Wrestling my Dragon in the Shadows

by Jeri Abernathy

 

When confusion and fatigue envelop me, I usually escape for some quiet solitude and fresh air to a place in the desert where the sunsets are magnificent and the scent of small creatures and very ugly insects sweeps the city smells from my mind. Lately I had not been sleeping well. The night brought terrors or dark shapes and screeching sounds and I awoke each morning with tension rather than energy. I seemed to roll all night locked in some mental battle, but in the morning only vague shapes and mysteries remained. I was exhausted and attributed the restlessness to my life, or my work or any other ready victim. In short, I needed a vacation, or at least a few days off.

I scheduled myself out of the office for a week and headed to my spot of refuge.

The trip was not that far away, physically. It was a full days ride by horse or only a few hours by Putur, personal utility transport unit. I always took the horse though. There is something romantic about the feel of horseback and the smell of nature right under your nose. As I packed my tools and clothing, the restlessness again overcame me and I had to sit down for awhile. This sense of confusion seemed to drag me to prepare for the trip. I couldn't seem to focus on the tasks at hand or gather the supplies with my usual efficiency and my energy was scattered in all directions. Finally I just screamed out, "Stop!" and though I don't know why, everything seemed clear for a moment. I was able to finish packing and leave for the stable.

After charting my trip and securing my beasts, I began to feel better. I knew the relaxation and refreshment of the desert would be with me soon and I could hardly wait. Usually the stables required me to send the animals back after the first night. They would then pick me up by Putur on my scheduled day. This way I didn't have to provide for the animals needs or rent them for longer periods of time. And by the time I was done with my retreat I didn't mind riding back in a vehicle. This arrangement always worked out fine and everyone was happy. This time was no exception really, other than the nagging feeling that the beasts might need some extra care. Just to be safe, I scheduled a guide, which I didn't need, to go out with me and bring the beasts back. This seemed to ease the anxiety for a short time anyway and I could feel as though I had done all I needed to do.

We left at dawn, an auburn misty time of day in the city. The polluted haze, a permanent canopy over the city, had thinned slightly during the night and the sunlight seemed a golden red as the sun rose over the hills. It cast long reddish shadows on the pavement and the buildings had a rosy glow near the roofline. It seemed cold, but soon warmth would stir the city and the generators would start conditioning the air. I hoped to be out of earshot before that time. No one went outside during the day. Between the noise of the machines, the heat of the sun, and the pollution, the great outdoors was just a story on the tube. I was a great outdoor adventurer to my fellow workers. I actually left town regularly and slept outdoors, just far enough away to lose the pollution and the noise. I also lost light, controlled air, music and most of the food supplies. But I loved camping and always felt renewed and energized after the escape.

We rode for eight hours, stopping to rest the horses twice at scheduled stops. This was a trail that the stable owners used regularly for their safaris, so the stops had supplies and water and rest areas. We left the noise within the first hour. We left the pollution haze within three hours. And we left the trail after eight hours. The guide allowed me to take the horses into the canyon about one hour off the trail because they knew me so well and I did this so often. The horses seemed comfortable as well. After I unloaded my gear and arranged a pickup time, the guide started back with the beasts. It was just beginning to get dark. I knew they would get to the rest area and lodge before darkness so I didn't look back. I started looking for a place to set up for the night.

The desert was an interesting place. There were areas that look as though people once lived there; like grid or swirling shapes, but were no streets or trees or pieces of homes or any other suggestions that people actually lived there. It almost looked like a gigantic drawing by a child of what a city could look like without buildings. And it seemed to go on for miles in every direction. The dust storms have eroded some of the markings now, but I can imagine how it looked twenty or thirty years back. No one actually knew much about the ground shapes and designs, because no one ever came to look at it. I have tried to tell my fellow workers, but they were really not interested at all. I have never been able to find anything to read about the designs, either. But they seemed important to me. They always have. And this night they seemed even more important.

