My father used to take me into his lap after he returned home from the market.
“Look at the sky, Aria,” he would beckon at the vast expanse of blue, making a sweeping motion to indicate the twinkling stars.
“What do you see?” he would ask.
Each time, my answer would be different. My imagination pieced together the stars to form a picture. A duck, a horse, perhaps a cat would be made from the celestial lights.
“A dragon,” I once said.
“Legend has it that a wizard with marks of gold will one day visit this village. He shall bring with him chaos and destruction. A dragon with beautiful scales of every color, from mahogany to violet, will become his companion, and will bring justice for all,” he replied.
My father was a good storyteller. He could weave tales that were as tall as the oak trees that framed our houses. Most of his legends were simply fiction, but I always wondered if any of them carried some truth. Were there really dragons and wizards waiting to descend from the heavens above?
“All of my stories are real!” my father would counter whenever I questioned his legends. I knew he was only trying to appeal to my young imagination.
“Are you sure?” I would ask. He always laughed, a deep, hearty chuckle that could be heard for miles. We would sit outside for hours on end, or at least until I fell asleep in his warm, weary arms, gazing up at the stars as his legends ran through my tired brain. Visions of dragons danced through my dreams, their rainbow scales reflecting the light. I would always wake up tucked into my bed, my father’s arms no longer around me.
My father was a good man. It is a shame that he had to join the stars so early.
Click-click. Click-click. Each tap of the customer’s fingernails on the table signaled her growing annoyance.
“Why can’t you count FASTER!” she quipped. I quickly muttered an apology and dropped the coins into her outstretched palm. Mary Magnolia was known for her impatience, and no matter how fast I could count her change and hand her some apples, she was never satisfied. Thankfully, the other customers were not as nasty. I worked non-stop under the bright red canopy of our stall for hours, handing customers their produce, totaling up their cash and counting their change. The busy marketplace was bustling with people from all over our village, selling and buying goods, hoping to make a meager amount of cash to keep their children fed for another day.
Life in the village was not facile. Each day at exactly 8 am, the marketplace would open, revealing bright canopies and a menagerie of spices, produce, pottery, dresses, and other various items that people wanted to sell. Yahya would lay out an assortment of handmade silk garments from her grandmother next to spools of ribbon underneath her blue canopy, while Mr. Zaher, clad in a patterned shirt and a tattered green tie, sold wooden chairs and tables under his purple canopy. We toiled under the morning sun, selling our wares while our loved ones worked as farmers, maids, or carpenters at home, attempting to make enough money to buy a bag of rice or some ears of corn to take home to our families. Although our goal was to earn cash, many people bartered with goods, as they had no money to barter with. At 6 pm, the canopies would be retracted, the marketplace would clear, and I would walk home with anything that I earned that day.
Home: the word itself was comforting to me. As I walked in the door, my sister would greet me with excited yells. “Aria, Aria!” she called out. “Calm down, Neena!” I laughed.
The aroma of vegetable stew floated through the house. Every corner of the house was covered with some furniture or framed with some pictures. The old, three-legged chair sat in the corner, where our mottled turtleshell, affectionately named ‘Kitty’ by Neena, lay. My eyes swept around the room, scanning the array of pictures and drawings that I had composed, stopping at a grey portrait of an aged, weary man, with a pressed dress shirt, bright, warm eyes that crinkled at the edges, and a wide smile. My father’s eyes stared back at me. I quickly looked away, not wanting the memories of his death, an innocent death caused by a poisoned drink, to flood me again.
We took our places at the dinner table as Neena excitedly told us tales about what happened at school. She was only in the second grade, with frizzy hair like mine and a toothy grin. Next to her was my mother, a petite, middle-aged woman with toned arms and lines covering her body, both earned from working long hours under the sun on the family farm. We finished eating, Neena started her schoolwork, and my mother disappeared into her bedroom. I ducked into mine, and sat at my desk, continuing to color a picture of a dragon that I had started several days ago. Shooting stars fell outside my window. Everything was peaceful.
I woke up with a start, paper and colored pencil shavings stuck to my face. I must have fell asleep while I was working on my drawing.
“Aria! Are you okay?”
My mother was standing at my bedroom door, accompanied by our neighbor, Mrs. Lilith.
“There was a bright light outside, and it looked like it shot through your window!” Mrs. Lilith frantically explained. Nothing appeared to be out of place, though. My window wasn’t shattered, and everything in my room was exactly where it was when I had entered it several hours prior.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Lilith.” I reassured.
The two adults disappeared into the living room. I glanced at the clock hanging on my wall, which read 7:15 am. It was almost time for the market to open, so I gathered my wares and rushed out of the house, pushing the events of last night to the back of my brain.
