LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The Surface of Water, by Alexandra Munck

From A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2, Preface to the Fourth Edition:


… and though our cup does not runneth over with extant draconic writings, and though our cup is adulterated by a tradition of medieval analysis that projected a framework of Christian humanity onto the alien mind of Draco sapiens, dregs of truth may yet be discerned. Our colleagues have said of English Literature: “[it] arouse[s]…what Yeats calls the emotions of multitude.”[1] Draconism as a modern field of study is nearly the opposite: it arouses the anxieties of dearth, the desperation of a princess on the edge of a pond, peering into murky depths, trying to ignore her own reflection as she searches for the golden ball that is lost…

*

t = 0

What do you call a riddle that morphs into another riddle?

At t = 0, it is the existence of the book itself.

Paul’s aunt, the family member appointed to execute the will, hands him a book that he takes at first glance to be a Norton Anthology of English Literature. It is physically heavy, with onionskin pages and a creaky buckram binding. The title is A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2. Paul looks up at his aunt, wondering what exactly he is supposed to do with it.

“Don’t I get anything else?” he asks, only realizing once the question is out of his mouth that it sounds greedy.

*

t = 1

Working from first principles, Paul lays out what he knows to be true:

My grandfather is dead.

My grandfather left me a book about dragons.

Not even the fun, fantasy kind.

The extinct species.

I have never seen this book before.

It’s not some sort of beloved family heirloom.

I don’t care about historical dragons.

He writes a function to state that at t = 1, he has zero understanding of the book.

Ubook(1) = 0

Paul, who is proud of his aptitude for STEM subjects, dismisses the academic study of dragons as irrelevant to his life. The linguistic complexity that adds breadth to the study of Terran semiotics, the bewildering precepts of draconic moral philosophy, the curious parallels to human feudalism (and the extent to which these are illusory) do not excite him. Paul is more interested in the dragons’ complicated metabolic systems, but not so interested that he ever reads anything about them on purpose.

A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2 contains no logic puzzles of the sort Paul likes, only translations of draconic writings along with scholarly discourse on the texts. The translations themselves make up about ten percent of the book; the rest is academic bickering. Even worse, the dragons wrote like accountants. Histories of godqueens and war heroes and explorers are laid out in grids, and read like an index. Paul tries to be fascinated by it for a while, but the words are as dry and beautiful as a desert, and Ubook(2) = 0.

*

t = 2

He has just given up and is starting to close the book when his hand falls on the flyleaf. There he reads, in his grandfather’s handwriting:

TO MY SON, DAVID

Paul’s shoulders fold inward as breath leaves his chest.

Perhaps he can now graph the rate of change, the evolution of this riddle. Perhaps he can find the limit, some convergence. He lays out what he knows to be true.

David is my dad’s name.

My dad died when I was six years old.

My grandfather wrote his will before my dad died, so now the book comes to me.

Paul searches his earliest memories, asking himself if his dad ever mentioned dragons, even once, but no. He can’t see through the murk.

What is this book, A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2?

Who was this DAVID, who was supposed to have received it?

Ubook′(t) = Udad′(t)?

Paul forces himself to read. He turns every page, looking for more notes in the margins, for highlighted sections, but there is nothing—no clue that would let him increase his understanding of his dad through his understanding of the book. He curls up at a window in the attic, pressing his aching forehead to the cool glass as he watches the moon rise.

*

From A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2, “Toes to Tombs: Paleobiological Oddities of Draco Sapiens”:

… their distant cousins, the dinosaurs, who had much smaller encephalization quotients and no higher intelligence. The first important difference between dinosaurs and dragons—or to be more precise, between one evolutionary line that would eventually produce the dinosaurs and another that would reach a lonely apotheosis in Draco sapiens—was that dragons had managed to evolve a highly flexible tarsometatarsal joint. Their opposable toes appeared, and their brains expanded in order to use them. Millions of years on, when their brain capacity had increased, the biology of their toes became yet more complicated. This positive feedback loop continued until dragons achieved language, art, science and philosophy, a society that was “primitive” only in the barest etymological sense of the word, the first of its kind on Earth.

Dragons were as different from dinosaurs as humans are from chimpanzees, but the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction killed them both. While dinosaurs left traces of themselves accidentally, the tombs of the dragon godqueens were deliberately preserved in the Karelides mountain range in Finland. They contain mummified remains, jewelry, statuary, the bones of domesticated small mammals, and extensive chiselled writings. Survivors of the crisis managed to linger in isolated pockets in Northern Europe long enough to pass down an oral history that made its way into human writing tens of thousands of years after Draco sapiens finally went extinct—the last gasp of Earth’s first civilized species meeting the first breath of its second. When the tombs were discovered, translation of the dragons’ written language was only possible due to the context created by this tiny overlap.

