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The Bear

The Bear
Bear – ©Bard 2021

The bear had woken up that morning from a long period of hibernation. Still weak and unsteady he had gone out to find some food. Anything would do. Being a hungry omnivore meant he wasn’t picky. Yet, under normal circumstances he would have avoided the dead human he encountered not far from his hiding place. Most wild animals living close enough to humans develop an instinctive urge to stay away from them. But this time hunger was stronger than deeply rooted caution. Hastily, he gobbled up a large part of the body and then ran as fast as he could back to the cave he felt safe in. There he soon fell into a restless sleep.


Suddenly he woke up. He didn’t quite know why: maybe a sound? He pricked up his ears but all he heard was his own breathing. Which surprised him. He had never noticed before how heavy his breathing sounded, somewhere between snorting and growling. He had actually never before paid any attention to his breathing. That was something that took care of itself, like walking, eating and sleeping…. This time, however, he was suddenly acutely aware of the muscles that pulled in the air and pushed it out again. He felt cold air flowing in and coming out as warm, moist clouds. He saw steam form in front of his eyes. Utterly confused he forgot to breathe altogether, until his lungs protested and forced him to take in a huge gulp of air, which caused him to gag, and catch his breath all coughing and barking.

The bear got more and more confused. Observations and half-formed impressions were tumbling around in his head. What confused him most was how aware he was of this going on. He had been surprised before. Or startled by an unexpected sound. He had been in situations before that made him insecure and confused enough to cautiously retreat. But he had never been aware of himself in those moments. Never before had what he observed of the world extended to those observations as well. Observations, impressions and emotions came and went, like the landscape he moved through. He had never experienced himself as the centre of it all. He had never suspected there could be a centre. He had never observed himself before.

The self-evident way with which the world and the bear formed a single flowing dance of action, reaction and interaction completely disintegrated. Unknown emotions overwhelmed him. He felt lost, small and powerless, afraid, alone. Prior to this he had always felt as big as the world he observed, directly and unconditionally connected with everything around him. Aware of himself as observer now, however, he was no longer a participant but a spectator from behind the transparent walls of his senses. The more he looked at himself, the smaller he felt himself become. He felt himself shrink into a single point of awareness surrounded by infinity, completely alone. For the first time ever he saw himself as finite – physically limited as well as in time. Knowing there had been a before, when he was connected with it all, he now feared there would be an after as well, in which he would vanish completely.

This scared the bear. Scared of death. Scared of the end. Mortified.

This wasn’t the kind of trouble he could rely on his instincts to get him out of. The awareness of death sat inside, not outside. There was no adversary to attack. There was no place to flee to. There was no place to hide. Total panic took over. Without looking where to, without noticing his environment, the bear started running.


He kept running till he fell down from exhaustion. Heaving for breath he lay where he fell with eyes closed, convinced death would overtake him and make him disappear into nothingness.


He became aware of the sound of wind over water. Cautiously he opened his eyes. He saw he was lying on a beach on the edge of a small lake surrounded by high trees. The sand was almost pure white. The water of the lake was so clear it could only be observed because of the shadows of the waves being moved across its surface by the wind. The sky was a radiant blue.

What he saw calmed him down a little. He had never consciously looked at a landscape before. This peaceful beauty evoked a new emotion inside him. He felt safe here and in harmony with his surroundings. He could almost forget the fear of death that had driven him to here.

“That would be something,” a voice spoke, “if a little natural beauty were enough to solve your problems. Alas, it’s not that easy.”

The bear jumped up in surprise. His first impulse was to run away, or to rear up on his hind legs to make himself as big and threatening as possible. But his surprise about the unexpected voice, and the fact he had understood what had been said, got the better of his instincts. Flabbergasted he fell back on his haunches and looked around to see where that voice had come from.

Before him stood a human woman, small, with long dark hair. She held a long staff in her hand. Though he could easily kill her with a single swipe of his front paw the bear instinctively knew she was much more powerful than she appeared.

“Yes” she said, “you best sit down for this. You have gotten yourself into a fine mess here.” The bear didn’t know what surprised him more: the fact this human female was addressing him or that he understood everything she said. He had heard human sounds before, but it had never been different from the sounds the birds made or the grunting of the wild pigs in the forest. But this time every word reached his mind and caused a flood of thoughts and questions.

“?????” he growled in her direction.

“Don’t try to speak,” she replied, “you’re snout is not suited for that. It wouldn’t be good for you, either. You are in enough trouble already, if you now start to think in words it can only get worse.”

“??!!??!!????!?!?!” he growled back, somewhat frustrated that what he wanted to communicate resulted in such strange sounds, rather than the questions coming up in his head.

