The dragon-horse awakens in moonlight.
Drops of cold dew drip onto his forehead, where they meander down the curve of his steel nose.
He struggles to open his eyes, rusted eyelids grinding against eyelashes. A pair of silvery specks reflects from those giant, dark red pupils. At first, he thinks it’s the moon, but a careful examination reveals it to be a clump of white flowers blooming vibrantly in a crack in the cement, irrigated by the dew dripping from his nose.
He can’t help but inhale deeply, as though trying to taste the fragrance of the flowers, but he smells nothing—after all, he is not made of flesh and blood and has never smelled anything. The air rushes into his nostrils, whistling loudly in the narrow gaps between mechanical components. He feels a slight buzzing all over his body, as if each one of his hundreds of scales is vibrating at a different frequency, and so he sneezes, two columns of white fog erupting from his nostrils. The white flowers tremble in the fog, drops of dew falling from the tips of the translucent petals.
Slowly, the dragon-horse opens his eyes all the way and lifts his head to survey the world.
The world has been desolate for a long time and now looks very different from his memory of it. He remembers once having stood in the middle of a brightly lit hall, shaking his head and waving his tail at Chinese and foreign visitors, surrounded by cries of delight and surprised intakes of breath. He remembers nights when, after the lights in the museum had been extinguished, lingering visitors murmuring in strange tongues had disturbed his dreams.
The hall is now in ruins, the cracked walls askew with vines sprouting from fissures and seams, leaves susurrating in the wind. Vine-shrouded trees have punched holes, large and small, in the glass skylight overhead. Bathed by moonlight, dewdrops plink-plonk like pearls falling onto a jade platter.
The dragon-horse glances around the great hall of the museum—now a decayed courtyard—and sees that all of the other inhabitants are gone, leaving only him dreaming for untold centuries amongst the rubble. He peers at the night sky through the holes in the skylight: the empyrean is a shade of midnight blue, and the stars twinkle like silver-white flowers. This is also a sight he can’t recall seeing for a long, long time.
He recalls his birthplace, a small city named Nantes on the shores of the tranquil Loire, where the brilliant pinpricks of the stars, reflected in the water, resembled an oil painting. But in this metropolis, thousands of miles from Nantes, the sky always hung overhead like a thick gray waxy membrane by day, varicolored neon lights turning it even more turbid at night.
Tonight, the limpid moon and luminous stars arouse in him an intense nostalgia for his hometown, for the tiny workshop where he was born, on an isle in the middle of the river, where the artisans drew the plans for his design using pens with nibs as fine as a single strand of hair, and then cast the components, polished, spray-painted, and assembled them, until he was fully formed. His massive body weighed forty-seven tons, composed from tens of thousands of individual components.
With his reinforced steel frame and wooden scales, he stood erect, a terrifying sight. Then the gears, axles, motors, and cables inside him collaborated seamlessly in a mechanical symphony so that he could come alive: his four hoofed legs extending and flexing as though made of flesh, his neck curving and straightening like a startled wild goose, his spine gyrating like a playful dragon, his head lifting and dipping like a lazy tiger, his steps as light as an immortal dancing across water.
On top of his horse-like body is a dragon’s neck and head, along with a long beard, deer antlers, and dark-red glass eyes. Each of the golden scales covering his body is inscribed with a Chinese character: “dragon,” “horse,” “poem,” “dream.” These characters embody the romantic fantasies his clever artisan-creators harbored about another ancient civilization.
Long ago, he came here in a Year of the Horse. “Vigorous as dragon and horse” is an auspicious phrase the people of this land loved to say to each other, and it was this phrase that inspired his creators, and endowed him with his present mythical form.
He remembers also parading across a square packed with crowds with his head held high and his legs stretched out. Children greeted him with curious eyes and delighted screams as the mist spewing from his nostrils drenched them. He remembers the lovely music that filled the air, a combination of Western symphonies and Chinese folk tunes—slowly and gracefully, he strolled, swaying and stepping to the rhythm of the music. He remembers the streets and buildings spreading before him like a chessboard, stretching endlessly under the gray, hazy sky. He remembers his performance partner, a mechanical spider who was almost as large as he and whose eight legs sliced through the air menacingly. They performed together for three days and three nights, enacting a complete, mythical tale.
