A boy allows a dragon to be a tattoo on his back.
|The old man lay on his back wheezing. Lying still to gather strength and courage to call out to his grandson, he felt that death was near. He had to warn his grandson. There was something he had to say concerning a curse that seemed like a gift.
The door slid open. A gangly teenage boy with dark tousled hair entered. Closing the door, he knelt on the tatami beside the old man. He noticed the labored breathing, and put his hand on his grandfather’s forehead. It was cold. Pulling back the woolen blanket, he saw the swollen legs. He realized his grandfather’s heart was failing and began to move his hands along the legs to force the blood to circulate.
The old man’s wrinkled eyes squinted as they labored in vain to focus on a clear image. He whispered, “Kenji?”
The frail bony fingers of his right hand slowly opened revealing a piece of paper folded many times. A smooth hand grasped the withered one and took the small white square. Unfolding it, Kenji was surprised to find a command: Bring the box in the cave. He was puzzled, for there was no cave, then he wondered if the cave meant the hole in the side of the hill at the edge of the pond. He remembered helping his grandfather enlarge the pond and stocking it with a few golden carp five years ago. His grandfather had told him there was a spring inside the hill. Now, he wondered where the hole led.
Kenji crumpled the paper and stuffed it into his pocket, “Grandpa, hang on! I’ll bring the box.” A weak groan urged him to hurry. Striding to the kitchen, he yanked the flashlight from the wall, then ran to the front door. He jumped into his rubber sandals and followed the path leading to the back garden. At the edge of the pond, he placed his hand on one of the upright stones bordering it and stepped in. Sliding his feet along the slippery bottom, he approached the cave. The water gradually deepened until at the opening in the hill it lapped over his knees. The cave was dark. He had never entered, for the opening was barely a meter high. He shivered, then stooping, he entered the dark mouth of the hill.
Kenji switched on the flashlight and saw clean walls of black stone glistening with moisture and curving sharply to the right. He pushed on reluctantly, for the splash of water sloshing against stone, echoing into the interior, squeezed his courage. He turned the corner and choked back a scream. Faint colors were dancing on the wall of the next bend. He nearly turned back, then recalling his promise to his grandfather, he gritted his teeth and moved forward. Here the cave narrowed. He had to place his body along the damp wall to move forward. Soon, his shirt was soaked and his skin chilly. When he got to the corner, he paused. He wondered what was around the corner. Kenji slowly craned his neck around the corner and peeked. In a space seemingly carved out of the rock was a stone ledge. On it orbs of rainbow fire sparkled and glittered. They dazzled his eyes and rattled his mind. The flames swayed like the torches of a vengeful mob.
He moved forward into the chamber. The illumination intensified as flares within the orbs erupted, spitting sparks that smashed against their crystal confinement in bursts of primary colors. Hairs on his neck rose as an electric surge flowed down his torso to the tips of his toes.
On the left, he glimpsed a subdued glitter in a dark recess. His eyes revealed an oblong shape. He splashed towards it with hope and found a metal container ringed with red wax. Holding it to his chest, he headed for the faint light of the sun. He didn’t look back though he felt the orb’s agitation rippling the water. Yet, it unnerved him so that he stumbled on the lip of the pond and nearly fell. Regaining his balance, he rushed to the house and opened the door.
Kenji called out, “Gramps, I’ve got the box.” There was no response, and as he entered the room he saw why; the old man was still, a grimace distorting his face. He knew his grandfather was dead, but felt for a pulse. There was none.
Gazing down from the ceiling, the dragon observed Kenji. The boy was quiet as he stroked the man’s thin white hair neatly into place and closed the eyes. The dragon exhaled a warm puff onto the pair and smiled as the boy looked up.
The dragon, its translucent green scales emanating an eerie glow, slowly descended in a corkscrew spiral. To the transfixed boy, its serpentine form seemed endless. Finally, the dragon reached the floor and reared up to reveal its golden belly. Then, not to further alarm the quaking boy, it shrunk itself. Eye to eye they stood. Kenji, frozen by the deep black pupils, was silent until the dragon raised its talons to fastidiously arrange its whiskers and speak. “Kenji, your grandfather and I shared life together. Simply put, we were partners, as I’m sure, he intended you and I to be one day.”
Forgotten were his grandfather and the box, “You’re talking!... What do you mean you were partners?”
“Kenji, you’ve seen me many times.”
The boy’s voice rose with the shock of recognition, “You’re the tattoo on Grandpa’s back!”