“Do you recall when all of this started?” the lady asked. The bear grunted he had woken up with this strange feeling. “I understand. The confusion started when you woke up. That means something must have happened before you went to sleep. Something as profound as this doesn’t happen by itself. Think. Can you remember anything of the moments before the last time you went to sleep?”

The bear tried to think, which was not easy, as he had never consciously tried to think before. He had fallen asleep, that he remembered. He had run back to his cave, he recalled, after eating something … something he wouldn’t normally touch … !!! Suddenly the image of the dead human popped up in his head and he tasted again the strange taste of human flesh in his mouth. He had eaten a human!

“Indeed,” the lady said, “that’s what I feared. You ate a human that had just died or wasn’t quite dead yet. That caused a part of the human self-awareness to pass on to you. As a species you have always been wise enough to avoid this kind of awareness. You don’t avoid eating humans because you fear them but because you instinctively felt there’s something strange about them. Something they all suffer from. By giving in to your hunger you have infected yourself with that same suffering – the terrible burden of self-awareness.”

“!!!???!!” the bear grunted tentatively.

“No. This won’t pass by itself. Once you have crossed that threshold you can’t just revert back to your old awareness. Self-awareness maintains itself. Every time you observe your own thoughts this amplifies the feeling those thoughts are who you really are. The more you identify with your thoughts, the harder it gets to let go of that identification. If we don’t do anything about it, you will start thinking that you yourself will vanish if your thoughts do. After a while you will end up protecting the very thing that is causing most of your suffering.”

“???????!!!” the bear growled, afraid, angry and sad at the same time.

“I will help you” the lady said, “but it won’t be easy. You will have to trust me and faithfully do everything I tell you to. No questions, no doubts. Do you think you can do that?”

“!!!!!!!!!” the bear grunted, glad the lady appeared to know how to help him. He decided to do exactly what she told him. All he wanted was to become that bear from yesterday again, that he, looking back, had been so happy with, even though he hadn’t been aware of it.

And thus began his apprenticeship with the lady.


It wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. He had expected her to teach him some simple trick to stop that terrible stream of awareness and thoughts rushing through his head. Shouldn’t it be possible to shut down that maelstrom as abruptly as it had started? Instead, she told him the last thing he should do was to resist his own awareness. The more he would deliberately try to stop his thoughts, the more he would become entangled in the paradox of consciously trying to not be conscious.

“You have to let yourself be carried by that stream,” the lady told him. “You can only escape the flow by surrendering yourself to it completely. That surrender is the ultimate victory.”

He didn’t really get that. Winning by surrendering? That wasn’t how things worked, was it? He had often enough had to fight over territory. The ones that surrendered had obviously lost and often had to run for their lives. You could hardly call that winning, could you?

“A victory by force is not a real victory,” the lady said, as if reading his thoughts. “That is just a temporary displacement of the equilibrium. The more you try to shift the balance by force, the harder it will flip back in the end. No, you will have to learn to find your own equilibrium by serving the balance, not by disturbing it.”

I guess so, the bear thought, who understood even less now but didn’t know what else to do than to submit himself to whatever she thought best.

“Great!” said the lady, “That’s what I mean. Surrender yourself and you will see you will get what you are looking for.”


The months that followed were some of the hardest the bear had ever experienced.

The lady gave him strange and impossible-seeming tasks to fulfil. She made him walk along the beach and look at the sand. But he was only allowed to see the black grains of sand. He was supposed to ignore everything else. Every time his eye accidentally spotted something else, a coloured pebble, a shell, or a crawling insect, she would give him a nasty slap on his nose with her staff. “Don’t let yourself be distracted,” she would say, “stay in charge of your attention.” The first few times he had reacted with indignation, even anger, to these painful reprimands. He had growled at her, bared his teeth, and one time he had even reared up on his hind legs, ready to swipe at her. That completely failed to impress her, however. “Anger is a distraction.” she said. “An angry soul resists the flow, which only causes turbulence, no progress.” She emphasised her words with another sharp slap on his nose. “Again,” she said. “Black grains only. The rest is irrelevant.” He didn’t know anything better to do than fall back on all fours and refocus on the black grains of sand between the countless distractions trying to keep him from accomplishing his mission.

Other days she made him sit on the water’s edge with the taks of observing everything his senses could register. Sounds, movements, scents, touches, … he had to try to be aware of it all without giving precedence to any single observation or lingering on any of it. This, too, turned out to be a painfully difficult. When something itched, he wanted to scratch it, but before he could even do so, he would receive one of those slaps on his nose. “Just registering,” she would say, “and then let go. Don’t linger. Don’t give permanence to all the fleeting phenomena around you.” He didn’t quite know what that meant but he did know there was no escaping the impact of her staff. So he would sit and tried to be aware of everything around him without paying attention to anything at all.

