All This in a World Without Dragons
In the car on the way to school, the father told his son that one day, when he was older, he'd have to kill a dragon. The father's voice shook as he said this. The word, dragon, caught in his throat. Outside, trees flowed past, and other cars. It was morning, autumn. The sun was permanently behind clouds. Leaves had started changing, falling, and the old men were out collecting them on the lawns. As always, the mother wasn't there. Trees flowed past and still the mother wasn't there. The father took a sharp turn and twigs scraped across the window of the car. Still, the mother wasn't there. Like all mothers of sons, this mother was far away, in a different city, trying to forget a child she'd never really known, trying to forget the man who used to be her husband. They were father and son in an age without dragons, she told herself, and they led a stringent and frightful life. A father knew the moment he was going to die. He knew what was going to kill him. Mothers were powerless to stop it.
Decades had passed, maybe centuries, since the death of the last dragon. Now that they no longer existed, people avoided speaking of them in public. At night, after the father put his son to bed, he sat down with the old stories, rehearsing them as the child slept. In the car, the son recognized a glint of fear beneath the word, dragon. He did not know, he could not know, but he pictured a tall, vague thing, about as tall as a very tall man. The thing snarled at him. It slithered and breathed fire. In the passenger's seat, the boy squirmed and wanted to cry. The seatbelt had been rubbing against his neck the whole way. To feel better, he focused on the father's hands, bigger than he thought his could ever be. This boy is only five, the father thought. He is still young. And he still has the eyes of a child. Dark and calm, not yet fierce. At that moment, the father was also considering his hands. He was considering reaching one of them toward the boy and patting him on the head. He was considering circling his fingers around the boy's neck, squeezing.
In the car, the father said no more about dragons. He drove to the school wishing he hadn't mentioned them. His son wouldn't turn twenty for another fifteen years, and by then he'd be almost as big as the father, his hands almost as strong. The father would have taught him to wait until dark. Like all sons, this one would creep into the bedroom of the father. He'd take the father to the woods, tie him up, perform the simple task of exposing his throat and cutting it. Leaving the body for the forest's smaller creatures, the son would remove only the hands and feet. He'd start a fire and cook those parts until they were black and charred. Then, kneeling softly in the soft mud, he'd lift the father's palms to his mouth and lick the rough skin for hours until his tongue bled.
It was the father who taught the son how to do these things. It was the father who showed him exactly how to dismantle and destroy. Like all fathers with sons, this father moved slowly, drove slowly. He checked his mirrors often. If a light turned red, he'd tap the breaks and glide to a stop. Yet this father, like all men older than twenty, had once learned how to kill. Years ago, he too had entered the bedroom of his father, knowing he was supposed to wake him before tying him up and slaying him. But he'd killed his father in the dark so he wouldn't have to see. And he'd done it while his father still slept, so he wouldn't have to feel. Alone in the woods, he'd removed his father's hands before tossing them away. And he passed the rest of the night like that, shivering, wondering exactly what he had done.
Fifteen years later, the father still could not forget that killing his father had felt a little too close to killing himself. He still recalled the cold mud. The sad corpse swinging in the breeze. The sickness lingering in his stomach. It was a powerful feeling, a feeling that things weren't quite right, that he had been misled. He questioned whether he had done what he was supposed to do. Taking deep breaths to try and control it, the father had vowed never to have a son of his own. Never would he allow his life to end in that way. Never would he expose a child to the prospect of killing. Now, in the car on the way to school, the son was there, and he sat in the passenger's seat. Only his hand was moving. Fussing with the seatbelt. Behind them, cars began to honk. The light was green and traffic was trying to flow forward. They were stopping it.
At the school, the father parked and stepped out of the car. He opened the door for his son, took the boy's hand, and together they walked around the building to the yard. A crowd of students waited for the bell, the younger ones standing against the wall, the older ones playing a game that involved tackling each other on the concrete. Above, in the sky, dust swirled beneath sulfur-colored clouds. The father crouched next to the son on the blacktop. He hugged the boy, kissed him on the forehead, straightened his hat. For a moment they stayed that way, the father's hands swallowing up the child's shoulders. Then the father kissed the boy again and nudged him toward the other children. The boy took a reluctant step. Across the yard, a teacher watched from the doorway. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she was giving them a sad smile. The father nodded at her and stood. Soon he was far away, turning the corner toward the parking lot.
