By Laura Williams McCaffrey
All of my fourteen years, we have lived in the dark because of the Dragons. The stone walls of our cave hide us from them, and also hide the light from us. I open my eyes, I close my eyes: darkness.
High above, the rounded roof of our cave is mostly solid rock, but a few pieces have cracked and fallen away. When the sky is clear, sun and moonlight shine down. I stand in their beams and look at myself anew. I am brighter. I have a sheen.
Clouds drift. They cover the gleaming, and I am dull again. I can’t tell where I end and darkness begins.
Day and night, night and day, I wish to climb out into the Vast. Not just for a few moments, not just to hunt a little near our cave on nights when Dragons are unlikely to leave their lairs. I wish to explore the entire slope, the mountaintop, the far off city. I wish to roam as far as I can. How far? I don’t know, I don’t know. Far. I wish to roam when I wake, when I stretch, when I bathe, when I creep to the fire’s coals and lie near them, atop the warm stones. I wish to when I sleep. Why is it so hard to stop wanting what one can never, ever have?
Out in the Vast, fireflies flash. Light reflects on the rippled surfaces of streams and lakes. The rain glints as it falls. In the valley, far down the mountainside, the city sparks and flickers. Large yellow-orange beacons glow.
The Vast smells good, too. Wind carries scents I never smell in our cave. Apple blossoms, grass and mud, smoke from the city, piss and rot, lambs’ wool and pine and raspberries. At the stream bank, a little ways from our cave, the rush of air is cool and smells of lilies. Rarely, oh so rarely, I am able to lie on my belly in the stream cupped by smooth rocks. My feet and every single toe trail in the water. The scent of air washes over me. For days, I smell of lily.
Usually I smell of dank: damp moss and damp rock. I smell of fish and frog.
Most times, when I ask if we might leave the cave, Mother says no. “We can’t go out to the Vast,” Mother reminds me, her voice sad or exasperated. “The Dragons are there.” Yes, I know. Dragons burn the land. They hunt it barren. They steal all that glitters and shines. We keep nothing that’s bright enough to draw them. Mother goes out rarely, only from dire necessity, and she never goes far. I must learn to do the same. “It’s not safe. Nor will it likely ever be,” Mother says. “Another mother might lie to you and say, later it will be safe. But I won’t lie to you. I don’t believe in lying.”
Sometimes I long to tell her: I’d prefer to lie today. Or: Can’t we for once just talk of scents? And not of Dragons? But I know the answers, and I know she’ll say them in the tone she uses when I’m tiresome. I will feel stupid, a terrible companion for the endless hours in the dark. So no matter what I long to say, I always answer, “Yes, Mother.”
Today I am hungry. I wish it were the safer time, so Mother would take me out with her to forage a little.
I try not to think of the ache in my belly. I walk the rim of the cave. Though light from the overcast sky doesn’t reach my path, I step quickly without stumbling. The soles of my feet know each hollow, each fissure and scattering of stones. I pause for a moment on a pile of small rocks. Their rounds and points press into the bottoms of my feet. Somehow this feels delicious, like the taste of tender meat or dripping honey. So delicious, it gives me shivers up the back of my legs, a shudder that makes my toes curl and my back arch.
I hear Mother shift, and I leap quickly off the stones. That shudder is one of the secrets I keep from Mother. Mother doesn’t like secrets, but I do. They are hidden away, like a snail shell sitting in a fissure by the undercavern’s small pond. Snail shells, too, keep secrets. What do they hide in their deepest coil?
I want to know, but I don’t crack them apart. If I did, I’d have my answers, but the secret would be broken.
My belly hurts so much I gag. Silently, though, so Mother won’t hear. I don’t want to upset her. She feeds us as well as she can, considering the dragons.
“Mother, I’m walking down to the undercavern to bathe.”
“Again?” she snaps: she must be hungry, too.
Let’s go to the Vast to forage, Mother, I send my urging. Let’s go tonight. “Well, a swim more than a bathe.”
Her nails click on rock. “You’re always swimming.”
Let’s go near the city this time. Or up to the mountaintop, close to the stars.
“My legs–” I was going to say that they’re stiff from crouching, but she’s in a poor mood, so she’ll think I’m whining. “I want to kick them.”
“That’s my strong girl.” She sounds like she’s smiling.
I want to say, Strong for foraging, but Mother doesn’t like to be urged or pushed.
My wish to leave is suddenly big. A wind inside me that’s so fast and forceful, it will crack my bones open and split my skin.
I begin to run through the dark to the boulder pile that leads down to the under-cavern, to the pond of murk.
“Quiet,” Mother commands. “If the Dragons pass by outside and hear you, they’ll start hunting in these caves.”
How I hate the Dragons.
