While we drove across the barren landscape of the Great Basin on our way to visit family in California, my mother told me of an idea she had for a dragon story. I kept the images she described close, knowing that someday, they would work into a decent story. Then, last weekend, I was inspired by my Mother’s Day fractal which was reminiscent of sun-bleached deserts and dragons. (I’ve included the image again, here.) It seemed like the perfect time to write her story–I polished it over the weekend, and presented it to her as a Mother’s Day gift. I don’t think she intended for the story to be for her eyes, alone. To the contrary, it contains a powerful message, which the whole world ought to see. So, to share with the rest of the world, here is that tale.
The Wasteful Dragon
A myth by Karmen Lee Franklin
For my mom.
“Listen close, my child,” the old woman said. “There is an old tale which I fear our people have forgotten. Some have become careless and slothful, like the old dragon.”
“But there’s no such things as dragons,” the child protested.
“No, child, not any more. But if you visit the rocks, not far from our home, you will find the bones of the ancestral dragons; the grandmothers of the beast of which I speak. So, now hush, child, and listen, lest you become wasteful like the dragon, and meet a similar fate.” The old woman clasped her hands in her lap, and began her tale.
Once, long ago, when the Earth was still new to humankind, there lived a mighty dragon. He kept a home near the edge of a deep canyon, in a narrow crevice within the rocks. None of the other animals could reach the dragon’s roost, which was surrounded by crumbling stone. The dragon flew home with ease, gliding on shimmering scaled wings.
The dragon had little regard for the creatures of the canyon below. Each time he returned to his perch, digging his mighty talons into the stone, boulders would rain upon the ground beneath. He was also dreadfully selfish, collecting as many things as he could stash in his cave.
Each day, the dragon would swoop low across the desert, leaving clouds of sand in his wake. With a sharp eye, he combed the lands for novelties. When the yucca was in bloom, the dragon would snatch its fruit. He could painlessly pull loose the entire plant, even the sharp leaves and stalks, because his skin was protected with toughened scales.
From the river, he stole glittering, polished stones. One day, he chose to search for gems in the stillest pools. He ignored the mother frog who was laying her eggs there, and thoughtlessly stirred the waters. When she croaked in protest, the dragon snorted and clutched his treasure.
“I am bigger and smarter than you; what do I care for your tiny pool and your tadpoles? I must have these gems to brighten my cave.” Without a chance for the frog to reply, the dragon took flight. In his haste, he splashed the water from the pool with the beat of his mighty wings. The frog watched as precious drops sank into the dry earth, leaving behind only a puddle of mud.
The next day, an eagle, who lived across from the dragon, was putting the finishing touches on the grandest nest that anyone had ever seen. A careful sculpture of fresh piñon branches and dry, weathered wood, the nest hung proudly from the highest cliff. From the nest, the eagle could see all around, and all the creatures of the desert could see the beautiful nest—including the dragon.
From his cave, the dragon watched, seething with jealousy as the eagle flew proudly about his creation. The dragon wanted such a fine nest for himself, but was too lazy to build anything so elaborate. So, he waited until the eagle left the canyon to hunt and crept across the canyon to steal the nest.
The structure of the nest seemed so tightly woven, so carefully built, that the dragon was sure he could easily carry it home in one piece. When he pulled it from the cliff, however, the nest crumbled into pieces. The sound of the twigs, falling to the canyon below, alerted all the creatures of the desert.
“What are you doing?” they cried.
“These are my sticks,” said the dragon, greedily swooping to collect as many of the pieces as he could. “I’m bigger and smarter than the eagle, and I need a fancy nest more than he.”
When the eagle returned, the dragon had gone, leaving no scrap of the beautiful nest in sight. The eagle was horrified. He flew down to the river, in hopes of finding the cause of the disaster. There, he met the frog, who cowered in terror.
“I will not eat you, little frog, if you tell me what happened to my nest,” he said.
“Thank you, eagle, but I am sorry about your nest. The dragon broke it to pieces, and stole it away to his cave.” When the eagle stood in silence, she continued. “The dragon upset my home, as well, and many others in the canyon. He makes a mess, but doesn’t care to fix it. Help us,” she pleaded. “Soon, the entire canyon will be destroyed, and none of us will have a home—even the dragon. Something must be done.”
The eagle looked thoughtfully at the puddle below, and then up at the shining sun. “I think I know what we can do.” The birds, mice, and lizards all gathered close, to hear the eagle’s plan.
