Published on 2012/03/04

The Singing Dragons of Mars

T. Fox Dunham

“It is here, Santiago! My beloved Santiago! Do you see its shadow?”

Professor Anton Angelus rolled out a planetary, survey chart on the dining room table, a gift from a friend at NASA, a previous student of the old professor. Anton imbued this student with the gift of wonder in mundane articles and processes in the natural universe, and the student passed to him charts and data for scholar’s quest.

Anton pointed to a dark patch staining the red surface like black ink spilled on the crimson foothills of old Mars. He outlined the shadow with his finger on the survey photographs transmitted from the Sagan probe.

“There are the wings, extending nearly half a mile on either side of the torso. She’s gliding, Santiago. Such beauty. Such timeless awe and terror. On the paws there, see the talons like a hawk? According to the ratio, they could crush a truck in their grip. And look there, the tail that spans and spins, extending his slim, snake body. Its mouth is wide, probably breathing the thin atmosphere as it flies, the way a shark breathes as it swims, driving water through its gills.”

Santiago toked the joint, holding the clip between his fingers. He stared at the shadow on the landscape, reading it like an ink blot, searching for Anton’s dragon. Of the paradigm, his brain perceived a jet, a thorny rose, a sleeping cat. He toked the joint again, seeking to relax his mind with the herb’s salubrious properties. He’d delivered bad news and failure to Anton through their collaboration, and he wouldn’t be able to rub two hours of sleep together if he had to see again his mentor’s sagging eyes, frowning mouth.

“Have you been to see Astra, today?” Santiago inquired.

“Was at the hospital all night. She’s sleeping now.”

Santiago couldn’t bring himself to reassure again, to say vapid phrases. She’ll pull through. Just a rough patch, you’ll see. If he was any kind of real friend, he could tell him: Anton, my sister, your wife, is about to leave the world and you must be ready. He couldn’t lose them both.

“But look Santiago,” Anton said. “Gaze upon perfection, the paragon of animals. We’ve searched so long, traveled across China, the Mongolia wastes, even springtime in Antarctica, seeking bones like two ghouls looking for graves to rob. And there, this whole turning time, it’s there above us. They live. They fly. There be dragons on Mars.”

Santiago bent down to tie his ratty, battered sneakers. They reminded him of two starved dogs barking in a city alley. He’d worn these same shoes to China, Antarctica, to the hospital where his sister now waits in pain and waits for the pain to stop. He examined the landscape of Mars.

“I can see how you perceive a dragon in the shadow’s pattern.”

“More than perception! More then the weak ramblings of tired eyes and a fatigued mind repelling grief like an army at its gates. I see this shadow, and I know it. I believe it in the same way that people believe in God. What was the most important thing I taught you when you took my course at Berkeley?”

Those had been brighter times—the maverick professor and his impressionable student. Santiago had searched for a guide, a teacher, to show him there was still magic in the world and to teach him not to apologize for believing in it.

“The nature of faith,” Santiago said.

“And there it is. Dragon. I feel it flying in my gut. We’ve seen so much evidence, most spurious, and I always kept my cool, reserved my celebration as we eliminated each bone, every sighting. We could find no evidence of this mighty race, but we both believed, both held the truth in our gut.”

He handed Anton the joint. He pressed it into the ashtray, extinguishing the red tip. The kettle keened, spouting steam. He wheeled his chair from the kitchen table and set to work making tea. Santiago had spent many long evening meals debating the existence of God in this off campus townhouse full of shelves full of books or during the summers in the professor’s cabin in the hills.

“No sugar?” he asked Santiago.

“I have never taken sugar in my tea.”

“My poor, boring Santiago. You must live a little.”

“It rots your teeth.”

“Dear friend and protégé,” Anton said. “Your teeth will rot regardless. Be bread to worms.”

Santiago’s lips slipped a taut thread of a smile.

“I will take a little sugar.”

Anton threw his arms up into the air, a preacher crying hallelujah.

“There’s hope in the world yet.”