I looked around for my favorite spot to set up camp. In the deepening mist of the evening, when the sunset casts its last longest shadows, a plateau sits up higher than the rest of the ground markings like an altar and it is the last to hold the sunlight before nightfall. That's the spot.

After I found it, I clambered up the side of the plateau and dropped my gear. In the last moments of sunlight I faced the sun and closed my eyes in silent respect for the approaching night. A wave of calm swept over me and I felt as though a golden blanket had wrapped me snuggly for the night in a peaceful hug. I didn't even want to eat, but unfolded my bag and tent and went straight to sleep.

At dawn, I again greeted the sun, but this time I was hungry, so it was a short greeting. I made breakfast. The little pouches of protein supplement and oatmeal flavored pudding heated up quickly in the thermal pocket. This was the greatest invention of our time, the thermal pocket. Just put your food pouches in the pocket and snap it shut. The battery heats the coil in the pocket and your food is warmed in about two minutes. Unsnap to turn it off and remove the pouches and eat. I can't imagine how people camped before the thermal pocket.

Well, not all technology stayed in the city. Anyway, I had resolved on this trip to climb one of the cliffs beside this valley and see if I could draw some of the markings from above. This way I could get a better idea of what the town had looked like and maybe I could find some of the markings in some ancient archeological text or at the architecture museum. I scouted around the valley floor for about two hours before I found a cliff side which seemed worn enough by the weather to allow me to climb it. It ascended about fifty feet to a small ledge, then about another fifty feet to a table like formation that seemed small but looked large enough for me to sit on and draw. I marked the location and went back to my camp for lunch. It would take several days to hike the entire valley to find a path up the cliff from the backside, so I decided to climb the face and haul up my gear. This was a rather short climb, and I didn't know if it would be productive but I thought I could try. After all, this was a vacation not a career. I didn't have enough time to climb that day, so I gathered my camp and moved it to the new site. I wanted to get an early start in the morning.

After dinner, I set up my tent and prepared my ropes for the climb. I didn't mind going up, but coming down was always scary to me. I liked to make sure that there were plenty of grips and footholds, and places to rest. The entire ascent was a prayer session, but the descent was a tense and rigid breath holding experience. I decided to go to sleep early again, so as to not think about it for too long. I made my sunset salutation and snuggled into my tent for the night.

Sleep was restless though. Again I had the terrifying dreams with the dark figures and the screeching sounds. I rolled in my tent all night, struggling and fighting with my sleeping bag until it seemed as though it should be morning. I really wanted it to be morning.

I awoke slowly, and rubbed the dark haze from my eyes. The desert air was cold. It should have been daylight, but instead a black shadow hung in the air. Looking up, I saw that the sky was almost completely blacked out, crawling with thousands of swirling shapes. As I focused and my vision cleared, I could make out the unmistakable silhouettes, and my heart stopped... Dragons! In all my life I had seen only one, and that was a quick glimpse while exploring the cliffs as a child. I also remembered old legends and descriptions of the dragon, a fierce powerful creature that could appear suddenly in our reality, and with a single thought, bring death, life, order, or chaos. Dragons were rarely seen by people unless one of these events was about to take place. As I thought about this phenomenon, and now multiplied it by thousands, a hideously helpless feeling began to come over me. The dragons had now aligned, and were gliding together in a large circle overhead. Half in fear and half in awe I watched, as inside the circle, a huge dark rip began to open in the middle of the sky.

There was a sparkling, somewhat like lightening and somewhat like fireworks, around the edges of the dark rip and a procession of dark shapes started to move through the rip toward the earth. At once I remembered my dreams and the strange dark shapes. The screeching sounds could now be heard and the pounding of the wings made a drumming rhythm like a parade march.