As the mother traveled from city to city, she shared homes with other mothers, sometimes for a week, a month, a year before moving on. She did not want to know the moment her son turned twenty, so she was trying to forget the date of his birth. In the evenings, the mother played board games in the parlor and watched TV. Mornings, she woke early, ate a quiet breakfast, and rode the subway downtown. Somewhere she had heard that millions of people once lived in this city. Now there weren't so many. She imagined what it might feel like to be amidst a crowd. To go up and down teeming streets. To constantly have to shove a path from one place to another. At a corner, she passed a group of men gathered outside a bathhouse. They were older, and they were usually there. When they weren't bathing, they were sitting on the steps, talking and smoking. It was their job to keep the city clean, and they did it well. But the mother knew she could not thank them. She could not look them in the eye or encourage them with a smile. Like all men over twenty, they had killed their fathers. But they had not been killed themselves. For whatever reason, they hadn't had a son of their own. In this, they'd failed.
Like every adult, the father and mother knew only pieces of this. They knew only pieces of everything. But in the decades or centuries since the age of the last dragon, people had continued to pass stories, fathers to sons, mothers to daughters. These stories had continued to evolve, and although they contradicted each other and sometimes seemed to tell of many worlds at once, people continued to follow them, they continued to believe. In the age of the dragons, they said, life had been violent, dark, superstitious. In the age of the dragons, there had been science, advancement, discovery, harmony. Always, there had been war, always peace. And in the time after the last dragon's death, the world had crumbled. Cities loomed hollow, like coral. After the last dragon's death, there was light. People thrived. The world was new and old. It was ours and it was not.
At his desk, the father filled out reports. Later, he made calls and filled out more reports on the results of those calls. As always, he could hear men working in the cubicles around him. A constant din of shuffling papers and voices talking on the phone. At ten they had a break to refill their coffee, and they gathered to discuss things like sports, or weather, or women who'd put pictures of themselves on billboards lining the highway. Most of these men were about the same age. They joked together easily, and laughed. But they were not friends. Never did they mention anything about family. Never did they indicate whether they were raising sons.
During lunch, the father sat by himself in an almost deserted plaza. The air was growing colder and he knew it wouldn't be long before his hands started to numb. All morning, he'd reminded himself that his son was only five. In the car, the father had mentioned the word, dragon, and the boy had kept silent. Of course the father had expected this, but it angered him. For a moment, he'd felt the hate and fear of killing return. He'd had the urge to do it again. Now, hours later, the father unwrapped his dry meal with stiff fingers. Shame washed over him. When he was young, he'd insisted that the stories were up for interpretation, that they weren't meant to be followed exactly. But he'd never quite convinced himself, and he'd never quite been able to shake the feeling that he was a coward, that he was no slayer of dragons. Thinking back on the shadow that was his own father, he recalled returning home from the woods. It had been strange to realize that the house was now his. Its walls and rooms were his. In the garage, he'd stripped off his mud-covered clothes, then crossed the kitchen and ascended the stairs. Turning on the shower and waiting for the water to warm, he'd noticed a bottle of sleeping pills on the counter. He'd understood then that he would not have been able to wake his father even if he'd tried. He realized that this discovery should have absolved him. But it didn't. Instead, it made him wonder of the decision to kill his father in his sleep came from somewhere else. If it was something innate, something passed down.
In the plaza, a young couple strolled past, the boy with his arm around the girl's shoulders. The father knew they glanced at him in pity, and he felt the same for them. When they were gone, he stood and stretched. He slid his hands into his pockets and walked slowly back to the office. It scared him to know that in fifteen years the boy would enter his bedroom, tie him up, and take him to the woods. But it also frightened him to suspect that, like him and his father, the boy might choose to deviate. All afternoon, the father thought about this, and could only sort the papers on his desk and scatter them again. He could only stare at his phone for whole minutes before remembering how to dial.
Still, the mother wasn't there. Each morning, she slid into an apron, and for hours she set plates in front of customers, took plates away. Every afternoon, the old men came in, always too early, always expecting to order lunch before the restaurant finished serving breakfast. It was obvious that the men had been working. Most wore crushed baseball caps with rings of sweat creeping up the edges. They were very quiet and they slumped in their seats. They refused to raise their eyes even when giving their orders. Serving them, the mother felt a strange kind of tenderness. She could not help but remember ten years ago, when she'd just fallen in love with the man who used to be her husband. Then they'd turned thirty, and they'd followed the stories like everyone else. For the first few months, the mother hoped that a miscarriage might give them another year. She silently wished for a girl.
