From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

After the Dragon

for Elise Matthesen


After the dragon, she lay in the white on white hospital room and wanted to die.

The counselor came and talked about stages of grief and group therapy, her speech so rehearsed Megan could hear the grooves in the vinyl; Megan turned the ruined side of her face toward her and said, “Do you have a group for this?”

She felt the moment when the counselor dropped the ball, didn’t have a pre-processed answer, when just for a second she was a real person, and then she picked it up again and gave Megan an answer she didn’t even hear.

The doctors talked about reconstructive surgery and skin grafts, and Megan agreed with them because it was easier than listening. It didn’t matter; they could not restore the hand that had seared and twisted and melted in the dragon’s heat. They could not restore the breast rent and ruined by the dragon’s claws. They couldn’t stop the fevers that racked her, one opportunistic infection after another like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Her risk of thirteen different kinds of cancer had skyrocketed, and osteoporosis had already started in the affected arm and shoulder.

They could not erase the dragon from her body, and she hated them for it.

***

In death, a dragon reverts to the minerals from which it rises into life. Rhyolite, iron, bright inclusions of quartz, and–stabbing through–the dragon’s terrible obsidian bones, every edge sharper than cruelty.

No dragon can be moved from where it dies; the last profligate expense of heat welds it to the geology of its death. The dragon that died on that strip of beach in Oregon turned the sand to glass for fifty yards. Strange glass, black and purple and green, twisted in shapes no glassblower could imagine. The government brought their Geiger counters, but there, they were lucky. This dragon had not risen from Trinity or the Nevada Proving Ground or Pikinni Atoll. Its poisonous heat did not survive it.

***

After the dragon, her mother would not look at her.

She came, and she yanked the curtains back, dazzling Megan’s aching eyes. She turned her smile like a call-me-Nancy searchlight on nurses and orderlies and doctors and interns; no one could escape, least of all Megan. She gossiped ruthlessly about women Megan knew, women who were healthy and successful and happy, women who were not lying in a white on white on white hospital room, women who had never seen a dragon. She brought flowers, daffodils and gaudy tulips and vast red roses, and the hospital room took them in and made them look fake and shrill, like her voice.

Nancy came in and out like a cyclone, and she never looked at Megan. Megan lay and tried to remember the last time Nancy had looked at her, had seen her, had known her, and the next time Nancy came, Megan got her answer. “I found this picture of you, sweetie, and I thought you might like it.”

Megan squinted and managed to focus on the picture; she hadn’t lost the burned eye, but it had almost no vision. From the portrait frame, her eighteen-year-old self smiled at her as dazzlingly as sunlight, unharmed and unaware that harm could come to her. She still called her mother “Mom,” not knowing yet the protection of irony, of distance, of pretending not to care. There was no dragon in her flat glass-protected world.

And of course that was the daughter Nancy wanted to see when she was not-quite-looking at Megan: eighteen and blonde and going to prom with the boy she’d dated for three years. Going to college. Surfing just for something to do on the weekends, a way to hang out with her boyfriend and his friends. Even then, it hadn’t been true–even then the boys called her “Surfer Girl” more as a warning than a joke–but Megan had believed she could make it be true just as much as Nancy had. And she’d worked so fucking hard at it. Even when she quit school, got a job as an instructor, as her hair went sunbleached on top and brown underneath, she hid her failure from her mother as much as she could. For fifteen years, she’d hidden it, from her mother, from herself, and now she knew just how well she’d succeeded.

Nancy said, “I’ll just leave this here where you can look at it.” She was gone before Megan got her eyes open again. Her eighteen-year-old self smiled at her from the bedside table. Megan snarled back.

***

The beach in Oregon had no name. There was no need; it was just another piece of coastline, a narrow strip of sand hedged about by rocks. Sandpipers and sea lions knew it but did not name it, and if the whales gave it a name, they told no one but their children.

It still has no official name, but it has a designation: DI-2009-002-177. The 177th dragon incursion known to the Department of Defense to have occurred on American soil, the second such in the year 2009. There was a polite skirmish between the federal government and the state of Oregon, which the state of Oregon won; DI-2009-002-177 remains public land.

