Friday 31 May 2013

By a far and distant sea

Once upon a time, a dragon was born at the foot of a cliff, on the rocky shores of a sea far, far away.

It was a dark and stormy sea, under cloudy skies in which lightning flickered constantly, and the waves which crashed on the boulders below the cliff were the colour of slate. It was a dreary place, where nothing grew, and where the sun never shone.

In such a place the dragon was born, and as she grew older, she began searching for others of her kind, as dragons will, you know. But there were none – in all that land she was the one and only dragon, for she had been hatched from an egg that the sea had brought in from a distant shore. And this, of course, distressed her terribly.

The dragon lived in a sort of castle carved out of the rock by the waves; a castle most wonderful, with buttresses and arches, chambers and grottoes, where the wind and the waves made music. She loved the castle, but was unhappy in all else, because she was so lonely.

“Am I then condemned to spending my existence in loneliness?” she wondered aloud, crouching in her castle and watching the waves break and shatter on the boulders outside. “Can it be that I am the only dragon that ever was, or will be?”

“Hardly,” said a voice, and she jumped in fright. Sticking its head out of the water was a great sea-serpent, which regarded her with huge but kindly eyes. “There are dragons in the world, but they live elsewhere.”

“Where – where must I go to find them?” the young dragon stuttered. “And if there are none others here, how is it that I was born in this place?”

“I can’t answer those questions,” the sea-serpent told her. “But you should go to the hut of the hermit Silence, who lives at the top of the cliffs, and who has renounced all speech. He knows more of the world than I do. But be careful that the knowledge you seek not bring you more sorrow than joy.” So saying, it took a deep breath, and swam away.

“What did it mean by that warning?” the dragon wondered. “But let me seek the hermit Silence, and ask him what I need to know.” So she crawled out of the castle and climbed slowly and painfully up the cliff, while the lightning flashed over her and the rain slashed on the rocks. She was only a very small dragon, and had no wings, so this took her a long, long time.

The hermit Silence lived in a hut at the top of the cliff, a hut so small and battered by wind and weather that it seemed part of the rock itself. He was standing outside when the dragon finally found the place, and watched her come, his eyes expressionless over his grey beard.

“I would like,” said the dragon, “to ask a question of you, hermit. I need to know where other dragons live, for I am alone, and so lonely that I can no longer bear it.”

The hermit Silence looked at her for a moment, and then made signs with his hands and fingers, signs so expressive that the dragon had no difficulty understanding their meaning.

“Go,” the fingers said, “inland towards the forest which touches the sky, and there in the heart of it you will find the abode of my sister, the witch without a name. She can tell you where the dragons are. But be careful lest the knowledge bring you more sorrow than joy.” He turned away thereafter, and would look at the dragon no more.

Thanking the hermit, who made no move to acknowledge or respond, the dragon made her way across the cliffs and inland, towards the forest which touches the sky. After a journey of many days, she finally arrived at its outer fringes, and hesitated to enter, because the trunks of the trees stood so close that they scarcely allowed her room, and because the foliage overhead was so thick that it was dark as night even at high noon.  

“If I am to find other dragons,” the young dragon then thought to herself, “I have no choice but to enter. Otherwise I might as well return to the cliffs and stay alone forevermore.” So she squeezed her way into the forest, seeking the witch with no name. For many long days and nights she wandered, until she was quite lost, and drowning in despair.

The forest creatures saw her, and knew her for a stranger; and though they kept themselves hidden from her sight, they talked to each other about her, and finally one day the news reached the ears of the witch with no name, who lived in a hut in the very centre of the forest.

The witch with no name had never liked strangers entering the forest, for they were a disturbance to the tranquillity she required. When she heard about the strange new creature, she resolved to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and, taking the form of a small bird, she flew through the forest to where she knew it would be found. When she saw it, she was astonished, because it was a dragon; and she had not seen a dragon in the forest, or anywhere else in as long as she could remember.

“What is it you do here?” she asked the dragon, flying above her head. “Do you not know that you are in the realm of the witch without a name, who destroys all strangers who dare enter her realm?”

“I seek the witch herself,” the dragon replied. “I have a question to ask her. If she should answer it, I would be grateful. If she destroys me, then, too, I should be grateful, for at least my present agony would end.”

“What is your question?” the witch asked, taking her real form. “If I can, I will help you, for I can feel the depths of your anguish.”

So the dragon told her everything. “Long have I wandered,” she finished, “and still I have not found a single other dragon, or anyone who can tell me where one is to be found. If you can tell me the answer, do so; and if you cannot, please destroy me without further delay.”

The witch with no name smiled, with mingled sorrow and sympathy. “Far away, on the other side of this forest,” she said, “are the mountains of the moon, as cold and white as their namesake. If you wish to find what you seek, you must find your way across those mountains. But the wind will cut at your flesh as with the blades of a million knives, and the cold will eat into your bones.”

“I’m willing to suffer what I must,” the dragon said.

