The dragon spoke to me and I understood perfectly. It said it would stay by my side no matter what. And I wanted it this way. I wanted its dark body and golden talons forever by my side.
For many years I tried to catch the dragon by hiding near the pond where it would emerge every year to enter heaven in plume and spray. In majesty. It had been born in a short story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I found it by accident scanning the library. There it was ascending for the first time, born of a prankster’s imagination.
It was after many years waiting by the pond with no success that the dragon returned the favor and found me. It didn’t explode from the still waters, though. It rose slowly as a lotus from the depths, watching me walk away in sad defeat.
The dragon followed me home with the subtly of a shadow, slinking along the street in darkness and might. That first evening, as I nearly slipped into dreaming, the dragon spoke. In a voice at first soft and then rising in volume and timbre it told me its father was Akutagawa and from that day forward it would be my friend.
I lived with relatives, my mother and father having left after only nine short years getting to know me. They settled in New Hampshire and had other children, tried to forget their first son, the one who claimed the furniture in his bedroom spoke and danced. It was while living with relatives I learned that books were escape hatches, portholes, wormholes, windows.
A teacher once told me that books could come alive, that reading was a great joy. When I laughed and didn’t explain, the teacher considered my behavior as an insult. He took my recess that afternoon. I sat in the classroom and thought of all the ways I had seen books come to life, characters becoming friends, villains brought to their knees before my very eyes. I laughed because it was easy to see the teacher didn’t at all believe what he had said. I felt sad for him. Soon I found out he was normal. Most people didn’t see living, breathing fictional characters. Most people didn’t see dragons. I might be the only person who can see these things, which means I could be crazy. A crazy boy with pimples and growing pains. I’m sure I’m not though, because when the dragon told me it had to ascend again, I knew only something real could make my heart break so completely.
The night before the dragon was to leave it spent hours offering me explanations. It would only be gone for a time. Its ascension had to take place every so often. But each time, it was sent back to the cold depths of the pond, a sort of rejection, an exile.
Before the two of us drifted into sleep, the dragon must have sensed my sadness. It spoke of my heart as a reflection of its heart, of connections and support, friendship, bravery, courage to do the difficult thing. Finally the dragon agreed not to return to the pond for its ascension but, instead, stay with me in our tiny bedroom. If it were taken to heaven, it would be taken from my side. The dragon chose its original promise to stay with me at what risk I could not say.
As the hours passed, the dragon slept while I waited. The bedroom grew hot with its breath, seemed to expand and collapse, but I wasn’t afraid. The dragon and I needed friendship. We were both things imagined and then forgotten.
There was no morning. I woke in the late afternoon. The room was cold and the spot where the dragon had curled for sleep the night before was only a series of pulled together wrinkles in the carpet. I tossed myself out of bed and left the house for the pond. The surface was a gray plate, not so much as a mosquito lingering weightless near the banks.
I pulled the paperback copy of Akutagawa’s story collection from my jacket pocket and turned to the dragon’s story. I read aloud about its gold talons and black wings and eyes. I read aloud how the town gathered on the day it was to ascend, how they waited, not breathing. I kept reading, louder and louder, until the story was nearly finished. Until, like the will of the waiting people, with words I created ripples.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and columnist. He is the author of three books – the collections The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012), Where Alligators Sleep (Foxhead Books, 2014), and the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). In 2012, he was a finalist for both the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award and the Still Fiction Award. The Same Terrible Storm was nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing, while his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best of the Web, and cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler and Stuart Dybek, respectively. Other writing has appeared in the anthologies Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2010), Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2015), and Larry Fessenden’s Sudden Storm: A Wendigo Reader (Fiddleblack, 2016). He is the past founder and editor of four literary journals and is currently the founding editor of the online flash fiction journal The Airgonaut.