He set the cups on a tray. Steam wafted from the steeping tea then dissipated into the stuffy air of the townhouse. He placed the tray on his lap and wheeled himself back to the table. Santiago nodded and took his cup. He blew on the hot tea before sipping.

“I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” Santiago said. “You even said yourself that the chances are slim we’ll find evidence of this cryptozoologic creature.”

“It is there, clarion, obvious as a choir singing Amazing Grace.”

“The human brain exists to perceive patterns. I spy a cloud floating overhead and see mountains, the faces of my parents, of my sister as she was—bright eyes and daffodil laughter.”

Anton dumped three spoonfuls of brown, sugar granules into his tea. He stirred, the spoon clanking the sides of the mug.

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” he said. “My secret of madness or vital secret of life. I think the bees know it too.”

Santiago took his mentor’s hand.

“Together till the bitter-tea end,” Santiago vowed.

He sipped his tea, the sweetness tickling his tongue. Perhaps not so bitter an end.

“I hear them singing,” Anton said. “My nascent memory of infancy. The roar like a brass band, trumpeters, blasting out their sound till the capillaries in their cheeks burst.”

“How did you know it was dragon’s song you heard?”

“It is carved in our souls, scribed in our DNA. I believe they were not native to this world, which is why we can find no evidence of their evolution in the fossil record. I also believe they fly off into space to die. Somewhere in the great black, a collection of bones orbit a pulsar like an elephant’s graveyard.”

“It would explain many things,” Santiago said.

“They sing to us all. They had come at the start of life on the early earth, to sing to the gray, frothy pools of hydrocarbons, potential life, a soup waiting to give birth to birds and lizards and people and skyscrapers and satellites and poetry. The dragons exhaled their fire from their nostrils, but not fire as we know it. Radiation. Neutrons. X-rays. They possess atomic gizzards, a heart that cooks and pops like a nuclear reactor. They came and breathed life over the stew, giving it spark, the first moment of conception. They fly in flocks, carrying this life from world to world. I know this truth, as old as time.”

“What do the dragons sing?”

Anton sighed, leaning back in his wheelchair, playing with the chain dangling from the pocket watch secured to the flower hole on the lapel of his black suit jacket.

“Too far. So much distortion, static left over from that wild bang, the firecracker that launched this sorry mess. The words elude me like a song heard in infancy, a ghost lurking in those old cloisters in my head. It’s so very beautiful, almost too cryptic to be deciphered. I had tried to describe the music and failed until I first met Astra. In her beauty, I finally found reference to describe the song’s glory.”

“I love the world you live in,” Santiago said.

His mobile phone played Bach’s Arioso.

“Pronto,” Anton answered.

Santiago watched as the stars in his mentor’s eyes dimmed.

* * *

Anton gripped Astra’s weak hand. Her arm dangled over the side of the hospital bed. They’d raced to the hospital, breaking several posted speed limits, flying like a mad comet to her side. Her eyes had been shut since they arrived, rolled boulders too heavy for her to lift.

Several bags of fluid hung from an IV pump. The pump groaned, pouring its elixirs into her veins, the vital waters of life in pointless remedy. A nurse popped in, wrapped a blood pressure cuff around her twig to record her vitals.

“My love,” Anton said. “I come with such good news.”

Astra sighed, turning her head to see her husband. Her eyes didn’t open to look upon him, but she could see him, knew him, always when the light concealed his dark lines and when the dark laid curtain. She’d shared her soul like a loaf of bread. They had feasted on their love for a score now, finding the other late in life through Santiago—but finding each other.

Souls travel in flocks, Santiago thought, leaning on the back wall in the hospital room, by a box of rubber gloves hanging from the wall. The aroma of rubber glove powder and salty cafeteria food churned his stomach. He slipped a mint from his pocket into his mouth.

“I know your news, my lovely Anton,” she whispered, possessing little enough breath to bear her words. “I can see them also now, flowing over the rusty deserts, the frozen mountains.”

“Of course you can, my wife,” he said. “I’m a fool. I forgot our bond. You knew of the dragons of Mars the moment I discovered them.”