Inevitably, locals and tour books and websites begin to call it Dragon’s Beach.

***

For a long time after the dragon, she hated in the same way that she breathed. She hated the doctors and the nurses. She hated everyone who visited her. She hated herself. Above all else, she hated the dragon, the smell of it that would not leave her nostrils, the bright lidless regard of its eyes. She hated it for not killing her, for leaving her trapped in this ruined mockery of a body. She hated it for dying and leaving her to face the world alone.

***

Her physical therapist was a rangy blonde woman who looked like her name should be Astrid or Olga. Actually, it was Jenny, and she was a third generation Los Angelina who spoke Spanish on the phone with her husband. She insisted that Megan move her arm in ways it no longer moved, insisted that she walk the length of the hall outside her room, and when she finished and collapsed, sweating and dizzy and nauseated, Jenny said, “Good. Tomorrow we’ll do it twice.”

Before the dragon, Megan could have kept up with Jenny easily–she could have run Jenny into the fucking ground. Now that was as far gone from her as picking up a water glass with the hand she no longer had.

***

No one knows the total of the dragon’s devastation. Human beings can be counted: five dead. Domestic animals can be counted: one dead, a Labrador retriever who died in the same instant as her owner, neither of them with even a chance to understand the death that stooped for them on silicate wings. Trees large enough to be landmarks can be remembered, although there is nothing left of them, only ashes. But even the best photographs, the most careful computer-generated reconstructions, can only guess at the squirrels which might have lived in the trees the dragon burned, the insects which were in its path, the earthworms which died beneath the heat and weight of its feet. There are craters left where the dragon stood, and the earth in them is scorched and lifeless.

***

After the dragon, after the surgery, after all the therapy, she still wasn’t whole.

They let her go home to a musty, dark apartment she almost didn’t recognize as hers. It was like walking through the home of someone who had died.

Me, she thought. I died. She went into the bathroom, stared, frowning and only half seeing at the brightly colored poppies on the shower curtain. A dead woman had chosen that curtain, and now she could not remember what being that woman had felt like. The woman in the mirror would never have chosen that shower curtain. The shiny skin along her jaw creased strangely when she tried to smile, and the eye looked as false as glass. Her hair was growing out again, though it was still not long enough to cover the warped cartilage of her ear.

“At least you won’t frighten small children anymore,” she said, her voice strange and hoarse and deep. The dragon had dropped her voice from soprano almost to tenor, and she could not accustom herself to it. Could not abide with it.

“This isn’t me!” she cried, harsh as a crow. “I died–I died! This isn’t me!”

The mirror shattered, great pieces falling into the sink and onto the floor. Her hand was bleeding. She looked at it for several moments, watching the blood welling red and reproachful in the cup of her palm, before she remembered what to do next.

***

Sightseers come to Dragon’s Beach, but they don’t stay long. The rough glass of the beach is too dangerous to walk on, the earth crumbles horribly beneath your feet, and besides, there isn’t anything to see. Just a weird rock formation and some holes in the ground. If you’re stubborn, you can chip away a piece of the glass as a souvenir, but word gets around that it always, always draws blood, and anyway it’s dull and ugly when you bring it back home.

Then there’s an internet scare that the glass is carcinogenic, and after that the sightseers don’t even get out of their cars.

***

After the dragon, she tried things she’d never tried before.

It began with the mirror, which had broken into three large shards and seven smaller ones, along with all the bits too small to count. And she knew that she should simply throw them away, counted and uncounted, that the mirror was broken and that was that, but she couldn’t. She saved them instead and remembered her father teaching her to do jigsaw puzzles. After he had died, when Megan was nine, Nancy had thrown out puzzles by the armload.

Megan kept the shards of the mirror, despite the eerily accurate echo of her mother’s voice in her head: “Sweetie, you don’t know the first thing about working with glass, and you know you’ve always been so clumsy. . .” She kept the pieces of mirror and began, not idly, to look at DIY and crafts websites.