Down the boulder pile, into the water. I must sink under, I must keep my whole self from splashing. I raise my head above the surface – only my eyes and the tip of my nose. The darkness above the water is as dark as the darkness beneath. I take a breath of moss-slime air, and I sink farther. I kick and kick. My legs feel too short and stiff to carry me along. My nails have grown too long. They slice uselessly through the water.
I kick, I kick. My muscles slowly lose their stiffness. I glide.
I’m near the cave wall. A breath, then I drop and curl around, to head back the way I came. I push and kick to the rocky incline that’s slick with mud. Drop and curl. Push and kick. The whirlwind inside me still rages.
As I reach the rocky incline again, I feel a touch on my head. I lift my face.
“I think we have to forage,” Mother says, so gentle now, not snappish at all.
“It’s the safe time?”
“Almost. Not quite. But you can come to the Vast with me tonight, even though it isn’t the safe time. I forget how grown you are,” Mother says in her sweet voice, her sad voice. “Fourteen years old.”
“You’re sad, Mother?”
“No, just proud. Soon, you’ll be big enough to leave. You’ll find your own cave. If you wish.”
Mother doesn’t want me to leave: that’s the sadness I hear. My much older brother, he went, and he never comes back to visit. In fact, I have never met him. Mother doesn’t even know where he is. I can’t imagine going off forever.
But I often imagine my brother. He walks along the mountainside, carrying a city light. Up close, are city lights rounded like stars? I don’t know, but this is how I imagine them. He walks the city’s stony streets. Stony — that’s how Mother says the streets are. He slips between the shadowy buildings that must be huge up close. Or I imagine him inside of stories Mother tells me. He has many companions: one pure and earnest, one clever and vain, one fool who’s sometimes the wisest of them all. They seek a gold grail across the wide and tumultuous ocean. He loves his companions, and they love him. Back-to-back they fight their enemies, and at night, in the dark, they lie close to keep themselves warm.
Sometimes I dream I sail with them. I fight beside them. I sleep among them, one curled around me. His breath and body warms me.
This dream – that companion of my brother’s curled around me – is another secret I keep from Mother.
I can barely stay quiet on our way up the long tunnel. I ask, “Is that moonlight, ahead?”
“Quit chattering,” Mother whispers at me. “Or I’ll leave you here.”
This makes me walk more quietly. As we ascend, the air clears. I smell a hint of sweetness. A breeze brushes my cheeks.
“Stop,” whispers Mother. In the starlight coming from the tunnel’s opening, I see Mother crouch. “We’ll head across the mountainside. Don’t stray far from me. There’s a chance the Dragons will be out. Listen for thumps or slithers in the grass. Also, this time of year they smell like smoke and pig.”
“Don’t let the Vast entice you.” She presses her lips to my forehead. “It seems so beautiful. But it’s a wretched, savage place.”
“Yes, Mother,” I say. Yes, I hear you. Not: Yes, it is.
And then, the rocks and grass press the soles of my feet. Wind trails across my face and neck. The dim mountainside stretches down toward the many lights of the city, up to the many lights of the sky. The stars gleam like millions of tiny white flames.
The wind smells like honey: clover, violet, iris, lily, apple. The scent is so potent I can taste it on my tongue. I open my mouth and let it run down my throat.
I notice Mother is already striding across the mountainside in the direction of patches of white. Sheep — I can smell them too, their dung and dirt, their grassy breath. I follow Mother, climbing down the mountainside a bit, so she will be able to see I’m with her but she won’t be able to whisper to me. I don’t look at Mother, I don’t see her. I’m alone. I’m alone. I’m alone.
There are other sheep lower down, beyond an outcropping of rock. I head toward them, and my belly is so hungry I have to run. Running out here makes my legs feel lighter. I take leaping steps. Careful feet. Quiet.
Ahead of me, from behind the outcropping of rock, a ball of orange light rises. A long form unfolds, and the light shines on a shaggy, rounded-moon face: a Dragon. I halt. So close, closer than I’ve ever been before.
He reeks of pig and smoke. A Dragon, opening his mouth to actually speak to me. “Stop,” he commands in his squeaky Dragon voice.
I pant, unable to gasp enough air.
“Stop, Dragon,” he says.
“Dragon?” I whisper, looking over my shoulder for another of his kind.
He holds his ball of light in its metal and glass box high. He points a long metal tube at me; it must be a fire shooter. “Is there another out here, Dragon?”
“You’re calling me a Dragon?” I ask.
“Don’t try to trick me with your riddles.”
“You’re mad,” I mutter. I hear cries. Below, on the hillside, many balls of light glow. Metal clanks, and fire shoots as the sheep bleat and run. “Dragon!” one of those voices calls. “Get the Dragon. There she is! The Dragon’s out of her hole.”
“Dragon?” I ask.
The shaggy moon-face before me begins to laugh. “Don’t you know what you are?”
