February 2019, Huangshan. With nothing better to do over the long, lonely Spring Festival, I have made the questionable decision to travel to one of China's more internally famous tourist sites. Huangshan, a mountain range famed for the sunrise spectacle made famous in paintings, sketches and poems.
Most people opt to take a guided tour of Huangshan that leads directly up one of the most celebrated mountains. I am not most people. Being the type to go my own way, I set off into the mountains by myself. I proceed to get lost for over six hours.
It was a fine day to get lost, too. Fog is common in Huangshan, and an especially dense bank settled in that morning and lasted most of the day, accompanied by the occasional light shower. At its worst, visibility was no more than a few yards ahead - enough to spot the road leading God knows where, and an occasional glimpse of a peak somewhere in the distance.
Being lost in a strange city and smothered by fog provides an unmistakable sense of solitude. It's an oddly peaceful one - just me, a few water bottles, a bag of granola, the camera that captured the above picture, and a hell of a lot of time with nothing to do but ponder life. The only breaks in the solitude were the mountain villages that peppered the valleys between the peaks. The people there were not used to seeing foreigners, so if I didn't already feel like an alien, I certainly did then...yet there was no hostility, just a sense of discontinuity, a persistent question as to what I was doing there.
That night, I wrote a few lines of free verse in a journal I'd received a few months prior. It was mostly pretty nonsense, page after page like this:
I left Huangshan the following day. Fearing that I might get lost or delayed, I headed for the train station far too early and ended up getting through the security checkpoints with almost two hours to spare. Sadly, there's not much to do in the Huangshan train station, so after a fast food lunch with two other foreigners who seemed like they were going to pass the time with a good beer buzz, I found a seat and waited.
And then an idea came to me. It was based on the photographs, the free verse, the sense of place and presence I'd felt in that valley. I didn't plan it out, I just pulled out my ridiculous gaming laptop, laid it in a seat, sat on the ground before it, and started writing.
I finished half the story right there, not even pausing until the train pulled into the station. The rest, I wrapped up after I got back to my apartment. It was not just one of the easiest pieces of writing I'd done in a good long while, it was one of the best. For the first time in a solid year, I had something that I was sure was going to appeal to those fiction markets. I had something that I was sure would appeal to those jerks who always complained that my writing style was "flat," or that the plot wasn't elaborate enough, or that some picky little detail was askew.
Ten rejections later, and I know that I was dead wrong. I'm not part of their little club, and they've made it clear that I never will be.
Look, I'm under no illusions as to what's going to happen with "The Path in the Dragon's Wake." I'm not the kind of person who breaks out; I don't track trends, I don't borrow from things that are already popular, I don't know how to manipulate recommendations, I'm terrible at networking. I've been asking you to download and share The Fabulist for months now, but I'm not going to bother doing it this time because I know none of you will do it. I'm also not going to ask you to look at the short story collection or listen to the podcasts, because you won't do those things either.
All I ask is one thing: Leave a comment, please. If you thought this story was good, if you thought it was awful, if it made you feel something, if it's similar to something you've seen before, if it inspired you in some way - I don't care. I just want 30 seconds of your time to prove that someone out there cares about what I'm doing.
Anyway, here's the story. I hope you enjoy it.
The Path in the Dragon's Wake
Grandfather always told us that the people living in the mountains were closer to the dragon and that's why they were spared the horrors of the Burning. They never surrendered that sense of fate and awe and majesty that we shed when we reached the apex of civilization and strove, in our arrogance, to kill the dragon. We decided that we had no need of such a being and decreed that it had passed to its grave; then, on realizing our error, we tried to build a new dragon, recreating its powers without any understanding of its place in the natural order, and this mindless copy turned on us. That was what he said, and for years people brushed aside such sentiments as the muddled superstitions of the old, until that day when the elders began ordering the expeditions. My day is soon, which means my death is soon.
