HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Between Dragons and Their Wrath
My name is Domei. I think I am fourteen. I will probably die today. If not, I will probably die tomorrow.
When it happens, I don’t think I’ll be surprised. Frightened, maybe, but not surprised.
In the forest, scales are most common. If they cut you, the cut will never stop bleeding.
If you step in a place where a dragon has defecated, food will stream through your body, and you will always be hungry. If you pass a place where a dragon breathed fire, your skin will forever blister and heal and then blister again. If you touch a dragon’s blood, you’ll go mad.
As for me, I was harvesting scales. With a scale, you can till the land faster than anyone using an iron hoe. You can butcher meat in a tenth the time it takes to use a knife. There are good things about dragon leavings, and for those good things, I usually get paid enough to eat.
Scales are common. Everyone knows about those. It was something else that got me.
When I die, if you ask the Andé what killed me, they will probably say it was the dragons. Ask me now, and I’ll tell you the Andé are responsible. They drove their dragons across our land.
I don’t know why the Andé, who live to our west, hated the Zhie, who live to our east. Kwesi has tried to explain, and so has Hano. But their explanations don’t make sense.
Kwesi believes war is what people do. He says when people are lazy, they go to war. He says Rho would go to war if we weren’t so poor. He may be right, but it doesn’t explain why the Andé attacked the Zhie instead of the Rho or the Merais or someone else.
Hano’s answer is even stranger. “The Andé say the Zhie cut the hands off Andé children. They say they stole their women in the night and sucked their blood and made them defecate on Andé flags. And they were killing Andé spirits, too.”
I said, “I haven’t heard of the Zhie doing anything like that.”
Hano got annoyed. “No, I mean that’s what the Andé say.”
But since those were obvious lies, there must have been another reason first.
I suppose reasons don’t matter now. The Andé had dragons. The Zhie had none. With firecrackers and guns and bayonets, the Andé drove their dragons into Zhie land as a strong, angry man will drive a knife into someone’s heart. And we, the Rho, were in the middle. We were the flesh, the ribs. They drove the dragons right through us.
That was fifty years ago, the dragons, the war. Since then, we’ve had floods from old dragons’ tears, and earthquakes from old footprints. It was an earthquake that brought me here to Ponçan. I was in the forest, a few dozen kilometers from the rubble of the village where I must have grown up. Kwesi was a truck driver then and he heard me screaming in the trees. He went off road, loaded me into his truck, and took me to the N.G.O. men.
We used to call Ponçan the tent city. Most of the tents are gone now. There’s still a crew of NGO men left behind “to coordinate efforts in the surrounding countryside.” But these days, when Kwesi wants a break from hauling, he can usually find an abandoned building to stay in.
The people here pronounce NGO as Ngo. Kwesi taught me: you position your tongue at the top of your mouth to make an n without speaking, then make a g with the back of your tongue. Then let out the o and it’ll push the ng right in front of it.
There are a lot of ng sounds in Kwesi’s dialect. There are a lot of NGOs in Rho.
Ponçan is mostly empty now except for the Ngo men who stayed behind. The rest of us have nowhere to go, like Hano and I.
Hano is my best friend. He’s also never been changed by a dragon. People like that are rare in Ponçan. If you ask him why, he’ll just say he was lucky.
Kwesi, who is the same age as our fathers would be, used to be a friend of Hano’s family. After he dropped me in the tent city, he sent Hano to look after me. We fell in easily together. He showed me how to find houses no one was using so I didn’t always have to sleep in the tents, and how to go through the dump outside the village, and how to get in queues early for meal relief.
Hano is fast on his feet. He’s cheerful even when he shouldn’t be. He has quick, bright eyes for spotting useful things that have been thrown away, and deft hands for pulling them free.
“I wanted to grow up to be like my mother,” he told me once while we shared fruit we’d found in an Ngo dumpster. His mother had died in the flood which happened before the earthquake, but he still talked about her happily. “She taught little kids, four year olds, six year olds. The smallest ones are the best. They’re always running after something even if they still piss themselves.”
He looked regretfully at his withered fruit and went on. “She was a great cook, too. We’d find papayas and cook them with lime and chilies. My little sister drank from a stream where a dragon shat. It wasn’t bad enough to kill her, but she couldn’t keep her food so there was always cooking to do.”
