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Summer Stock

Zodiac Dragons: Leo

By Matthew DanielsPublished 8 months ago 13 min read
Runner-Up in Mythmaker Challenge
3
Summer Stock
Photo by Emanuela Meli on Unsplash

In front of Calix was a small round table. Not a true kitchen table, it was the sort people kept in the corners of cabins or small, rustic homes. One for quick card games and wine cups. He wasn’t homeless. He had this abandoned barn. Not every shade of the paint matched exactly, but it was red. Close enough. Calix was bent over the diorama on the table. He liked to think of these dioramas as plays.

This one he called, “My Problems Begin.” He sipped from a wineskin. The scene was set with whatever materials he could find. Characters were made from eclor, the eggshells of his dragon. They had a magic for the hoarding of moments. That hoarding felt like thirst. Since dragons hatched like snakes, the eclor was mostly whole. The single hole would be set on a peg or filled with straw and placed in something and boom – actors on his little stage.

Child Calix was an eclor set on the stem of a broken chalice. His mother was filled with dead grass and moulted scales, then set in a chipped and handleless teacup. On the far left of the scene was a chicken carcass with its rib cage broken open. That was the dragon he’d seen as a boy.

Eggshell Calix moved away from his mother. Through the magic of the eclor, his little figurine floated, dipping up and down along the diorama. It moved around the twig representing the fence of their rickety homestead. The teacup filled with his eggshell mother faced toward a corner of her symbolic room. A damaged bronze ring, like a crown of madness, was laid on her eclor head. Her squirming words and tangled, slithering logic had been too much for him.

A direction picked him. A way he went.

Child Calix landed before the chicken carcass on the barn table. In his memory, he was a boy who’d just crawled through a stone culvert. Before him gleamed a wounded beast of copper sunsets. A dragon, flightless and spent of fire, lay with its chest exposed.

“Ah,” said the dragon. “I kill my slayer and now you idle by?”

The eclor caused the Calix figurine to look around for this slayer, but no one else was on the scene. Even dying, the dragon was entrancing. Far to the south, monuments called “pyramids” were being built. Surely they were no more entrancing.

“Do you not speak this tongue?” the dragon managed. Only later did Calix realise it hadn’t spoken with its jaws. He’d heard it, all the same.

“Tell me what to do,” the boy Calix had said. His own voice came from the eclor of his figurine, pitched in imitation of his youth. Child Calix wiggled and wandered around the chicken carcass, pantomiming his memory of trying to help the legendary beast. Most of his efforts had the sweet, guilty tang of blood and hopelessness. He held the heart of a god in his hands. He pumped it until his fingers ached.

By the time he got home, it was hard to tell that he’d had blood on him. Between crawling in the culvert, walking through grasses, and falling in a pond, he’d had a combination of partial cleaning and partial mud covering. The pond had happened because he’d been watching a constellation. It knew it as Leo and it was different that night. He didn’t know why.

When eggshell Calix got home, his mother’s head-ring was piled high with wool. In his memory, her body wasn’t bigger, but she was fire and her presence filled the room like heat.

“Where’ve you been?” she demanded. She still faced the corner. He knew she was talking to him the way a mouse knows the cat is watching it.

He was proud. Joy, he hoped, would bring her out from all the wool that wasn’t in the room. “I saw this big, huge dragon! It was sick, with its chest all cut open. I held its heart. Mom, I think I helped it. It’s not there anymore, b-”

Child Calix was on the floor in his memory. Here, now, in the barn, the eclor was floating over the surface of the table. His actor was just eggshell and metal stem; he didn’t want to break it under its own weight. So he made it hover there, his lip trembling in sync.

Child Calix remembered the crack in the air before he felt the slap that put him on the floor.

They used to say his mother was slow. She wasn’t. Dimly, he was aware of the rocking of the chair she’d been in. It was a fast, wooden heartbeat. Child Calix felt the tumbling roll of it through the floor. He’d have nightmares later. Not about the look in her eyes right now. Not the trivial pain of a brain-rocking slap. Not the shouting about bad boys and lies. Being covered in muck. Being muck.

His nightmares would focus on that horrific, rushing quiet of her transportation from chair to slap. Over and over again. How big was she? How thin? Where was the light, and which parts of her were dark? How long was her face? Did she move as smooth as shadows or as jerking as puppets?

He never spoke of the dragon again.

Even now, Calix had no one to talk to about the dragon. Everyone left the farm after he’d brewed their crops. With the dragon’s help.

The dragon on his back was why he was bowed as he moved. It was heavy and wrapped its tail around his hips like a tourniquet. Its wings didn’t bring flight. Its clawed feet and hands rested on his waist and shoulders. It watched him work. Daylight glinted off its scales the colours of fallen money and loss at sea.

“You keep coming back to that play. It puts you on edge. Here, let me help you,” the dragon said.

