March 2019 Contest Winner
Lorraine Ho is the author of several works of long fiction, numerous short stories, and, occasionally, bad poetry. She lives in Hong Kong.
THE DRAGON, THE MAIDEN, AND THE SEA
He pulls the village apart with his bare hands, tearing at the soaked soil. He is calling her name. Where are you? Where are you? He has retracted his claws, fearful of hurting her before he finds her.
Where are you? He is crying now, scalding tears running over his cheeks. I could not hear you, he says, you were so far from the sea. I am sorry, he wants to say. I am sorry I was late. I am sorry I did not come.
He calls and he calls, but there is no reply.
This story starts at the end.
There is the sea, swelling over the coast, drowning the buildings and destroying the streets. Shrines are knocked down, one by one, like squat trees being felled. People are running, too breathless with exertion or fear to scream.
There is the mother who weeps in her room. She is too old to escape and too tired to try. She tried to keep the madness out once, and she had failed. She will not attempt to do so again.
There is the girl, three nights dead and buried, sleeping at last in peace. Someone has placed flowers on the mound of earth that marks her grave, bright-petaled stalks that are swept away by the oncoming waves.
There is the dragon god, towering over the village. There is anger in his voice and grief in his eyes. If you did not know him you would think him a god of misery. But he was happy, once.
Three days ago they emptied a deep pit in the earth and threw inside the girl they believed to be a fox spirit. They picked the gathered dirt up, pile by pile, and poured it on her. She begged them to pull her up but they refused. They say she cried for her god but he did not come, so the crowd jeered and called her a liar.
She screamed in the end, terror overcoming dignity. The sound was weak and muffled by the layered dirt. They did not stop the burial until silence fell.
Last night her mother was let out of the house. The old woman placed flowers over the mound, and there they remained until the seawater washed them away.
Four nights ago. The moon is gone. They come for the girl at her mother’s house. Her mother is shielding her, keeping the door locked. Bravely her mother says, the one you seek is not here, she is gone, she has left the village.
No, they say, pushing against the door, we know she is there. Let us in. That fox spirit has brought plague to us. We know it is she who has caused it.
The plague came with the trade wagons, says the mother helplessly, and she keeps pushing against the door even as they overpower her and rush in. The plague came by trade, she says, please, please, let my daughter go.
They do not.
They came and they tore me from her arms, she will now say to anyone who asks, though no one does. Without asking they took her from me—I, who only had her. Now I have nothing left.
How to explain the fear, the weariness, the stink of death? The village is riddled with sickness. Rich and poor, young and old, they fall prey to this terrible disease that sends them into tremors and sweating, and finally a shrieking death. Even the winter wind cannot hide the screams.
The sick die one by one, grasping the hands of their beloved. There is no recovery once the spots show. The ones left alive are dazed from loss, dizzy with fright. There is an evil spirit amongst us, they say to each other, we must exorcise it, we must kill it. Who shall it be?
Their village is not large. They know everyone in it. They cast their eye on the only girl with no brother, no father, no husband—there. There. She is the one.
It is on a summer afternoon, while watching the girl count her oysters, that the dragon god says to her, you must go.
What do you mean? She cocks her head and looks at him, eyes sparkling. Why must I go? Where would I go? Where could I go?
Anywhere, he says. You must leave—you must go. The future, he says, does not look promising. I have caught a glimpse of it. It is dark, and frightening.
I will not go, she says. I have my mother here. I have you. I will not go.
Please, he says. You are not a dragon. You may perish. Please, he says. I am afraid for you.
I will live, she laughs. She puts out her hands, palms facing him, empty but for the glitter of seawater: Do not be afraid for me. Be brave. Look; I have nothing to fear.
Did he know all of it? Did he know then all the twists and turns of what was to happen, of what was to be? Perhaps he did, or otherwise he would have kept silent, for he feared more than anything that she would leave him for her human world and never return. But he warned her, because he loved her, so much that if she had asked he would have taken her away, even if it meant leaving the safety of the sea.
Afterwards he will remember the way she liked to hum as she put her waving hair in a braid. Her hair was not soft to the touch—like straw, she would say ruefully—but it fascinated him, the way it gleamed brown under sun and rippled under the waves.
He will remember the dance she taught him, a ridiculous swinging of the hips and arms; the way they had bounced through the soft sand on tiptoe, laughing into each other’s shoulder.
He will remember how she had first kissed him, how she had stood so close that he could count every freckle on her nose, the way she had smelled of the ocean, and how warm she had been in his arms.
That is how he remembers her: laughing, salt-scented, freckled, sparkling, and alive.
The girl is no stranger to the ocean. She goes there everyday, to dive for pearls. It is a dangerous occupation but she has no choice, for her father is dead and her brother too, swept away by a rogue storm, and her mother is too frail to move. She dives for pearls in their scabbed shells, always hoping to emerge before she drowns.
She sputters as she pulls out of the water; some of it has gone up her nose. She sweeps her hair out of her eyes and jumps in shock at the sight of the wounded creature in front of her. She crouches down, pats him awkwardly, trying to rouse him.
Who is he? Her mind whispers that perhaps he is dangerous—he is not from her village, he does not look like a trader. Suddenly his eyes open and she tumbles backward. His eyes are a meld of blue and green, with a pupil like a cat’s. He snarls at her, trying to scrabble to his feet, but he falls. He falls, in front of her, and the bluish blood gushes from his wounds.
So the girl does not go. She stays and she sings a soft song as she tears strips off her diving dress and wraps them around him. She soothes him when he jerks in pain, and even if she flinches from the claws that emerge from his fingers, she does not flee. She pats him and tells him it is all right, he will be all right, and when he requests in scratchy words that she bring him to the sea, she obliges.
She does not leave until he disappears beneath the waves.
There is a fishing village by the sea. It is raucous today, full of apprehension and excitement. There have been rumors of a giant fish and everyone wants to be the person who catches it, and kills it. They have set off in boats with their harpoons and their hopes of victory.
There is a fishing village by the sea. Several boats have been washed up already, their hulls smashed apart by some great creature. A father carries his only son towards their home. The boy’s eyes stare unseeingly at the sky. He will no longer be breathing by the time his mother sees him.
There is a fishing village by the sea and beside it is a monster, alone. He looks barely human: though he has the requisite body shape and four limbs, his skin is riddled here and there with gleaming scales and his blood, where it spills from his wounds, is boiling hot. He tries to get up. The touch of the earth saps his strength and he falls, trembling—the dragon god of the sea is nothing out of his domain.
There is nothing here, you may say as you pass through the gently swaying grove—there are no houses, no streets, no sign of life. There is nothing here but the sound of the wind, the scent of the sea.
No, that is not true, wanderer. There was a village here by this sea, before a dragon god tore it apart for a maiden he loved. All men here are dead and gone, buried by the waves. The maiden is dead. The dragon is gone. They will not return.
This is the beginning of a story that came to life a long time ago.