My mother was outraged by this, the notion of turning her daughter into another sacrifice to a desperate fantasy. She never believed in the dragon and never bought into grandfather's stories of humans defying their place in the harmonious universe. It was the outsiders who caused the Burning, she said, the foreigners who brought all evil into the world. It had been some manner of weapon they turned upon us, and it was an error in planning that turned that weapon back on them. More than once I heard her argue with grandfather, and it was a mortal shock to hear her utter such words to her own father, but perhaps it is only natural to show such rancor in defense of one's own blood.
She wanted to hide me where the elders couldn't find me, the way other mothers have hidden their own sons. Such things are common now, and that is why I have been called upon for this mission. It is hardly a suitable task for a girl, but many men have already disappeared in the mountains, such that mothers of sons now fear for their own children enough to tuck them away in hollows and caves and lie about their whereabouts. Much like the elders changed their minds about the very existence of the dragon, they have shifted their thoughts on the ability of a woman to find the dragon, and I am the first to go. Mother could hide me, but there would be little point – the elders already watch us, and grandfather, that true believer, would be eager to give them my location, such would be his pride if his own descendant saved us.
The others in the settlement applaud me for my courage in facing such a dangerous task, but they are mistaking a calm demeanor for a lack of fear. I do not want to go to the mountains; I do not want to die in those mountains; I do not want to go in search of something that most likely is not there. No one has fully convinced me that the dragon lives there, or that such a beast exists at all, and I wonder at times if the elders' embrace of this myth means that our circumstances are more dire than I know. But death has always haunted this place, and I have come of age knowing that I will likely never reach grandfather's age, or even mother's. It is better, perhaps, that I die on a desperate voyage than perish quietly here, for at least the voyage offers some dim chance at salvation. I have staked my soul on a prayer to a thing that might not exist at all, for only its existence can save us.
Perhaps I am wrong in my skepticism, for I have gone to the place of expedition and looked out over the valleys and foothills that surround the mountain, and it is a place where a mystical being might dwell. The ground is lost beneath the fog, an ocean of featureless gray that refused to part regardless of the weather. Fog was always rare here, and more so since the Burning, but a brief walk from the settlement and one arrives in a place where she can scarcely see even on the brightest days. Grandfather says that this is a sign of the dragon, that the mists are the breath of divinity that the dragon leaves in his wake as he crosses through the foothills. He tells me that when I am there, I will have a better understanding of nature, for one can feel the dragon's scales sundering the air before the fog and hear his cold song, and then I will no longer hold any fear.
The dragon has swallowed the road before me – this I tell myself as a private joke, for I have seen no dragon, but only a bank of gray that moves with me, follows me and gets in my way. There is something tranquil about this, for within the valley fog there is no seeing what lies beyond, nothing to speak to the horrors of the Burning except for memories that, too, fade into nothingness. On another day, in another lifetime, I might enjoy this expedition, but there is too much before me for frivolity. I do not know what is in this valley, or what might wait for me higher in the mountains; the elders could tell me nothing except that the dragon is there, and it is imperative that I see it. Such is the power of the dragon that I need not make an offering or utter a prayer – merely to catch a glimpse of the creature for a fleeting moment is enough. Such is the blessing of luck, for the dragon only allows those with glowing fates to gaze upon its majesty.
I have seen no dragons yet, though I have found my way to many of those lost villages. The people there are strange, and not merely for their antiquated ways which I had anticipated. In the generations they have lived apart from us, their world have diverged sharply from our own. They speak a strange dialect, one which resembles our language but which I can hardly understand save a few simple phrases. Somehow we can make ourselves known, and I have found them to be friendly if reserved. Some even offer me food from their own tables, though they do so with an air of mourning. They have seen the others, I suspect, and they know well the fates of the men from my world who journey into theirs.
On occasion, I overhear them using some old words that I can recognize from the old people in the settlement. They speak of barbarians, of outsiders dwelling in the mists, and the mention always makes me shudder. Grandfather once told me of the dangers that lurked in the foothills, and he spoke of barbarians as well. They were foreigners who came here in ages past with dreams of discovering worlds unseen and bringing back riches for their own masters. They wandered into the mountains – searching, perhaps, for silver or gems – and found themselves standing before the dragon. The foreigners, being ignorant, did not appreciate their luck, and instead mistook the dragon for a demon from their own world and sought to strike it down. They of course failed, but from the dragon's wounds came a foul haze that consumed their flesh and confounded their souls such that they were trapped in the space between heaven and earth. They are monsters now, fiends driven by fury over their failure to smite the dragon who instead turn their wrath toward those who live in the dragon's embrace.