Eagerly, Calix grabbed the first thing he could within range. A broken clay jug. The damage was at the top, though, so that was fine. The dragon held its head over the opening of the jug and breathed into it. Crisp, golden ale filled the thing near to spilling. “Thank you, Oel,” Calix said as he grasped the jug with both hands and tilted it, careful not to let precious drink go to waste on chin or floor.

“My pleasure,” Oel replied. His smile edged from teeth to scales. “Now show me that play.”

A wing extended past Calix’s teenage years. That was for the best. “This one’s called, ‘Don’t Need No Letters.’ It’s when I found my calling: got work as a medic.” He had to press the jug against his side with one hand and carry his eclor self in the other. The dragon never helped with things like this. Which was fine; Oel did enough.

Calix set his stemmed eggshell on the diorama. He didn’t have different versions of himself for different ages. He’d just grab this one and move around. There were more eggshells kicking around the barn than one might guess, but they weren’t infinite. Besides, he’d always been who he was. And making a bunch of himself felt weird.

“Don’t Need No Letters” was laid out in an old wooden food trough. Dirt was easy to find around here. Calix had adorned the setup with old bones, wooden splinters, and various bits and bobs. As well, of course, as eclor actors.

These were some of the most beaten-up eggshells, since they were well-suited to play the part of slain soldiers or barbarians. Toothpicks or broken wooden utensils served as swords, spears, or axes. Chunks of red clay were bloodied horses. In addition to his self-insert, Calix gave this display two eclors in respectable shape. One was set next to an old cattle knife. This was the senior field medic or surgeon. The other was wrapped in a strip of old gauze, representing an apprentice.

Eclor Calix, this time a young man – a worker – did his little diorama swagger to make his way to the medics. “Top o’ the morning,” he said to them.

Oel, watching from present-day Calix’s back, offered a snort of amusement. He fed the man more booze from the broken jug with one hand so that Calix could be free to operate his play. The eclor actors mostly turned on the spot and echoed vocal impressions of the characters that Calix had spoken while making this play.

“What brings you to such a dreary place?” the apprentice asked.

“You should be away; there will be maladies,” the surgeon added.

“I’ve a talent for healing,” Worker Calix replied. “And I can lighten the mood, too, if you’ll have me.”

The medics looked at each other. As the apprentice shook his head, the surgeon said, “We can’t pay you. Were you on one side or another? Family, maybe? Are you classically trained?”

“Nope. Just got the hands-on and the results. Don’t suppose you heard of the travellers as survived their mugging, made it to Crete?” It was a well-known example of his work.

“You’ll have to be more specific,” the surgeon said. There was a subtle lilt in the voice and Calix knew at that moment that the surgeon was hiding her identity. He cast a glance at the apprentice, who was every bit a man, and wondered if the surgeon’s secret was known to her charge.

“Tell you what: I’ll start this way and you continue as you were. We’ll meet up, compare notes. You’ll see. I work like a donkey, and I’m the handsomest ass you’ll meet!”

Neither medic laughed openly at that, but Calix could see that his charm was keeping him afloat. It usually did. In the diorama, today’s Calix set about collecting the damaged eclors closer together, implying some repairs. He drank from the jug offered by the dragon on his back. Claws dug into him, but no worse than carrying a cat. His back hurt. Sweat was heavy on him and fatigue weakened his muscles. His wineskin had been set down at some point as he’d moved through the barn with Oel. He worried he’d missed a few drops.

Back in the time of “Don’t Need No Letters,” Worker Calix was making headway.

“I can’t take on a second apprentice,” said the eclor with the cattle knife.

“My family paid for me to be here, and I’ve had my schooling. You understand,” the apprentice offered. It was a non-pology, but Calix had grown up with those. They only choked you if you stuck your neck in them.

“Don’t see how you couldn’t sign off on me getting an apprentice’s stipend, though,” Calix pointed out. “Can’t climb the ladder like this fella, but that don’t trouble me none.” He thumbed at the apprentice and winked at the surgeon.

Today’s Calix grabbed some old coins of different denominations that he’d found somewhere and left next to this particular play. He moved himself, the apprentice, and the surgeon to stand on the top of the trough. A coin, small to big, for each actor.

The survivors called their thanks in Calix’s pitched-high voice.

Oel nodded and rumbled a reptilian purr of satisfaction with the end of the play. It entered Calix’s mind then, that he couldn’t remember exactly when he’d met Oel. How long the sanguine bronze dragon had been traipsing about with him in his undocumented career.

Between this play and the next, ruined eclor had been strewn about. For this path through the barn, Calix had chosen some of the more unsightly detritus that had been kicking around. A trap-killed mouse, now long since gone to bone. Dried cow patties, thinned of anything they might have offered an ecosystem. Parts of broken dolls Calix had found in the remains of the house shouldering the property.

“Think of this like the intermission,” he said to Oel.