***

Jenny had explained in careful and appalling detail the possible effects of failing to keep up with the prescribed exercise regimen, and Megan would not give more of herself to the dragon now that the fucker was dead. She went to the gym three times a week–the gym, god help her, which she’d always considered as a feeble second best to surfing or running or rock climbing, any of the things she couldn’t do now, might not be able to do ever with her newly friable bones–dragging her wreck of a body like a reluctant dog on a leash. At first it was a nightmare, one more new nightmare to add to the stack, but she said grimly to herself, If you survived the dragon, you can survive anything, and kept going. And no one was cruel. They tried not to stare where she could see them, and after a couple of weeks, the body builders began, very respectfully, to give her tips. She was both startled and grateful, and after another week she began to remember how to say, “Hello” and “Have a nice night.”

And then she met Louise.

Louise was Nancy’s age, but where Nancy was soft and feminine and restless, Louise was wiry and fiercely androgynous and had the strength of her own inner stillness. Louise was a cancer survivor; one breast was gone, and there were pain lines on her face that never entirely smoothed out. But what first attracted and held Megan’s attention were her tattoos. They started on her forearm and swirled up to her shoulder and then down both sides of her body beneath the tanktops she wore. The colors were vibrant, triumphant, and when Megan finally found the courage to ask to see the rest, she learned that the colors and the beauty and the pageantry of Louise’s tattoos were all emanating from a lion tattooed over her heart. The tattooist had used the topography of Louise’s chest, the scars and concavity, as guidelines, and the result was grotesque but also beautiful.

“Why a lion?” Megan asked, and then was afraid it was a rude question. Before the dragon, she’d never had this sort of conversation, about real pain and disaster and how you lived with being broken.

But Louise just grinned, a little ruefully, and said, “Strength in the Tarot. And Aslan from the Narnia books. And I’m a Leo.”

“It’s beautiful.”

Louise looked down at herself. “Yeah,” she said; she sounded almost surprised. “Yeah, it is.”

***

The world returns slowly to the glass beach.

There is a graduate student writing her dissertation on the ecological effects of dragon incursions; she has a grant, and she walks out to the beach every day and takes notes and samples and pictures. She measures the craters; sends the ashes to be analyzed and compared with the ashes from the most recent California wildfire, with the ashes from Mount St. Helens, with the ashes from other American dragon incursions, all the way back to the dragon of 1869, the first dragon for which such samples had been kept. She walks out with white-knuckled care to the obsidian bones and only once lays her hand open on their merciless edges.

She is lonely, but she doesn’t mind. Her work is important.

On the day she sees the first cautious returning kildeer, she comes back after dark with a bottle of tequila. She pours a libation–not to the dragon, for the dragon is destruction and death and needs no homage–but to the Earth who heals herself if given half a chance, and then proceeds to get royally hammered.

***

After the dragon, she put things back together as best she could.

From her mother, Megan had learned to judge herself by marking points off from perfection. But now, looking at herself in the fractured, crazy-quilt mirror she’d made, perfection didn’t make any sense. She wasn’t sure what did.

“What do you like about yourself?” Louise said one day at the gym.

“What do I like about myself?” Megan said blankly.

“Yeah,” Louise said, not pausing in the steady rhythm of the rowing machine.

“Louise, have you seen me?”

“Megan,” Louise said back, just as snippy, “did I say anything about your looks?”

Megan didn’t have an answer to that, and she went to swim laps with the question still bouncing around inside her head. Later, when she joined Louise in the jacuzzi, she said, “My mother always said it was a good thing I was pretty because what else did I have to offer a husband?”

“So your mother is who? June Cleaver in hell?”

Megan felt guilty about laughing, but god, there was no way she could stop herself. And Louise just grinned.

“I’ll tell you what I like about myself,” Louise said. “I like my tattoo. I like that I’m strong. I like that I’m entering a marathon next year, and I don’t think I’m gonna place, but I know I’m gonna finish. I like that my sister’s kids hug me hard, and I hug ‘em back. I like that I don’t give a shit anymore how my hair looks.”