I run. The fire shooter bangs, but nothing strikes me. I run and run away from the yelling moon-faces.
I tumble, my knees scraping rocks. I rise and scramble. “Dragon! Dragon!” cry the voices. “Dragon!”
“Mother?” I call.
A fire shooter bangs again. I leap, and my shoulder blades twinge as the flaps of skin on my back widen. Then a strangeness: they catch the air and lift me. I skim on the air currents, just above the ground. I glide though the darkness.
I land lightly on my running feet. I am so quick that the night around me blurs, indigo streaks.
I can no longer hear fire shooters. Instead Mother’s voice calls to me across the wind. What does she say? I can’t tell. Her tone is scolding and worried.
“No,” I breathe. What do I mean? I don’t know. Just – No and no and no. I will not listen. I will not talk to you. Why didn’t you tell me that I can run like this?
My legs leap. I am weightless.
Dragon, that moon-face voice whispers. Don’t you know what you are?
I am sinuous. I arc around boulders and tree trunks. My shoulders itch, unused to — not feathered wings. I am no bird. My wings are thin and smooth.
I sweep them forward and scoop them back, forward, back. I hover. I fold my wings and sink to the dew-damp grass. I dash, grass stalks slick beneath the bottoms of my feet. I leap. Mother, why didn’t you tell me I can ride the air?
Wind streams into my eyes and mouth. I taste pine pitch and evergreen and motes of pollen. I taste bird droppings and nests, snapped branches, cloth and string. I taste vixen, as well as bloody bone and sodden fur – her prey? I drink cloud droplets as cool and spicy sweet as winterberries. The metallic taste of rock fills my mouth, and I soar into the torrent of wind swirling over the mountain’s peak.
My exhausted wings tremble, and I drop to a crouch on the mountain’s highest jutting rock. I grip the peak with all my toes so the wind gusts won’t send me tumbling. Below me, the mountain has a whole other slope, a whole other valley. Of course it does. I have known this, but only with my thoughts, like a story. Beyond, there’s another mountain, with rivulets of light running up it and pooling on a plateau. The wavery rivulets aren’t water reflecting moonlight: they are many, many street and building lights. The shining pool is a city larger than any I have every imagined. It’s so bright, my eyes water and spill tears.
Without realizing, I’ve crept to the very edge of my rock. My wings shudder, exhausted. I lower them a little.
Mother calls, her voice hushed and angry and frightened. She calls again, closer now. She says we must go back to the cave, that cave where I’ve lived my whole life in the dark.
“Mother,” I whisper. She has kept so much secret. A secret can be precious, but it can also be a kind of lie.
I smell her, singed and smoky.
“There you are,” she snaps. “There you are,” she croons. I let her kiss my forehead. She says, “I thought the Dragons got you.”
“Mother, they call us Dragons.”
Her lips move against my forehead. “Oh, no, no. They are the Dragons. They burn the land. They hunt it barren. They love nothing but glitter and shine.”
Holding my edge tightly, I shift away from her. “I can run so fast, Mother. I can glide on the wind. You never told me I can fly.”
“You can’t do that again,” she says.
“You should have told me.”
“I am telling you. It isn’t safe.”
“I mean you should have told me I’m able to!”
“You aren’t. Because the Dragons will hunt you.”
“What are we, Mother?”
She leans close to me again and gives me a soft kiss. “We are Us. You and me. We are Everything.”
I breathe in wind. Winterberry and something faint, a sparkling, sizzling taste. Starlight? The city’s lantern smoke? I look toward that city and its rivulets of glitter. Maybe, too, toward my brother.
The wind shoves me, and I raise my wings. They quake.
“You aren’t strong enough to go,” Mother insists. She reaches one foot in my direction, but I lean away, into rising currents. My wings shiver as they buoy up. She says, “You don’t know anything about the Vast.”
“Because you haven’t taught me!”
“You aren’t old enough.”
“When? When will I be old enough?”
“Soon.” She reaches.
I flinch back. “That’s not an answer. When?”
“It depends on you, how you grow. When you’re ready, you’ll be old enough.”
The wind rises and drops like water. It swirls, sliding beneath my wings. It lifts them, and they stretch taut, shaking.
I won’t go back. The words are soundless, and then: “I’m ready now.”
The streaming currents tug. I release the solid edge, and I leap.
Laura Williams McCaffrey is a full time writer and teacher of writing. She has YA short stories forthcoming in Soundings Review and Solstice Literary Magazine. Her third novel, a dystopic fantasy for teens, will be released by Clarion Books. She’s the author of two children’s fantasy novels, “Water Shaper” (Clarion Books) and “Alia Waking” (Clarion Books). For more information about her or her work, please visit her website at: http://www.laurawilliamsmccaffrey.com.