“Because of what you’ve seen over the years,” the dragon mused aloud. “It’s fitting. Have a cup.”

“I’m not finished my jug. I can’t let it go to waste.”

“Obviously. Even a single drop is a loss. But don’t worry. Use that old ashtray. It hasn’t done its job in years. Just a quick sip.”

Calix didn’t need much convincing. As he crossed the intermission, shuddering through past visions of sickness, brimstone, and murder, he downed the brushed-off ashtray full of wine before setting it aside. Oel fed him from the jug as he went. He meant to ask about what the dragon ate, and the exchange had already distracted him from asking about how long he’d known the creature. The dragon glimmered like lamp oil in the daylight through the windows.

“Remember my first drink?” Calix asked. He wasn’t sure he was talking to the dragon on his back. Maybe he was talking to himself. His tongue felt funny. The rest of him was lighter, less contained by the walls of the barn.

“That was a big day for the both of us,” Oel answered. His tone should have been pride. Instead, there was a dirtiness. Like a mud-caked grin. “How did it feel to hold a heart?”

“There’ve been so many patients. Part of the job.” Calix stumbled. He was not where he expected to be in the barn.

“You’ve been frightfully good at it. That autumn day in the houses of healing, when I learned to breathe brews. It was a celebration.”

“Thanks,” Calix said, remembering the houses as he walked past another play. His performers waited on him with the patience he deserved. There were times in his life he dwelled on, but worked hard not to remember. One of those contradictions. Like how alcohol dries you out.

The back of his mind stirred. That hadn’t been a celebration. It was easier this way, though. It explained all the cries in the background. Bloody handkerchiefs and the confusion of stumbling souls. The aftertaste of tinctures and stink of tonics.

“I showed you how to make your own.” Oel slid in the reminder like a knife between ribs. As fast as the glint of glass. Painless. But though it plugged the hole, there was a separation happening. Something about what a heart could lose.

“I have lots of eclor now. Funny, I find an empty shell every time now. Every time I give someone their first brew. There was a festival. I was with the medics. We…I don’t have a play for this.”

“It’s about the crops, the making of brews,” Oel explained. “Don’t worry about the eclor. It’ll take care of itself. I was proud of you that day, even after she dumped you. Even as you fled the house of law. You showed them what my breath could do. I breathed new life into your people.”

Calix found that his thoughts and his words were like the slime of a snail. They were easy enough to pick out, but you had to find the right light. And they were slow, sticky, yet hard to intertwine. “Come to think of it, I couldn’t never make introductions with you. Not with the others. Even with the drinks. I’d give them your breath, and we’d have a night. And then … gone. ‘Cept for the empty shells.”

“That’s the beauty of it. If you feed the heartbreak, you don’t need to heal. Coping is plenty.”

Calix blinked sluggishly and frowned. “Whu…”

“Not to worry. Lots of drink to go around. You were clever to slip it into hands after victories. During hard times. When people were born or married.”

Calix opened his mouth, but a claw slipped in. Like a fang, it spewed something from its tip. Something with the smooth burn of a liquid sunrise.

“I call this one whiskey,” Oel said.

“Issss…gooood…” Calix said as he struggled to focus. “But you’re…wiff me, right? Not like ovvers. No go.”

“No go,” Oel agreed with slick, malevolent kindness. “Just drink. Show others your cups. I’ll usher a new age. Through the hands of a healer, no less! Addictio. Dedication, that means, in one of your people’s languages.”

Hearts. Hands. Warm drinks. A new experience for humanity. It started with him.

His actors, he realised, were just empty shells now.

Fantasy
3

About the Creator

Matthew Daniels

Merry meet!

I'm here to explore the natures of stories and the people who tell them.

My latest book is Interstitches: Worlds Sewn Together. Check it out: https://www.engenbooks.com/product-page/interstitches-worlds-sewn-together

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Comments (3)

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  • Babs Iverson8 months ago

    Read and left a heart!!! Congratulations!

  • Donna Fox (HKB)8 months ago

    Matthew, I love the imagery and symbolism in this piece! The broken shell Calix uses to represent himself and how he feels about himself is brilliant! It speaks to the sense that perhaps he feels he is never whole or never has been. I love the way you tell the story in a sort of flashback but also playing with present time too! I find it so engaging and hypnotic in its presentation! I like the way you narrate it in an innocent sort of way through Calix’s eyes but the story hold such a depth to it. I also love the subtle adages of humour thorough out, things like “I’m the handsomest ass you’ll meet!” Your version of a dragon is interesting, I like that Oel breaths brews and is smaller than the mainstream version! Very cleverly thought out! As I got to the end I realized the shells were more symbolic of our memories, hopes and dreams. They are bus vessels that bring us to different spaces and places in time, but aren’t whole just as the shells aren’t! Very cleverly done!!!

  • Valentina Savage8 months ago

    Wow! One of my favorite. I hope you enjoy my stories too.

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