She raised her eyebrows at Megan. For a moment, Megan didn’t think she had anything to say, and then she blurted, “I like my legs.”

“They’re cut,” Louise agreed. “You gonna take that tai chi class?”

“Maybe,” Megan said, and they finished their soak and walked back to the locker room lazily arguing the pros and cons.

Megan showered, put her street clothes on. T-shirts now, always t-shirts, because as awkward as it could be pulling them on, it was better than the humiliation of fumbling with buttons. And it wasn’t like she had anything left she could win by being chic and femme and a copy of Nancy. She looked in the locker-room mirror and saw somebody who was so far from perfect the word didn’t make sense. Somebody who was going to have to live with it.

Somebody who could live with it.

She waited, awkwardly, until Louise was dressed, and then said in a rush, before she could change her mind, “Louise, will you introduce me to your tattooist?” And when Louise looked at her, clearly startled, she said, “I want . . . I like the fact that my body is still alive. And I want it to know that.”

“Of course,” Louise said, and in her smile Megan saw beauty that no mother, no dragon could touch. “Of course.”

authorpicSarah Monette grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project, and now lives in a 103-year-old house in the Upper Midwest with a great many books, four cats, one husband, and one albino bristlenose plecostomus. Her Ph.D. diploma (English Literature, 2004) hangs in the kitchen. Her first four novels were published by Ace Books. Her short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other venues, and have been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies; a short story collection, The Bone Key, was published by Prime Books in 2007. She has written one novel (A Companion to Wolves, Tor Books, 2007) and three short stories with Elizabeth Bear, and hopes to write more. Visit her online at www.sarahmonette.com.

33 Responses »

  1. That was a great read! Loved all of the geology bits.

  2. Wow, such redemption from our dragons: “Somebody who _could_ live with it.” I’m sure I’ll be catching my breath soon.

  3. Wow. Maybe I’m just a baby, but that last part made me cry! What a beautiful story. There are parts that ring so true, especially with the counting down from perfect bit. You captured so much in this story. I wasn’t expecting that from a quick- magazine read. Thank you.

  4. Guess I’m a baby, too, because I also cried. Lovely story.

  5. I came here via FWD/Forward. Ms Monette, your story made me weep, in a good way. It’s a story about a survivor, and about learning what survival means from the inside (particularly when surviving isn’t pretty, isn’t socially acceptable, isn’t easy, and doesn’t come complete with a nice narrative other people can tie in to as a way of making your existence relevant to their lives). Megan is a survivor, not an object lesson for the pretty people, and I love that. She’s not comfortable, she’s not happy, and I do enjoy that she seems to take a certain amount of joy in kicking the soft spots in people’s assumptions about her. It would have been easier for everyone if Megan had died – she’d be another name on the statistics, another set of ashes to be added to a grad student’s thesis somewhere. But she didn’t, and she isn’t, and she remains a person who is complex, complicated, and who isn’t able to fit into the nice neat social boxes the world expects of women any more.

    Kudos for the creation of Louise, too – for her feisty nature, for her “damnit, if you’re all gonna stare, you might as well stare at something worthwhile”, for her “sod what’s pretty, what do you like“. Louise is the fellow climber on the mountain of recovery, the one who’s been there before, and who’s willing to point out the handholds in a non-judgemental way, and offer a bit of support if it’s wanted.

    Damn, now I have a new author to search for in Australian bookstores.

  6. Excellent. I had tears in my eyes reading this. Sarah, you’ve done a superb job at capturing the emotions of dealing with disability. Thank you.

  7. Beautifully written story. I loved it.

  8. Sarah, this story was sent to me by a friend, and is the first story of yours I’ve read. I assure you it will not be the last. Reading it, I felt like the woman in the song “Killing Me Softly” – like every word had been plucked from my soul. Mine are interior scars – I live with mental illness. But Megan’s struggle rang true with me. I think every woman should read it. We all have our own dragons, after all.