And then there were days she told him to concentrate on a small animal that happened to be around. That could be a bird, an insect, a fish, a squirrel, … any animal living in or near the water could be a target for this practice. His task was to observe the creature with his full attention and concentrate so intensely he would be able to feel what the animal was experiencing. “Become that bird,” she told him, “and experience the world through its eyes. See what it sees, feel what it feels, until every beat of its wings feels like yours, and every note it sings seems to come from your own throat.”

This last task was one of the hardest of all. He had never consciously observed other creatures. He had hunted small prey, or given wide berth to larger bears or packs of wolves to avoid conflicts. But that was never about them, always just about his own emotions at that moment. Hunger, fear or curiosity made him notice other animals but he had never felt the slightest urge to see the world from their perspective. How could he? He hadn’t even been aware of his own perspective. His accidentally acquired self-awareness had drastically changed everything. It had divided everything into him and everything else – him versus the world. Other animals existed outside of him and were therefore not connected to him. However hard he tried to put himself in their place, his awareness of the divide between himself and the rest of the world seemed like an impenetrable barrier. He could observe other animals, but he could not empathise with them. He would try to imagine what that would feel like, but didn’t manage to really feel it.

Which would land him another slap on his nose. “Don’t imagine what it would be like,” the lady told him, “but experience what it is. Feel yourself as the other. Break through the wall of your self-awareness. That wall only exists in your mind. It isn’t real.” And so he would try again, intensely staring at a little bird looking for seeds in the bushes or the seemingly aimless wandering about of a bug in the sand.


One fine day – he had no idea how long he had been trying – everything suddenly changed. He was walking along the beach, concentrating on the black grains of sand. After a while he realised he was no longer seeing individual grains of sand but a fragile network of faint black patterns instead, weaving over and through the predominantly white sand of the beach. Those patterns where everywhere around him, however far he looked. He stopped in surprise, somewhat overwhelmed by the intricate, delicate beauty of this tapestry of black sand around him. The lady appeared next to him, not to slap him on the nose, but to whisper in his ear: “Don’t stop now. Let yourself be absorbed by these patterns. Let your thoughts flow through the lines and figures you are seeing in the sand.” He did as she said and let his awareness become part of what he saw in the sand before him. Wherever he turned his attention the black sand would briefly light up, as if pure white light was flowing through the black patterns; light that danced with the movements of his attention. He was so enraptured by this dance of attention, movement and light he completely forget himself and lost track of time. Only when the sun started to set and it became too dark to discern the colours in the sand did he become aware of himself again.

Things went fast from that day on.

Not long after he was observing a squirrel that jumped from branch to branch when he realised he was moving along with every jump. More than that, he knew, without knowing how, exactly which branch the squirrel would jump to and how he would land there. He picked up the sounds that were relevant to the squirrel. He saw what the world would like to such a small and fast-moving rodent. And for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was a bear watching a squirrel or a squirrel watching a bear.

He looked up and around. He wasn’t a lonely bear anymore in a strange and distant world. He was a point of light in an endless tapestry of patterns of light spreading out around him in a continuous dance of light and dark. He felt there were animals everywhere that were similar points of awareness in that same lattice of light. He was a drop in the ocean of life and all that ocean at once. There was no distinction, just connectedness.

The bear realised he had returned to where he had once started. He was, once again, a part of the totality of the world he observed. With the difference that this time round he was aware of himself as well as of that totality. He was no longer trapped in the isolation of his own thoughts and his inward-looking awareness. He was free and unlimited. He was both infinitely small and all-encompassing. He saw himself reflected in the universe and the universe reflected in him.


The lady watched the bear walk away into the woods he had come running from in total panic so many months ago. He didn’t look back but she felt his gratitude towards her in the way he moved and looked around him. She leaned on her staff. She looked at the forest where the wind made the trees softly sing and sway in the rhythm of the bear’s footsteps as he vanished in the distance.

And she saw it was good.

©Bard 2021

Fire and Ashes

FeaturedFire and Ashes
Bennu Bird ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018
Bennu Bird ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018

Nobody could say the fires came unexpected. It had been the longest drought in recorded history. For years, the Summer rains had failed to arrive. The land was parched. Everywhere the trees were bare and dying, the forest floor covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. Where walls of green once blocked the view, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns revealed a horizon shimmering in the heat of the unrelenting sun. Yet, when the fires came, sweeping down on the village with the speed of a tsunami and the ferocity of a cyclone, hot enough to melt iron, people were still caught unprepared.

