The Dragon

VASSA

Part 2 of 2

That night, Phúc had a dream. He stood at the edge of a lake and looked out at the mountains on the horizon beyond. He felt the coolness of the mud as it pushed between his toes. As he stared into the distance, something in the bottom of his vision caught his eye: a ripple had disturbed the dark glass surface of the water. It was so faint he could barely tell if it was real or not. But as he watched it, he became aware that he had waded into the water to his knees. He felt detached from it, as though he were nothing more than a puppet on strings. Behind him the boys had gathered; they chanted his name and cheered as he continued. The sound was faint and muffled like a cry from a distant hill.

In an instant his body was in the water, but even though he went forward, he had no sensation of movement. The water beneath him was dark and turbid, and he searched for definition within. As he did so, a shape appeared. It’s a fish, thought Phúc; an old rice sack. But as it came closer, he was startled to see that it was a man’s face, pale and hollow. It had sunken eyes and sharp ridges where its cheeks should be. It approached with an unhurried menace, and as it got closer, Phúc’s stomach turned to knots. With a final, indescribable horror, Phúc saw that the face was not that of a man at all, but the face of his older brother. A scream welled in his throat as it rose toward him, but no sound could escape; he was already underwater. He was being pulled into the cold darkness below.

Phúc awoke with a start. The room was filled with a low hum, and it took him a moment to realize that the sound was his own voice in his throat. His heart pounded with a fast, deep cadence. He sat up and clutched his hands to himself. His T-shirt had become soaked with sweat, and he rose quietly to avoid waking his parents on the other side of the room. He wanted to reach out for his mother, to slip past the wrinkled photo of his brother that hung on the wall, and seek the comfort and solace of her arms. He was too old for that now. He stripped the shirt over his head and visited the toilet, and when he returned, he lay sleepless in the cool night air as the moon shone through tiny cracks in the shutters.

• • •

The harvest season arrived, and with it came long, hot days in the rice paddies. To Phúc, the sun seemed to change in even this short time: it hung lower in the sky and seemed redder as if weighted by fever. The glaring sting of the summer gave way to dull, heavy warmth that swaddled Phúc as he bent to his work. Other things changed, too: the family dog gave birth, and the pups were a constant distraction as they stumbled across the cement and took bits of chicken from his fingers. For the first time, Phúc’s father trusted him to drive the family buffalo without assistance. He had even complimented his skills one evening as the sun retreated. Gradually, the memory of the nightmare receded until it was nothing more than a gray, momentary flash.

It was another three weeks before Phúc was able to visit the lake again. By then, it seemed like a lifetime had passed. Huy sported a fresh scar that ran from his temple to his jaw. The boys peppered him with questions, but he only brushed them off: it was the dragon, he said. He’d woken the dragon, and they’d battled. He puffed his chest in defiance as he explained how he’d beaten it back to the bottom of the lake. One of the boys whispered that Huy had actually fallen off his own family’s buffalo, which caused Phúc’s pride to swell. Huy, though, pretended not to hear; he only pursed his lips, kicked the ground, and demanded that they all have a contest to see who could catch the most frogs.

Phúc had no interest in frogs. Already he had a sense that something had changed, things beyond faded days and new pups and tired buffalo. He walked to the lake and picked up a rock. It was jagged and caked in mud that crumbled in his palm. He threw the rock into the water, and as it landed it sent ripples across the surface. Huy had said he fought the dragon. If that was so, thought Phúc, how could Huy still be here? The dragon was supposed to be strong. Huy was strong, too, but he was just a boy. If there was a dragon, how angry could it be if it could be beaten by a boy?

As he thought, he became aware of a cool sensation around his ankles. He realized as he looked down that he had entered the water without thinking, just as he had in his dream. As he continued, the cold water rose higher to his knees, his thighs, his cu. When the water reached his stomach, he looked across the still water at the hills. They seemed to glow golden in the light of the fat sun. He remembered wondering what the people that lived there might be doing, what their lives were like. It seemed like it had happened long ago, in a different time.

The water rose to his chest, and he allowed himself to fall into it. As he kicked his legs, a sound rose up around him. It bristled like a flock of birds taking flight. Phúc tried to remember if he had seen the birds on the shore. Then he heard them calling his name, and he realized that it was not birds. The boys had gathered on the shore and called his name:

Di, Phúc! Di!

It seemed to come from some faraway place. Then, from some other place, he heard his brother’s words: You must be patient.

Phúc slowed and paddled into the lake. As he went, he took deep, unhurried breaths. When he reached the spot where he had seen his brother descend, he stopped. He floated and listened to the breeze and the echo of the boys in the distance. Sunshine cut through the green haze of the water and brightened pieces of matter below him. There were no pale faces to peer back at him; there were only his legs, thin and sinewed, as they kicked in lethargic rhythm. With a final breath to fill his lungs, he threw his head into the water and began his descent.

As he went, he grabbed at the water in great armfuls. Once, he thought he saw a face in the murk and his heart leapt in his chest. But it was just a fat, white fish, and it darted away almost as soon as it appeared. The deeper Phúc swam, the more his ears felt like they were packed with a thick cloth. He remembered a trick his brother had taught him; he plugged his nose and blew, and his ears cleared with a pop.

Farther and farther he swam. As he went deeper, a burning grew in his chest. Just as he considered a return to the surface, a shadow appeared, as monstrous and inert as a statue. Phúc’s stomach tightened as he swam closer. If this was the dragon, he didn’t want to wake it. As he approached the shadow, its shape formed. The dragon was long and curved like a banana. Long wings with twisted bones stretched from its head and tail. A patch of white shone from its belly like a scale. It resembled a star, and where it had peeled from the skin appeared a rash of red and brown. What seemed like letters emerged, and Phúc translated through the murk: Ayy. Arrr. Emm. Wyy…

And then Phúc knew: this was no dragon. It was a flying machine.

The burning in his lungs grew, but he ignored it. He kicked to the front of the machine. The wide window had shattered, and the machine’s broad face gaped outward. Its eyes were dark holes, and below them was a maw of jagged glass. Weeds reached through the mouth and waved with no rush to the sun. He touched the metal skin and drew away. It was cold, and sturdy, and he was surprised at how strong it seemed after spending so many years at the bottom of the lake.

With alarm, Phúc realized he could ignore the burning in his lungs no longer. He turned toward the surface and kicked, and as the yearning in his chest grew unbearable, he thought of the sun, he thought of the hills on the horizon, and just as he thought he could take it no more, he thought of his brother. Suddenly, he burst to the surface with a gasp. Warm air filled his lungs, and he floated and accepted the sun as it beat upon him. The air was sweet in a way that it had never been before. The boys cheered and yelled his name, but it seemed to come from some great distance. It could have been from the low hills, or past them, or even from the place his brother had gone those long two years ago. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. He just floated and enjoyed the quiet.

THE END


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Matthew Chabe
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