*

t = 2+i

Paul awakes to the sound of a talon tapping against glass. He opens his eyes and sees a curved nostril, pierced with gems and glowing with banked embers. He sits up calmly, as if he’s been expecting her, and opens the window. She stands in the garden, stretching almost to her full body height to look in at him. Her eyes are deep indigo, her pebbly scales a rich red, adorned with chains and worked-metal flowers.

“Who are you?” Paul asks.

The dragon turns her head to regard him coolly with one eye. “My name is Aga, known in the clutch as Wayward-But-Correctable, Godqueen of Hyperboreas.”

Paul squints at her and opens A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2, riffling the pages and trying to read the words by moonlight. “You lived around 80 million years ago,” he says. “So this is a dream, probably.”

Aga flares her nostrils and a faint smell of incense creeps into the attic. “Indeed, it must be.”

After they agree on this, there is a moment of expectant silence. Paul dents the thin pages of his book with a thumbnail, wondering what to say. Finally he blurts, “What are you doing here?”

Aga looks away with a reserved slant of her neck, as though she is making inconsequential small talk. “I’ve come to take you home with me,” she says. “I need help with something riddle-ish.”

That sets off a faint note of recognition in Paul’s memory, about one of the very dry essays in the book. He can’t remember the section heading.

“You need me, specifically?” he asks, frowning as he tries to place the story of a Godqueen Aga (which one?—there were several) and a riddle.

“Oh, no,” Aga replies. Delicately, she hooks one of her talons—distal phalanges, Paul tells himself—over the windowsill, and in doing so partially unfolds the thin membrane of her wing, which shivers. “Any human may do, you see, if that is the answer to my little conundrum. And I saw you asleep in the window.”

“Oh.”

Her giant pupil, as large around as a quarter, flicks downward and back up. “Coincidence about the book.”

“Not really,” says Paul, “since this is my dream.”

“I suppose you’ll come, then.”

She turns her head away, apparently bored, but Paul senses an underlying curiosity. He wonders if the movement is some sort of social convention, or royal stricture. The book says nothing about it.

*

t = 2+2i

Paul sits shivering on Aga’s back. He’s stuffed the book down his shirt, meaning to look up that essay later. It’s a long journey to Hyperboreas, the Roman name for the long-lost northern seat of the dragons’ ancient civilization.

They fly north over pitted lakes and ground that looks as black and shiny as compacted coal. Paul loses track of where they are after the first twenty minutes and gives up trying to identify the cities below him, which at first appear as bright, interconnected webs of light. The cities begin to isolate themselves, like people drifting away from a party, fewer and smaller as they fly. An hour after the last one disappears behind them, Paul sees a passenger train slowly snaking its way south through craggy hills. Where is it coming from?

Snow. Paul is wet through. At some point Aga turns east over water and ice, but Paul only becomes aware of it when the light of the morning sun hits him in the eyes. He wonders if he has slept within his dream, his hands almost frozen to the decorative chains that run from Aga’s fan-like ears to the studs on her nostrils.

Mountains assault him. So massive they don’t look real. Paul feels as though there is an axis beneath him, as though this is the real geographical top of the world.

“How tall are they?” he asks, his voice creaky with cold.

“Several peaks reach a Heaven,” Aga says. “Mother never told me which one she intended to climb. Maybe she hadn’t chosen yet when…” her voice trails off.

*

From A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2, “Tomb Art and Draconic Conceptions of the Afterlife”:

…each peak in the Karelides, what has been called the “sacred range,” was thought to be a different version of Heaven. Carvings such as the one on the opposite page depict mothers weeping as their sons are dispersed to the distant families of other mountains. Because Heavens were distinct and self-contained, they would not be reunited after death. Godqueens alone had the luxury of choice, and were expected to spread themselves out…

*

t = 2+3i

When the cities come into focus, Paul almost forgets about the mountains—almost; they are there all the time, forcing him to recognize their unreal immensity. He does forget about the cold.