Mother told me a different story, and made it clear that this was why she did not want me traveling to the mountain. The barbarians do exist, she told me, but they are not monsters except under the skin. She told me of tribes of outsider men who were trapped in the foothills by the Burning, who now stalk the area in search of plunder. They were surely the reason that the other men never returned, but mother predicted a worse fate for me, for the barbarians in the world before the Burning had valued the women of our nation as prizes and this had not likely changed. I do not know which version is more terrifying, but the mere fact that the villagers mention these barbarians means that something must lurk here, and whether they be cursed fiends or living brutes their presence is a constant threat. I do not sleep easily here, and tranquility is fleeting.
The breath of the dragon is growing heavier; it lingers longer in the rows of pines that march into the higher reaches of the mountain, clings even to the very earth beneath my feet. Signs of civilization grow sparse as I press deeper into the foothills. Already the ancient road linking the villages has given way to bare soil and the villages themselves are farther and farther apart. It has been a day since I last saw people here, and on this path I've seen no vegetable patches, no cultivated terraces, no grazing animals, and I suspect that the previous village will be the last one for some time to come. This was always going to happen – if the dragon waited at the gates, then our quest would have been concluded an age ago. Grandfather warned me that while I might see the dragon at any time, it was likely that I would only encounter him in the roughest parts of the mountain, for he is a fickle and solitary creature who is seen only when he allows it. I will not find him in a place inhabited by men, or so I have been told.
If there are men in this place, then I have little chance to see them for the walls of gray and white that encompass me. The road vanishes just steps before me, and the mountain itself is but a tracing against the sky, something more felt than seen. So dense is the fog that I am no longer sure that returning home is at all a realistic possibility. I could turn right now, abandon the voyage and retrace my steps, except that my steps vanish behind me. It is not just sight that is stolen from me but sound as well, though perhaps that is more to do with the lack of wildlife here. The lack of oxen and sows I can understand, but how is it that a place like this could be absent even of birds? The trees are voiceless here. Nature has fallen mute and I can spy no cause, nothing to give me comfort in this strange cell in which I've been confined.
Perhaps, though, I merely no longer notice the animals as I am no longer searching for signs of movement in the fog. It was fear of the outsiders that drove that attentiveness, and that terror has now departed me. Why should I waste my fear on anything that could not hope to find me? No earthly eyes, not even those of the restless dead, could hope to pierce this obscuring curtain. Perhaps only the dragon can spot me, gazing through the evidence of his own passing with effortless ease. Do I dare speak about the dragon as though he truly exists? Well, if he does not, if he is a myth, then nature is no less a myth. I know of no science to explain what lies all around me, no rational explanation to justify this environment.
What is there left for me to do? I must keep going forward – if indeed I am going forward – into the valleys, the hills, the mountains, the forests. I must go forward, for there is no way back, not anymore. I have supplies to last for a few days, and with hope this will last me until I reach the next village. If hope dies, then I will perish with it.
This path is a thief, a cruel robber that steals the very energy from my body, from my limbs, threatens even to snatch away my breath. I may protest, but mercy is unknown to nature and its laws. I can only march on, and ignore the weakness in my legs, the pains in my stomach, the swirling agonies in my head. A moment's sleep, a swallow of water, then back to the path to allow it to rob me once more.
So it has been for days – how many I can only guess, for the sun is now so lost that night and day are distinguished only by traces of shadow. My supplies, meager provisions supplemented by the kindness of the villagers, are running thin. The last of the food ran out yesterday, or perhaps the day before; I am out now in any case. I had the good luck to hear the whispers of a stream, or else I would be short on water as well. My boots – oh, these redeemed things that served me so well back in the civilized world – they will expire next. One more misstep in the fog and my right foot will rip the sole clean, and the left is growing thin at its own pace. Is it curse or blessing that this journal and pen have endured? Is it fate?
