Andromache and the Dragon
By Brittany Pladek
The dragon stood on the shore.
“For every day, I will consume one of your desires,” she told them. “You will not know which. You will not know whose. This is my tribute. Do you agree to its terms?”
“Then it is done.” Hissing, the dragon arched her spines toward the sky, their nimbus peaks dissolving into vapor. Her foggy belly followed. Last she drew up her claws, their tips thinning to a sting of spray that whipped the villagers as it passed.
They shivered in the wind raised by her departure, numb hands longing for the fireplaces that lay behind them in the low houses of their fishing town. Andromache signaled that they should return home. The little group turned, heads hidden like sheep being driven up a mountain. It was suppertime, and they were all very hungry, except one.
Dragons had happened to other villages. They were as unpredictably regular as weather and sprung of the same source, bubbling muddily out of the wet earth, sizzling down from a lightning cloud, or coalescing in the dark space between raindrops. They were voracious but not picky: dragons could be bargained with. Which is why, during the meeting to prepare for its arrival — you could tell by certain cloud formations when a dragon was imminent — one villager had suggested the idea.
“Dragons eat anything. Maidens, moods, wallpaper. Why don’t we convince the dragon to eat something we don’t need?”
After much deliberation, and after eliminating eggshells, envy, fishheads, shit, rot, and ennui as either too dear to lose or too rare to satisfy the dragon’s appetite, they decided on wants.
“I want gold,” said one fisherman. “Why imagine what would happen if the dragon ate that! Piles of gold around me, as much as I wanted!”
“Which you’d share,” said his neighbor.
“. . . of course,” said the fisherman.
They chose Andromache to deliver the message, because she was one of the few literate people in the village and because no one could quite bury the suspicion that the dragon might respond better to a maiden.
“I’m a widow,” she had protested. “That’s not the same thing.”
The dragon wouldn’t know the difference, they assured her.
“And besides, don’t dragons eat maidens, not talk to them?”
No, they assured her, because she was not really a maiden.
“Oi,” she said, and went.
The persuasion was not difficult. One morning, a wet gulf opened in the hard packed sand that bordered the dunes. As Andromache dashed from her house, the coralwork webbing the depression filled with water. Each tiny arch swelled to become a silver shield. The shields became scales, and the dragon raised her head over the dunes.
“I am very empty,” she hissed toward the town.
Andromache stood at the top of the dunes, her hair damp with the dragon’s steam. She gave the ritual answer: “We have what will fill you.”
The dragon’s eyes boiled. “Are you the sacrifice?”
Andromache said: “I come to offer you a bargain. If you agree, you will never be empty again. We will give you tribute, and there will always be more. Our supply is inexhaustible.” She paused. “If I were a dragon, I would take this deal.”
The boiling quickened, and bubbles spat between the curls of the dragon’s teeth. Andromache realized she was laughing. “What do you know about dragons, human?”
“I don’t know anything about dragons,” she said. “But I do know about emptiness.” She tried to steady her gaze on swirl of burning water before her. “It consumes you. It makes you desperate.”
“You see me as desperate?” asked the dragon. “I could eat you right now.”
“You could,” Andromache said, “but I am not the tribute. You only want what you lack. Desire has rules.” Swallowing hard, she met the dragon’s eyes. “Would you never hunger again? Then take our offer.”
The boil slowed to a simmer. “Tell me,” said the dragon.
Andromache was there for the first tribute, and all the rest. Dragons are not untrustworthy, but they can be excessive. Besides, the villagers had said, as a widow Andromache had nothing better to do. She scowled, thinking of the villagers’ children, who she tutored in letters every day. But she swallowed her complaint. Dragons could not take long.
When she arrived at the beach on the third morning, a nearby clump of scrub-brush was already bowing, its dry twigs creaking as they stretched and swelled. The dragon appeared, a skeleton of branches hatched on the air. One pliant shoot curled from her mouth like a tongue, sniffing.
“Why are you still here, human?” she asked, looking sideways at Andromache. “We have made our pact.”
“I’m interested,” said Andromache.
“Hrm,” the dragon replied. Her long tongue flickered higher. With a crackle, her splintery jaws widened and her throat undulated with swallowing. The dragon finished her first mouthful, and the sour brown of her scale-leaves seemed to soften. A sated sigh rippled the branches cradling her belly.