The erratically turning winds had left the village surrounded by a ring of fire, cutting off all roads, expect one dirt track leading through barren fields to the relative safety of the desert beyond. Realising they had only one chance to escape, the villagers grabbed whatever belongings they could carry. They loaded bags and children onto utes, cars and carriages and fled from their houses without even daring to look back.

The old woman they called Ms Benny was one of the heroes of the day. Even before the fires arrived she had been going around warning people to prepare to abandon their houses. She had helped people clear their driveways and make sure their vehicles were in working condition. She helped farm hands lead away cattle and release horses from their stables. When the first houses started to burn, she was there helping the panicking families get out safely and on their way.

She seemed to be everywhere at once, directing people, calming them down with her quiet confidence and steely determination. Afterwards, almost every villager would have a story about how Ms Benny helped them escape. Everyone seemed to recall her being there when they needed her most. They called her an angel. They called her a saint. They were sure that the fact that only one person died that day was solely due to her diligence and super-human interventions. She was like a force of Nature, defying the smoke and the flames as if they couldn’t touch her.

Which made her death all the more inexplicable to the villagers mourning her.

When the last remaining family had reached the track leading to safety, Ms Benny didn’t join them but turned around to look at the village going up in flames. The last building to catch fire was the old village hall, just outside the village. Everyone assumed it was empty. But Ms Benny seemed to think differently. She called out to two of the men to follow her and started to run in the direction of the burning building.

She ran faster than any old woman should be able to run. The two men couldn’t keep up with her and saw from a distance how Ms Benny, in spite of the flames shooting up from the roof, shouldered her way through the front door and disappeared into the flames. Seconds later the roof collapsed and the building went up in a single, spectacular column of fire shooting up into the sky.

The two men later swore they heard a cry like a heron’s call the moment the fire shot up. They also said the fire died out as fast as it had come, as if it had burned out all its energy in that single burst. When they arrived at the gate to the building, all that remained was a smoking pile of rubble and ashes, with only the stone chimney stack standing intact. Nobody could have survived in that inferno. They were about to turn around to join the fleeing villagers when they heard a sound coming from the fireplace. Something was alive in there. It sounded like a baby, softly crying.

The two men braved the smouldering heat of the collapsed building and cleared the ashes from around the chimney. That is where they found me, a newborn baby girl. Covered in ash, yet miraculously alive. They picked me up and raced me to safety.

Ms Benny’s body was never found. People assume the column of fire pulverised her, leaving only ashes. Nobody has ever been able to explain how I survived or where I came from. My mother remains unknown. No woman, pregnant or otherwise, was reported missing or dead. They found me holding an antique golden ring clutched in my tiny fist that people recognised as belonging to Ms Benny, so people say she must have shielded me from the heat in her dying moments. The ash they found me covered in must have been hers. Most of the villagers didn’t need an explanation. They called it a miracle and declared Ms Benny a saint.

I was adopted by a loving family who named me Benita but everyone calls me Benny, in honour of the woman who saved me. They raised me well, in the rebuilt village they had fled from the day I was born. In spite of my strange beginnings I had an unremarkable, happy childhood. When my parents died I moved away and traveled far and wide, marvelling at the beauty of this world and the strange disregard most people have for the wonders surrounding them.


I’m an old woman now. It’s been many years since I last saw that village. They didn’t need me there. But now the land is suffering again. They say this drought may be worse even than the one from when I was born. Entire regions are losing their livelihood. Ghost towns are appearing everywhere.

I still carry Ms Benny’s ring around my finger, the one I was found with all those years ago. I don’t usually notice its presence. Lately, however, it has begun to feel heavy and warm. I can almost feel a pulse to it, as if it is coming alive. Its jade carving seems brighter to me, too. Where the image was once barely visible, I can now clearly see a bird rising from the flames. When the sunlight hits it directly, I would swear I can see the flames move and the bird raise its head.

In my dreams the fire calls me.

I think it’s time to go home.

©Bard 2021

Storyland

Storyland

Without stories, the knowledge would die and when the knowledge was gone, everything else would die too. Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe, Treading Lightly


Storyland
Storyland – ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018

The land was endless and infinitely rich. Every rock, every hill, every stream had a story about her origin, her life and her meaning in the bigger scheme of things. Everything was connected by a living web of stories, songs and rituals. The stories were timeless and eternal: birth, life and death all happened in that one timeless space of the creationtime. Everything that always was, is and always will be was kept alive there. That was what held the land together, living and inexhaustible. That was how the land could perpetually renew itself without really changing.

