When the first salvo of red dragons flew into our peninsula, we told one another we shouldn’t obsess, but their wide, leathery wings conjured dust cyclones as tall as banyan trees, and we couldn’t help but gape. They were real red dragons who toasted armored imbeciles daring to pillage their lairs, real red dragons even our delta divers heeded whispers about from hermit crabs deep in the sand. “They are gifts from the icy North used to solitary lives,” our Town Inspector explained in a letter, “I insist all of you stay out of their way.” These gifts perched themselves on top of Soaring Goose Mountain; ruby scales alight as they panted and licked each other’s soft, furry throats, smoothing down cowlicks we wished our dragons grew.
Next to them, our gods were nothing but hissing, jade-plated eels.
Our dragons traded our fortunes and salt for fun. Held schools of carp in their mouths, whirlpooling until worn out before spitting. Clamped onto each other’s tails, dragging one another from island to island, bank to bank; they knocked croakers, giant octopuses, and green turtles aside with their fins. Never submerged deep enough underwater before one of us caught sight, then they’d turn our squid boats over. Tossed our children into sea before lobbing them back onto the beach. Refused to summon typhoons thick enough to cloak their sail spines.
“If an enemy sees you like this, do you think they’d just let us be?” we cried.
They didn’t listen, and the next day, as if bored of studying us from the peak, five red dragons landed in our fields. They prowled; sniffing and pawing our salt domes like hounds, searching, or stalking for something we wished we knew to offer. Pearls? Rice dumplings? Salt?
Stooped inside our ramshackle homes, we trembled so violently our stilts almost snapped, until the largest one of the reds coughed up a packed furball the size of a boulder. From that sticky, tangled web, out unfurled our sentry, Kai.
Nobody thought twice. Our soles slapped wet sand, startling the enormous creatures as we charged towards him.
“Come back, hot heads!” our elders erupted.
Scampering behind, our fathers and uncles brandished their rakes, steel cleavers, and oars, while our mothers and aunts swung rice dumplings by their strings as clubs. The red dragons hissed and squirmed, pulling their claws out of salt piles, and retreated into the seafoam. One of them roared before flapping its wings and launching off. The other beasts followed; thunder crackling across the blinding horizon.
Kai’s family reached his folded body first, relieved to see his nostrils flaring. Chest heaving. Blinking. Kai spluttered and we sighed. Elbowing one another out of his way, we asked, “What happened?” “Are you hurt?” “Why did you provoke them?”
“They are the true gods, the ones we must follow,” he croaked, sounding raspy and exhausted, as if he’d spent the night squid fishing.
“He needs to lie down,” his father said.
“They showed me what real gods can do,” Kai continued.
His father looked at me with Kai’s eyes. “You girl, can you carry one limb?”
“They said they would help us…. Out of this forsaken place… they said they could—”
“Girl, you have to hoist him a little higher,” his father ordered and with that, we all started jogging back to his house.
In the evening, I overheard Kai’s mother scold our Town Inspector and gods in her prayers. Next door, behind bamboo walls, we clung onto every word: What will we lose for this gain? Cowards. How could they. Such cowards.
Watching Kai strain to drink porridge out of his bowl tugged at my chest. I found every excuse to visit. Smashed ginger root for his dizziness. Dug fingers into his wrists, the pressure alleviated his worries. His mother asked me for my name even though she knew it and I pretended not to hear her while pressing cold rags to his forehead.
She appeared under the archway, “Girl, what are you to him?”
“A healer’s assistant following her mother’s orders,” I replied, a half-truth.
“She’s kept me company up at the post,” Kai coughed, and I hushed him. “She tells me stories from books exchanged for dried conch at the market.”
“Tell your mother we’re grateful for her help, but we wouldn’t want her beautiful unmarried girl,” she grimaced, as though it stung to expel unmarried in one breath, “to be intimately touching a boy betrothed to another.”
“Mother, she’s the best we’ve got he—”
“Her mother is the best healer in White Sand Bay; therefore, her mother can come by tomorrow when she’s available.”
“I promise, Auntie, I’m here because I’m told,” I said, fully lying.
Casting my herbs and salves in my basket, I bowed before exiting. Outside, the sun was an amber salted duck egg, burning unforgivingly bright as the afternoon those red dragons returned him. I strode home with his mother’s words rippling in my mind—betrothed to another. I recalled Kai’s smooth cheeks skimming my lips as he peeked over the pages I poured to him. Under the moon, I had asked: What are you to him? I thought of those nights, from when we were babes to when hair began curling out from our underarms, and how I cherished them. I was afraid of asking whether he did too.
Kai’s betrothed, our Town Inspector’s frog-eyed daughter, wasted no sunset dispatching pigeon-toed envoys over to ensure that her love could still “Reproduce,” the lead one emphasized. Nose scrunched under our Ancestral Hall’s crooked sign, unfamiliar with salted shrimp laid out to dry, he assured us that the red dragons brought unimaginable profits. “To prevent future mishaps like this one,” he said, “we encourage all of you to remain courteous and welcoming to our gifts from the icy North.”
“I didn’t realize my in-laws accepted gifts that would eat us,” Kai’s mother deadpanned.
“Dragon diplomacy,” the envoy stressed like a tea-leaf reader.
“Kai spoke about them being the true gods, the ones we must follow. Is it true?” someone shouted.
“Don’t be silly, they’re like our gods, ancient crea—”
“Pests,” Kai’s mother said firmly. “Ancient pests we’ve prayed and offered rice dumplings to for centuries. Look where that brought us.”
