I miss the unicorns. That must have been a long time ago – I don’t have much of a sense of time anymore, but I feel like I haven’t seen them in forever. They must have been a while back. So was the time when I did all of this on a horse. I miss that horse. He was someone to talk to on the long roads between things, between towns, between errands and errants. And I know it sounds stupid, but I felt like that horse – all those horses that I ever rode in between and to and from and into danger and away – they all understood whatever I said.
I don’t talk to my car the way I talked to my horse. I had to get used to it. I didn’t have to get used to a gun, though. I took to guns right away. The first time I had a gun in my hand it just felt immediately right, and when I shot it, with the deafening roar and the bruise in my shoulder and the smell of gunpowder and fire; I let out a whoop of delight and told the man who made the gun he was a genius.
I miss that phenomenon too. I miss meeting the men who made things from beginning to finish. If I was going to shake the hand of the guy who made my car, I’d have to walk up and down an assembly line and my arm would probably fall off. I play a marching song on the stereo and let the beat match my heart, rat-a-tat-tat. I’m off to slay a dragon that’s just woken up and it’s another thing that I haven’t done for years.
They’re huge things, dragons. They fall asleep for centuries and you don’t hear a word out of them. Dragons are just waiting, their hunched backs like giant hills – mountains, in this one’s case – and they’re still for eons. They’re damn good at it. Sometimes, a dragon will stir and the whole countryside goes into a panic while everything shakes. He’ll open up his eye and take a look at what’s happening and he’ll fall asleep for just a little longer. Another couple decades, he seems to say. We’ll see what’s happening then.
Princess gave me a call on my cell phone to tell me to find the dragon and vanquish him. Cell phones have got to be the single most annoying thing the modern race has decided to bestow on everyone. I liked those mop-haired pages and their scrolls of calligraphy. They were funny little guys, completely at a loss if you asked them anything that wasn’t on their script.
I switch the CD to something a little more baroque, and my phone vibrates on my leg. It always gives me a bit of a start.
“Are you near?”
“Yes, Princess – What do you want me to do after the dragon?”
“Vladimir, baby, I have something special to ask you.”
“Anything you want.”
“I want you to lose to the beast.”
She hangs up. That’s how the Princess is. She saved my life once. I can’t remember when, and I can’t remember what she was Princess of back then, because she isn’t the Princess of anything now. She just has me. For eternity. I made my peace with that a long time ago. It’s not really my place to ask how and why things happen. It burned me up, centuries ago. But as soon as I made my peace with it, it disappeared. Funny how things are like that sometimes.
Losing is a strange prospect to me. I don’t really know how to just go up and lose – poke him in the eye and run away? I could just turn around – make a hairpin turn on this highway and drive quickly the other direction, but that doesn’t sound right either. This dragon is the size of two mountains and if it wakes up, it will wreak havoc and destroy – maybe everything? At least until China or Japan can nuke the damn thing, and even that might not do anything.
The idea was never to vanquish the dragon in the slaying fashion, by the by. It was just to put him back to sleep. There’s a dragon lullaby that’s been around for generations that doesn’t get used because, well, if you’re looking for a dragon, he’s probably on top of something valuable, and if he’s on top of something valuable, you don’t want him to be asleep. I was just going to go and play the tune on my little electronic piano and call it a day.
I try to call the Princess back, but in typical Princess fashion, she doesn’t pick up, and when I think I feel my phone vibrating with her calling me back, it’s actually the ground shaking. I can see the ridges that make up the dragon’s back, I can see the stone that it has nested in shaking and giving under the strain of millennia-old muscle used for the first time.
When it rears its head, I think about the unicorns again. Why did we let them die but these terrors continue to live?
I gun the engine and connect my keyboard to the car’s stereo system, unsure of myself. I’m supposed to lose this fight. How? The dragon’s head turns towards me, its eyes open and it yawns fire at the road below my rented car. The rubber in the wheels melt to the asphalt and I decide that if I’m going to lose, I’m going to lose the old-fashioned way. I get out. I’ve never been so close to death before.
The dragon feels me before he sees me. We’re both so old – we feed on the same energy source. He gives me a once over, and before I can cower or close my eyes, fire engulfs me entirely.
The last thing that flits before my vision are the stars in the night sky. Melting.