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The Man Who Saw Dragons

The Man Who Saw Dragons
By Anahita Hoose

It began with an undifferentiated commotion of color and movement and sound, swishing and humming through his brain. Later, he would learn to hear the high buzzing and see before his mind’s eye a cricket proudly perched on a stalk, but for now it was only the voice of summer, mingling with the chatter of his mother and the other women as they worked across the field, bathed in glistening sweat, gathering gleanings. He explored the jungle under a hedgerow, warily sneaking up on the dancing shadows of flower heads. Suddenly a branch creaked; he started, knocking his head against another, setting off an avalanche. A darker, more sinuous shadow was unleashed, painting the bleached grass with a streak of sable. Delicate plumes emerged from its body and spurted at the head. He hardly dared to raise his head. There it was, dancing above his head against the blinding blue, awful and lovely. When he cried, his mother ran to him, but he could only weep and nest in her bosom.

He was a year or two older when he found its portrait painted in oils in a dusty corner of the church. It reared splendidly over the mournful russet-cloaked figure of Jesus, who stood bowed, his gentle mouth frozen in prayer. The tendril of its tail snaked over his sandalled foot. Its scales were green, each edged with a gilt rim that caught the little light. Its eyes were gold too. Like Jesus’, its head was bent, its mouth open as if it were breathing on him. The vicar said it was a dragon and stood for the sin of the world. I saw a dragon in the corn-field, he told his mother, but she first laughed and then shushed. There were new twin babies to be nursed now.

As a gangling youth, walking home from the field as the dusk settled, he would see them swirl in the corner of his eye. He knew now how to make them come and go. When he looked directly at them, they would stiffen into inert foliage, but when he let his mind drift upon the edge of nothing, he could wake them even by the ruthless light of noon, making them twitch with their own energy, catalyzing their thorns into scales. He was no longer afraid of them. They were emissaries whose purpose he did not understand, but who appeared to him in a benevolent spirit. If he had not been a humble soul he would have thought the vicar was wrong. In his heart he suspected the dragons were not sinful, but merely old.

He courted a girl once. She had black curls and clear grey eyes, and she danced with him after the bringing in of the harvest and praised him for how light on his feet he was, for so big and strong a man. When he took her a bunch of mauve daisies, she kissed his hand, and then his cheek, and told him she would not make him a good enough wife. He walked all night, plodding along stream banks, struggling through woodland brakes, ignoring the scratches on his hands and the deepening chill that breathed of coming winter. The night was full of eyes and rustles, but he ignored those too. At last he threw himself down in deepest weariness on the bracken at the wood’s eaves. He must have slept, because when he was next conscious the line of the dawn was spreading itself out along the horizon, the color of the tenderest rose in the vicarage garden. As he watched a dragon upreared itself, salmon and deepest bruise-pink, flaming in majesty against despair. Its wings embraced the world. Flame exploded from its mouth, growing brighter and brighter as the sun vanquished the darkness. 

As he grew older he gained a respected place in the village. Many were fond of him, although he was never a great talker, except sometimes when beer had loosened his tongue and he would tell strange tales of a life flickering in the hedgerows, beyond and beneath the world they all knew of field mouse and hedgehog. Around harvest time he was always moody and abstracted (though he worked as hard as any laborer in the village), as if he was watching for something. He would spend hours standing by the village pond, gazing through the water. Sometimes his favorite niece joined him. Can’t you see them, he asked her, coiling like smoke? She stared as if her gaze could melt the fluid surface. The newts? she inquired. He shrugged tolerantly. You’re not looking right.

There was a year when he fell down in the field and could not move one side of his body. After that he no longer worked, but moved into his niece’s cottage and watched the light change on her flowers. One dawn a bramble scratched on his window, so he went outside, where from the apple tree a sinuous shadow unwound itself at its feet. The twist of its leaves had an inviting cast, so he settled against the trunk and watched the mounting glow of the dawn. After a few minutes he closed his eyes, and was mildly surprised to find that he could see his companions more clearly than ever before. They were all around him in the garden now, and when he looked straight at them they did not decline into twig and leaf. Are you real? he asked. They rustled in amusement. It depends on how you look at it, and who is doing the looking. 

The whole village turned out for his funeral and spoke kind words. His niece wept, and left scarlet poppies on the grave, and never told a soul about the other garland she had found cradling him, the tender green brambles twined lovingly around his arms and shoulders, lifting their pluming leaves into the golden morning sun.   

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Anahita Hoose is originally from England and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is a PhD student at UCLA (studying ancient languages). She enjoys writing fiction and poetry when not reading voraciously.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

That inevitably varies from reader to reader (and author to author, and day to day…). One facet (celebrated in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’) is the way fantasy enables a recovered appreciation of the mundane. I remember a 2016 walk in an area I knew well. Heavy rain had created a topsy-turvy world where gates opened onto a sheet of glass and trees grew from their own reflections. The experience was magic, but the ingredients of the potion were familiar - the unusual combination just enabled me to appreciate them afresh. Fantasy can do this for the world around us.