At the school, it was already growing dark. The air smelled nice and new and deeply of metal and the father could see his breath. Nearby, other parents were scattered about the yard. They stood with hands in their pockets, heads down. The father knew he could not be the first to consider killing his son. Many of parents had probably thought of it. But if a father did not have a son or did not try, he became an outcast. If he hurt his boy or allowed the boy to be hurt, he had little to do but close himself off, block the windows and doors, board up the house. Crouching in the darkest corner of the darkest room, the father would wait. Usually these men died of hunger and fatigue. But there were also stories of coroners entering a house to discover a torn and ragged body, a torso etched deep by wounds from gigantic teeth and claws.
The father scanned the children's faces, searching for a smaller version of his own. When the son noticed him, he ran to the father, grabbing him by a finger and tugging him toward the parking lot. The father pretended to resist and struggle. The child laughed. In the car, they turned into a line of taillights heading away from the school. The son was no longer afraid of dragons, he said. He'd painted one in art, and it hadn't done anything but make him laugh. Again, the father felt dread pass through him, but he looked at the boy and couldn't help but smile. The son was waving one little hand in the air. The other was hanging onto the seatbelt near his chin. Outside, streetlights tremored and poured down. At once, everything was blurry and clear.
The son was only five. Still young. The father considered this as he turned onto the road leading to the woods. To distract the boy, he asked him if he'd ever seen a dragon, if he even knew what one looked like. The boy answered by shaking his head. He did not. The father promised to draw him a picture when they got home. He told the boy a story, the very first one. Sitting back, the son closed his eyes and listened. It would be a while before they cleared the city. Maybe thirty minutes. Maybe longer. The father turned up the heat and the son soon slept. If only there were dragons, the father thought. None of this would even be happening.
Cities away, the mother did not sense that her son was in danger. She worked as she always did and she returned to the house in the evening. At the front door, she found a woman waiting for her. The mother did not know this woman, but she followed her to a room nobody ever used. Inside, it was just a simple bedroom with brown walls and soft, thick carpet. Light came from a single lamp in the corner, making the space seem very small. Left alone, the mother walked toward the bed. Her muscles were stiff from waiting tables. The skin between her thighs had chafed. Someone had laid out a dress for her, and she stepped from her uniform before sliding the loose cloth over her shoulders. She sat on the bed, trying not to ruffle the blankets.
Soon, the door opened and the house's great-grandmother entered. The younger mother offered to help her maneuver her walker over the thick carpet, but the old woman refused. She lowered herself into a chair opposite the lamp and sat for a moment in shadow. Then, shifting so the mother could see her face, she began to speak. Something horrible has happened, she said. And immediately, the mother thought of the man who used to be her husband. She thought of her son. We live in a world without dragons, the old woman continued. It is a place where nothing is left to be discovered. We use the stories to fill in that emptiness. Here, men can't remain heroes for long before turning into dragons themselves. Women must have children. They must do the hardest thing and leave them. But there are times when men refuse to become heroes. When they refuse to become dragons. This has always been unthinkable. This is when a woman has to go back.
Decades had passed, maybe centuries, since the age of dragons. Sometime since then, or maybe during, information had passed smoothly from one place to another. It was stored on pages, as data, exchanged at light speed. The first story, the one the father told his son in the car, started with the last dragon. It had been in a zoo, safe behind glass and it had been happy there, declawed and defenseless, content to eat the skinned and dying goat zookeepers shoved through a door in the wall every afternoon. When someone snuck into the dragon's cage and slit its throat, the world became simpler, easier to follow. Some of that old time carried over. Skyscrapers were built, knocked down, rebuilt. Land was formed and flooded and formed. But books began to molder in the basements of the dilapidated libraries. Computers stalled out, gaping, disconnected. The most important thing, it seemed, was that fathers had always taught their children to use their hands and feet. To use their knives and spears and guns. Desperately, they caused short bursts of other lasts. Soon, the giant bears lay dead. Then the ferocious tigers. Then the vicious and mindless sharks. When nothing remained that was larger than the father, the stories began to tell of those who turned the weapons against themselves. Honorably, the fathers followed this. Honorably, they became the prey.
It took the father a long time to close up his house. Now, his eyes could not adjust, and he was having trouble staying awake. Time passed, but he wasn't sure how much. The darkness seemed to tumble before him. Crouching there, in the corner, his body and legs burned, pain needled his stomach. At some point, he shifted to lean against the wall. And that helped. Finally, when he decided he was going to sit and let himself die, he heard footsteps in the garage. Slowly, they crossed the kitchen and ascended the stairs. Slowly, the bedroom door opened. Whatever it was, the thing made almost no sound in the dark. It did not even seem to breathe. The father tried to stand against it, but his legs cramped. He stumbled and sat. Are you the dragon? he asked. But he could not be sure if the thing heard him. His words seemed to die in the dark. Kill me if you must, the father continued. But I did the right thing. The boy was young. Only five. I saved him. One day, he might save us.