They shine with polished stone and roofs thatched with bright hay, arranged in concentric terraces like necklaces draped around the throats of the mountains. On the plain, dragons fly over herds of sauropods. They are smaller than Aga, and seem to represent real, historical dragons in his dream. Each is about the size of a large man, with hides of muted colours: green, brown and black. Aga, ruby red, whose nostrils constantly emit streams of smoke and who is large and tireless enough to fly thousands of miles in a single night, represents humanity’s fantasies about dragons.

She flies at high altitude across the plain, well above the heads of the dragon-shepherds, who look up at her as she passes, making for one of the biggest cities. The terraces are arranged around a palace carved out of the mountain itself.

“What is it called?” Paul asks.

“What is what called?”

“The city,” he says. “The palace, the mountain—everything!”

“Ah.” Aga turns her neck to glance back at him. “Dragons don’t give names to places as humans do. It’s hard for me to think about that, you know. To think of places as things separate from people… I don’t fully understand; it causes my mind pain. We might say this is the place of Aga, the house of Aga.”

“The mountain of Aga?” Paul asks.

Aga does not answer, in a way that Paul suspects means no.

They circle the city three times before landing just outside the rock-cut façade of the palace. It makes Paul think of the Treasury at Petra, only ten times vaster and infinitely less aesthetically pleasing when viewed at close range. The lines fill him with an instinctual sense of wrongness. Aga flicks her jewelled tail at him, beckoning him inside.

They walk through immense halls and see many dragons; some Paul takes to be servants, and others cityfolk with business at the palace. “Palace” is the wrong word. What the structure means, and how it functions, Paul cannot guess. He walks past a group of weavers working on a single large project, something like a coarser version of a medieval tapestry. Another room is filled with lopsided circles of dragons sitting patiently on nest-things made out of the same material.

Aga leads him into the mountain for what seems like miles. Every dragon they encounter stops what they are doing to stare, some for just a few seconds, others until Aga passes almost completely out of their sight. Apparently gaze has something to do with status. Paul supposes it is complicated.

At last they reach an area with clammy air and a shut-up feeling. The wall carvings are different. Less elaborate than what has gone before, which somehow makes the not-quite-right angles and awful curves stand out, giving Paul the beginnings of a headache.

Then Aga stops all at once, turns her head to the side as though she has been tracking some scent, and sweeps into an unlit chamber. Paul follows. Everything is in gloom until Aga, with a powerful snort, sets alight a hanging brazier. The room is washed in fire and shadow and the scent of her breath.

There are more carvings here, many that seem to be representational in some way, but stylized beyond human ability to recognize the figure of a dragon or a mountain, a tree or a sauropod.

“Here is my riddle,” says Aga. She shoots a black line of smoke from her right nostril up to a skewed, circular inscription ten feet above Paul’s head. “You will not be able to read it.”

“No,” he agrees.

Aga settles onto her haunches, her gaze flicking here and there but not at him.

“This section of what you call my palace was made by ancient dragons. It was subsequently walled up and forgotten about, rediscovered only recently. There is a door in this wall. We cannot open it.”

“I thought I read that you had blasting tech,” Paul says. “Some sort of powder?”

“We cannot use that for fear of damaging ancient artefacts,” Aga says. “We would rather what is beyond remain lost. But there is a clean seam, and the thing should open easily.”

Paul examines the slightly convex wall, losing the top in darkness beyond the light of the brazier. “It looks pretty solid to me,” he says. “Read your riddle in the…” He points to the shape, not wanting to call it a circle.

“It is a mostly forgotten language,” she says. “Our scholars have only been able to partially decipher it. The four words they have isolated are: MAN, FIRE, DEATH, OPEN!”

“Man?” Paul asks, confused.

“Yes,” said Aga, “in the sense of human.”

Paul’s lanky, adolescent limbs collapse and he sinks to the floor of a 1.5 billion-year-old tomb. He begins to laugh.

“Are you ill?” Aga wants to know. There is a demanding note in her voice and a lack of concern.

“No,” Paul says. “I just forgot that all of this was my own dream for a while.” He pulls A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2 out of his shirt. Now he knows which essay Aga and the riddle reminded him of. “What do you think it means, then?” he asks her, as he flips through the book. “Man, fire, death, open?”

“We don’t understand these old people very well; they left few records of themselves and seemed to see the world completely aslant. The mind of the modern dragon can’t comprehend them,” Aga says. “But my guess is that a human sacrifice would open the door. If you allow, I will incinerate you and find out.”

Paul laughs again. “Or maybe it’s a prophecy. It means that only humans will succeed in opening this door, long after the fiery death of your entire species.”