The people of this land were all too aware of the importance of the stories. They knew that every story was a thread in the fabric that kept them alive and gave their existence meaning. It was a knowing that went much deeper than the mind alone. They felt it in their soul, their bodies, their bones. Because of the stories these people lived in a world in which every place was as intimately familiar as their own familiy and friends. Knowing the stories of a tree or watering hole meant knowing the place as if they had grown up together, knowing all the gifts the place had to offer and everything the place needed to be able to keep giving. Though they traveled around as nomads these people were never on their way to somewhere else, desperate to get there. They were always home. The land itself was their safe destination, however far they travelled, as long as they knew the stories.

And so the people of the land took care of the land and her stories. It was their sacred duty to cherish every story and pass it on unblemished from generation to generation. Sometimes a story was added but hardly ever did a story get lost. Stories were exchanged between tribes, more valuable than any material trade. Stories were endlessly told, sung, danced and painted. When the land changed – through volcanic eruptions, floods, climate changes – new elements were added to the stories like newborn babies would be welcomed to the tribe. Nothing remained untold. Nothing remained unconnected. As long as every person participated in weaving this fabric, the land was one, rich and generous to all.

This timeless creationtime lasted many, many millennia. Eternally moving, eternally the same.


Until the strangers arrived in their strange boats. Strangers were not unknown in the land, but until now they had always been visitors: people that came to trade and exchange stories, to then disappear again. Or people that came, learned the stories and adapted to the land until they were strangers no more. These strangers were different. They did not come to visit but to conquer. They did not come to participate in what the land had to offer but to subjugate the land to their will. Unasked they stepped ashore. Without asking they stayed and said the land was theirs now.

The strangers did not see the connectedness between the land and her inhabitants. They didn’t see the land and her deep-rooted history. They only saw dirt and raw materials. Spaces they could occupy. Treasures they could hoard. They saw a soulless expanse they could fill with their own inventions.

They barely noticed the original inhabitants, let alone their stories, songs and symbols. On the contrary, when the wise men and women of the land occasionally invited the strangers to learn the basic stories, the ones meant to introduce children and visitors to the fabric of the land, the elders were laughed at. The strangers thought the stories childish and primitive. Fairly tales for under-developed people. Superstitions and make-belief. The sooner this nonsense would disappear from the land the better, was their opinion.

They did bring their own stories, but these were lifeless and devoid of context. Ancient stories from a land they had never been to themselves. Stories that were closely guarded, captured in deadly black ink on desiccated leaves, bound together and chained in leather. These were no living stories, connected to the fabric of the land, but dead fossils, incapable of connecting to the web of life to become one with it.

The strangers took possession of the land with a heedless cruelty the land had never experienced before. They outlawed the telling of the stories, the singing of songs, the dancing of ceremonies. They even outlawed the languages the people spoke and sang in.

With every word that faded away a thread was pulled from the web of stories. Every thread that was torn weakened the web. The land began to fragment. Her inhabitants become lost in their own land. Even the places their ancestors had lived for hundreds of generations no longer felt like home because the connecting stories were missing. The land lost her meaning and hid her secrets. From a lifelong family member lavishly sharing her abundance, the land turned into a wilderness with more perils than food. Less and less people could see the land and feel welcome.

The strangers barely noticed the land falling apart and her life disappearing. They didn’t see how much the land and her inhabitants suffered. Disconnected from the creationtime that bound everything together, they didn’t see the degradation, or attributed it to bad luck, changes in the weather, forces of nature. Droughts that lasted years were followed by floods that covered everything. Imported animals and plants turned into pests that completely unbalanced the natural harmony between species. Growing stretches of land turned into meaningless voids. More and more land became desolate, dry and dead.

The strangers retreated to their cities where they could hide inside their unnatural dwellings and pretend the decline of the land had no effect on them. They built walls around themselves so they did not have to watch the destruction. They told each other they could solve all problems with even newer inventions. They were certain they could master Nature and take back control of the land. All that was needed was more power, more machines, even more violence.

Thus the strangers perished. In the last city the last survivors looked out over a land without meaning, without life, without mercy. The land was formless and empty. There was no home they could feel safe in. There was no past they could feel part of. There was no future to look forward to. There wasn’t even a narrator to give anything meaning anymore. All that was left was the emptiness of a cold and senseless universe in which humans had no place.


The land was left behind like an unwritten page, without mountains or valleys, without rivers or lakes, without life. And she waited till someone would find her again. For true inhabitants to return to revive the land with their stories and songs. To shape the land with their ceremonies and paintings and fill it again with meaning and value.

The land waited…

©Bard 2021

Dragonslayer

Dragon and Phoenix - ©Bard 2016
Dragon & Phoenix – ©Bard 2016

He appeared in the village late in the evening, when decent folk had long gone to bed. Only the innkeeper saw him ride through while he was closing the one guesthouse in the wide vicinity. “There you have one,” the innkeeper thought, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” He hastily took the key out of the lock. He checked to make sure he had properly locked the door. Then he sneaked away into the darkness of the alley bordering the guesthouse, before the stranger would see him.