“Very well,” the witch replied. “On the other side of the mountains is a plateau so desolate that not a blade of grass grows; and in the middle of it is a valley, where the fire rises from the ground and the smoke lies heavy in the air. Go to that valley, and you will find what you are seeking. But be careful that the knowledge you seek not bring you more sorrow than joy.”

“I’ll have to take that chance,” the dragon said, wondering at the repeated warning. “Show me, if you can, a way out of this forest, for I am lost and helpless here.”

So the witch with no name took again the form of a bird. “Follow me,” she said, and flew off through the forest, the dragon following; and in less time than it takes to tell it, they emerged from between the trees, and in the distance the dragon saw, towering towards the sky, the mountains of the moon.

“Thank you, kind witch,” the dragon said, but the witch with no name had already flown back to her home in the heart of the forest. So the dragon crawled over the broken plain until at last she reached the mountains; and, without pausing a moment to rest, she began her lonely crawl up the mountain slopes. The wind whistled and howled and cut at her as with the blades of a million knives, and the cold bit mercilessly into her bones.

But she persevered, and, one day, she saw that there were no further slopes to climb up; and, below her, stretching to the limits of her vision, was the plateau, so desolate and bleak that the sight of it brought a chill to her soul greater than the mountain cold. But far in the distance she could see the smoke rising from a cleft in the ground, and she knew that was where the valley lay.

The sight brought increased vigour to her weary limbs, and as she climbed down the mountain and set off across the plateau, she felt a touch of happiness for the first time in her life; for she told herself that with every moment she was nearing her goal.

And so it was that early one morning, while dawn still painted the air, she finally reached the valley, the floor of which was obscured by flame and smoke, which rose in eddies into the air. As she crawled down into the valley, the heat rose until it seemed the very air was on fire, and the smoke burned her eyes.

But she kept going, for she had come so far that there was no question of turning back now; and at last she stood on the valley floor, while all around jets of flame rose from the earth, and ashes rained from the smoke rising towards the sky above.

And here were dragons. Large dragons and small, they crawled and flew and flitted about, and they came crowding round her, for she was the first to reach the valley from outside in many, many long years. And when she saw them, the aches and weariness dropped from her limbs, so that she would have wept with joy if she could.

The dragons came all around her, and welcomed her, and asked her where she came from. So she told them the tale of her long and weary journey; and they all shed tears for her, and not for her alone.

“We weep,” they said, “for all the dragons who live all through the world, alone like you, and will never find anyone to tell them of this valley, the only place where our kind can call home. We welcome you, sister, and we wish only that we could welcome all the others who live alone and sorrowing, looking forever for a place to call home.”

They made the dragon welcome, and gave her a cave to inhabit; and for many long years she lived there, until she was full-grown, a splendour to behold in ivory and gold, with wings red as blood rippling along her back. But she was never at peace, for she remembered the words of the other dragons, and knew also that in all the years she had stayed in the valley, not a single other dragon from outside had found its way there.

So one day she emerged from her cave, and called to the other dragons; and they came round, to hear what she had to say.

“Brothers and sisters,” she told them, “many long years ago, when I was looking for this valley, three separate beings – a sea-serpent, a hermit, and a witch – gave me a warning. They told me to beware lest my quest bring me more sorrow than joy.

“At the time I did not understand them, but I never forgot their words; and, after all this time, I am beginning to understand. For there are other words I have never been able to forget – your words, that you used to welcome me, when I first came here; you had lamented that there are other dragons like me, scattered through the world, alone and despairing of ever finding a home.

“I have thought long on these things, and I must say that my soul now hangs heavy with the thought of those dragons, so that I am no longer content here. No, I must go forth, and find those dragons, and tell them of this place. Only then will I find contentment.”

So saying, and paying no heed to their attempts to draw her back, she climbed out of the valley and flew into the sky. Wings beating heavily, she soared over the mountains she had crawled over so long ago, and set out to search the world for other dragons.

In ones and twos she found them – under ruined desert cities, crouching in dusty caverns; turning and turning round stone spires on rocky islands set in distant seas; lying quiescent by slow-moving rivers meandering through swamps; and in a hundred other places. One by one she found them, and told them where the valley of dragons was to be found; and then she moved on, restlessly, always seeking. And so the seasons fled, and the years turned to decades, and finally to centuries; and she found fewer and fewer dragons, but she searched on and on, though her body grew old and weary and her sight began to dim. Then at last she found no other dragons at all, but still she flew on.

Then, at last, one day she came to a cliff by a distant and sunless sea, where the lightning flashed without cease, and the water lashed at the rock; and it seemed to her that she had seen this place before. And there, at the foot of a cliff, she found a curious thing – a castle made by storm and wave, of delicate stone arches and rock buttresses, full of hidden pools and caves, where the wind played music. It seemed to her that she remembered this place, from somewhere in the distant past; perhaps, she thought, she had seen it before.

Curling herself up in the recesses of the castle, she looked out at the storm and rain, and thought she would rest a while here. Perhaps she would stay longer than a while. It felt good to her old body; for the first time in longer than she could remember, she felt content.

It felt to her as though she had come home.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

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