Andromache stepped forward so she was in the dragon’s line of sight. “What do desires taste like?” she asked.
The dragon’s eye, a single gleaming berry, turned towards her. “You see,” she continued, “we—I — only feel wants. I can only know what I desire and desire it. I have no sense for its flavors, its complexities. But you will taste all of ours.” The eye did not turn. “I am curious about the difference.”
Dragons do not smile, but the thicket of that massive body flared its twigs for a moment. The dragon lowered her head to reveal a second berry of deep sea green.
“What do you want, human?”
With a dart like a sparrow, the dragon’s tongue flicked out and danced over the crown of Andromache’s head.
“Your need tastes like emptiness,” she rumbled, “like the crumbled soil in the hole where a tree has been uprooted, or the ache of a missing limb.” Her eyes glowed. “Do you know this need, human?”
Andromache stared back. The old loss rose through her limbs like blood, and her shoulders straightened as they always did, with almost the same vigor as she had felt when her husband had held them, a long time ago. “I know it,” she said quietly.
Raising her head, the dragon rustled her body in approval, each slim twig quaking with what Andromache guessed was laughter.
“You do!” she said. “How unusual. You are a step ahead of your fellows. They do not know what they want, and so they do not know when I have taken it.”
“That can’t be true.”
“I spoke with one yesterday,” Andromache continued, “and the child she will bear has made her happier than anything ever could.”
The dragon laughed again, rustling. “Not all desires are so simple,” she said. “Even if your friend’s child had been that day’s tribute.”
“Then what —”
But the dragon’s tongue had flicked up again, and her jaw’s branches were unlacing. As she lifted her nose, the lattice of her chest bellied outwards, and her pliant throat undulated. She seemed to drink — not one sip this time, but long full draughts. A tender green blushed the dry leaves of her scales. Andromache watched in silence as the drab, parched fingers of the scrub brush plumped with a satiety they had never known. The bare branches of the dragon’s ribs clouded with leaves; her tail and muzzle flashed in flowers that curled immediately into berries. On the grey beach washed with grey waves she stood on the sand, a hymn of light and color, a singing forest, complete unto herself.
After the final draught, the dragon turned again to Andromache. Her head hung with eyes. “I am full,” she said in a voice of leaves and water. “Will you come again, human?”
For a long moment, Andromache stared at her many shining eyes. Then she said, “I will.”
Every day the dragon condensed on the shore; every day her form differed. She accrued like the tide-line, inevitably but much swifter, blossoming into graceful sculptures of sand, grass, sun, and air. On one memorable morning she slithered out of high tide, a flashing boil of minnows and water; on another, she unfurled as a fierce wind that feathered itself in the gummy, discarded plumage of the gulls. On countless others she burbled slimily from the deep, her green muck studded brilliantly with the luminescent inhabitants of the depths. Andromache had not known there were so many creatures on earth or in heaven. As she sat with her tutees in their dark houses, rehearsing lines of verse by candlelight, she often found her eyes straying towards the shore.
One morning she arrived on the beach to find the dragon already there waiting. She had not eaten yet. Today her body was a white mat of filaments, a thick mesh lashed to the sand by countless tiny threads. The deflated bodies of mushrooms hung here and there like limp scales from the gossamer. The dragon was spun, Andromache realized, from the diaphanous fungal roots that spread silently within all decay.
With a wormy shudder the dragon’s head unrooted itself. “I did not think you would come today,” she said.
“Sorry,” Andromache said, catching her breath. She had run. “The boy I am tutoring had not done his reading, so I had to stay and explain it to him. The parents of these children always expect me to stay longer. They think I have nothing else important to do,” she added bitterly. The dragon’s eyes widened in a manner Andromache had come to associate with confusion. “Don’t mind me,” she sighed. “I am just grumpy because I don’t feel appreciated.”
“Yes. It is a little silly. I’m old and widowed, and I should not expect thanks.”
The pale head drifted closer. “What is ‘appreciated’?”” asked the dragon.