Aga snorts flame that comes dangerously close to Paul’s head and illuminates the small lines of text he is scanning.

*

From A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2, “Alcuin’s Conflictus Agae et Mortis: Forward to the Translation”:

…composed by Alcuin in the mid-8th century CE, Conflictus Agae et Mortis is a peculiar pastiche of bucolic hexameter poetry familiar to students of Theocritus and Virgil. Most of the poem’s 156 hexameters take the form of a dialogue between Aga, a young godqueen, and a personification of Death. This exchange first masquerades as a common medieval debate-type before resolving into something more like a Socratic dialogue, with Death taking on the role of the patient teacher.

The myth upon which the poem is based may not have a draconic source. It appears in the works of Bede (De draconibus II.19), but is not found in any tomb writings or ancient pseudo-draconic epics. Whether or not he can be said to have draconic origins, the character Death certainly has an anthroponormative flavour, although the conclusions to which he leads Aga over the course of the poem lie far outside Alcuin’s Christian philosophy and indeed far outside most human philosophical traditions at the time the work was composed. Perhaps Alcuin needed such characters through which to advance iconoclastic ideas without fear of recrimination from the Church, although in this he was naïve…

*

Paul skips the rest of the introduction and focuses on the poem itself, translated from Latin.

“I think this might help us,” he explains, when Aga dips her head close, not bothering to hold her gaze elsewhere.

“What is it?” she asks.

“A poem about you,” Paul says, “that somebody made up. Look.” He points to the words:

The godqueen followed, girt all in mourning,

As Death himself guided her mother up the long path.

MORS.

Turn back! Do not come this way.

This ground is not hospitable to one of your condition.

It is given to me to guide the dead on the mountain;

There is nothing for you here but a mortal riddle.

  AGA.

I followed my mother as a hatchling with shellsherds adorned,

As I follow her now girt all in mourning.

The symmetry is pleasing, and simple object the same:

To see where she goes on the mountainside.

     MORS.

Then Death responded in a severe voice:

Confused child! Your doom is before you!

Paul clears his throat when Aga grows very still. “They argue for a while,” he says. “I only read half of it before, but doesn’t it remind you of the door? I think what it leads to is a tomb, because I was thinking about dragon tombs before I fell asleep. And we can’t get in, just like you couldn’t follow your mother to Heaven. In this poem, I mean.”

“How does that help?” Aga hisses, and Paul feels heat lick the back of his neck.

“I don’t know,” Paul says. “I just think it might. Let’s skip down to the part about the riddle.”

MORS.

Death stopped on the path that clung to mountain’s edge,

And sheltering mother from daughter’s advance, he said:

Let us allow it is as you fear: that all consciousness is ceased,

And all personhood lost forever; that in death there is only nothingness,

Is this not the mortal riddle of which I spoke?

AGA.

There is no riddle, only despair. [three blank feet of hexameter]

MORS.

Then what would you say is the most basic duty of Man,

The fundamental condition that Man must meet, in living?

AGA.

One must be pious, employ her talents well and to just ends,

And serve her mother as she would expect her daughter to serve herself.

MORS.

But piety and justice cannot be fundamental, Child,

For they can only be achieved after other conditions are met:

One needs religious education, some knowledge of the nature of right and wrong,

And still more basic, a language that defines these concepts.

AGA.

The godqueen laughed, the thin air around her brightening as if with dawn.

She spoke her next words in a joking voice:

You might as well say that to live, one must be alive!

MORS.

And Death answered: Just so. O Child on the mountainside,

The first duty of life is survival, and failure to survive is life’s only certainty.

Thus before you I lay the mortal riddle.

“The word ‘Man’ doesn’t always refer to human males,” Paul explains, pointing to it on the page. “Depending on the context it can mean women, dragons…”

“Your language has certain hierarchical qualities that do not make sense to me at all,” says Aga.

They keep reading as the Aga in the poem tries to answer Death’s riddle, saying that although a dragon must die, she might be remembered forever for her great deeds. Failing that, she might pass on her characteristics to daughters and granddaughters. Death responds that reproduction is one solution to the riddle, but only for senseless animals who are not aware of themselves as individuals. Then he tells Aga that traces left upon the world by a dragon’s great deeds fade in time, like scars from a wildfire. All civilization must someday be lost forever.

AGA.

O Death, the riddle you have fashioned is impenetrable!

I prefer imagining a false reality to contemplating this bleakness.