Business continued as usual. Customers visited the stall, picking through my offerings in search of their needs, occasionally buying something. Last night’s flash of light was the main topic of today’s local gossip, with every last vendor and consumer giving their opinion on the matter.
“Shooting stars are signs of trouble, I tell you! We’re all going to die!” wailed Mrs. Leina.
“First our town being plagued by more violence, and now this?” angrily yelled Mr. Zahvas, referring to the recent increase in fights happening between the villagers, caused by displeasure in our village’s rampant poverty.
Bits and ends of conversation about the flash traveled throughout the market while I was working, with a general opinion of displeasure about the event. I was so engrossed in listening that I didn’t even notice the tall stranger standing in front of my stall.
“Hello there! I see you have a fine selection of produce. Can I buy some apples?”
He spoke with a thick accent, like none I had heard before. It was common for outsiders from neighboring towns to pass through our village and buy goods, but his voice did not carry the typical gruff tone or articulated syllables that outsiders usually had. His voice was as smooth as caramel and as dark as freshly ground coffee.
“Y-yes. They are $4 a pound.” I stammered, taken aback by his unfamiliarity.As he moved to place his money on the counter, I noticed that his arms were encircled with golden spirals, sticking out from his tan skin. The curls of his short, brown hair were also decorated with the same color of gold. He wore a white dress shirt and a charcoal vest, with a sparkly golden bow tie adorning his collar. A leather satchel was slung across one of his broad shoulders.
“Are you going to get my apples or…..?”
“Sorry!” I immediately snapped out of my gaze and handed him the apples. He then stared at my hand.
“Have you had these for long?” he queried.
“Had what?” I asked, confused. I looked at my hand, and to my horror, several silver scales had begun to grow on my skin! I caught a glimpse of my reflection on a metal pot, and the scales appeared to dot all over my neck, arms, and face.
“OH MAN OH MAN WHAT DO I DO THERE ARE ACTUAL SCALES GROWING ON MY SKIN AM I GOING TO DIE-”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” the stranger quelled my frantic worrying. “You aren’t going to die. Meet me at this exact location tonight at 1 am. I will try to fix this.”
“Are you responsible for this?” I asked, on the verge of tears.
“Your questions will be answered tonight. For now, cover your face with this scarf.” He dug through his satchel, and presented a simple cotton scarf.
“I will see you tonight. Do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone about this.” He added.
I realized that I had never even asked for his name, but by then, he was gone.
The rest of the day seemed to drag on as I anticipated tonight’s visit. By midday, last night’s flash was forgotten, with the increasingly violent scuffles between villagers taking center as a new source of gossip. Mother was extremely worried about me when I came home that night.
“Aria!” she called out.
I stopped in my tracks, scared that she had seen my scales.
“Please do be careful when you’re going to the market. There are reports of violent scuffles happening at night and I don’t want to lose you.”
“Yes, mother.” I dutifully replied. I knew she was remembering the night my father died.
I spent the remaining time in my room, continuing to add strokes of silver pencil to capture the dragon’s magnificence. When the clock struck 12:30 am, I put on my black jacket and patterned leggings, hiding a small knife in a pocket in case I am attacked, as well as my folded drawing, since I had no time to tuck it away. Slowly, I climbed out of my window and into the ink-black darkness, scales shimmering under the dim light of the moon.
Snap. The sound of a splintered twig echoed behind me.
My footsteps became faster, pounding against the dirt road as I sprinted towards the market. A hand grabbed my shoulder, roughly pushing me on the ground. I struggled, trying to move free, kicking and screaming for help as several hands grabbed me from all directions, one muffling my mouth. I felt blood trickle down my face, staining my scales red.
Suddenly, a bright flash of light appeared, followed by silence.
“Are you ok?”
My vision still blurry, I attempted to focus on finding out where the source of the voice was. A blurry, tan face stared back at me, with what appeared to be gold tattoos around his neck. As my vision cleared, I noticed how his eyes were chocolate brown with golden flecks in his irises. But who was the silver dragon reflected in his pupils?
“Well, isn’t this a great start to our meeting.” He grinned. “Several villagers saw you and assumed you were a threat. Thank goodness I was walking to the market along the same route as you, or else would have been a goner!”
He gave me a cup of apple cider. So that’s what he wanted all of those apples for. When I grabbed the cup, I noticed that my hands were more claw-like than they had been before.
“It’s seasoned with cinnamon.” He added. “I also put in some potion I brewed. It will help you calm down and process what just happened. At least, that’s what it says in the spellbook I own.”
Potions? Spell-book? I needed to get to the bottom of this. I started out simple. “What’s your name?”