In one hand the mother held an electric lantern, in the other a long, sharp knife. She was there. For days she'd traveled back to the old city, staring out the window of the train, imagining what would happen when she arrived. Sometimes she pictured killing the man who used to be her husband. Sometimes she helped him escape. In this room now, the dark took her eyes away. It was easy just to stand. To be quiet. To wait until something happened. At first, the mother felt a deep rage, but that had turned to a wave of sympathy just as strong. She knew she was supposed to let the man believe she was a dragon, that in a way she was supposed to become one. But she reached out toward his face and touched his cheek and it was as she remembered. Slight and thin. Covered with a light beard. Underneath, she could feel his mouth, still moving. The father stiffened, as if he'd recognized her touch. There are things I have to say, he told her. And he described his night in the woods. How he neglected to wake his father. The sleeping pills. The promise never to have a child of his own. There are times when I didn't believe, he told her. But I believe now. Now I believe.
For a moment, the mother felt her love for him return. Please stop, she said, but the words came out in a whisper. The father babbled on. The mother listened, remembering where the windows were, how easy it would be to tear the coverings away. Just close your eyes, the mother said. You are not allowed to open them again. This time her words carried the necessary force. The father quieted. The mother removed her hand from his face. She gripped the knife. She lit the light.
Since the day the boy turned four, the father, like all fathers of sons, had used his evenings to relearn the old stories. Each night he put his son to bed and sat down to rewrite them from memory. Then he repeated them under his breath. One morning, in the car, on the way to school, the father felt he was ready. Outside the sun was permanently behind clouds. The leaves were changing, falling. The old men were out, raking them on the lawns.
Fifteen years later, the son still remembered the word, dragon, catching in his father's throat. It was the day, he knew, that his father had taken him to the edge of the woods, bundled him in two coats and kissed him on the forehead. For a moment they'd stayed like that, the father's hands swallowing up the child's shoulders. The father had tried to explain something to him. Slaying the dragon slayer never worked to save the dragon, he'd said. But those who seek a dragon are the only ones who might find it. If I don't tell the stories to you, the father told his son, you cannot follow them. Find a dragon, he insisted, bring one back alive. If you do, everything might change. If you do, it might save us all.
The boy had been young, only five. He'd been confused and scared. The woods loomed dark and silent. Not a single noise came from them. When the father nudged him toward the trees, he'd taken a reluctant step. As the son began to wander, he often thought of this last moment. Sometimes he believed he would come across his father in the woods. But mostly, he heard the voices of other men. And he had learned to watch from a distance as one hung another up, slit his throat, built a fire. In the mornings, the men that were still alive abandoned the ones that were dead. Leaving them for the forest's smaller creatures. Creeping up to the bodies, the son saw that they had no hands or feet. The dead thing looked like a father, but it was rough and cold to the touch. It might be, the son thought, a dragon in disguise.
On the day the son turned twenty, he found an opening in the trees. The meadow grass grew higher than the boy's waist. It had not been trampled, and above birds circled and hung in a clear, blue sky. Far in the distance, a massive, crumbling castle sparkled on the horizon. By the time the son entered its first corridor, night was settling in. Slowly, he stumbled from room to room, arms outstretched. Feeling his way through the dark. When he finally came to the end, he found a very old, very strange thing. It was exactly as he had pictured it all those years ago. About as tall as a very tall man. When it coughed, a bit of smoke dribbled from its mouth. The boy stared. Fifteen years later, he still trusted his father. But he did not know exactly what he remembered, what he'd forgotten. Long ago he'd begun to suspect he'd been misled. For years he'd been wondering why he wasn't like the others he'd seen. Why his story didn't end like theirs. And he'd come up with reasons, although he wasn't always quite convinced. Looking at his hands, the son felt a swell of pride. They were finally as big as the father's, finally as strong. For a moment, he considered reaching one of those hands toward the dragon. Touching it on the shoulder, leading it away. For a moment, he considered coiling his fingers around the dragon's neck, squeezing.
Lucas Southworth's stories have recently appeared in Mid-American Review, PANK, Wigleaf, The Collagist, and others. He is a current editor at Slash Pine Press, an editor at 300 Reviews (300reviews.com), and an instructor of English at the University of Alabama.