I think that my quest is at an end. This is not to say that I've stopped chasing the quest, but how can one achieve something that is so far beyond view? I can not move forward if I have no notion of where forward is. I can't retreat, either – I simply flee in whatever direction nature allows me in the increasingly eroded hope that I will find something to save my life. That personal salvation is all I care about now – should I at all care about the settlement? Should I spare a thought for the elders who were so eager to send me into the valley of sacrifice? Should I spare one for grandfather, who was happy to be the caretaker of an honored corpse, or for mother, who made a great deal of noise but ultimately did nothing to keep me from this fate?
These are all foul thoughts and I am ashamed of them, but I no longer have anything but my thoughts and time to ponder them. The dragon has denied me everything else – I am blind and deaf, hungry and thirsty, and so very alone. Here, in this living coffin, there is no outside, there is nothing but me. There is no settlement, there are no villages, there was no Burning. How long have I trusted them, accepted their word on the Burning, accepted their tales of false gods and foreign weapons and whatever else? I can't remember that day, not at all. Perhaps it was always like this, and the older people are party to some strange lie, conspirators in a plot I can hardly understand.
Perhaps the elders know that the dragon is a myth, and that's the real reason I am here. This would explain everything, would it not? There were too many mouths in the settlement after all, more people coupled with declining fortunes and they needed to thin the heard. The old people fed us this tale so that we would march joyfully to our deaths, and their children and grandchildren knew no better. Yes, that was it – and they'd condemned too many of the men, so it was our turn to suffer, and I was privileged to be first. I began this journey knowing that I was being sent to my death, but this is the first time I have felt truly betrayed.
I can hope – while hope still lives – that I am wrong. I have not found any of the young men from the village and have spied no sign of violence. Could it be that they are not dead at all? In my heart, I think that I will turn some unseen bend and I will find then, the sons of the village, resting in the shelter beneath the dragon, free of the elders and their petty tyranny, and they will have a spot ready for me. I can dream this, and maybe it will be real soon.
Spring is gone, and winter reaches out for me. Is it truly the end after such a brief spell? The water is now gone, and I am so weak from hunger that I can scarcely manage more than a few steps. I am no longer a civilized person but a landless brute seeking a good place to die, not an explorer but a dying cage of flesh confining a wounded soul. It is a miracle that I possess even the strength to bring pen to paper, doubly so given that if my trembling fingers loosed either one then I would never again find it. The fog has fully annihilated the world, such that I can only see what I can touch, and soon that will be gone as well. The only power remaining to me is that to choose the site of my own death, and I choose this one.
It seems a foolish thing now, to bring a journal and pen along with my provisions. It seemed a romantic thought back then, back when death still had some glory. I imagined someone finding my thoughts and turning them into the basis of some future myth, but will that happen? The book will be lost soon, as will my bones, just like those of the sons of the settlement. Yes, I now acknowledge that they are dead, and that I merely did not see them for the fog; I could have stepped over them and would not know. It does not matter now.
I will allow myself a moment of peace, but first I must write this for the condemned soul who might find this. This journal carries a curse, for if you have found it then you are beyond hope of rescue. Take some solace, though, in the fact that your passing will be a gentle one. There are no fiends out here to destroy your flesh, merely nature offering the same fate as all others. There are yet joys in our burned world, and I hope you enjoyed your share; and if not, then whatever waits beyond the fog must be better than this. In this regard, you are blessed.
Now I lay down to await my own passing, and my only regret is that I never found the dragon. This very morning, I thought I caught a glimpse of him as he flew overhead, a flash of glistening scales pushing aside the fog, but I suppose this was just hope departing. I surely do not have a glowing fate.
When I awoke this morning, I assumed that I had found my way to one of the paradise fields that are an obsession of the old. I assumed that, for I assumed that I had perished in the wilds. It was only at some length that I spotted familiar things – faces first, then buildings, then the sky. Yes! The sky, or at least more of a sky than I had seen before – there was mist here, yes, but it had thinned enough to grant entry to the sun's rays. Oh, it had been days since I had felt that warmth on my skin, and it was that which truly convinced me that I had survived.
