Originally appeared in MYTHIC #1, 2006
THE LAST ROMANTIC
By Richard Parks
Dragons make mistakes. Especially when the sun’s out for the first time in ages and they can’t remember the last time they’ve been warm. I crawled out of the cave and onto the rocks.
The kids almost saw me.
I scuttled back in, sent some pebbles rattling, but luckily no harm done. It was a human boy and girl and the only thing
they were paying any attention to was each other. I’d been a dragon so long that I’d forgotten what life was like for others, so I watched them. That was another mistake.
They brought a basket lunch and an old yellow blanket, and the boy was scared and the girl was shy and they fumbled with each other so sweetly that I wanted to cry. I tried to imagine what it would be like for the Princess and me on a picnic like that, with furtive glances and tentative touchings, but such things don’t happen to dragons.
Read over what I wrote yesterday. It sounds rather bitter. I’m not, really. Say in all fairness that I didn’t understand my part from the beginning, but I learned it soon enough, and besides, the knowledge didn’t change anything. When the sun is warm it brings back the illusion of fresh starts and possibilities. That’s why I can write about what happened now.
I saw the Old Man last night.
The stars were out, but the darkness was solid enough for a dragon to hide in. I slipped down to the creek for a drink and there he was in the water just like a reflection, sitting in that creaking ladder-back chair like the first time. He opened his cracked-leather face and said, “I’ll show you where to find something.” That started me thinking and then remembering. Who I was, I mean. Had a name and everything. It was… damn, gone again. But the rest is still there and if it’s still there tomorrow I’ll write it down. I won’t believe a word of it then, but that’s all right — it passes the time.
I still remember — I wasn’t always a dragon. Once I drove a Ford and worked with other people who weren’t dragons, and when you’re not a dragon you have to find ways to amuse yourself. I hunted arrowheads in the north Alabama hills. I never disturbed archeological sites or burials or anything like that; I was no pot-hunter. I just wandered farmland, mostly with the owners’ permission, seeing what the plows had turned up. I liked holding things other people had made long ago; it made the past real in a way history books never managed. It’s the nature of romantics to search for belief outside themselves, and that requires symbols. We’re probably responsible for a lot of religions.
So one day in late summer I drove my Ford into the hills and stopped at a little one-pump grocery to ask the locals about good sites. Inside it was cool and shadowy; the floor was covered with rough oak boards that creaked at every step like arthritic rats.
The old man sat at the only window, but he was looking at me with bright blue eyes that should have belonged to a much younger fellow. He scared me, you want the truth; I didn’t know why then, but somehow I must have sensed what he was. There were three lance points lying on the window sill and they were beautiful! I had to ask about them; couldn’t help myself. Walked right up to the old dragon and said “Hi! My name is…”
Thought I could tease it past those dead gray cells, but no joy. Doesn’t matter what I said then. He said “I’ll show you where to find something.” And he told me exactly how to get here. He wasn’t at the store when I went back to kill him, to make the Princess mine alone. Not that I needed to, I realize now. He’d already crawled off somewhere to die alone. That’s what dragons do when they’re too old and sick to be dragons any longer.
So here I am now, looking at the Princess as I write this. She’s lying in the back of the cave on a stone bed covered with bearskin, just like when I found her. I know “princess” isn’t the right word, but I don’t know a better one. She might be Cherokee but it’s hard to say; I’m no expert. She has a band of copper around black hair that reaches her knees, cinnamon skin, a doeskin shawl covering dainty breasts, and her skirt and boots are beaded with porcupine quills. Sleeping Beauty, only this time I’m not reading the story. I’m in it.
It took me a long time to understand that difference. When you read the story you’re always the hero or heroine. When you’re in the story… well, someone else is in charge of casting. You might not be the hero.
You might be the dragon.
Oh, I tried to be the hero, believe me. I fought, clawed, crawled on my knees like a whimpering dog as I tried to reach the Princess. It was no use; something pushed me away. Gently, almost kindly. But firmly. The Princess is waiting, yes, but not for me.
Some men will try to destroy what they can’t possess, but not true romantics. Not the real hopeless cases, anyway. The old dragon knew me the moment he saw me. Takes one to know one, as they say. The Old Man didn’t want to stop being her dragon, but he was all used up. He had to stop. Just as I had to become her dragon in turn because there was nothing else I could do.
I’ve been a good dragon, I think. Oh, sure, I take some risks, slipping into town now and then to steal writing supplies; talking to myself on paper helps me keep what passes for sanity. But I’ve never shirked my duties: I’ve kept her safe, and I’ve learned all the things good dragons know — how to make the mouth of a cave look like blank rock, how to keep people away, how to live on nearly nothing. It’s all part of the plan.