Nüwa, the goddess of creation, sent the dragon-horse to survey the mortal world, where he encountered the spider, who had escaped from the heavenly court and was wreaking havoc everywhere. They fought an epic battle until—neither able to overcome the other—they forged a peace based on friendship. Then the four seas undulated in harmonious tranquility, and even the weather became mild and pleasant.
After the show, the spider returned to its birthplace, leaving the dragon-horse alone as guardian of this strange land.
Yet, isn’t this place another homeland for him? He was created to celebrate the lasting friendship between two nations, and from conception he was of mixed blood. The dreams and myths of this land were his original seed. After eons of being passed from one storyteller to another, the legends—transformed into the languages of strange lands, borne across oceans to new realms—were substantiated by the magic of steel and electricity, like those agile robots and spaceships. Finally, across thousands of miles, he came here to become a new legend to be passed down through the ages. Tradition and modernity, myth and technology, the East and the West: Which is his old country, which the new?
The dragon-horse, unable to puzzle out the question, lowers his heavy head. He has been asleep for too long, and the whole world has turned into a ruined garden. Are there still places in this garden for people to live? In the cold moonlight, the dragon-horse carefully lifts his legs, and, step by step, begins to explore.
Every joint in his rusty body screeches. In a glass wall filled with spiderweb cracks, he sees a reflection of himself. His body has also been decaying. Time flows like a river, halting for no one. His scaled armor is now patchy, incomplete, like an aged veteran returning from the wars. Only his glass eyes continue to glow with that familiar dim light.
The wide avenue where cars had once streamed like a river of steel is now filled with lush trees dancing in the wind. As soon as there’s a break in the rustling of leaves, birds and insects fill the silence with their chittering music, which only makes everything seem even more desolate. The dragon-horse looks around, uncertain where he should be headed.
Since it makes no difference, he picks a direction at random and strolls forward.
The clopping hoofbeats echo against the pavement. The moon stretches his lonely shadow a long way along the ground.
The dragon-horse isn’t sure how long he has been walking.
Silently, the stars spin overhead and the moon wanders across the firmament, but without clocks or watches, time’s passage cannot be felt.
The avenue he’s on was once this city’s most famous street. Now it is a deep canyon whose craggy walls are formed from an amalgam of bricks, steel, concrete, and trees, the product of mixing the inorganic with the organic, decay with life, reality with dream, the steel-and-glass metropolis with ancient myths.
He remembers that there was once a square nearby where bright lights remained lit throughout the night like a thousand-year dream. But in the end, the lights went out, and the dream ended. There’s nothing in this world that can outlast time itself.
Coming into the valley that was once that square, he sees an impossible vision: thousands and thousands of steel wrecks heaped and stacked like the skeletal remains of beasts, the looming piles stretching as far as the eye can see. These were once automobiles of various makes and sizes, most of them so corroded by rust that only the frames remain. Twisted branches emerge from the dark, empty windows and stab into the sky, as though clawing for some elusive prey. The dragon-horse experiences a nameless sorrow and terror. He lowers his eyes to gaze at his own rusty forelimbs. How is he different from these dead cars? Why should he not fall into a perpetual slumber alongside them?
No one can answer these questions.
A scale falls from his chest, rolling among the steel wrecks and echoing dully in the watery moonlight. The insects, near and far, fall silent for a moment before resuming their joyful chorus, as though what fell was nothing more than an insignificant pebble.
He becomes even more frightened, and picks up his pace as he continues his night journey.
• • • •
Squeaks come from a certain spot in the ruins. The sound is thin and dreary, different from birdcall and insect chitter. The dragon-horse follows the sound to its source, searching among the thick grass with his nose. Suddenly, in the shadow of a shallow cave, he finds himself gazing at a pair of tiny, dark eyes.
“Who are you?” the dragon-horse asks. It has been so long since he has heard his own voice that the thrumming timbre sounds strange to him.
“Don’t you recognize me?” a thin voice answers.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m a bat.”
“Half-beast, half bird, I sleep during the day and emerge at night to swoop between dawn and dream.”
The dragon-horse carefully examines his interlocutor: sharp snout, large ears, a soft body covered by fine, gray fur and curled upon itself, and two thin membranous wings shimmering in the moon.
“And who are you?” the bat squeaks.