If the stranger had seen him at all he didn’t pay him any attention. With his eyes firmly on the road ahead he rode down the village’s only street, to take the turn at the intersection leading to the woods and the mountains flanking the village on one side. When he reached an open space he dismounted and – illuminated by his motorcycle’s headlight – he routinely and quickly set up a small tent. He pushed his luggage in before him, crawled inside and pulled down the zipper.

———

Nobody knows how exactly but when dawn arrived and the village came to life it seemed everyone had already heard the news. A rapidly growing throng of people gathered in the market square, waiting for what was bound to come. Here and there people exchanged bits of gossip and idle speculation, waiting for the mayor to arrive. Although everyone knew what had to happen, it was the unwritten rule for the mayor to explain the plan in detail and give the signal for action. That’s how it always was and how it would always be.

———

The stranger neatly packed up his tent and tied it on the back of his bike. He looked at the mountains in the distance. For a moment he thought he saw a plume of smoke but he couldn’t be sure. It could have been a bit of morning mist, quickly dissolving in the warming sun. Nevertheless, he was optimistic. After all these year he was certain that this time he had found what he had been looking for for. This time he would succeed. After this nobody would every dare to laugh at him for his ambitious dreams.

He got on his bike and rode off in the direction of the mountains. The road gradually steepened and became harder to travel, full of hairpin bends and narrow bridges over deep ravines. It was getting colder, too, a sign he was rapidly rising. Though the sun stood brightly in a clear blue sky, tiny clouds of vapour poured from his mouth as he breathed.

But he purposefully rode on.

After an especially harrowing curve and very steep climb the forest opened up in front of him. He had arrived at a large clearing, surrounded by sheer rock walls. Straight ahead he saw the dark opening of a cave just as he expected. Now he would show the world what he was capable of.

He got off his bike and leaned the machine against a large boulder. From the saddle-bags he started to pull his equipment:

  • “A shield a-polished into gleaming ice”: the round mirror from his bathroom, to which he had attached a leather belt to stick his arm through;
  • “A helmet with proud plumage and heavy visor”: an old hockey helmet with his grandmother’s feather duster on top and the welding glasses from his father’s workshop as visor;
  • ”A lance with piercing point and sturdy grip”: a strong broom handle with a razor sharp stanly knife on one end and the grip from a mountainbike handlebar, glued on with superglue, on the other.

It may not have been exactly what the author of the book intended, but he thought he had come close enough to suffice. Somewhat less elegant, perhaps, but definitely as effective. And the most important part was he himself, of course; determined, fearless and with the clear conscience of someone about to rid the world of a major evil. He doubted nothing: not his mission, not his abilities, and not his courage to do what needed to be done.

Fully armed he started out in the direction of the cave.

———

Arriving at the entrance he stopped for a moment to check his armour one last time. He couldn’t afford any equipment malfunction. The author had been very clear about this: his shield and helmet would protect him just enough to give him exactly one chance to strike. Should he miss he would be lost. If anyone would dare to enter the cave after that they would find nothing but a smoking heap of ash and molten metal. This was the real thing.

Satisfied with the state of his equipment he stepped into the darkness of the cave.

———

His eyes needed a moment to adjust to the lack of light. In front of him a group of people appeared out of the gloom, dressed in the homespun clothes typical of the local village. They barred him from moving further inside. In front stood the mayor, recognisable by her gilded chain of office and the slightly better quality of her clothes.

“And what do you think you’re doing here?” the mayor asked in that slightly ironic tone used by someone more interested in the theatrical effect of the question than the answer itself. The mob nodded and murmured: yes, they would like know that, too.

This was completely unexpected. Didn’t these villagers understand he was here to save them from their oppressor? That he was here to put an end to centuries of misery and fear?

“I am here to kill the dragon.” he said. He took off his helmet to be more audible and continued: “The dragon that has wandered around here since times immemorial to steal gold and jewels from the people. The monster that with flaming breath destroys anyone that tries to resist it. The predator that yearly demands the sacrifice of beautiful maiden to devour her by the light of the full moon.” He felt himself getting fired up at his own little speech, but it failed to impress the villagers. “I come to liberate you,” he tried once more. “I am your saviour. I am here to conquer the world’s last dragon and put it down for good.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what we were afraid of,” said the mayor. “That much was clear when the innkeeper reported seeing you last night. It’s been a while since we were visited by a dragonslayer, but there’s no mistaking when you see them. Whether they come on foot, on horseback or on motorbike, you recognise them straight away.” She paused for a moment, while the villagers agreed: yes, they knew their dragonslayers when they saw them.