I decided that I was actually still dreaming, snug in my tent, and that this was just one long horribly clear nightmare. But the noise kept getting louder, and soon there was a smell, too. It was the smell that I remembered as a child. I had followed that smell into a canyon like this one, long ago. That smell and a moving dark silhouette of a dragon had stayed with me for all my life. And the sound it made as it left, like a whisper, but not.

Dragons had a particular odor, a sweet and foul odor like rotting fruit and sour milk. But it actually didn't smell bad. It actually didn't smell good, either. It is hard to explain. The excitement of the moment, with whisper, the smell, the dragon, it all blended into a pungent memory, which now seemed to create both fear and excitement in me again. I was as a child again. I wanted to find my dragon.

I crept out of my tent, to get a better view of the procession, and soon realized that the entire parade was headed toward my desert valley. The first dragons to land raised their heavy wings and seemed to fan the ground until a great dust cloud rose up, and then gently blew away or settled. They marched down what I had assumed was an ancient road, flapping and screeching until all the debris and loose dirt had been cleared away. Then they stopped at my plateau. After joining close together, the dragons blew their steamy breath at the plateau then turned and stood at attention until the other dragons of the parade had landed and joined the assembly.

Finally, the last and largest dragon appeared. This one was slightly different from the others. Its head was larger and his wings were smaller, but he had a commanding manner and landed at the far end of the road. Slowly, with a deliberate smugness about him, he walked up the road toward the plateau. He stared into the eyes of each dragon as he passed and that dragon would slightly bow its head, almost like a salute. The ground seemed to shudder with each step, but it could have just been me.

When the large dragon reached the plateau, two of the other dragons began to drag, or escort, another dragon to the plateau. This dragon looked to be a prisoner as his wings were bound tightly to his body by some sort of sparkling material. He looked different from the other dragons also. He was not larger, but instead had and iridescence about the scales on his feet and the tips of his wings had a golden color. When he turned to face the assembly, I saw the sparkle in his eyes and I heard the whisper again. Even though we were far apart, I could feel he was looking at me. I could hear him whisper. It was my dragon.

I sensed that something terrible was about to happen to him, but I couldn't think of anything that a mere human could do. But I didn't need to do anything. A great clap of thunder arose from somewhere behind me with electrical sparks and screeching and before I could duck for cover, a new collection of dragons had appeared. These dragons wasted no time on ceremony. They were swooping and screeching and routing the other dragons from their posts. I caught a glimpse of this new set of dragons as they flew over me and they seemed to have the same iridescent scales as my dragon.

The new dragons plowed into the assembly, scattering all the dragons into rolling and tumbling masses. The largest dragon seemed hurried to get to the plateau, but was stopped by the tumbling crowd. Somehow, in the confusion, my dragon was released from bondage and entered the fight with the others. I slowly began to realize that a battle was going to take place, right in front of me, and that I should get out of the way. I looked behind me, to the cliff that I had chosen and started to climb.

I pulled myself up to the edge of the ledge, my arms shaking from the fatigue of climbing. My legs were so tired that I could hardly haul myself out onto the shelf of rock on the cliff side. The cacophony from the dragon battle raging below rose up and seemed to push me like a firm hand, that little extra amount that I needed to escape from the immediate danger cloaking the action below. Dragons are not mindful of men. In their rage and fury all small creatures best find cover or flee. I did both.

There was a small depression in the cliff side at the back of the shelf. This amplified the screeching like a drum but provided some shelter and cover. I was certain that no dragon would notice my shadow against the stone, so I settled back against the wall and rested from the climb. I had no food or water, but I didn't think the battle would continue for more than a few minutes or hours, certainly not days. I started to plan an escape anyway.

After what may have been an hour, though boredom and fear can make time play tricks with the mind, the screeching sound shifted in pitch and volume. I had been about to doze off. Much to my surprise, the dragons did not confine their war to the ground, and on brief contemplation I could not explain why I should have thought they would.