“Well Axel, would you care to explain what is going on and why my village is in chaos?”
“I guess I should start from the beginning.” Axel sighed. “Several years ago, my father visited this town, hoping to make a profit from selling potions and other magical items. He was a sorcerer, you see. The villagers were perfectly fine with this, except for one peculiar man with a patterned shirt and a green silk tie.”
“He hated magic, claiming it to be ‘unnatural.’ I suspect that the real reason he hated magic was because my father’s stall was taking away business from him. Well, anyways, he poisoned a potion, causing a villager to suffer adverse effects, eventually dying.”
I knew well the story of how my father died. I didn’t expect it to be at the hands of the man who sold furniture in the stall next to mine.
“This allowed him to use my father as a scapegoat. Half of the villagers agreed that my father was to blame, but the other half though otherwise.” Axel continued. “This led to violent demonstrations and full-on warfare. The violence died down for a while, but with my return, it has started to spring up again.”
“Why did you come back, then?” I asked.
“To prove that Zaher is a liar, and to stop the fighting.”
“What do I have to do with all of this?”
“Look in the mirror.”
I then proceeded to crane my head to see my reflection. Staring back at me was a large, glimmering dragon with scales of silver, wide wings, and a thin snout. I shrieked in horror.
“Don’t panic! I can explain!”
“WELL DON’T JUST STAND THERE, LET ME HEAR IT!”
“Remember that bright light? I attempted to cast the dragon spell on myself, but unfortunately I missed and shot it straight out my window. It then happened to hit you.”
“HOW DO YOU REVERSE THIS? I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS!” I sobbed.
“The dragon transformation happens when there is violence nearby, as a self-defense mechanism. To reverse the spell, we must stop the fighting. Are you willing to help me?”
“If it means getting my own body back, then yes.” I replied.
“When morning comes, I will call a village meeting by casting a spell, causing every resident to meet in the village square.” Axel began. He explained the plan to me in immense detail, taking notes and showing me diagrams of where I was to fly in.
“If this works, then the spell will be broken,” he stated.
Morning came, and surprisingly, Axel was able to bring everyone to the square.
“Greetings, everyone! You may not know me, but you may know my father, Lione.”
An audible gasp rippled through the crowd.
“The Lione? The one who poisoned us?” I heard one man angrily mummur.
“I am here to prove, that Lione did not poison you! And I have proof.”
“What makes you so sure that Lione is innocent? After all, he is a filthy sorcerer who can easily trick us!”
At this comment, I swooped down from my perch on a building. The villagers cowered in fear as I hissed, my shimmering scales reflecting the light into a wide array of colors, making me look like the embodiment of a rainbow.
“Anyone who dares speak out shall have to face my technicolor assistant.” Axel reinforced. “Now, let us continue. On the night of the poisoning, the person who was poisoned drank out of this vital.” He held up a minuscule clear bottle to the light. “When I retrieved the bottle, I found a strand of green silk. Now, let us compare this green silk to the silk found approximately 12 hours ago, when a young girl was attacked by a group of men.” Axel held up both pieces of silk.
“There is an anti-magic group in this town, led by Mr. Zaher, a strong opponent against
witchcraft. The silk is his. How do I know?” Axel queried. With a swipe of his hand, he summoned Mr. Zaher’s tie right off of his chest, into his hand. Axel then pieced together the three pieces of silk, forming a complete tie.
“This man is obviously the real perpetrator!” Axel proclaimed. “He is the one responsible for the man’s death, not Lione!”
At this, the crowd began the riot, yelling in favor of Zaher’s execution. A single screech from me drew their attention back to Axel.
“Of course we aren’t going to execute him. I am not that harsh.” Axel stated. “I will banish him away from the village, never to seen again.”
At this, Zaher started to run, but Axel shot a spell at him, which immediately propelled him outside the village walls. Axel then stepped down, and with a swish of his finger, transported himself and I back to his house.
As soon as we reappeared, I saw my scales melt away, replaced with my ebony skin and dark hair again. My slits became my own dark brown eyes, the snout retracting into my round face, my tail no longer existing.
I was so overjoyed, that I rushed to hug Axel.
“Thank you!” I beamed.
“You probably should go back to your home now. Your family must be worried sick!”
I gave him the drawing that I had tucked into my purse.
“I know this isn’t much, but I want to give you something before you leave.”
“Oh, no. You already helped me clear my father’s name. I owe so much to you. I hate to have to leave, but a sorcerer has so much to do, and only so much time to do it!”
We said our farewells, and returned to our own lives. Axel occasionally wrote to me, sharing stories about his travels. He’s a great storyteller, like my father was. The only difference is that Axel could bring my father’s stories to life.
(Photo by Aimee Cheam)