I am still not truly sure where I am. The people here speak yet another dialect, but a more familiar one, and I find that I can communicate with them. It was one of their hunting parties that found me, purely by chance as they, too, were lost in the fog and it parted only after they had seen me lying in the road. Were it not for that then I surely would surely have perished, as I was so close that an hour separated life and death. They gave me food and water and I quickly recovered, and never before now have I felt the simple joy of life. Such is the remark of anyone who has faced the grave and escaped, but I feel something else as well. I feel...blessed? Favored? It is difficult to put words to these thoughts, and maybe I should not struggle to force my heart into such a limiting medium.
The village is a fine place, truly, perhaps better than my old settlement. It hardly suffers from the blight and decline of that place, but beyond that are the people themselves. They are not as fearful as the ones I left behind, not so eager to sacrifice their own in the name of some presumed greater good. They are not afraid of outsiders, for one, and in fact they trade what they have with other villages nearby. There are even a few groups of foreigners who arrive sometimes with rare goods, eager to trade for simple food and a chance to rest in a favorable climate. Even this is an improvement, for the land is neither scorched nor frozen here, the air free of ash and fog alike. The people, in awe over my ability to survive, have offered me a place here, and I may take it, or I may first travel to the other villages and get some sense of this new world. They are accepting either way.
This should be the end of my journal as it is the end of my voyage, but I am still haunted by what I saw in the fog during those last few moments. Was it truly a dragon? It is a silly thought, for it is far more likely that I was dreaming or delirious, or so I thought. The hunters were on the trail of prey when they found me, but prey of a most unusual sort. They first took it for merely part of the fog, an unusual curl in the clouds or some such thing, until they saw it snake its way through the grayness, swimming as a snake does. They gave chase to where it had flown and found nothing but I was there, lying in a clearing, illuminated by a single stray sun mote that broke through the fog against all odds. They offer no explanation, merely a description of what each one, to a man, swears that he saw.
Was I blessed in the presence of the dragon? I suppose I'll never know, for I have no intention of entering those mountains again. Still, there is a part of me that wishes to return to the old settlement to see if the blessing I received has passed to them as well, or if they are still sending their unneeded young to die in the valley of sacrifice. There is a part of me that wants to read my thoughts aloud to my mother and grandfather and to the elders and to those children fated to be consumed by the fog. This is a journey for another day, and this time I will accept it from no less than the dragon, who surely knows of my new resting place.
The Industry Responds!
"I liked how the narrator tries to make sense of the divergent stories of her mother and grandfather. However, the pages of her travel felt slow of pace to me, I think because the focus on everyone else’s opinions of the dragon and the Burning didn’t add as much of a sense of her own character and drive for this journey as I needed."
-Beneath Ceaseless Skies
(For the second time in this series, I'm going to respond to a rejection - and please read to the end, there's an important secret if you read all the way through.
The protagonist in this story is a child in a remote village lost somewhere in a ruined world. She has no real education, no opportunity to travel, no access to the internet, television, books...she knows what she's told, is what I'm getting at, and she's been told that her lot in life is to die to save the village. In short, she has no opinion until she enters the valley of the dragon because that's the first time she's had a true life experience.
I can't help but think that the editor missed the point because she was reading this through a modern, Western lens. In the United States, we all have opinions on everything (even things we know nothing about) and we're encouraged to voice them at every opportunity. But - and many Americans don't realize this - the whole world is not the United States, and not everyone shares that set of ideals. If you noticed a Chinese feel to this story - what with the dragon being a sacred creature rather than an evil one, as in most Western myths - then you were on to something. People in this country are much more cautious with their opinions and (the important part) much less likely to slight the thoughts of parents and grandparents.
The secret here is that this valley and these villages are not located in some analog for China, but in mainland China as it exists in the world and time frame of The Fabulist. "The Burning" is the local name for the Rudra Disaster, a catastrophe whose cause would be an absolute mystery to most of the world. Neat, huh?)