She didn’t even have to gesture behind the envoy. We swept these dilapidated halls, scraped rust from swallowing our latrines, and hauled bent yokes along wind-washed paths over to the market. Our grandparents, their parents, and their parents before them paved this routine. Taught us to respect our gods or else. Only now, that sparked a tidal wave in us—or else what? Our dragons did not buy or sell us coal to heat our beds during winter. They did not keep our able-bodied youth from migrating into towns. They did not prevent spoiled, petty princesses from plucking our eligible bachelors to pop out heirs.
“Why did armored imbeciles invade their lairs?” I asked.
No one heard me, but they didn’t have to. I had spoken my new path into existence.
I trudged up Soaring Goose Mountain with peace offerings bulging in a sling on my back, Kai’s confession resounding with every step. They showed me what real gods can do. Steep, narrow trails lined with fern and spike moss dwindled into sharp granite rocks. What real gods. If these red dragons brought him back, wasn’t I safe? Can do. If they were anything like our gods, wouldn’t they be appeased with a pearl, some rice dumplings, and a jar of salt? Arriving at the bluff, I wondered if they found our village as majestic as Kai and I did, watching candlelight flicker from our houses, a starry reflection of the sky.
I summoned them the only way I knew how, striking flint and steel over incense sticks pushed into ground. This was our gods’ old way, now irrelevant. Our dragons were drawn to laughter, orbiting our salt fields at sunset to catch children kicking around a rattan ball. They rose above water salivating to roasted gingko nuts and mackerel skewers layering a firepit. On a good day, they buoyed our boats when our oars slipped from our palms into the deep. They didn’t need to be called—they were ever-present.
Something splintered, then scorching flames surrounded me. Their deep voices rattled from inside, as though I belted out their words.
THEE DARETH COMETH HIGH-LONE, WENCH? WHAT DIDST THEE BRINGETH TO PARLEY?
Frozen, I mouthed, “Par-lee?”
DOTH THEE COMETH IN PEACE?
Surprised I understood their icy North language, I nodded.
THEN STANDETH UP STRAIGHT, F’R THE LODGING WH’RE THOU ART STANDING IS HOLY.
Peeking over a shoulder, I counted ten or so bulbous feet groping and scraping behind the ring of fire. Their flames danced high around me, and I held my breath.
IF’T BE TRUE THEE DIDST NOT COMETH TO KILLETH US, WHAT DIDST THEE COMETH H’RE F’R?
“The man you brought back said you were the true gods, the ones we must follow,” I said, “to help us out of this forsaken place.”
A cool breeze from their beating wings iced my back.
WHAT ART THEE TO THIS SIR?
“He’s a childhood friend who is dear to me.” This was true.
WE CAN HEARETH THY HEART WANTING TO LEAPETH FROM THY CHEST, YOUNG WENCH.
“Are you the true gods we must follow?”
They spoke through me like strings on a zither. Not one of them was louder, softer, deeper or higher than the other. Not one of them wavered.
FOLLOWETH US, AND WE SHALL FREE THEE FROM THY CHAINS.
“What would you have us do?”
YOU SHALT NOT BOWETH DOWN TO OTH’R GODS BEF’RER US, F’R WE ART JEALOUS GODS W—
“But our gods are still alive.”
ALLOWETH OUR WRATH BURNETH HOT’GAINST THOSE FOLK AND IN ‘RD’R YOND WE MAY MAKETH A MOST WONDEROUS NATION OF THEE.
They boomed and rose, fanning out the fire. The lines in their eyes glowed like smoldering embers, remnants of past civilizations.
Standing straight, I hurled rice dumplings into air. “We don’t want to be a wonderous anything, we simply want to survive.”
The ground shook. Hair whipped my face, and my smock fluttered. Deep roars reverberated through the dark, growing into a crescendo.
WE SHALL MULTIPLYETH THY OFFSPING AS THE STARS OF HEAVEN, AND ALL THIS LANDETH YOND WE DID PROMISE WE SHALL GIVETH TO THY OFFSPRING, AND THOSE GENTS SHALT INH’RIT T F’REV’R.
“We don’t need saviors!” I yelled. “We need gods.”
The red dragons took off one by one. The force of their launches threw me back; my head hitting hard, uneven ground. I bounced up dazed but determined to pursue them. Lightning struck as they flew, the sounds of their wings a thrashing drum. They were headed to our village, clouds hiding them like eclipses.
I found my way back to the trail opening, knowing I wouldn’t reach White Sand Bay before them. Finding a body of water to call our dragons was our only hope. My sling, still holding onto the pearl, some rice dumplings, and a salt jar, had to be enough. Scrambling down the trail, I thought, what did we have to prove to anyone? How pitiful were we! Not owning any weapons of might we could wield in revenge. Always at some other beings’ mercy. Forever begging. Delicate candles easily snuffed. Yet a light they so desperately needed to conquer. A light that fear cannot contain. I ran, because even if they desecrated our village, they’ll see we never believed in them, and wouldn’t that truth echo through the ages?
Ploi Pirapokin is the Nonfiction Editor at Newfound Journal, and the Co-Editor of The Greenest Gecko: An Anthology of New Asian Fantasy forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Her work is featured and forthcoming in Tor.com, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Offing, and more.
Michelle Lynn Dyrness is an artist, curator and architectural designer. She was born in France, raised in the Philippines and lives and works in the Los Angeles area. Her work has shown at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Brand Library and Art Center, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, with the Brehm Center in Pasadena and is included in the collection at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art.