“Who am I?” the dragon-horse repeats the question.
“You don’t know who you are?”
“Maybe I do; maybe I don’t,” replies the dragon-horse. “I’m called Dragon-Horse, meaning that I am both dragon and horse. I began as a myth in China, but I was born in France. I don’t know if I’m a machine or a beast, alive or dead—or perhaps I’ve never possessed the animating spark. I also don’t know if my walk through the night is real, or only a dream.”
“Like all poets who make dreams their horses.” The bat sighs.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, you reminded me of a line from a poem from long ago.”
“A poem?” The word sounds familiar to the dragon-horse, but he’s not certain what it means.
“Yes. I like poems,” the bat says, and nods. “When the poets are gone, poems are even more precious.”
“The poets are gone?” the dragon-horse asks carefully. “You are saying no one writes poems anymore?”
“Can’t you tell? There are no longer any people in this world.”
The dragon-horse doesn’t bother looking around. He knows she’s right.
“Then what should we do?” he asks, after being silent for a while.
“We can do whatever we want,” says the bat. “Humans may be gone, but the world goes on. Look at how lovely the moon is tonight. If you want to sing, sing. If you don’t want to sing, just lie still. When you sing, the world will listen; when you are quiet, you’ll hear the song of all creation.”
“But I can’t hear it,” admits the dragon-horse. “I can only hear the chitter of insects in the ruins. They frighten me.”
“Poor baby—your ears aren’t as good as mine,” says the bat compassionately. “But you heard me. That’s odd.”
“Is it really that strange?”
“Usually, only bats can hear other bats. But the world is so big, anything is possible.” The bat shrugs. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know where I’m headed,” the dragon-horse says. It’s the truth.
“You don’t even have a destination in mind?”
“I’m just walking about. Also, I don’t know how to do anything except walking.”
“I have a destination, but I got held up on the way.” The bat’s voice turns sorrowful. “I’d been flying for three days and three nights, and then an owl came after me. The owl almost tore my wings.”
“You’re hurt?” asks the dragon-horse solicitously.
“I said ‘almost.’ Do I look like I’m easy prey?” Her indignant speech is interrupted by a fit of coughing.
“Do you not feel well?”
“I’m thirsty. Flying parched my throat, and I want a drink. But the water here is full of the flavor of rust; I can’t stand it.”
“I have water,” says the dragon-horse. “It’s for my performance.”
“Would you give me a drink? Just a sip.”
The dragon-horse lowers his head, and a white mist sprays from his nostrils. The mist soaks the bat’s tiny body, forming droplets on the fine fur. Satisfied, the bat spreads her wings and carefully licks up the droplets.
“You’re nice,” squeaks the bat. “I feel much better now.”
“Are you leaving, then, for where you want to go?”
“Yes. I have an important mission tonight. What about you?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll just keep on moving forward.”
“Can you carry me for a while? I’m still tired and need rest, but I don’t want to be late.”
“But I walk very slowly,” the dragon-horse says, embarrassed. “My body is designed so that I can only walk haltingly, step by step.”
“I don’t care.” Briskly flapping her light wings, the bat lands next to the dragon-horse’s right ear. The bat’s claws lightly clutch a branch of his long antler, and then she’s dangling upside down.
“See, now we get to talk as we walk. There’s nothing better than a night journey with conversation.”
The dragon-horse sighs and carefully shifts his limbs. The bat is so light that he almost can’t feel the creature’s presence. He can only hear that thin, reedy voice whispering poetry in his ear:
“Faced with the great river I am consumed by shame. What has my exhaustion accomplished . . .?”
They pass through the graveyard of cars. The road is now more rugged and uneven, and the moon has hid itself behind wispy clouds so that the road is illuminated in patches.
Carefully, the dragon-horse picks his way through, fearful of falling and breaking a limb. With each step, his whole body creaks and groans, and gears and screws fall off him—clink-clank—and disappear in the gaps between rubble and weeds.
“Are you in pain?” asks the bat curiously.
“I’ve never known what pain is,” confesses the dragon-horse.
“Wow, impressive. If it were me, I’d be dead from the pain by now.”
