In the Shadow of His Wings
"But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them." - Ursula K. Le Guin
You were four years old the first time you ran away. Your mother would joke about it in the years that followed. So willful from such an early age, she would say, with a forced bonhomie. We could never control him, not really.
The tight-lipped smile, the ostentatious ruffling of hair. You didn’t know why she kept bringing it up as a a story to tell at dinner when it obviously rankled her so. Annoyed, still — all those years later — at your childish display of rebellion. You suspected it was to shame you in some way, but could never quite work out how it was supposed to be shameful. You were four years old. Perhaps just the illusion of shame was enough for her, to let you know she still had some hold over you. You suspected this was also why she delighted in showing visitors the poems you wrote in school; to embarrass you under the pretext of showing you off.
In any case, she was wrong; wrong about not being able to control you. Her every mundane action at home was in some way an expression of control, a demonstration overt or implicit of her total authority over you. Which is why — even at such a tender age — you put a sweater, your favourite toy, and a bar of chocolate into the backpack you used for playschool and snuck from the house while she was taking a nap.
Many years later you went back to that house, a man grown, and walked out the back gate and across the fields to the woods. Retracing the steps from that night your mother talked of so often. It was not so very far. Standing just within the branches you could still see cars passing on the road in front of the house. But you remembered how it felt as a child of four to be amongst those same trees as night began to run its fingers between the branches. It was your earliest cohesive memory. Deep down you wished you could claim you were a brave little boy that day, bold and fearless, but as soon as darkness fell your defiance left you and you wailed for your mother.
Instead you found me.
You came upon me in the deep gloaming of the woods at dusk, that time of evening when all about is dark yet one can still look straight up to see the cobalt of the sky. I was coiled about the trunks of several large pines, lying still apart from the occasional bellows of my ribs. With each exhalation twin flames fluttered from my nostrils like pilot lights.
In fact it was those flames flickering in the dark which drew you to me in the first place (yes, yes — like a moth). You crept closer to see the cause of the light, and when you realised from what manner of beast the fire issued you froze. Your eyes followed the flames to my nostrils, along my head, my serpentine neck, and finally to my body lost in the trees and the dark beyond. My great wings, my scales. And the one eye on the side of my head facing you; that yellow eye as large as a saucer, glittering in the periodic exhalations of flame. Open. Watching you.
I lifted my head on its long neck and coiled it around to observe you more closely. Your pale face streaked with tears, your little backpack provisioned with a child’s idea of supplies.
Pity is a mammalian concept. I did not kill you then because you posed no threat to me. You never have. But you — with your warm-blooded brain and childish naïveté — thought my inaction to be a gesture of friendship. You carefully, carefully extended a hand to brush my snout.
Your triune brain is a reptile wrapped in a wolf wrapped in an ape. Concepts like loyalty and sorrow and respect and doubt tug you in a thousand ways at once. A constant mental static. The reptile brain suffers no such fripperies; it is consciousness honed to a cutting edge.
It is simple: in this world are things I want, and others I do not. What I want I take. What I do not want I ignore. What offends me I destroy.
This is the philosophy of dragons, such as it is.
You fell asleep curled up by my side, and woke in the morning to the calls of your neighbours searching for you. Your mother wept theatrically when they delivered you back to her, kneeling on the floor and holding you close. When the search party left, satisfied at their good deed, she beat you with a wooden spoon. Do you know how scared I was, she said. I was so frightened.
The second time you ran away you were fifteen. You left for school at the same time as always, dressed in your uniform, but you avoided the school gates and took a bus to the train station in town and from there a train to the city. Your bookbag was filled with clothes, two novels, and your notebook. On the train you changed out of your school uniform and threw it away, then sat by the window and watched as I swooped and beat the air with my wings to keep pace with the train.
You set off tingling with illicit excitement but by the time you arrived in the city you felt vulnerable and — in some way you could not adequately define — foolish. You were unprepared for what exactly striking out on your own entailed. I watched coiled about the station’s clocktower as you stood on the sidewalk and thought about what to do.
You had never been alone in the city before. You were at the age when your classmates would go to the city on weekends in large packs of boisterous youths but you were rarely invited and yet rarer went.