I examined the bruised parts of my fruit, and leaned against the dumpster. The sky above Ponçan is never a normal color. It was changed by dragon wings a long time ago. It was mud brown that evening. The Hizhang cows lowed as it got darker.
“What did you want to do?” Hano said.
I pretended not to know. “When?”
“Before Ponçan, what did you want to do?”
Hano and Kwesi know I don’t remember much from before, but I’ve never told them it’s basically all gone. Maybe not having a past makes it easier not to spend time thinking about before and after like Hano does. I’m too busy trying to sell scales and get a bite to eat.
“You don’t have to answer,” Hano assured me.
I said, “It’s fine—”
Hano’s eyes went wide. He clapped his hand over my mouth. A cry drifted between buildings, and from the corner of my eye, I saw a moving fire.
The burning children won’t usually hurt you because they can’t really see. They just wander, hands outstretched. It’s only when you make noise that they’ll come toward you and wrap their arms around your knees. They want someone to hold onto. They don’t realize they’re burning you alive with the same dragon-fire that killed them long ago.
Life in Ponçan is not so bad. We waited until its cries were gone, and then counted three hundred breaths more to be sure.
You see, we were lucky. The Andé drove the big dragons north of Ponçan. We only got little dragons, the size of trucks, whose looks melted one or two people at a time. And they were always on the move, not being thrashed into city-destroying rages.
During the war, the Andé slaughtered a big dragon the size of a mountain. They dropped its liver and gall on Hizhang. Bile poisoned the earth, poisoned the air, poisoned the people and the children of the people, and is still poisoning them now. People born in Hizhang have probably never seen a dragon, but they don’t need to.
Every dusk, the cows start lowing from Hizhang. But there are no longer cows in Hizhang.
You see, we were lucky.
I’ve never seen a dragon, but I don’t need to.
There’s an art to picking up dragon scales. You have to be careful not to touch the edges. You pinch them just past the edge and wiggle them out of the soil or loam or scree. Then if you’ve picked up an old tin can or something, you put them in there. If not, you can wrap them in cloth, but it will get cut through, and the scales will cut whatever is nearby, too. The tin cans also get cut, but not as quickly.
A long time ago when Ponçan was still a tent city, an Ngo man told me there are different types of remembering. I’ve forgotten my old life, but not how to gather scales.
I have so many cuts on my fingers that my hands are always cracking with dried blood. I have cuts on my knees and feet from dropping scales, but they aren’t deep. The thighs are especially dangerous, like the arms. It’s easy to bleed out. You see, I’m lucky. I’m not bleeding out. Just seeping.
This is a world with only two things in it: the ones which change, and the ones which linger on. I was one of the things that changed.
My life before is gone, but I remember how I got to the tent city. I remember the tatty roof of Kwesi’s truck which was all I stared at for hours. I remember the jolting road, thinking someone angry was shaking me. I remember the dust, which blew into my mouth and eyes.
The sky was green, and the sun was so, so bright.
White tents held hot air like breaths they wouldn’t let go. There were bodies everywhere, moving, moaning. There were no beds left. I was put on a pad on the ground. I lay there staring at the tent ribs, and listening to the wind. It was a hard sound to hold onto. So many voices overrode it.
They gave me a paper bracelet. I don’t know what it said. I hadn’t told them my name.
Afternoon passed, and evening, and the lowing of the Hizhang cows. The tent canvas was brightening with morning when a Ngo man examined me. He tested the weight of my limbs, looked at my teeth and eyes, and felt my neck, armpits, and groin. He took a vial of my blood and labeled it in neat Merais letters. He put the blood in a case with mist pouring out of it. Another Ngo man was following him with a clipboard.
The man was surprised when he realized it wasn’t the earthquake that had left me feverish and screaming. “Neutrois,” he said slowly, so that the one with the clipboard could write it down. “A common affliction in the parts of the world that deal with dragon breeding. There are schools to rehabilitate them, even surgery if a sex can be assigned.”
They went on to the next boy, and a Rho nurse came to check my fever. Behind her, wind batted the tent flap, showing flashes of orange sky.
Hano has never been changed by a dragon, and if I can stop it, he won’t ever be. He’s better at scavenging in the village anyway. I go out for scales.
A few days ago, the sky rose purple. The sky above Ponçan is many colors, but almost never purple. We couldn’t decide what it meant. Hano thought it was good luck. Kwesi, who brought us a handful of dried fish, thought it was a fool’s game to gamble on anything but bad luck in Ponçan.