“I don’t know what death is, either.” The dragon-horse falls silent. The nameless sorrow and terror have returned. If he is considered alive now, is that essence of life scattered among the tens of thousands of components making up his body, or is it concentrated in some special spot? If these components are all scattered along the path he has trodden, will he still be alive? How will he continue to sense all that is around him?
Time flows like a river, halting for no one. There’s nothing in this world that can outlast time itself.
“Walking like this is boring,” says the bat. “Why don’t you tell me a story? You were born so long ago that you must know many stories that I don’t know.”
“Story? I don’t know what a story is; I certainly can’t tell you one.”
“It’s easy! Okay, repeat after me: ‘Long, long ago.’”
“Long, long ago . . .”
“What comes to your mind now? Do you see something that doesn’t exist?”
The dragon-horse does. The wheel of time seems to be reversing before his eyes. Trees shrink into the ground, and giant buildings shoot out of the earth, part to the sides like the sea, and leave a straight, wide avenue down the middle.
“Long, long ago, there was a bustling metropolis.”
“Are there people in the city?” asks the bat.
“Many, many people.”
“Can you see them clearly?”
The image before the dragon-horse’s eyes clarifies like a long painted scroll: Everyone’s expression is vivid and lifelike. He sees the people’s joys and sorrows, partings and meetings, as though seeing the moon waxing and waning.
“Long, long ago, there was a bustling metropolis. In this city there lived a young woman . . .”
He starts to tell the stories of those people.
A young woman who’d never been in love fell for a stranger she met through the chat program on her phone, but then she discovered that her interlocutor was only a perfect bit of conversation software. Yet, the digital boy loved her back, and they happily spent a lifetime together. After the woman died, a record of her life—her frowns and laughter, her actions and reactions—was uploaded to the cloud, and she became the shared goddess of people and AIs.
A pious monk went to a factory to pray and bring blessings to the robot workers who were plagued by short-circuits and malfunctions. But the ghosts of the dead robot workers hounded him. Just as the investigation of the strange occurrences was about to end, the monk was found dead in a tiny hotel room, his nude body smeared with the blood of a woman. An autopsy revealed the truth: He was also a robot.
A famous actress was known for being able to portray a wide variety of roles. So skilled was she, the paparazzi suspected that she was only a software simulation. But by the time they managed to break into her well-secured mansion, all they saw was a cold corpse lying on a magnificent bed. Frighteningly, whether you were looking at her body with the naked eye or through a camera, everyone and every camera saw a different woman. And even years later, the actress continued to show up on the silver screen.
A blind child prodigy began to play go against the computer when he was five. As time passed, his skill improved, and his computer opponent also became smarter through competition with him. Many years later, as he lay dying, the blind go-player played one last match against his old opponent. But unbeknownst to him, as they played, others opened his skull and scanned each part of his brain layer by layer, digitizing the results into computer modules that his machine opponent could learn from, until this last go match became so complicated that no one could follow it.
Delighted by the stories told by the dragon-horse, the bat dances upside down. In turn, she squeaks other stories into the dragon-horse’s ear:
A bell that rang only once every hundred years was forgotten in the dark basement of an art museum in the heart of the city. But due to a marvelous resonance phenomenon, whenever the bell did ring, its sound would be echoed and magnified by the entire city until the ringing resounded like an ensemble of pipe organs and everything stood still in awe.
An unmanned drone took to the skies every dawn. Each clockwise swoop over the city also served to recharge its solar-powered batteries. Whenever spring turned to summer, a flock of fledgling birds followed the drone to practice flying like a magnificent cloud.
Piles of paper books that no one ever read filled an ancient library where the temperature was always kept at sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit. The main computer of the library was capable of reciting every poem in every language. If you were lucky enough to find the way there, you would receive an unimaginably enthusiastic reception.
A musical fountain was capable of composing new music as soon as you deposited some coins. At dusk, feral cats and dogs often dropped coins they picked out of the ruins into the fountain; and so, as the birds and beasts took turns bathing in the fountain in an orderly manner, they also got to enjoy lovely music that never repeated itself.
“Is it really true?” They each ask the other, again and again. “And then? What happened then?”
Shadows dance in the moon. The longer they walk, the longer seems the road.