Santiago examined this frail woman, a fallen willow branch, broken free after a gale, leaves wilting. Her skin etiolated. She faded before his eyes, ice melting in the sun. Bristles of red grew fresh on her scalp. Enough time had passed for hair to grow since her last chemo treatment. Her hair had flowed in strawberry fields, burned away now.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines.

Santiago quoted Shakespeare to himself.

Scoured over her as he did, he couldn’t locate her élan, the daring spirit who cajoled him up trees as a boy or to jump in Spring Lake as early in the season as cool March. Those bony hands were not the hands that bandaged his bruised knee, the hands the brushed his hair, that washed him as a boy in bath. His sister had cradled and mended and fed him after the ghost had eaten away his mother’s blood.

Now the ghost had returned a year ago to take his sister from him too, to devour her blood as the lymphoma had done to their mother.

“They must have evacuated the earth when humans evolved,” Anton said. “They couldn’t interfere after a certain point in their charge’s development. So it must be written on some cosmic, stone tablet. The flock migrated to Mars to observe us with parental eye.”

Tears leaked from her shut eyes.

“I am sorry my husband that I could not bear you children.”

He put a finger to her lips.

“I am leaving you alone,” she whispered. “I promised you I’d never do that.”

He leaned over and kissed each eye.

“Do you hear them now, the dragons?” he asked.

“A silver one with mercury skin, ebbing and flowing, liquid silver. She’s flying on great wing to earth. She flies to me, to meet my soul halfway.”

Anton laid his head to her chest, to savor every tap of her heart. He laid there through the night until the drum beat no more.

* * *

Santiago wielded his crowbar, pulled from the trunk of his Dodge. He beat the door on the cabin three times till he heard the wood crack. He worked crowbar’s teeth on the hinges, snapping the metal.

“Let me in this moment, professor,” he yelled through the window to the side of the door. He tore the door from the hinge and kicked it clear, cracking the rubber on his traveled sneakers. He burst through to rescue his mentor.

Anton tapped a spoon on a stained teacup, the lip cracked. He lingered in his wheelchair at the table in the parlor. Sparrows had built a scraggly nest on his cheek and jowls. His flannel robe couldn’t conceal the flesh draining from his emaciated frame. A single, white taper burned at the center of the table.

Santiago observed taciturn, looking on the old man, his mentor who had retreated six months ago to his cabin like Mad Sweeny of legend retreating up a tree, ending his relationship with the world.

“You have a mission,” Santiago said.

“A fool’s errand,” he responded, tapping the cup. “And I wasted your life too. I wasted her life with such folly.”

“And what of faith? The dragon song?”

“Delusions created by man to explain a cold, vapid cosmos. See all the empty space in the vacuum, between worlds and galaxies? A missing puzzle piece where the divine is suppose to fit.”

He banged the tea cup. A fissure cracked down the side. Santiago stole it away.

“Selfish old man,” Santiago said. “Easier to be a nihilist is it? I carry my loss. I go on. I have students that need teaching. The torch must passed. The furnace needs feeding. I die everyday when I hear the triple song of the starling. I pray for winter to drive the birds from me. Those were Astra’s birds. And you held her dragons.”

“A myth,” he said.

“You’ve gone deaf to their song?”

Anton pressed his palms to his ears, shutting his eyes. Blood rushed to his foreheads, his jowls, staining his face red. He clenched his teeth.

“I hear nothing else! A land of church steeples playing their bells always. I fail to sleep. To think and grieve and long for my wife gone now away. Their song amplifies everyday, shaking my stomach, keeping me from eating. I fled to our cabin, came alone, or I’d be thought mad. The dean would have me locked up in Bedlam. Dragon song he hears! What a mad hatter!”

Santiago took hold of Anton’s shaking hands and steadied them. Anton buried his face into Santiago’s cotton t-shirt.

“They will not stop calling,” Anton said, drenching the shirt with sobs. “They’ve sensed my grief, my mourning. They burn like supernovas. Black holes screaming.”

“Then perhaps you should answer.”

Anton broke from Santiago’s embrace. He pushed himself in the wheelchair from the table, weak in body and spirit. Santiago aided in pushing the chair.