  9. Thank you for this in-depth look at survival, and the realistic look at recovery, both physical and mental. As someone with scars, after 13 surgeries, I have to say, “thanks!” for nailing how it feels.
    I also happen to love fantasy stories with dragons. They never get old for me, whether the dragon is the villian, the hero, or the one who scarred the heroine.
    Thank you.

  10. Sarah this is a truly wonderful story. The captivating images of dragon incursions lie tantalizingly in the background with just enough information to provide a really unique color to the creatures in your story-world.

    You’ve balanced so well the difficulties in creating worlds we can fully imagine in the word count that a short story allows.

    The relationship with the mother, the way she copes with her disfigurement, everything about this story is honest and emotionally satisfying.

  11. Wonderful. The whole thing is beautiful but my favorite line is this: “She pours a libation–not to the dragon, for the dragon is destruction and death and needs no homage–but to the Earth who heals herself if given half a chance, and then proceeds to get royally hammered.” Had to choke back tears at that one. Thank you.

  12. I loved this story. It’s redemptive, and not at all sentimental. Very well done.

  13. Oh, that was lovely! I’ve apparently had this tab open for months, but I’m so glad I finally got to it. \women survivors/

  14. I loved this so much, every bit of it.

  15. That was gorgeous. Thank you.

  16. Nice/powerful. Thanks for sharing.

  17. “After the Dragon” stuck with me all year long. I think it was outstanding for the way it chronicled the protagonist’s strength, as well as nestling a survivor story into an old fantasy trope and thereby breathing new life into it.

  18. Achingly bittersweet, and beautifully written. Thank you. :)

  19. Came here, albeit a year late, via FWD, and love this story too … particularly as a woman with disabilities. I’ve never been scarred in a serious way so I can’t speak to that experience, but I think there can be certain analogies between disfigurement and disability in that people who are new to it and the people around them often have a first reaction of “OMG that must be so terrible I’d rather be dead than ___.” Which I think is often somehow *meant* to be complimentary but is actually a pretty fricking disturbing thing to say. So the first part of the story rang true to me even though it has not been my own personal experience with disabilities. (I have had disabilities my entire life, adjusting to a life-long disability is a very different process than becoming disabled later because you just know from the start that a disability is not actually as huge a deal as most people seem to think … which isn’t to say that it means *nothing* just that it’s not this huge awful tragedy. But although I have a stronger sense of comfort around the idea of being a person with disabilities I’m still quite aware that people who don’t grow up with it usually have reactions closer to the woman in this story.

    I think my favorite part is just the fact that you had Louise in the story. It’s already so very, very, ridiculously rare to see ANY character with a disability in fiction at ALL. And when they DO show up, 99 percent of the time (possibly I exaggerate, but not as much as I’d like) they show up in a vacuum: you would think they were the only disabled person in the world, that they never ever have any contact with any other people with disabilities, that people with disabilities never reach out to each other for solidarity or shared experiences or just exchanging tips on how to deal with the disability. And certainly never (in the overwhelming majority of fiction) in a sense of *community*.

    Granted, you don’t show the rich, vibrant, and diverse disability community here … or even hint that it’s there. But, hey, for a story this short, I can’t be too fussy! It was great that it showed the protagonist making a connection with someone else with a shared experience at all. Because that doesn’t happen nearly enough in fiction rotating around characters with disabilities … and I’m guessing also not around characters with disfigurement either. People who are new to having a disability (and I would guess disfigurement) do often come to learn acceptance in part by meeting others with similar experiences and realizing that, hey, this *doesn’t* actually mean the end of the world after all … things go on … and I’ll be okay. Even for those of us who don’t have nearly the same level of struggle toward acceptance (because of having grown up with it) there is still strength in sharing common experiences, particularly stories about how other people respond and learning to see “It’s not just me who sees this, we all seem to be seeing it.” And it’s great to see that kind of connection in a piece of fiction.

  20. Beautiful story . I realy felt engaged when i read it and i’m waiting for more , peace .

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