Me, I went out to gather, because we needed scales. Hano sent me out with tin cans from Ngo dumps, and I pried loose a half-dozen scales without adding fresh cuts to my hands.
I took my time walking back through the sweet-smelling trees. The sky shifted restlessly between lavender and violet. Darker shades made the trees look black even though it was afternoon.
Among the shadowed trunks, I saw two animals. The small one suckled from the large one. As I neared, I saw it was a muntjac suckling from a forest ox. It was the ox that looked at me as it angled its large body to stand between me and its fawn. Its eyes were challenging. They said: Leave us to ourselves. This is our new world, and we are content with it.
These are things that have changed.
I never went to surgery. A gender was never assigned. Boys mostly treated me like another boy, and girls like another girl, so long as no one asked. When they did, I said “because of the dragons” and they might wrinkle their noses, but then they’d crowd around to show me what had happened to them.
“Look! I picked up something on the side of the road, and now my hand-bones are soft—”
“—all my teeth went sharp! I can’t even eat fruit anymore—”
“No, no, see this? One foot is on backwards, but only the one.”
“That’s nothing. My sister has her whole head on backwards!”
“My grandma can turn her hands backwards.”
“Look at me, I have two tongues! T-t-wo t-t-ong-g-gues!”
Life in Ponçan is not so bad.
In the purple-sky evening, Kwesi caught me on my way back from gathering scales. We laid them flat in the bed of his truck where it would take them a little longer to cause trouble.
With his braids swept back, I could see the hungry little mouths on his neck which he’d gotten when he was hit with shrapnel from a dragon-tooth bomb. He always wore his shirt, even on hot days, to hide the ones on his side.
He caught me looking, and grinned as he pushed his hair over them. “One of the widow’s kids wouldn’t stop bothering me this morning so I told him they eat children’s fingers.”
“Sometimes.” He pointed down the road. “Let’s take a walk.”
We left his truck and headed toward where I was staying with Hano. On our way, we passed the old general’s house. Some Ngo men were moving things inside, and a crowd had gathered behind them. They crossed their arms, passed chaw, and muttered darkly.
Finally one of the Ngo men put down the crate he was carrying. He said something in Merais and flapped his hands to shoo them away. Grumbling, the crowd broke up.
The old general’s house was the fanciest building in Ponçan, but it had been empty as long as I’d lived there. No one went in, even squatters. I looked up at Kwesi. He spoke Merais, and I didn’t.
“He told them they’re being unreasonable,” Kwesi said. “He says Ngo are trained to be careful.”
“Story goes the old general touched dragon blood and that’s why he went mad. The house has been cleaned now.”
Kwesi shrugged, and offered me a cigarette.
“This is what I say,” he said, lighting it for me. “You should get out of here. Go to the capitol. You’re smart, you can do whatever you want.”
I took a long drag. I had to balance the cigarette just so in my fingers to keep from bloodying the paper.
He lit his own. “I hear there’s new Ngo money to send Rho to that school they have for kids who were changed like you.” He paused to blow out a stream of smoke. “You should go, learn mathematics and become an accountant or a banker. You’ll live in a big, white house, and have servants bring you drinks when it gets hot, eh?”
“There’s never enough Ngo money for everyone,” I said.
He tightened his lips around his cigarette and spoke from the side of his mouth. “Enough for somebody, though. What’s keeping you here?”
I thought of the muntjac and the ox.
I stubbed out half the cigarette. “I should find Hano.”
“Give me a minute,” Kwesi said. “I’ll drive you.”
“I can get the scales myself. I know how to handle them.”
Kwesi examined me for a second before deciding to back off. “I’ll keep watch here,” he said, nodding to the old general’s house. He raised his hand to say goodbye, and smoke trailed into cloudless violet.
Early on, Hano, who has never been changed by a dragon, asked me, “What happened to you, anyway? I didn’t know anything could make you like that.”
He said it cheerfully, the way he’d want to know how I could jump so high, or how big the cat was I’d seen in the forest. Since he said it like that, I gave him half an answer.
I remember just far enough back to know I was in a clearing with a sack. The clearing was thick with shed scales, more than I’d ever seen. It was dangerous to go where they were so crowded since it was so easy to trip over one you didn’t see, but I needed the money from bringing them home. I don’t know why I needed it. I was thin when they found me, but I wasn’t starving. Maybe I had siblings.