“Oh!” said Andromache. “It is a little difficult to explain. Appreciation is when — when you are glad something is there. Imagine you came to the beach one morning and there was nothing for you to eat. You would feel the absence, yes?”
“Yes,” the dragon said.
“Now contrast that with how you feel when you arrive and the air is full of desires.” Saturated was how the dragon had described the town on a holiday morning. “You miss them when they are not there, and you appreciate them when they are.” The grey eyes watched her intently. “Now imagine those desires miss you, too. When you return, they are happy because you are there. Humans are like that, sometimes. We appreciate one another.”
The dragon lay her head down on the sand. Her gossamer eyes flickered thoughtfully. “This is strange,” she said. “It is like wanting, but the want is to be wanted.”
“Humans are strange,” Andromache said. She watched the dragon’s mouth, which still made no motion towards eating. “Have you tasted that desire, that wanting to be wanted? What does it taste like?” she asked.
“I have not,” the dragon replied. “I cannot choose my meals.” Then she continued, slowly, “If I do, I will describe its taste to you. You will — appreciate that.”
The withered mushrooms hanging from the dragon’s body seemed faintly to freshen. Watching, Andromache felt strange. She bent forward to lay the fingertips of one hand on the sand, so that they just pressed the edge of the dragon’s mycelial mat. “I will!” she said. “Thank you. That is what humans say when they feel appreciated.”
The dragon repeated, “Thank you.” The tendrils of her muzzle spread further outward, coiling beneath Andromache’s fingers. They felt soft and warm, and through them ran a low pulse like a cat’s purr. Her lacework body sunk placidly on the sand.
Time passed. Andromache said, “You should probably eat.”
“Yes,” said the dragon. “Thank you.”
In the town, things were very different, though no one could quite say how. Everyone knew the dragon had something to do with it, but only a few people could point to a specific instance of a desire that had been lost. And even then, there was no way of knowing whether the dragon was responsible. Some, like the fisherman who no longer wanted gold, chose to think that they had matured beyond such material concerns. Others preferred to blame god, or the neighbors. One fisherwoman who had not eaten for two weeks rebuffed her husband faintly: “I’m not hungry.” A dyer with four daughters opted to believe the town’s sudden interest in his wares was due to their belated appreciation of his taste, not his unuttered worry for his children.
There was no single means whereby their wants disappeared. One villager had pined for a wife and received twelve cats, with whom he was perfectly happy. Another stopped bathing after she found no real compulsion to remain clean.
Still another, a baby, died quietly in her mother’s arms. She no longer wished to live.
All in all, the villagers were satisfied with the arrangement. They had to be. As for the dragon, she was filled anew every day, as promised.
“How many emptinesses you have,” she murmured to Andromache as they sat together on the shore.
One morning, perhaps three weeks later, the dragon rose out of the surf as a fluorescent cliff of seasnails. Andromache was already waiting. As the dragon coalesced, she shaded her eyes from the light scattered by the dragon’s body. Each bright snail was encased in a glassy shell, a thousand miniature prisms whose facets poured back sunlight as the dragon moved. Two fronds of seaweed served as eyes, dark streaks on the dragon’s face that gave the impression of weeping.
Before tasting the air, the dragon greeted Andromache, as she did each day now.
Andromache could barely focus on the dragon’s form, which gleamed like a kaleidoscope. Marveling at the fierce whorl of color, she asked a question she had wondered about for a while now: “Why is your body always made of something else?”
The dragon’s kelp eyes shivered. “I am not sure I can explain it to you,” she said.
The dragon lay her great head down, so that the pile of seasnails and their weeping eyes were parallel to Andromache’s face. “Think about your — husband,” she began, struggling to recall the word.
Puzzled, Andromache obeyed. She did not often recall him actively. His memory was always with her, a deep marrow of pain and gratitude, and sometimes if she let herself grow still, in those moments she felt their past’s quiet circulation. He had died many years ago. But his death was like the submerging of a spring where water still flowed, invisible and vital.
“Ah,” said the dragon. Her tongue, a slim antenna, was tasting the space before Andromache’s eyes. “You feel this emptiness, and it pains you. But you are human, so you collect around it. Your desire centers you. It is need, but it is also life.”