“But what if I tell you we don’t want you to defeat our dragon?” the mayor said. “What if I tell you all of us got out of bed extra early this morning precisely to prevent you from killing this dragon. What would you say to that?” That last bit sounded more like a threat than a question. The mayor had crossed her arms and stared at him. The mob behind her silently shuffled a few paces in his direction.

He didn’t understand this. “Why would you want to stop me?” he asked. “Don’t you want to be freed from that all-destroying monster? Don’t you want to live without terror and oppression?”

“Yes, we most certainly do,” the mayor said. “Which is precisely why we won’t let anyone touch our dragon. Our dragon – the last dragon in the world – is our last chance – humanity’s last chance – to prevent complete and utter desolation. This dragon you are so eager to kill has dedicated her whole life to collecting and protecting the life-forces our earth needs to keep nurturing life. This ‘monster’ is Gaia’s last remaining protector, the last guardian of our eco-system. And we will do anything to keep her safe.”

“But … but what about all that stolen gold and hoarded treasure?” he stammered. “The fire and destruction? The sacrificed maidens? Is none of that true? Are all the books and legends false? Or do you say this out of fear for the dragon’s vengeance? Are you forced to say this to avoid being roasted and eaten yourself?” He gripped his lance more tightly. “If that’s the case, fear no more. I know what I have to do.”

The mayor and the villagers laughed. “We are not afraid of our dragon. On the contrary. We are just afraid to lose her to a bumbling ‘hero’ like yourself.”

He hesitated. The people in front of him looked anything but scared. He lowered his lance.

“Come,” the mayor said and stepped forward. “Lay down your weapon and armour and join us outside. I will explain everything.” He was curious enough to obey her. He neatly stacked his equipment near the exit of the cave and followed the mayor to the clearing. Someone had already put a chair there on which the mayor took place while the people sat on the grass in a circle around her, with him in the centre, facing her.

“For as long as men can remember,” the mayor began, “humans have searched the soil for the earth’s treasures. Minerals, precious stones, metals … anything we judged of value we dug up to use for ourselves. Never did we stop to wonder why these treasures were buried in the ground to begin with. All we saw was the beauty, the power and the richness of what we tore from the soil and claimed as ours.”

“As long as there were relatively few people on the planet, this wasn’t too problematic. A few mosquitos may be annoying but we can live without the bit of blood they steal from us. Likewise our earth can easily miss a few pounds of gold and diamonds. But when humanity began to expand and spread further and further across the globe the balance was threatened. All those treasures we thoughtlessly ripped from the ground were part of the ecological web we now call Gaia. Take too much of it away, and the balance is gone.”

“That’s when the dragons came into action. These creatures never were our enemies. They were forced into this by our greed and relentless plundering of the earth. They made it their task to reclaim as much stolen treasure as possible and to collect it in remote locations. There they would guard it for centuries, giving it time to sink back and be absorbed into the soil it came from. As long as no-one came near, dragons would not interfere with the people living around them. Only when someone came to claim a dragon’s treasure it would spring into action. Not just to kill the thief but also to erase all traces of what had happened, to make it even harder for the next thief to succeed. That’s what dragon fire is for. And, yes, sometimes innocent people got killed, but that was never the dragons’ intention. They just did what was needed. No more and no less.”

“When our dragon, many generations ago, chose these mountains to secure her treasure our ancestors too have tried to kill her,” the mayor continued. “Many heroes perished. But the dragon suffered, too. She doesn’t enjoy destruction; even stronger, every attack weakened her and made it harder for her to fulfil her real task – collecting treasure to return it to the earth. If our ancestors hadn’t changed their minds they would in the end have succeeded to chase off our dragon or even kill her. That would have been terrible.” The mayor’s face clearly showed how terrible that would have been. The people in the circle agreed – that would have been unimaginably bad.

“Fortunately there was a young woman – my great-great-great-grandmother – who as a young girl already got convinced something wasn’t right about the stories people kept telling her about the dragon. One day she managed to leave the village unseen to climb up to this cave and see the dragon with her own eyes. That’s how she discovered the truth. When she was found, a few days later, she was sitting in front of the cave to wait for her ‘rescuers’. And just like we are stopping you today, she stopped them then. She convinced them that in this war not the dragon but the people were the monster. That the dragon wanted nothing more than to keep the balance.”

“And thus our whole village is now dedicated to protecting our dragon. We safeguard her secret by withdrawing from the world’s attention as much as possible. Stray travellers see in us nothing but a rustic, out-of-date mountain village, without any redeeming features – just something to pass through and quickly forget. Nothing noticeable ever happens here, nothing newsworthy. We are not picturesque enough to draw any tourists and too remote for developers to bother. And when someone like you comes around – someone who managed to discover our secret and either wants to steal the treasure or play the hero – we make sure they are stopped before they can disturb our dragon’s peace.”

