And yet, I see so much fire and courage in the hearts of the people around me, and people across the world. So much awakeness gleaming in our eyes. Such fierce love of land and of each other. And so I hope, despite all hope, because hoping and loving and acting on our hope and on our love are the best and only things we can do.
And because I believe in dragons, and I believe in this good earth, who will bring down her own justice before it is too late. May it not become too late.
When Dragons Came
To my future granddaughters out there beyond the end of the world, where you are gathering laurel nuts and combing out the hair of dragons:
Let me tell you a story. About where the dragons came from. About what it was like when I was a young woman, before ever I carried a child.
When I was a young woman a white dust had fallen across the land, and people gathered it in fistfuls, fighting each other to get the most, because its taste was unearthly sweet, and it brought on a euphoria that made what was real dissolve in favor of what was desired. A white sleep. Back then, people often loved the simulacra of Things more than the Things themselves, for it was easier to buy a Thing than it was to dig one from the earth. And because we were all afraid of death, so afraid we would swallow any measure of dust, any strength of oblivion, in order not to look there, until our loneliness and our animal despair were such that we forgot what we feared altogether, and turned to sleeping, calling it Life.
Many of us tried not to breathe in or swallow that dust. And there was still beauty to be found. There always is. I loved many things then. The bay at high tide with a heron walking. Any number of stars. Gathering nuts from the autumn wood. Your grandfather and the warmth of his hand. Food shared with family, with mother and father and brother, with grandones and uncles and aunts. Music under a moon. A fire in the hearth, tea brewed, and wool. Rain. Always, forever, rain. You could still find such things, if you sought them, but you were often alone in the seeking, bumping into others there only as in a dark wood, each desperate for something whole and old and earthly that none of us could ever find entirely, or name.
In those times, whatever was easiest was called best. And, as always, whatever served the ones who had the most possessions to lose. Not the most life to lose, but the most control over death. For it was not any of us alone, but Earth, who had the most life to lose, and lost it daily, hourly, under the thrall of that white dust, that sleep, that terrible need, and the howling loneliness that crouched behind it all, devouring.
There came a day one autumn when we knew the world would end. Your grandfather and I were clearing the dying oaks from the land we loved, the land where we were making a new home, our round tent of felt and canvas and hearth to stand inside the changing. Votes came in. Everything we had feared, everything we had not believed, began to come to pass in the hands of one too white with dust to rule, and yet who ruled nonetheless, by the will of people and their sorrow; and later, by a will only his own.
No one believed in dragons then, because they had gone into the earth long, long before. There were stories, broken ones, in which dragons burned towns and men killed them for it. Nobody remembered that the older name for dragon was hidden inside the lava and inside the moon, and that bones kept it safe even unto our day, far down in the ground.
We didn't know we were burning their blood to power our world, not then. We didn't know they might be as small as moths, or as large as the entire night sky, and that they could fly through the earth just as easily as the air. We didn't know because we had been afraid for a very long time, and asleep, and alone. All of this made it hard to see them, to hear them gathering far, far underground, in all the cavities and all the scars made by all the rigs and drills and blasts that had torn the earth, searching for what had always belonged to dragons and not humans, the hordes that should never have been taken away.
This is how it happened.
In the middle of the country, in the middle of the end, on a great and sacred plain by a great and sacred river, the first people of that land stood a final stand against that white dust, against tanks and guns, against a hunger too dangerous to bear, against the digging up of sacred blood. Everywhere across the country people woke up at last, struggling, from the dust of their lives, They tried to shout their outrage to someone, tried to make it stop, tried to say what mattered, tried to end the long and unspoken war. But by then it was too late.
An order was delivered. The drilling began. The tanks rolled in for the last time and surrounded the place where people were standing, where people were praying, where people were crying, where the antelope had been gathering and gathering for days, where all the white dust was gone from the ground, where everyone's eyes were open, were clear.
They stood in peace, without fighting. They stood with fists raised to the sky and they stood with tears falling and falling and the antelope ringed them, ready to die for them. In the very middle of the people were three young woman with black lines painted on their chins. Three sisters holding hands. Three sisters whose beauty was as old as the world.
The antelope began to stampede. Guns began to fire. And a hole opened in the ground where the three sisters stood. They fell in, and before anyone could follow, the earth closed again. Then it rocked and bucked and the tanks fells sideways and everyone ran for cover together as the river flooded its banks.
For a time, after that, there was a standstill. Machinery had broken. Drilling was suspended. And all the while, the three sisters were inside the earth, learning the names of dragons, riding the backs of dragons, braiding their hair for battle.
I knew none of this, then. Nobody did. Only three women inside the earth knew it, and the ones who had taken them there because of their beauty. Don't get me wrong for a moment that their beauty had anything to do with external appearances. Do you think dragons care for the faces of humans? It was the beauty of their souls they saw and took them for, beautiful as the fire at the beginning of the world. They had been waiting all that time for three such as they to stand in that place, in the name of the blood and the land, and not back down, and not turn away.
This is not a story that ends with three men who went out searching, and the youngest who found them and killed the dragons and saved us all. No. Life went on much as before. A shrine was erected in the place where the sisters had been swallowed, and people brought jars of clear water to pour on that ground in grief. For the digging had begun again, and the smell of oil was in the air, and the taste of oil was in the water.
A year and a day they were gone and mourned for dead. A miracle, but dead. A year and a day and through it the world's weather grew wild. The ones who ruled us called orders on the bodies of women, on the dark bodies of their brothers and sisters, on the bodies of men in love. They filled the ground and the sky with every imaginable poison, as if there was no end to the curve of the earth. They began work on a Wall.
And then, all at once on an evening in winter when the stars were very sharp overhead, every light and every engine blew out at once. In that rain of light the air filled with dragons and with three beautiful women wielding battle axes made of fire, come to take back every last thing that had been stolen. The dragons had come to take those thefts back into their bodies and back into the ground.
They laid the earth to rest that night as she had not rested for hundreds of years, in an ancient veil of green.
All we could see of it that night was auroras, those northern lights which had never danced so far south before. But by morning, the ground was covered with ash and with eggshells, the eggshells of the first animals to ever walk the earth. There they were, crouched in the trees and roofs and riverbeds, on the hoods of cars, the broken telephone wires, the abandoned mines, the quarries, the sky-scrapers, the parking lots, the mountain tops. Not winged, not horned, not clawed, but older still, and stranger.
Some people couldn't see them, not yet. Others could, and could not bear the sight. Still others wept, and knelt for joy. But no one, no matter how hard or how hungrily they searched could find a trace of that white dust again. Only ash, which by spring made the fields sprout as never before. Only air so clear and eyes so open we could see every crater on the face of the moon for weeks after.
It will be long before we can see everything clearly again. Dragons take lifetimes to believe in once more. But you are women of dragons, now. You must gather the laurel nuts and the acorns like we could not. You must say the true name of the water, and wait for it to run clean. Forgive us, oh my granddaughters not yet born. I am so sorry, my dear ones, for we are waking the dragons that you must learn to ride.
So may you be beautiful in soul. And may they come courting you. May they swallow you whole and make you theirs again, and keepers of that oldest justice: Hers.
|David Lupton's illustration for Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea|