kept …” The coughing takes her over, and she finishes in stilted breaths, “Could have kept our family home from burning. But the fire grew so fast … We only had an hour to grab everything we could and evacuate her to the city.”

“What happened to her there?”

“She withered, lost herself, then passed away.” Let looks down at her bleeding, splinter-punctured hands, and feels the aching deep inside her bones, not just from arthritis, but other kinds of hurt. “She was so alive up there, before the fire. And I could have stopped it. She had so many years left in her, and I stole them all away with foolishness.”

The dragon spirit sits in silence with her as she weeps. One moment lost in all that ancient pain.

She pats her eyes dry on her scarf, and gathers her composure.

“I couldn’t bear to look inside that storage room, full of all my failure to save the place where those heirlooms should have been. That’s why I took so long. It hurt.”

The forest all around them has filled itself with spirit flowers, vines and leaves, as present as a dream. The dragon nods to her, and stands, and stretches out his wings. “Maybe there are some, as young as you once were, foolish still but struggling to find out who they are.”

“Perhaps there are.” She thinks of the attendant girl, studying Hantmekt between grouchy customers. How many like her would even want to learn? “Maybe I could help them. With the short time I have left.” She coughs again and asks, “Does all this mean you’ll do it?”

He gazes at the glowing smoke beyond the wall. “So the newcomers who did their best to slaughter us can breathe a little easier? No. No, I don’t think so.”

Her heart falls, her hand stings. She feels another coughing fit come on. “I suppose I understand.”

The dragon glances at the deep blue shell, nested in the knitted wool. “I’ll do it for those last few lonely dragons waiting for me now,” he says. “And I’ll do it, Let, for you.” He looks back to her, and blinks once, slowly. A dragon’s way of smiling.

“Thank you.” She doesn’t know what else to say. The tears come back, but different now.

“I don’t know if I’ll forgive you for all the years we lost,” he says. “But I’ll make out better without you than you’ve done without me all these years.”

“I know.”

“What will my new name be?”

She smiles back at him, and says, “Well you’ll have to hatch to find that out, won’t you?”

He cocks his head at her, and stands back up. He flaps his giant wings so hard she squints her eyes against a wind that isn’t there. Then he turns to smoke, and disappears. His bright green forest fades into the orange-brown night.

She sits alone, staring at the city lights that filter through the haze.

Tap-tap-tap. A tiny sound, almost silence, almost a horse on the street below, almost a cane in a long dark hallway. Tap-tap-tap to the rhythm of the chant she lost along the way.

It’s coming from the egg.

Let clears her throat as best she can and sings again, ah-eh-ah- ay ay, until her tongue is drier than the tinder past the wall.

“Fly, fly free!

Fly free!

Into the winds of dawn!

Eha eha - eh -eh - heya hey!”

A crack appears, and then a snout, and then two tiny shining eyes, like thunderclouds.

“Well, hello, Rain.”

 


 

Author's note: The author would like to acknowledge the Ramaytush Ohlone people, whose unceded land she wrote this on, and all the indigenous peoples whose cultural burning practices provided enormous inspiration for this story.



T. K. Rex lives in San Francisco on Ohlone land, and writes science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction on environmental and social themes. She is a member of the 2020/21/22 Clarion Ghost Class, has a novel in the works, and shambles around the internet as @tharkibo.
Lezlie Kinyon, Ph.D., is a poet, artist and scholar of the humanities. She lives in Berkeley, California, where she edits Coreopsis: Journal of Myth & Theatre. She’s been known to write poetry as Cenizas de Rosas, and goes by @LezliethePoet on Twitter and Instagram.
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