“To honour our first dragon guardian, every year we choose a young, still childless woman to be dragon’s guardian for that year. She visits the dragon from time to time to bring her food and deliver the modest returns in gold and jewels we all save together from the income we earn selling vegetables, fruit and craft products to the city in the valley. That is the ‘virgin’ we sacrifice – in case you were wondering. It’s a sacrifice every young woman in the village loves to be chosen for.”

———

Having said all this, the mayor stopped and looked at him.

“And now we have to decide what has to happen with you. We can’t let you return to where you are from. We have to keep our secret, at all cost. I hope you understand.”

He thought. Her story sounded convincing, as was the affection with which she talked about ’our dragon and the woman that had discovered the dragon’s true nature. He wanted to believe her version more than the books and stories he knew. For one thing, it answered a question that had bothered him all that time: what did those dragons actually want with all the treasures they hoarded? It had always sounded strange to him that such mighty creatures had nothing better to do than lie on top of a pile of gold for centuries on end. Where was the sense in that? The mayor’s story, on the other hand, made a lot of sense to him.

But what did that mean for him? His dream to make history as a hero had vanished. He did not want to go home – they would laugh even harder and mock him relentlessly if he returned empty handed. Back home nobody believed in dragons anymore – be they good or bad – so there was absolutely no point in trying to explain things to them.

“I think I understand,” he said after a while. “I had it all wrong. I wanted to be a hero but almost made the biggest mistake of my life. I think have a lot to make up for. Just tell me what you need me to do. I don’t want to go home. There’s nothing there for me to return to.”

———

The mayor was visible relieved when she heard this.

“I had the impression you weren’t such a bad sort,” she said. “Full of the wrong ideas, obviously, but also full of good intentions. Which is a deadly combination, by the way.”

She thought for a moment.

“It would be easiest for everyone if you came and lived in our village. We will find something useful for you to do – we can always use a strong, young man like you. You will have stick to our rules, of course, and you can never, ever talk about what happened today to anyone outside the village. Our dragon can never be mentioned. That is a secret you will have to carry to your grave.”

He nodded. He looked at the people around him and tried to image being one of them. That didn’t seem too hard. They at least had a clear mission in their lives. They knew exactly what they stood for.

“I will be happy to stay with you.” He said. “I solemnly swear I will keep your secret. And should it ever be necessary I will defend your – our – dragon with all my might. But I do have one request. I have never seen a real dragon. Could I, please, see your dragon once before I join you? That would make my life complete.”

The mayor rose.

“I am glad we have managed to convince you without having to resort to violence. I am happy to welcome you as one of us. And I speak, I think, for all of us here.” She looked around at the smiling and nodding crowd. “Whether our dragon will wish to show herself to you I can’t say. That’s something our dragon guardian will have to ask her. Don’t expect too much, though. Dragons are naturally shy creatures.”

She turned to address a young women who had stayed close to the cave’s entrance. She nodded and disappeared through a hardly visible crack in the rock wall he had mistaken for a stripe of dirt.

“You didn’t really think our dragon would hide in the obvious cave, did you?” said the mayor, seeing the surprise on his face. “The real entrance is camouflaged and practically invisible if you don’t know where to look. Even if you had arrived here before we could stop you, you would have found an empty cave first. One of us keeping watch there would have had plenty of time to get reinforcements before you would have even known to look for another entrance.”

That made him laugh. That cave had been a bit too obvious, he had to admit that now.

The young women reappeared.

“It is OK.” she said. The dragon will show herself. Clear the area, so she won’t accidentally hurt anyone.”

Everyone moved to the furthest edges of the clearing and positioned him in a safe place with a clear view of what was to come.

The hidden opening in the rock wall began to shine and suddenly the clearing was filled with bright sunlight. So bright he could barely keep on looking. Be he persisted and thought he saw a form inside the light. A long tail, wings, an elongated body, elegant neck and a head with wide-open jaws. He thought he saw radiant eyes, even brighter than the sunlight surrounding the creature. Then a deep-red light sprang up from between the dragon’s jaws. A hot narrow flame shot forward and hit the rock against which his bike was still leaning. It didn’t even catch fire but rapidly melted into a small pool of liquid metal, so intense was the heat of the flame. The flame was gone as fast as it had appeared. And so was the dragon. In one supple move she shot back through the opening and took her light with her.

———

For a moment it looked like night after all that brightness.

He began to laugh, loudly and triumphantly. He had finally found his dragon. He had reached his destination.

From now on everything would be different.

©Bard 2021