There was once a woman who lived in a house by the side of a lake.
The lake was very huge, so huge that it was almost a sea, and the house was so old that it seemed to have merged into the soil around it. Grass grew on its roof and vines formed nets over its windows, and nobody who saw it ever imagined someone lived there.
But the woman lived in it, and she, too, was very old. She was so old that she no longer knew how old she was, or even her own name.
Every month, on the night when the moon was new, the woman would go down to the lake and kneel by its waters. Sometimes the stars would be out, and she would see their faint lights, reflected on the water. Sometimes it would be cloudy, and she would have to make her way entirely by touch. And sometimes it would be stormy, and lightning would shine the way for her. But wind or rain or calm, she never missed going down to the lake on the new moon night.
Each time she would leave her house as soon as it was dark, and go down by a special way – not the way she took every other day, the broad path, but a narrow, crooked track that led down to the water. The track was covered with loose stones, and in the darkness she might easily have fallen, but though she was so old and her legs were no longer steady, she never did. She would go down to the water, with nothing in her hands, not even a piece of bread by way of supper; and she would kneel by the water all night, looking so eagerly out over it that she would scarcely even blink.
Then, when the eastern horizon began to lighten from black to the deepest pre-dawn blue, she would climb stiffly to her feet, her lips moving soundlessly; she would whisper to herself, her shoulders slumping in disappointment, and return the way she had come.
This happened every new moon night, for many, many years; and the only ones to see her were the creatures of the night; and if they wondered about her and what she did, they kept those thoughts to themselves.
One day, when once more the winter had just given way to spring, a water dragon came swimming up from the sea into the lake, as water dragons do when they are young and wander far from their birthing grounds, looking for a new home. He had swum far up muddy rivers and up narrow mountain streams, and was weary of travel; so when he reached the lake, so vast and calm and open, he decided to stay there a while. Floating on the water, he settled down to rest. The sun sank behind the western hills, and the night rose in the east.
It was a new moon night, and the sky was filled with stars. The water dragon lay looking up at them and thinking of them being the same stars which shone down on his native seas; and, as far as the wandering soul of a water dragon might know homesickness, he knew it, and might have sighed for the rocky shores left forever behind.
But then he heard a noise, and the dim light of the stars showed him a shape coming down to the shore. It was the figure of a woman, who moved slowly and stiffly as though she were very old; and she knelt on the shore of the lake, her hands on her knees, and stayed there all night looking up earnestly at the stars.
The water dragon, who had never seen a human before, knew nothing of what to make of this, and stayed where he was, watching her; and, as dawn came, he saw her walking back up from the lakeside, and even though he was young and knew nothing of humans, he could tell that she was crushed with disappointment.
Water dragons look long and hard before they decide where to take up a new home; and this dragon had at first planned to move on after a few days in the lake. But it reminded him so much of his birthing place that he decided to stay on for a while. And so the days passed.
A month to the day when he had first come to the lake, it was storming, and the lightning flickered constantly over the hills and the rain smote the lake like a million liquid hammers. But as the night came down like brooding wings, the shape of the woman came down again to the shore. Under the wind and the rain, the lightning and the thunder, she stayed kneeling all night by the shore, as before, and as before she left in the morning, her shoulders bowed down with misery.
The water dragon was by now intrigued, so he decided to tarry a while longer, to see if she would come again. And so another month passed, till the night of the new moon; and it was a night with high-scudding cloud, a night when the sky and the earth seemed filled with ancient secrets, when things from beyond time and space might come drifting along on the vagrant wind. And the woman came down as always, and knelt on the lake shore, her face to the sky.
Then the water dragon swam close, and reared out of the lake, towering over the woman. He was a tower of glittering faceted water come alive; the churning of whirlpools was in him, and the dark infinite stillness of abyssal depths. He was the glitter of sun on coral atoll and the cold gleam of the moon on a mountain stream, he was the warm brown muddy slither of a great river meandering through a floodplain; he was the sharp jagged ice of glaciers far, far away, where the sun shuts its eyes and goes to its sleep.
And the water dragon looked down at the woman, and his eyes were slits the colour of seas littered with the skeletons of drowned ships; but the woman looked up at him unafraid.