With wings pounding, they rose for aerial battle. Rising and diving, clawed at each other, grasping and slashing. Entwined in a death grip they would fall toward the ground hoping to crush the other under their weight upon impact, but usually breaking free with just enough time to glide to a safe landing or rise again for another plunge. The sound was in my face now; I could feel the pounding of their wings like an erratic heartbeat. At times I could hardly breath from the stench of their bleeding wounds. I crouched close to the wall in the safety of the shallow cave.

The battle seemed to go on for hours. My arms ached from clutching my legs to my chest and pressing myself to the wall. Suddenly, there was a crashing all about me, as two bleeding and gnarled dragons smashed into the shelf and cliff side. Pieces of flesh and blood stuck to the rocks as the dragons rolled off the shelf and down the cliffside, locked in each other's mortal grip. They did not break free in time to escape death.

I decided to go with plan B and make my escape. Of course, I didn't have a plan B, but plan A wasn't working anymore either. After deciding up was not a good idea, I inched my way to the side of the ledge and started down the cliff to a safe looking crevasse about one hundred feet away. My mind was computing angles and grips spots, searching for footing when a dragon wing ploughed into my side and sent me sliding down the cliff. My fingers clawed at the cliff side, but I could not grasp the rock. Then I was falling, praying and falling. Then I wasn't falling, but I didn't know why.

I opened my eyes and found myself clutched in the claws of a dragon, lifting out of my death flight and landing back on the shelf. Shaking with fear, I collapsed at his feet and waited to be killed. But I wasn't killed. Instead, there was a voice talking to me. Not sound like your ears would hear, but a voice inside me. I looked deeply into the dragon's eyes as he spoke his soundless speech and I knew that I had been saved for a purpose. I was to record the battle; to write the history, regardless of the winners or losers. I was to tell the world about the end of the kingdom. I was to listen without fear to the battle and the story would unfold about me, and I would know what to say.

Without a word, I wished my dragon the best of luck in the battle, but I knew that this was the end. I could feel it in his eyes and from his heart. This was a battle to the death of all dragons, of all dragon lore, of all dragon time. An indescribable sadness gripped me as I turned away to face the battle and the task of hearing the stories.

There was a story about the greatest love between dragons and man. There was a story about corrupting power and lust. The stories came to me like waves in a storm, pounding deeply into my subconscious until I was flooded and drowning in the history. And the battle raged until only a few torn and shattered dragons remained. The largest one had died near the end of the battle, and it seemed that as he died, the strength of the legions withered and the battle began to end. But the beautiful dragons like mine were destroyed completely. As each dragon died, his carcass became a sparkling dust and left a dragon outline in the dirt. No blood or bone or flesh remained more than a few minutes. Those dragons too injured to fly, were killed by the others, so that no trace would be found by man of the dragons or their holocaust. And those few still able to flee tore a new hole in the sky and slipped out without ceremony or valor.

As I stood on the shelf in the cliff, I could look down at the battlefield and see the shapes that had once been a great meeting area for the dragons. It was a ceremonial site with altars and places of great history. The small area above my ledge had been a perch for the dragon historian to record the meetings and to preside over the ceremonies. The plateau had been a seat of great honor and power, where the sun glistened off the golden tips of the dragon wings. Battles had been fought here before, with men and with other dragons, but it will be a long time before another dragon will visit this place. The dark and glistening shadows of the dead dragons' dust covered every part of the valley and as the evening breeze began to stir, the dragon dust blew up into the air and drifted away.

When I finally got down from the ledge, I packed what I could find of my scattered belongings and started walking toward the trail lodge. I didn't want to be alone that night, in my valley. I reached the lodge by midnight and collapsed into a chair by the fire. No one was awake so I slept there, and in the morning I made arrangements to return to the city. No one asked about my trip, and I didn't offer any information.

When I finally returned to the city, I was unusually energetic. My co-workers seemed friendly and I was glad to see them. But at night I would wake up with the torrent of stories in my head and write.