All right, so I don’t know the plan. I’m just going on faith here. I believe there is one. I’ll think about it later. Right now I’m going to gaze at my Love for a while.
Should have known better. There’s nothing more pathetic than a Romantic trying to reason any pattern out of whole cloth. It’s all gut and gland, instinct and emotion with us. But I do have a feeling, summed thusly — Arthur and his knights may indeed be sleeping under the hills of Avalon and there just might be one glorious, liberating battle at the end of it all, but, if the fates really wanted to shake things up, the only one coming out of that hill would be Guenivere. You want to win a war, don’t give people someone to fight for them. Give them something to fight for.
When I think of what has happened to the Princess’s people for the last few hundred years, I can see the parallels even clearer. The Great White Father in Washington will never know what hit him.
As I said, it’s just a feeling, a notion. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Whatever magic is working here, understanding on my part doesn’t seem to be required. That’s all right; I know my place now. Still, I would like to think there’s a point to this, other than my compulsion and nature forcing me to do what I had to do.
Thought I saw the old dragon in the water again today, but I was wrong. It was me. When did I get so old?
First the old dragon, now the others. They flit among the trees by the creek, hide behind limestone boulders on the hillside. They watch me from shadows like starving wolves around a campfire. They are the shadows. I know who they are. Ghosts.
Let them try, if they dare. She’s still mine. It’s still my turn, and theirs is long past. I won’t give her up to them or anyone without a fight. I am the dragon.
Two days but they come no closer. They’re waiting for something. I feel it, too. Someone is coming. The new dragon? Yes, it must be. I try to think how I’ll test him. The old dragon was gentle, but I can’t be with this new one. He’ll have to prove himself to me in the only way he can. I feel like a campfire in that last bright flare before the logs fall to ashes and the wind takes all. I may look human but I know what I am within this husk — I stretch my wings against the sun.
Let him come now.
He heard me; I know it. He’s coming. The ghosts of the other dragons draw back a little, but I see them clearer than ever. There’s little of the dragon left in them now: wing stumps on hunched backs, broken claws, flickering eyes. The rest is human — tired, beaten old men. But they remember her, remember what it was like to be dragons, and the fire is still in their eyes. Death is no release for us; I know that now.
Soon I will join them.
I was wrong. It isn’t the new dragon.
He’s chanting again — the hero’s calling me. Uktena. I don’t understand the word, but I know what it means. It’s a name. It’s what the hero thinks I am. When I drop my guard a bit I can see the shape he’s trying to force on me — the granddaddy of all serpents, with a head the color of polished rubies, the horns of a deer, and a spiked crest of rock crystal. It’s what he expects me to be, the terrible beast between him and the Princess. Lovely image and very flattering, but I force the vision away and cling to my own form. I’m not an uktena, I’m a dragon. I’ve earned my name. I’ll keep it.
I can only imagine what the hero went through to get here. Did he grow up with the remnants of the old traditions, perhaps supplementing what remained with books? Lured with the Old Stories, perhaps? Dreams? Maybe there was someone on their side to point him to me at the proper time, as the old dragon led me to the Princess. I imagine there was.
What else? He’ll be young, of course. Handsome. Everything the Princess needs. Everything that I am not. I picture dark eyes, dark hair. Which will be worn traditionally long, of course, and he’ll have a feather stuck in it somewhere. Eagle, if he can get it. A beaded necklace, faded jeans. Old and new together.
He’s afraid, and I don’t blame him for that.
There’s Power in that chant; the human husk crumbles away and the pale flesh turns to dust. I thought it would hurt to surrender the last of my humanity; I was prepared for the sacrifice but I expected pain. There is no pain. It feels wonderful as I’m revealed at last: Iridescent scales, majestic wings… I’m beautiful! One last look at my Beloved and then out into the sunlight. It’ll be a glorious fight and I will do my best because the Princess deserves no less, but I don’t think I can win. I don’t want to — that would spoil everything. Poor hero, there’s really nothing to fear from me. He can’t know that, of course. He has to be afraid, and try anyway. Otherwise he wouldn’t be the hero.
Odd. I didn’t think there would be any regrets, but there is one — the Princess will never know I loved her, or how magnificent I was for her on this final day. I won’t be so magnificent when he’s done with me.
Could that be it?
It’s hard to write — claws — but I have to get it down. I have to tell someone how the story ends… how I think it ends. The magic ends with me; the Princess will wake to the hero’s touch. She will love him and be with him; they will fight their battles together and, perhaps, grow old and die together. But for us, dragons, for us she remained young and eternal and yes, very beautiful. And that’s something she’ll never do for him.
Is that love, I wonder? Maybe just a little?
But for romantic fools and dragons it will have to do.
(c) 2006 Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.