“I am a man,” Anton declared to the ceiling, to sky, to empty void, to the red world so far away. “I lost my light when you took her from me. I demand you answer for this, dragon.”

Santiago waited for reply, flinching when a starling tapped at the window. Would the roof of the cabin blow away? Ignite in cerulean flame? And the lion head of a dragon peer inside, demanding by what right, what hubris Anton demanded? He waited for the professor to give him news.

“They come on the inclinations of the solar winds,” Anton said. “I must hurry. I’m in no presentable condition.”

He wheeled himself to the bathroom, filled the sink with hot water. He snipped away his beard, lathered his jowls then shaved in precise strokes. He rinsed his raven feathers, combed it back. In the bedroom, he dressed in his white suit, his summer beach-go-walking suit that Astra had bought him just before she’d been diagnosed.

“I can feel their song in such clarity, clarion as they approach. The lyrics at last. The words crystal ice, a glacier of words. They ask me—”

Anton paused, his eyes ignited in wild forest fire.

Santiago snapped the teacup in his hand, the crack breaking the bone china into twin shards.

“Old man,” he yelled. “What do you hear?”

The mountain side trembled, the old god in the stone awakened by the oncoming storm, the williwaws that blew through space on wide wing, hovering over the remote forest of pines growing on the foothills with mingled, ancient roots.

“They arrive!”

Anton dashed from the cabin, through the broken portal. Santiago followed.

Dragons danced on sky.

A mighty beast led the flock, the senior of the school. A white beard like bristling clouds sagged from his long jaw and snout. His nostrils flared, sucking in the fresh earth atmosphere, so long now only filtering the thin air of Mars. Scales covering his body glowed fulgent like a thousand bonfires borne on his torso, his stubby arms, trunk hind legs. His wings flapped in slow strokes, the length from tip to tip beyond the sight of Santiago’s eyes, his soul. The wizened dragon floated above the mountain, matching its dimensions. His thin, curvy body rolled in snake grace. The king’s quorum, his court hovered further above in sky, smaller caricatures of the old king in the distance.

And Santiago heard the song, a chorus of trumpets, of sopranos. At first, it split his head into migraine, but this mollified, cracking open his mind, breaking away the petrified wood and mud civilization had buried over his senses so he could no longer channel the sincere nature of the living universe.

He wondered if he dreamed; or was he the dream of dragons?

He heard the lyrics. The dragons had pondered in quandary all these eons. Why had no human asked them the question? They had sung their survey over and again till finally Anton, his soul laid raw by grief, heard their interrogation.

“Why did she die?” Anton addressed the ancient king with the scars eroding its lion’s visage.

The dragon aimed its snout at a birch tree, silver paper falling from the tree bark. It blew a cloud of fireflies from its nostrils, covering the tree. The leaves wilted, burned in the particles. The bark seared away. The branches snapped and plummeted. The tree died.

“Is that all?” Anton said. “Just death? Vapid death?”

They observed as the cloud of sparks remained, caressing the fecund, black earth beneath the moss and grass. Two thin stems emerged from the soil, accelerated in time for reason of demonstration. As they watched, the saplings budded and spun leaves, the stem thickening to bark, growing in rings, reaching high to hold the hand of the sky. Two birch trees, similar in morphology but unique grew on the grave of the moribund tree.

“New life,” Santiago said.

“Our sacrifice,” Anton said. “The world turns. The cycle spins. Ragnarök on a merry-go-round. So life persists.”

The dragon, ancient and eternal, turned its great head from the earth and gazed skyward. It flapped its wings against the air and gained altitude.

The dragons crossed the sky like great fields and soared through space. They returned home to Mars to sing again to their children on the living earth.

T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA. He’s published in over forty five international journals and anthologies and was a finalist in the Copper Nickel Annual Short Story Contest for his story, The Lady Comes in the Night. He’s a cancer survivor. He is currently finishing his first novel, The Adam & Eve Experiment, along with two novellas, one a sequel to his published story, Inclinations of the Solar Winds. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time.