The tongue licked backwards. “Dragons are different. We have no center, only want.” Her wet eyes seemed to tremble. “Perhaps that is because we are only want. My body is always multiple because my desires are. I have no center.”
Though dragons do not feel sadness, Andromache had the sudden urge to stroke the glistening mass of sea creatures. Reaching out, she laid her hand on the dragon’s knobby cheek, just below where the kelp eyes wept softly down.
But at her touch, the dragon jerked her head away from the sand. A few tiny seasnails chipped from her jaw and fell to the ground, writhing as their crystal shells snapped. Her tongue lifted towards the town. “I am very empty today,” she burbled, as if in apology. More seasnails shattered as her mouth stretched open; today it was less like a muzzle and more like a sinkhole whose muddy sides had collapsed.
“Eat,” Andromache urged. “I’m sorry. I will not try to touch you again.”
The dragon’s jaws pulsed like a wound. “No. It is not — ” A shudder passed up her glassy body. “Will you come tomorrow, Andromache?”
The dragon’s head swayed. Sunlight splashed through its many prisms and then fell away again, charged with color. She was very hollow, Andromache thought, and very beautiful. “Please,” she said, “Eat.”
“Thank you,” said the dragon.
Some time later, Andromache found herself alone on the beach. Beside her, a slick of steaming sand ran like a scar back towards the water. She was unable to recall precisely why she had lingered there. Shaking her head, she returned to town.
A young boy who had been out gathering clams further down the beach claims he saw the dragon’s departure. She looked, he said, like no dragon he had ever seen: a sleek, solid coil of lizard scales and fire, hooked wings beating the shallows to fury as she rose, howling, into the sky. Nature had no part of her; sea and sand recoiled from her touch. In the town, the villagers heard her scream and trembled.
Here is what it tasted like.
It tasted like dependence, the fixture of roots in a riverbank whose vulnerability twines them together. It tasted like affirmation, the shout of metal as it finds its magnet. It tasted like apocalypse, the collapse of life’s clamor into a pattern clear and sharp as music. Savoring that day’s anonymous desire, the dragon was surprised to find herself within, like an image suspended in a mirror. With gratitude and recognition, she drank deeply of her own reflection. She tasted what it was to be wanted.
It was utterly satisfying and unspeakably painful.
The next day, Andromache did not go down to the seashore. Nor did she return the following day, nor the next, nor any of those afterwards.
The villagers said nothing, but they were quietly relieved. Despite their mistrust of the dragon, they had grown more suspicious still of Andromache’s intimacy with her. It was unnatural, they said, for a single woman to be so long away from company. Didn’t she have better things to do? What did she and the beast talk about for all those idle hours? It was unseemly, they agreed, for a widow to spend so much time in company — especially the company of a dragon.
Andromache fielded their complaints with her usual mild unconcern. She did not know why she had decided to stop visiting the dragon. It simply no longer pleased her. She did not feel she owed anyone an explanation. Each morning, after her teaching was finished, instead of walking to the shore she went wandering in the hills, sitting for long, still hours beside the streams’ dark music. She thought often of her husband. By most standards, she was content. And if her serenity was not precisely complete, she could never name the source of her unease.
The dragon left a week later. The first few mornings after Andromache’s absence she had appeared on the beach, crashing down in scaled glory to alight on sand her heat turned instantly to glass. After a few minutes of waiting she left again, keening. She did not feed. Eventually she stopped coming, and the glass slick she left behind turned its perfect mirror to an empty sky.
The villagers were delighted. No dragon had ever abandoned a town before. They felt, proudly, that they had defeated this one. A town mythology slowly developed claiming collective responsibility for their singular triumph. Andromache’s name was not mentioned, though afterwards the parents of her tutees were no longer quite as insistent in their demands on her time.
Like the dragon herself, the consumed desires never returned. The dyer’s children prospered, and the fisherwoman died peacefully of starvation. New petty jealousies arose to replace those that had been taken. The town returned to business as usual. They watched the clouds for more dragons.
Once in a while they heard tales of distant towns razed by a terrifying serpent, a monstrous reject of nature — winged, fire-breathing, and ruthless, crazed with insatiable hunger. But it never came to their village.
About the Author
Brittany Pladek is a literature scholar and speculative fiction writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.