“What do you want, dragon?” she asked. “I have nothing for such as you.”
“Why do you come here every new moon night to my lake?” the dragon asked, and at that moment realised that he had decided to claim it as his new home. “Why do you kneel all night in vigil, and sigh with such fervent sorrow when, in the morning, you return the way you came?”
The woman sat back on her heels and pointed up to the sky. “Long have I waited,” she said, “for a meteor to fall on the lake on the night of the new moon. I wait to see one fall, to mark the place where it strikes the water. On the lake bottom below the place it strikes, will be a house deep in the mud; and in that house will be a seed, which I must swim down to and bring up. Once I plant that seed, it will break open in the ground, and my son, who I lost so long ago and so unjustly, will come back to me.”
“Your son,” the water dragon repeated.
“Yes, he was taken from me most cruelly and long ago. And I wait by the side of this lake, for I was prophesied that somewhere under this lake the seed to bring him back to life lies hidden. But unless a meteor falls on the new moon night to mark the spot, I cannot find it; and the years and decades have rolled by while I wait still, in vain, for it to fall.”
“If the seed is on the lake bottom,” the water dragon said, “you do not have to wait for the meteor. I will swim down to the lake bottom, and find it for you.”
“If you do that,” the old woman promised, “I will reward you as the gods would say you deserve.”
“Whether you reward me or not does not matter,” the water dragon said. “I will do it because I do not wish to see anyone so unhappy by the shores of my lake.”
“In that case,” the woman said, “remember this: if you should find the house, swim down into it until you reach the lowest floor. There, you will find many treasures, but do not touch them, or it will go ill with you. Seek until you find the seed, and take only it, and come back again. I will be waiting.”
And so the water dragon left the woman and swam down into the lake depths. It was dark and cold, and except for the flickering movements of fish and the waving of weeds was still and silent. Back and forth he swam across the immense lake, from shore to shore, searching; and at last he saw, as by a cold glimmering light, something in the distance.
He swam towards it, and found that it was the roof of a house, though buried in the mud. It had chimneys and skylights that were still above the ooze, and through them the cold grey glimmering light inside shone. The water dragon was about to swim in through them, when he heard a voice; and, turning, saw a large and exceedingly ugly fish, with great spines and bulging eyes.
“Why do you seek to go down into that house?” it asked him. “Do you not know that it is filled with terrible hazards for all things?”
“I wish to go down there,” the water dragon said, “for I have made a promise, to lift the veil of sorrow from one who has waited for long, without relief.”
“Then you must go,” the fish said. “But, first, take this.” It plucked out a scale from its body and gave it to the water dragon. “Should you find yourself in danger, throw that scale down; for you are good, and I do not want anything evil to befall you.”
The dragon took the scale and swam towards the house, and was just about to enter when he heard another voice, and, turning, saw a lobster crawling in the mud. “Why do you wish to go down into that place of peril?” it asked.
The dragon made it the same answer, whereupon it picked up the small, empty corkscrew-shaped shell of a water snail and gave it to him. “If you should be in danger,” it said, “throw down that shell. But think again before you enter, I entreat you.”
“I must go,” the water dragon said, and entered the house. All around him the grey light glimmered, growing stronger as he swam down through the skylight and into the first room, and from there down a corridor into the depths of the house. All around him the light glimmered and shifted, and as he swam down into the depths, the light seemed to follow him, as though keeping a watch on him and what he did. He swam down into the depths of the house, and there found rooms filled with treasures great and small; jewels and gold, antique carved objects of great value, and things that even a water dragon could not find a name for. He swam through the rooms, seeking, going deeper and deeper into the house; and, all the while, the light followed.
The house seemed to go on forever, each room being succeeded by another, and as the water dragon swam further and further down into the murky stillness, it grew so cold that even his body, though it was composed of water itself, became lethargic and sluggish, until he could hardly move at all. But still he went further, until he reached, at last, the deepest, furthest room of the house. It was crowded, like all the others, with carved and glittering treasures, but in one corner, under an ornate mirror, he saw, lying on the floor, a small brown seed, no bigger than an apple pip.
The water dragon had almost despaired of ever finding the seed; but now, having seen it, he darted forward as quickly as he could, snatching it up in his hand, clawed with shards of dark ice; and, turning, he made to go back the way he had come.