• • • •
Gradually, they hear gurgling water, like the babbling of a brook echoing through a deep canyon. Before the founding of the metropolis, creeks and brooks had crisscrossed this spot. Year by year, they were tamed as people multiplied, and turned into lakes, ditches, and dank underground sewers. But now the brooks have been freed, wantonly meandering their way over the rolling terrain, singing, nourishing the life on this patch of land.
The dragon-horse stops. The road he’s on disappears into a wild lotus pond. The pond stretches as far as the horizon, covered by layer after layer of lotus leaves. A breeze passes, and the lotus leaves ruffle, causing undulating ripples through the dark-green and gray-white sea. Red and white lotus flowers peek out of the leaves as though they’re pieces of frozen moonlight, with no trace of the merely terrestrial in their beauty.
“How lovely.” The bat sighs lightly. “It’s so beautiful that my heart aches.”
The dragon-horse is startled because he feels the same, though he doesn’t know if he has a heart.
“Shall we go on?” he asks.
“I need to fly over this lake,” replies the bat. “But you can’t go on any longer. You’re made of metal; the water will probably cause you to short-circuit.”
“Maybe.” The dragon-horse hesitates. He has never been in the water.
“Then let us say farewell here.” The bat’s flapping wings tickle the dragon-horse’s ear.
“Yes, I don’t want to be late.”
“The same to you! Take care of yourself, and thank you for your stories.”
“Thank you, as well.”
The dragon-horse stands at the shore and watches as the shadow of the bat diminishes gradually until she has disappeared in the night.
He is alone again. The watery moon gently illuminates all creation.
He looks at his reflection in the water. His body seems more skeletal than he remembers from before the start of this journey. The scales covering his body have mostly fallen off, and even one of his antlers is gone. Through the holes in his skin, messy bundles of wires and cables can be seen wrapped around his rusty steel skeleton.
Where shall I go? Should I go back? Back to where I started?
Or maybe I should head in the opposite direction. The Earth is round. No matter where I want to go, as long as I keep going, I’ll get there.
Though he’s pondering turning back, he has already, without realizing it, stepped forward.
His front hoofs disappear underneath the ice-cold waves.
The lotus leaves scratch gently against his belly. Countless sparkling droplets roll across their surfaces: Some return to the starting point after wandering about for a while; others coalesce like beads of mercury and then tumble off the edge of the leaf into the water.
The world is so lovely. I don’t want to die.
The thought frightens him. Why am I thinking about death? Am I about to die?
But the endless lotus pond continues to tempt him. He moves forward, one step after another. He wants to reach the other shore, which he has never seen.
The water rises and covers his limbs, his belly, his torso, his spine, his neck.
His legs sink into the mud at the bottom of the pond, and he can’t pull them out. His body sways and he almost falls. The last scale falls from his body.
The golden scale splashes into the water like a lotus-shaped floating lantern. Slowly, it drifts away, carried by the ripples.
The dragon-horse is exhausted, but he also feels as though all weight has been lifted from him. He closes his eyes.
He hears the sound of rushing water, as though he has returned to the place of his birth. Long-forgotten memories replay before his eyes. He seems to be on the ocean at this moment, riding in a giant ship headed for China. Perhaps all that he has seen and heard over the years are but a dream on this long voyage.
A breeze caresses his beard, like a barely audible sigh.
The dragon-horse opens his eyes. The tiny figure of the bat is flattened against his nose.
“You’re back!” Joy fills him. “Did you make it on time?”
“I got lost.” The bat sighs. “The pond is too big. I can’t seem to find the other shore.”
“It’s too bad that I’m stuck in the mud. I can’t help carry you any farther.”
“I wish we had fire.”
“Wherever there’s fire, there’s light. I want to lead the way for everyone!”
“For . . . who?”
“For the gods in darkness, for the lonely ghosts and lost souls, for anyone who doesn’t know where to go—I will lead them all.”
“You need fire?”
“Yes, but where would we find fire in all this water?”
“I have fire,” says the dragon-horse. “I don’t have much, but I hope it’s enough for you.”
“Give me a bit of space.”
The bat flaps over to a lotus leaf nearby. The dragon-horse opens his jaw and sticks out his black tongue. Pure kerosene flows out of a seam under the tongue, and a dark blue electric spark comes to life at the tip of the tongue, lighting the kerosene spray. A golden-scarlet column of fire shoots into the sky.
“I had no idea you had such hidden talents!” the bat shouts in admiration. “More, more!”