Even then, I knew I was probably going to die that day. If not, then probably the next. I wrapped my feet in cloth even though it wouldn’t do anything, and told myself I’d be okay as long as I went slowly and made sure I could see exactly where I was stepping. I thought the silvery sheen to the ground was just the light reflecting off the grass. That was a stupid thing to think. I'd never seen grass reflect that way.
Bits of purple sky reflected on the tin cans as I stood in our doorway, giving them to Hano. He shook them to hear how full they were, and said, “You see, we were lucky.” Then he made me show him my hands and feet so he could see I didn’t have any new cuts.
I told him about the muntjac and the ox. He laughed. “Some changes aren’t so bad,” he said.
He looked at me when he said it.
Thoughtfully, Hano asked, “Do you think it’s like this everywhere? Even in Andé?”
I pulled back my hands, rubbing at the crusted blood. Hano frowned. I was supposed to let them scab when I could.
“We’re never going to Andé. Why worry about it?”
“They have so many dragons in Andé. It must be worse than here. Right?”
“There are a lot of places worse than here.”
“Mm,” answered Hano, not quite agreeing. He hesitated, looking at the goods he had piled in the corner, his scavenge and my scales. He said, “If I were like you, I could go to the capitol.”
The turn surprised me. “You’ve been talking to Kwesi.”
“If Ngo has money, why not take it?”
“If Ngo has money.”
“If I was like you, we could go to the capitol together.”
“You’re not like me. Why worry about it?”
Hano stared at our goods for a while as the quiet grew. The Hizhang cows lowed, and the sky finally let go of purple and went grey. We heard old men walking past, one of them telling a joke.
Life in Ponçan is not so bad. Eventually, Hano took a dented can from our personal stash, and opened it for us to share.
Hano almost died yesterday. He laughed about it but his laughter was shaky.
He had been sleeping at his cousins’, close to the center of Ponçan. They were paying him to help with repairs. It happened just before dawn, when most people were sleeping. He found me outside, eating breakfast, not even knowing something was wrong.
“Some white Ngo, straight from Merre,” he told me. “They gave him the old general’s house, and in the back of the closet, he found the old general’s uniform.”
“No,” I said, because I knew the answer was yes.
Hano gave his choked laugh again. “He put it on. He put it on.”
After that, the Merais man really had no choice. The jacket made him take the rifle the dead general had left, and it made him go outside and fire it through the walls into the houses. Hano had been asleep, but the noise gave him enough time to throw himself to the ground and cover his head with his hands. A bullet bit his shoulder, but when the bullets ran out, he was still alive. The Ngo doctor bandaged him up.
Hano was wheezing, but he tried to keep laughing, too. “The shots stopped, but I was afraid to go out until I heard that old widow shouting at him. I finally peeked out the door and saw her beating him, head and shoulders, with a pan. He was just standing there. The jacket still had him. Bang. Bang. Her face was so red! Kwesi had to pull her off so she didn’t kill him.”
He tried to keep laughing.
Kwesi was dead by the time he stopped the old widow, of course. One of the general’s bullets went through his eye. He just hadn’t been the kind of man to leave something undone that needed doing. Once he’d saved the Merais man’s life, he laid down and went back to being dead.
“The widow said, at least Kwesi’s mother would always know where he was now—”
Hano was still trying to laugh when we heard the cry.
He clamped his mouth shut and so did I. We turned as silently as we could, searching for the flare of the burning child. I heard each swsh of my shoes.
Suddenly, Hano smacked his hand against his leg. Shrieks of laughter ripped their way out of him.
I followed his pointing finger toward a live child. She was crying, but not burning. A woman had come to comfort her.
Hano’s laughter cut off abruptly. His voice went flat and quiet. “I hate this haunted village,” he said. “I hate this haunted country and I hate this haunted world.”
Today was for selling, not gathering, but I went out anyway. I left before Hano woke up. Since the shooting, his eyes had been dull, yet he watched me. He wanted something from me and I thought I knew what.
He hadn’t found me more cans yet, but I could manage scales. I wrapped my hands for whatever help it would give me, and went into the forest.
The sky was the color of old bones. Orange clouds hovered, unmoving. The sweet-smelling trees were oddly quiet as if the animals were holding their breaths. Fleeing birds broke the silence as they cut into the air.
Between the sweet-smelling trees, I saw the muntjac with the ox. The muntjac’s teeth were bloody. When it raised its head to glare at me, the skin of its face pulled backward like the grimace of a bat.