On the next morning, the dragon left his cave to swoop the canyon, as usual. As he flew near the frog, she called out. “Dragon, come see! There is a shining jewel in the waters!”
As the dragon flew close, he saw the reflection of the morning sun, glittering on the surface of the pool. “Foolish frog,” he laughed. “That is no jewel… it is the sun, shining above.”
“Oh,” the frog said, hiding her clever smile. “But isn’t the sun the greatest jewel of all? Shouldn’t a mighty dragon like yourself have such a precious gem, rather than leave it for the rest of us to see?”
Thoughtfully, the dragon looked at the sun. “Yes, frog, you are right. The sun should be mine, indeed. For I am the biggest and smartest creature in the land; I should have the brightest gem.” With a laugh, the dragon flew into the air.
When the dragon had risen far above the rim of the canyon, the eagle flew down to join the smaller creatures. He landed near the frog’s pool with a sly nod. Together, they eagerly watched as the dragon flew towards the sun.
Ascending on a warm draft, the dragon approached the glowing ball. His confidence burned as strongly as his greed as he rose above the clouds. Soon, he was flying higher than any creature had ever risen before. The sun began to take notice, having never seen a creature so bound with selfish determination.
The sun called out to the dragon. “Creature of the earth, what are you doing?”
“Surely you must know, beautiful sun; I have come to take you home. You are the loveliest jewel I have ever seen, and since I am the biggest and the smartest, you belong to me,” the dragon boasted proudly.
“Is that so, little dragon? Do you really think you are the biggest and smartest?”
The dragon nodded in the midst of his flight. “I am bigger than you, aren’t I?”
“Little dragon, you have been flying for hours, yet you have hardly approached me. If you were to see me up close, my flames would consume you.” The sun chuckled.
“You jest, beautiful jewel—I will reach you shortly.” The dragon puffed his chest with pride, even though he was starting to grow short of breath.
The sun smirked. “If that is true, then why do you sweat? Are you getting tired? You aren’t even close.”
Indeed, the dragon was becoming uncomfortably warm. He struggled to lift his giant wings. The sun was growing in size, yet still seemed impossibly far away. What had seemed to be a glittering jewel from the ground now looked like a giant ball of fire. He began to think the sun was right, but refused to turn back.
“I must bring you home, mighty sun,” the dragon whispered. “Or the creatures of the canyon will all laugh at me.” Onwards and upwards he went, ignoring the fierce heat of the sun. The scales on his back began to melt like wax and drip to the ground. The dragon pretended not to notice, and resolutely flew even higher.
The sun looked at the earth below and saw the frog and eagle laughing. He looked at the grimly determined dragon, who approached slowly but steadily, and felt pity. “You will never reach me, dragon; but I will make a deal with you. I will give you a special gift, but you will have to leave the canyon forever.”
“What is this gift, oh mighty sun?” The dragon asked, knowing he would have little choice but to agree.
“I will give you the gift of fire, dragon, so that you may breathe flames from your snout. I will give you a belly full of gas, which you can ignite as you exhale. The shimmering flames will sparkle against your scales,” the sun explained.
“I accept,” the dragon said, not hesitating. He smiled, thinking how jealous the frog and eagle would be. “But where will I live,” he asked, “if not the canyon? Where will I play with my gift?”
“There is a place, dragon, deep within the earth, where you may practice the art of fire. But since you have been so wasteful while living on the surface, you will spend the rest of your days cleaning the mess of others. You will use your fire to recycle the garbage of the earth, in the place where the mountains join underground. There, you will melt down the waste of the world, and return it to the surface as molten stone. In that fiery caldera, you must return all of the gems which you have selfishly stolen in the past.”
The dragon stopped in mid-air, too weakened from exhaustion to continue his pursuit or disagree. Looking at the earth below, he nodded.
From that day forward, the dragon was banished to the depths of the earth as a garbage collector. With the dragon gone, the eagle could build his nest, and the river flowed unrestricted. The frog and all the other creatures of the canyon continued to live in peace, for many generations. To this day, you may still find his shining gems among the hardened flows of lava, scattered across the desert.
Beaming, the old woman finished her tale. “Now, my child, I hope you have listened close. For whatever mess our people are selfishly making today, they will have to clean up later. It is up to you to see that humanity doesn’t meet the fate of the poor, foolish dragon.”