The dragon-horse opens his mouth and more flames shoot out. Kerosene burns easily, even after so many years of storage. He can’t remember the last time he performed the fire-breathing trick—it’s possible that he hasn’t done it since the battle with the spider. Fire is so warm and beautiful, like a god whose shape is constantly shifting.
“Millions wish to extinguish the fire, but I alone will lift it high overhead.” The bat’s voice rings clearly in the ear of the dragon-horse, resonating with each and every one of his components:
This fantastic fire, a storm of blossoms that blankets the sacred motherland.
Like all poets who make dreams their horses,
By this fire, I survive the long dark night.
He feels like a burning match. But he doesn’t feel any pain.
All around him, faint lights appear in the distance, gathering like fireflies.
Oh, what a collection of spirits and demons! They are of every shape and material, sporting every strange color and outline: Hand-drawn door gods and buddhas; abstract graffiti on factory walls; tiny robots no bigger than a thumb made out of computer components; mechanical Guan Yu constructed from truck parts; dilapidated, ancient stone guardian lions; teddy bears as tall as a house and capable of telling stories; simple, clumsy robot dogs; strollers capable of singing a baby to sleep . . .
They are just like him, mixed-blood creations of tradition and modernity, myth and technology, dream and reality. They are made of Art, yet they are Natural.
“It’s time!” the bat sings joyfully. “Come with us!”
“Where are we going?” asks the dragon-horse.
“Anywhere is fine. Tonight, you will find eternal life and freedom in poetry and dream.”
She sticks out a tiny claw and pulls him into the air, where he transforms into a fluttering butterfly with dark-red eyes and golden wings full of Chinese characters. He looks down and sees the massive body of the dragon-horse still burning in the endless lotus pound, like a magnificent torch.
Along with all his companions, he flies higher in the sky. The rolling landscape of ruins diminishes in the distance. Next to his ear, the bat’s voice continues to whisper.
A thousand years later, if I were to be born again on the riverbank of my motherland,
A thousand years later, I will again possess China’s rice paddies and the snow-capped mountains of the King of Zhou, where sky-horses roam.
Farewell, and good-bye.
The flame disappears in darkness.
They fly for a long time, until they reach the end of the world.
Everywhere they look, darkness greets their eyes. Only a giant, sparkling river lies between Heaven and Earth.
The blue water gleams like fire, like mercury, like the stars, like diamonds—twinkling, shimmering, melding into the dark night. No one knows how wide it is, or how long.
The spirits flap and flutter their wings, heading for the opposite shore. Like mist, like a cloud, like a rainbow, like a bridge, they connect two worlds.
“Go on,” says the bat. “Hurry.”
“What about you?”
“I still have some tasks to finish. When the sun rises, I must return to my nest to sleep and wait for the next night.”
“So we’re to say farewell again?”
“Yes. But the world is so grand; I’m sure we’ll meet somewhere else again.”
They embrace, wrapping their tiny wings about each other. The dragon-horse spirit turns to leave, and the bat recites poetry to send him on his way.
Riding the five-thousand-year-old phoenix and a dragon whose name is “horse,” I am doomed to fail.
But Poetry itself, wielding the sun, will surely triumph.
He heads for the opposite shore, and he isn’t sure how long he has been flying. The starry river flows by.
Next to the shore is his birthplace, the tiny, tranquil isle of Nantes. The mechanical beasts have been slumbering for an unknown number of years: the twenty-five-meter tall carousel horse of the ocean world; the fifty-ton giant elephant; the immense, frightening reptile; the heron with the eight-meter wingspan capable of carrying a man; the bizarre mechanical ants, cicadas, and carnivorous plants . . .
He sees his old partner, the spider, who lies tranquilly in the soft moonlight, his eight legs curled under him. Landing gently on the forehead of the spider, he closes his wings like a dewdrop falling from the heavens.
When you sing, the world will listen; when you are quiet, you’ll hear the song of all creation.
The night breeze carries the sounds of collision, percussion, and metal creaking and grinding against metal. He smells the aroma of machine oil, rust, and electrical sparks. His friends have awakened, and to welcome his return, there will surely be a great feast.
But he falls into a deep slumber.
First published on http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/night-journey-of-the-dragon-horse/