The muntjac kept changing. The ox, lingering on, gave up its meat like the Hizhang cows.
Truthfully, I remember a few torn things. I remember a picture of a tall woman putting her arms around one of the burning children. She must have died, but I don’t remember that part. My father died from an infection that started in his foot, but that’s all I know. It’s just words. I don’t remember why or how.
The dragons didn’t take my memory. I let it go myself. I was staring at the ripped-up ceiling of Kwesi’s truck, and the road’s giant hand was shaking me apart. I thought why not let go, why not be easy for a while? I was probably going to die that day. If not, then probably the next.
The sun was so, so bright, and I gave every memory to the leaf-green sky.
I found Hano by the Ngo dump, with nothing in his hands, staring in the direction of the old general’s house. Kwesi had gotten up to help dig his own grave.
I told him the other half of the answer to a question he’d asked long ago.
It happens sometimes that when the dragons’ poison seeps inside you, you see what they’ve seen, feel what they’ve felt. So: It was late in the war, under a swallowing half-moon. The air was heavy without rain, and the moon was shining down and the blades of grass looked like bayonets. And the leaves of the trees hung down like swords. And the night was silver-black like drowning. And I came to the clearing.
And I was tired. My mouth too much fire, my stomach empty, my scales split from firecracker whips. I did not know the Andé were the Andé, or the Zhie were the Zhie, or anything about the Rho. I knew the whips that drove me north and north and north, and I couldn’t sleep. So I came to sleep.
And I laid my body among the bayonets.
And the breath from my nostrils went deep into the earth and made pearl garlic grow.
And my weight settled through my body and turned the soil into granite.
And I did not dream.
The Hizhang cows were still screaming even though it was already night because that was the first night the Hizhang cows screamed. I heard the vibrations of my sisters’ and brothers’ frustration as they were unleashed to kill, but never to feed enough to take away their hunger. And like them, I was hungry, and I stretched upward.
And I saw my reflection standing in open air. I saw his hollow stomach, and whip-cracked scales. I saw his wild eyes.
So, again: As that other dragon, I was driven by the gnawing in my stomach. I came to the clearing searching for meat, but instead I came upon my reflection. Pearl garlic frothed on the granite beneath her.
I had been driven ten days without stopping. I was ready to kill everything in my path, I was ready to kill the Andé, but the Andé were never in front of me, only behind me, with their whips snapping at my tail.
So, a third time: Both dragons, I circled inward, drawn in by my reflection’s scent loosed in the night. We came closer, and we came closer again. Necks twined. My teeth flashed and blood flowed down two throats. Talons scraped and grasped. Tails swept the remaining grass from the ground and the swords from the trees.
Two dragons together, then two dragons each other, then twodragon rolling in itself. Hunger met with sating, sating met with hunger. For the first time since the Andé’s bite, I was full.
And then Andé herders came with the sun in the durian sky, and they took after me with their firecracker whips. I became two again, and I and I left this place, leaving silver mist behind us.
It was a long time before human-me was born, and lived a life, and forgot that life, and lived another life in Ponçan, but those things eventually happened, and left me by the dump with Hano.
Hano has never been changed by a dragon, but he doesn’t need to be. He has a bullet wound in his shoulder. He knows what to expect.
I told Hano, “It hurts to change the way I did.”
He kept looking at me, expression no different than it was before.
“They might do surgery to you. Make you a girl.”
He shrugged. “I don’t care about that.”
Life is not so bad in Ponçan. The roads going north are full of bandits. Where there are no bandits, there are dragon leavings worse than scales. Still, I said, “Tomorrow, then.”
Hano wasn’t ready to laugh again, but the edges of his lips made an almost-smile.
My name is Domei. Tomorrow, my best friend Hano and I leave for the capitol. We’re going to find the dragon-dance clearing before we go. If we’re lucky, Hano is going to change. If not, we’ll probably die.
We probably should have died today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An (pronounce it "On") Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Lightspeed, and a handful of Year's Bests. An's interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between. Se can be found online at an.owomoyela.net, and can be funded at patreon.com/an_owomoyela.
Rachel Swirsky is a short story writer living in Bakersfield, California. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Sturgeon Award. She's twice won the Nebula Award, in 2010 for her novella, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" and in 2014 for her short story, "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love." She graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2008 and Clarion West in 2005. She's honored to collaborate with her former student, An Owomoyela, for the second time.
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