Paul skims over Death’s response. Can a hungry dragon imagine that she is eating a feast and derive any material benefit? Can a heartbroken dragon convince herself that her absent lover is only in the next room, and live happily?

MORS.

You see that reality is persistent, that one cannot escape facts.

They need not be recorded or remembered to have happened,

Nor need they be pious, nor just, nor need they be anything at all, not even named.

O Child, the very fact of your life cannot ever be erased or escaped.

I see you as a ball of fire burning brightly in darkness,

Ever falling toward a pool of still water, whose surface reflects you.

You cannot tell how far you will fall before you are extinguished,

For the pool is a perfect mirror and indeed you burn so well

That you cannot make out anything of what may lie below.

Who can tell you? Not I! For I am only the surface of water,

And it is not given to me to know my own nature.

AGA.

O Mother, is not consciousness a cruel burden?

A heavy mantle taken up by those who illumine the dark world,

And against Death’s mortal riddle, we blaze.

Then she turned from her dead mother, and breathed a wreath of flame

That was seen on distant mountains and did not burn out for ten days.

For ten days it was as if night did not exist,

And though finally the fire exhausted itself, the fact remained that it had been.

*

t = 3

Paul wakes up in the attic window seat with a sore neck. His dream slowly fades, feeling more like a bizarre little stage play now than a deeply real experience. The image of the tomb door lingers. Aga finally opened it by flooding the whole chamber with water. Paul can’t remember the specifics—inside the dream, this solution had felt cathartic, but it really made no sense at all.

He shakes off the shadows and the weird logic and sits up. A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2 lies on the floor near his feet, open to Conflictus Agae et Mortis. He hefts it onto his lap, and finds with surprised relief that the poem at least feels the same in reality as it did when he dreamed it. Mysterious, sad, and almost comforting. And he notices something—a single line is badly smudged, as though someone traced it with a finger over and over again: O Child, the very fact of your life cannot ever be erased or escaped.

Paul has laid out all he knows to be true. Past that, he can infer. One smudged line can accelerate the rate of change in the understanding of his inheritance. He can hold inference close, and not think it’s greedy to ask for more.

Udad′(3) = Ubook′(3) > 0

There is Dad and before Dad, David, and then Davey…

*

t = -x

Davey is crying. He’s had a nightmare and is being held like a baby. His father is strong, but that doesn’t help. Davey’s not scared of something as stupid as monsters in the closet. He’s too old for that. His lanky child’s legs stick out too far over his father’s arm.

Davey’s father—Paul’s grandfather—whispers: “It’ll be okay.”

“No it won’t,” says Davey, sniffling. “That’s the point.”

“You’re still so young,” his father tells him.

“I’m not scared that I’m going to die right now. But I am going to die. Someday…”

He shivers.

Davey’s father carries him into the study and deposits him on a sagging leather couch. Davey watches him pull a book off the shelf. It’s thick and clothbound. It doesn’t look like a book for kids.

“You know what,” his father says, “I’m scared of dying too, sometimes. But there’s a story in here that makes me feel a little better about that.”

They read together and Davey calms down. The poem is not exactly happy, hard to understand, but it makes something warm and determined settle in Davey’s belly. The fact of his life cannot ever be erased or escaped. That feels important. He drowses, content for now. His father’s strong arms surround him, and the strong arms still don’t help, but the steadiness of the voice does. Even Death sounds reasonable in his father’s voice.

*

t = 4

Paul could propose a function for the acceleration of time, like a ball dropping toward the surface of water, 32 feet per second per second.

Paul shakes his head, feeling lucky he is young in the world.

He sets A Complete Record of Dragons, Vol. 2 down on top of a pile of others in the attic, touching the flyleaf, smoothing a hand over the cover, before running downstairs to breakfast—and what private histories Collins Pocket French Dictionary and The Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide to Landscaping carry, they keep to themselves.


[1] The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th e. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. Vol 2. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. xxxiii

*

Issue 25 (Spring 2022)

Story copyright © 2022 by Alexandra Munck

Artwork copyright © 2022 by Kat Weaver

Alexandra Munck is a writer in Chicagoland. Since her debut publication in Issue 19 of Lackington’s, her work has appeared in Strange Horizons and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and is forthcoming in F&SF and The Kenyon Review‘s KROnline. She still dreams of writing epic fantasy with constructed languages, but is currently at work on a children’s novel.

Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. Her written work has been published by Neon Hemlock Press, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. She is currently one of the Senior Fiction Editors at Strange Horizons. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her wife and their two birds.

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2022 by in Stories.
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