But his body was sluggish with the cold, and as he turned, he knocked against the mirror, which tumbled to the floor, and shattered into a hundred fragments; and, instantly, from every one of those fragments, shapes of darkness sprang forth, gathering around the dragon, and reached out to clutch at him with fingers of glutinous shadow.
Then the water dragon recalled the words of the old woman, who had enjoined him to touch nothing but the seed, but it was too late – the shapes of darkness had him fast in their clutches, and were dragging him down to the floor, there to bind him in their coils and keep him prisoner for the rest of eternity. And strive as he might, the water dragon could not break free.
Then the water dragon recalled the words of the fish, and remembered that he still held the scale it had given him in one of his other hands. Twisting the claw free for a moment from the shadow-ropes that held it tight, he threw it down.
As soon as the scale touched the floor of the deepest room of the house under the lake, it began to glow, white and green, blue and violet and silver. Brighter and brighter it glowed, with a light so brilliant that the shadow-ropes binding the water dragon melted and flowed away, setting him free. Brighter and brighter glowed the scale, until the entire house seemed filled with its brightness. The water dragon, clutching the seed tight, swam up through the myriad rooms, and as he swam, each patch of shadow leaped and twisted and tried to hold him and pull him back. But none could last an instant before the coruscating brightness of the scale. By the time its glow had finally faded, the dragon had reached the uppermost room of the house, and, wriggling through the skylight by which he had come, he returned to the night-dark, welcoming water of the lake.
Rising through the layers of water, he swam back to where the old woman awaited him on the shore. It was almost dawn, and the eastern sky was beginning to lighten, but she was still there, waiting.
“Have you brought it?” she asked, when he surfaced, and towered over her as before.
“Here you are,” he replied, and laid the seed on her outstretched palm. And, though it was so small, it seemed to be very heavy, for she had to use both hands to hold it.
“It has to be planted at dawn,” she said, “and it is almost dawn now.” Bending, she scraped a little hole on the lake shore, and dropped the seed in. And, as the sun rose in a red ball into the eastern sky, a twig burst out of the soil and spread out a leaf.
“See,” the woman exclaimed. “See how it grows.”
And the twig grew, and grew. Now it was no longer a mere twig, or even a sapling; it was a great trunk, bent and twisted, its bark grey and flaking. Atop it were a few leaves, and they were dark as clotted blood.
“It is a horrible tree,” the water dragon thought, but the woman seemed not to care. Raising a wrist, she ripped it open with her teeth, and – at the precise moment when the sun parted with the horizon – she sprinkled blood on the tree’s twisted roots.
Then there was a sound like thunder, and the tree split apart, and from it stepped a great fiery demon, with eyes that blazed with promise of eternal agony, a mouth filled with fire, and hands that ended in blazing fingers. And the woman threw herself on to his breast, and hugged him tight to her with joy.
The dragon thought to withdraw, but the woman turned to him. “This is my son,” she said, “for whose return I have been waiting for so long, and who was trapped in a seed and buried away in a prison under water by an angry god. And it is now time to reward you, for setting him free, exactly as I promised – as the gods would have rewarded you. Your reward is death.”
Then the water dragon realised at last that he had been used, and deceived, and he tried to flee. But the demon pointed a finger at him, and sent a column of fire at his breast. And should it have touched him, it would assuredly have boiled him into mist on the instant.
But just before the fire touched him, the water dragon remembered what the lobster had said; and he threw down the water snail shell, which he still held. Instantly, the shell sucked him into it, and carried him down with it to the lake bottom, where it wedged itself deep inside a crevice among the rocks.
The demon and his mother raged and searched all they could, but they did not find him, for he was safe in the shell. At last they went home, but they set the remains of the shattered tree to keep watch, and let them know if the water dragon tried to escape. When darkness fell, they came down again to look for him, and stayed looking all the night.
That was long ago, and the years and centuries have rolled by aplenty; but if you should go up to the lake today, you will find a blasted tree trunk near the water, as though it had been struck by lightning. At night you will still see the flickering light of a flame restlessly roaming the shore. It is the demon, still searching.
And somewhere in the depths of the lake is the water dragon, safe in his shell still.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016