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Story: “A Dragon And A Prince” (April 2024)

–Ha, ha, ha, who art thou, before I thee devour?

–With kisses I can make thee whole, because that is my power.

–The Coppersmiths’ Mystery Play


He was very small when he first found out about the beautiful woman who had been turned into a dragon. The grown-ups chose to tell him the story because his name was Owen, and they thought he would like to hear about a feat that only an Owen could achieve. They were right. He asked his mother and his nurse and his teachers to put the tale into words again and again. They found him charming and obliged. After all, his mother reminded him, he was a prince by all definitions, even if his father only ruled five farms and one hill and a herd of cattle. And “Kemp” meant “champion,” just like they used to call knights, and “knight” was a fancy name for an armed man, and one day Owen would take up arms. Maybe (said Owen’s mother) he would grow up to be the true-hearted knight who dared to face the creature, and gave her the three kisses that freed her to be a lady once more! And then she would love him forever, wide-eyes!

He took it as his destiny. Somewhere out in the world was a terrible place, hostile to humanity, and the dragon waited there, to kill or love him. He thought of her lying atop a heap of bones that had once been arrogant men. Owen would not be one of them. He would recognize her, despite the horror of her presence. He would be fearless and kiss her, no matter how vile she was. Perhaps she would kill him, but in his best daydreams she condensed into a stunning human form and praised his great heart and his manly spirit. And she was out there somewhere! He only had to find her.

Sometimes he wondered why she hadn’t sought him out already, and burned his father’s lands as she approached. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe she was trapped in the desolation. Or maybe she knew about him, and was out there, waiting for him to grow up before she sought him out. The evil could only be dispelled by a man, not a little boy. When he thought about that, he tried to force himself to grow taller by stretching and hoping.

Later in his childhood, he found out how other children reacted when he told them there was a dragon waiting for him to kiss her. He learned to keep his thoughts to himself. Still, secrecy did not keep him from hugging her in his heart.

Men came of age at seventeen in his country, but Owen set out to find the fiery beast at age sixteen and hoped for the best. He did this because his father, whom he loved and who does not come into this story, felt ill one day and died the next. It didn’t seem real, but it happened. Owen and his mother were both numb and sad for a long time, and Owen found himself going about his life like a calf being herded from one place to the next, with no will of his own. Later, he came to himself enough to see that even though his mother was in the prime of life and had picked up the threads of his father’s responsibilities, one day she would be old. For the moment, his mother and their kingdom could do without him. He thought: I have to go and find the dragon now, or I’ll never win her. We’ll come back in triumph.

He had a pair of boots made with soles an inch thick in case he had to walk a long way, and he left in the night and took to the road.

After a long time and a sea voyage and a trudge afoot and more shocks and quarrels and attempted robberies than he’d ever experienced in his life before, Owen came to a land where beasts had once burned towns and eaten men. “But that was in the old days,” people told him. “They’re gone now. The mighty men killed them all.”

“If they’re gone, then why is there a mountain in that desert where no one ever goes?” Owen asked, feeling clever.

“Superstition,” said his interlocutors.

Owen said no more, but in his heart he smiled. He went to sleep under a lean-to, watching the top of the mountain out on the horizon, catching the moonlight like a big white ghost. She was waiting for him, out there.

He made it to the mountain two nights later, traveling mostly after dark and carrying a tremendous amount of water. When he lay down in the desert during the intervening day, the heat of the sun from above and the earth from below made him queasy, but his legs were so tired from walking on shifting sand all night long that he slept throughout the worst heat. He reached the jagged rocks at the foot of the mountain, ready to drop from exhaustion. The wind blasted dry sand at him, but he was so wrapped in cloth that he heard it and didn’t feel it.

It was appalling how big and silent the mountain was. Apart from the hissing of the sand in the wind, there was no sound. He wanted to shout up at the crags, “Beloved, I am here!” but if something came at him from the mountain’s height, he couldn’t be sure it would be her, and he couldn’t be sure he would survive.

But she was so close! It was the hardest thing he had ever done, to wait for daylight, then climb the mountain and find her. And then he would begin the hardest and best deed he had ever done.

The stars were big and bright and hostile. He felt they were staring at him and hated him, and he sought shelter among the rocks. He had enough forethought left to feel for snakes with his walking stick as he went. By amazing luck, he felt his way into a cave sheltered from the wind, with no snakes. It was just big enough to hold him and his pack and his water skins, if he curled up on his side. The inside was a rounded, smooth space. He wondered if it was a natural pothole in the rock, worn into the mountain long ago when the whole desert was the bottom of an ocean. Plenty of sand had blown in over the years, so he was comfortable enough to sleep. He felt his water supplies. There was plenty of water to get two people back out of the desert. Maybe they would start drinking it together in the morning. He kissed the back of his arm and thought, tomorrow I die or win her.

He dreamed he was in a round ivory room. His true love was there, dressed in a gown of gold scales like a dragon’s hide. She was his age, and she had slightly crooked teeth and bright dark eyes and a restless, prowling manner, and she was more beautiful than he had ever pictured her. He only wanted to make her happy.

She did not smile. She gave him a piercing look and knew everything about him, down to his first love for her, and then her face fell. She looked discouraged. That was how he knew she must be real; he had never thought to imagine letting her down.

“It’s you,” she said, pouring with tears. “Against all hope, you came.”

He had failed her. He was failing her, that very moment, and he didn’t know how. “What can I do?” he cried out. “How have I fallen short? There must be something I can do!”

She shook her head. “You did everything that the best of men can do, and a little bit more,” she said, biting back her grief. “Take that as a consolation prize. You did nothing wrong. Sometimes the best can do everything in their power and it still won’t change a damn thing.” She looked him up and down again, this time as though she was starving and he was a feast.

“I love you,” he said. “That’s first of all. Whatever is amiss, I love you.”

“I loved you till the seas ran dry,” she said. “And they did.”

He wanted to embrace her, but trying to open his arms woke him up and he found himself face down and clutching at the sand.

It was morning. The sun filled the sand with sparks of white light. Later on, it would be unbearable, but now the warmth was milky and temperate.

He crawled, blinking, out of his cave, and looked back at it. The cave had a single round doorway, like the eye-socket of a gigantic skull.

After a while, he understood what he was seeing.

The other eye-socket, the one he had not crawled into, was blocked with stones and rubble that had slid down the cliff over the years. He spent a long time scooping out sand and lifting loads of stones and gravel, to reveal the vast long-jawed shape of the skull. It lay against the cliff, becoming one with the stone. It had been there for so long that it had turned into its own kind of smooth white stone. Nearby, in a ravine, slabs like white driftwood might be the remains of vertebrae, or fragments of rib. Her skull stared back at him. If she had been alive she would have been big enough to eat him in one bite.

There was white sand in his hands as he dug and scooped and cleaned. He had heard that if you looked at the sand through a glass, you could see that each grain was a tiny shell or a miniscule creature turned to stone. In another age, this had been a sea bed, and the mountain had been an island. It still was an island in a sea of sand.

His boots lay beside his pack. There wasn’t much wear on the soles yet. They would last a long time even after he walked home.

Her skull was pearly in the sun. He fell down on his knees and lay on her forehead, an arm over each brow bone, kissing her as if he could make their lifetimes overlap by doing so.

Nothing happened except that he shed tears on the skull. Eventually, he grew faint and weak and thirsty. He did not die there on her bones, but went home to his own country.