You took pride in your connection with a dragon, you thought yourself above other, normal boys. You watched them as they played children’s games, then sports, then discovered girls; all at a remove. You did not stoop to such things, you had something greater, you thought. You thought you were friends with a dragon. You thought that this made you strong.
But friendship is as foreign to me as the pride you feel at my presence. As foreign as what you spurn in your peers: camaraderie, ambition, love. Loneliness. I feel none of it. I am aware of your affection for me, of course I am; the same way I am aware of the way it rains more in the spring, or the way a rabbit smells. Something I notice without attaching much import to.
You wandered the city aimlessly for a while; inside a shopping mall until a security guard asked why you weren’t in school, walking up and down a street lined with shops and empty cafes, sitting on a bench in a grotty little park. You had enough for a hotel room, you thought, if it was cheap, but were worried that they would demand to see identification and might call the police (in later years you realised they would not have cared enough to do so).
You went back to the train station and sat in the concourse, remembering from movies that homeless people would often sleep in such places. You realised that’s what you were now: homeless. You looked up through the cracked and filthy glass of the wrought iron skylight and watched me squatting there, like an immense gargoyle, watching you.
A man sat next to you on the bench, although there were plenty of empty ones nearby. He spoke to you and rested his hand lightly on your thigh. Frozen, panicked, you kept your eyes fixed on mine. You had always imagined that if you were in danger I would come roaring from the sky to save you but in that moment you knew that I would not help you.
You saw then that your affection and sense of fellowship with me was not reciprocated. Associating yourself with me might make you feel strong but out in the world it counted for very little. It would not secure you a place to sleep or frighten away those that wished you harm. It would not be adventurous, nor romantic. It would just be you, left to suffer the wounds the world administered alone, but under my gaze.
You fled the concourse and the man and the city and took the train back to your town, then the bus to your house. You were back in time for dinner and your mother never even knew that you had run away.
While you listened to her talk about the disrespect and injustices she had suffered at work that day you looked out the kitchen window across the fields to my copse of trees. You could not see me for the dark but you knew on some deep level that I was watching still.
The third and final time you ran away was when you were twenty-three.
After your misadventure to the city when you were fifteen you tried to fit in, you really did. You went to parties, you went on dates, you took up hobbies. You went to university after graduating high school. Your campus was in that same city you had wandered not knowing where to go. Now you had an apartment with several roommates, classes, a part time job, drinks with friends.
But over everything I loomed. My neck stretched above the rooftops of the city and my wings blotted the sun as I soared on lazy thermals. Many was the night you walked home alone in streets made strange by the long and flickering shadows of my breath.
You tried, you really did. You longed to immerse yourself in mammalian comforts. You tried to care about friends, classes, the future; but you now could not help but see it all reflected in my eye, and seen that way it was meaningless. The reptile brain sees the world for what it is, where the ape creates its world anew each waking minute as fear and longing bat them from one state to another. Once seen it could not be unseen.
You graduated university and got an internship at a respectable firm. Others in the office treated interns like the replaceable factota they were, but it was part of an unspoken agreement: you exchanged respect and self-worth for a clear path through life. The internship would lead to an entry-level position which led to a senior position which led to management. Each step accorded more respect. That was the deal.
You realised you didn’t want it.
You left work one particularly-unfulfilling day and decided you weren’t going back. You looked up and watched as I flew languorous looping circles in the autumn sky. From up high I watched as you made your decision.
You took a left turn at the intersection where you always turned right and walked down the street with your head up and your shoulders back. With purpose. I landed and walked beside you. I feel kinship and respect for not a single thing in this world but you could sense from me what could best be described as pleasure or satisfaction. Although those words do not adequately convey a dragon’s mind either, they are perhaps as close as one can get.
Your roomates packed an old suitcase with the clothes and books left in your room and put it by the dumpster around the back of the building. The respectable firm that you worked for cleared your desk and had a new intern occupying it within a week. Your mother sobbed for months when in public and still finds ways to bring you up in conversation, whereupon she dabs her eyes with a tissue as her friends pat her hand and murmur soothingly.
The bridge is a beautiful spot. From it you can see the slow waters of the river far below, the fields and the meadows, and almost (but not quite) the woods where you first met me.
They found your shoes near the bridge but that was all.
For Joji, Jeff, and Nick
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