The feelers on the dragon’s muzzle undulated in humor, “Yes, I was. The energy I must use to live in this dimension is draining. I would have long ceased to exist if I hadn’t had his back to return to. He was the third in your family’s line that I have served. If you wish, you shall be the fourth.”
“I can see right through you! You’re not real.”
“That’s true in a sense. My kind really belongs in another world.” The dragon smiled, “So boring there. I can be very helpful. I can harness unique forces through the space between dimensions.”
“And what do you want from me?”
“To be on your back as a tattoo.”
“What will I feel?”
“Oh, at first, not a great deal. Tattooing stings a little. Once I’m on your back, I will heighten your nerve responses. Then, you will perceive the world as it was intended. It will be exhilarating.”
“And you will do as I say?”
The dragon smiled at the simple youth, “Of course. I won’t do anything that you don’t desire.”
“Can I think it over?”
“No, time provides little for me in this world. If you can’t decide now, I must search for another. Before I leave, I’d like to retrieve some things from the cave.” With that, the dragon, floating inches above the floor, slithered through the wall toward the cave.
Kenji wondered about the connection between the fiery orbs, the dragon, and his ancestors. He dearly wished for some answers from someone he trusted. He looked at his grandfather; the only person he had been able to confide in was only a thing of skin and bones now. Ever since his mother had abandoned him, he had not been able to risk rejection. He could still picture his mother, hear her voice, and remember the weeks he grieved wishing for her return. She had rejected the family for an American sailor; he couldn’t erase the fact. Every year, as he matured, he had seared and twisted it deeper into memory. He hated her now.
Remembering the box, he stooped to pick it up. Why had Grandpa told him to fetch it? As his fingers grasped the box, he felt the hard smoothness of the old wax around it, at that moment, the dragon reappeared head first through the wall.
The dragon curled its body into a stack of emerald scales, protecting the treasure it had brought from the cave. It bowed its head, “I’m ready. Take off your shirt so that I may join you.”
“Wait a minute. What are those fiery orbs?”
“These are the entrapped souls of those my partners hated. I love gazing at the lovely flames sparkling in the dark.”
Kenji arched his brows in astonishment, “You said that I would change, that I would see and feel in a different way, that it would be exhilarating.”
“Let me show you.” Without waiting for an answer, it gently extended a talon and touched Kenji’s hand.
The lids of Kenji’s eyes slammed open to their widest extent, the rods of color, darkness, and light expanded. Nerve endings grew tendrils of microscopic thinness. With zeal, portions of his brain drank from the stream of new sensations. For a moment, he stepped into a world of exquisite detail. Then, he returned.
The boy panted to regain his breath and then he asked, “Will you help me put someone in an orb?”
“It would be my pleasure to have you enjoy revenge.”
Kenji took off his shirt, “OK, let’s do it. I’ll be your partner.”
The dragon spoke, “For the next few moments you must remain completely still.” The boy nodded. The dragon flexed its muscles. The scales crackled as a golden light flashed through the rims. It vanished.
Kenji’s back tingled with heat as the tattoo formed. He stepped to the mirror and lifted its silk veil. His back was a gaudy riot of color; in the foreground was the dragon floating among pink wisps of clouds, its emerald scales a contrast to the blue of sky and golden brown of a distant desert. Orbs of brilliant fire surrounded its form like the balls of a juggler. A smile of dagger teeth suggested evil pleasure.
He perceived the world in slow motion; concentrating on all five senses at once was a feat easily managed. Stepping outside, he grinned as he tasted the sun beams, and smelt the music of the singing wind. He strode to his motorcycle and smirked at his earlier worries. As his right hand touched the handlebars he paused. There was an inner battle. The edges of his eyes and mouth curled downward. A tear welled in his right eye. He took a deep breath and wiped it away with his left hand. His palm slid down his face to reveal a transformed face, a face with eyes of empty blackness. He kicked his leg over the saddle of his Honda, gunned the engine, and howled as he raced toward the setting sun.
Three days later.
Dr. Yamada turned to Sergeant Tanabe, “I’d say he’s been dead for three days. He died of old age.”
“Thank you, doctor. I need you to come to the station to fill out a form.” He bent down to pick up a metal box ringed with red wax, “I wonder where his grandson is.”
He scraped the wax off with his nails and pulled back the lid. His hand lifted something wrapped in leather. He peeled the soft leather to reveal a stone tablet. “Ah! There’s something written in old script. It says: I fear that among the dragon’s collection are the souls of his partners.” He scratched his head, “Now, what the heck does that mean?”