By Nathan James
To Benjamin the world seemed grey and dreary, and yet tinged with a dreamlike brightness that penetrated the dark. The boy would drift in and out of these observations, like a pendulum swinging between love and hate.
He had no purpose as far as he was concerned. His purposelessness was a blanket to him. He shrouded himself in it. If he didn’t try at anything, nothing mattered. So he slept and dreamed and prayed and sunk and dug and rose, and then slept some more.
His parents were nebulous shades in his life, and when they pretended to care he laughed, and when they really cared he cried. His mother was a ghostly apparition and his father a negligent drunk, and between them they did everything they could to make him hate himself.
One day they took him to a hospital, and he smiled as they gave him his first dose of medication.
Arak was a broad, muscular man, with an expression that was always somewhere between joviality and intoxication. Benjamin felt odd standing before him in his t-shirt and jeans; Arak wore a thick leather jerkin with a battle-axe slung lazily across his back.
The tavern was full of men and whores and dogs and serving wenches, and their voices combined into an odd yet beautiful melody. Benjamin sipped a tankard of beer, and Arak slugged whisky. The room was vivid and colorful, and yet had a shimmering un-realness about it.
Arak sipped some more whisky and then said, “The dragon must die.”
Cries of agreement filled the tavern. Simultaneously blood-red sunlight trickled in through a hole in the roof and blossomed across the ceiling, as if to herald Arak’s wise words. He turned to Benjamin, staring expectantly. At length Benjamin said, “Yes.”
Arak nodded gruffly and handed him a sheathed sword, showed him how to strap it to his waist, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and pulled him from the tavern.
The sun was rising over the mountains in the east, birds were squawking in the trees, and as Benjamin watched the wind robbed a sunflower of its petals. Arak patted him on the back. “Are you ready lad?”
Arak pointed into the distance. “Over that ridge is the source of your troubles. That dragon plagues men’s dreams, makes them think dark thoughts. When we kill it, you will be free.”
Arak said, “Let us go then.”
Benjamin hovered in a haze of blackness that shimmered and shifted and never stayed still. When he saw light, it was small and evanescent. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t. He tried to walk, but he couldn’t. He tried to breathe, but he couldn’t.
He was dead yet alive. When he opened his eyes to the blackness it swam into him, spreading throughout his body and engulfing his insides. There was no hurt, but he knew that he would never be the same.
There was no redemption, and his mind was as turbulent as a volcano. He would think that he had it under control, and would sigh a sigh of relief, but then it would erupt and again he would be plunged into nothingness.
He was confused, and yet he knew what was happening; he was no-one, a shadow creature bound by a law he didn’t understand to live in two worlds, but belong to neither.
He yearned for acceptance and reality, but he wasn’t even sure if he knew what reality was. Reality had become an amorphous thing, something that could not be comprehended or discerned.
He knew that life had picked him up, and he knew that it would drop him somewhere. Where it would drop him, he could not say.
The razorblade glinted in the blackness. As Benjamin watched, the glint seemed to get brighter and brighter, until he was captured by an irresistible urge to stand and walk the length of the room to pick it up.
In his hand it was cold. It made him feel warm. He caressed it, and when he nicked his finger and the blood flowed, he didn’t feel a thing. The urge grew, and he had to consciously fight it, but he lost. He held it to his wrist.
He pressed down and more blood flowed. He would only need to press a little harder and the pendulum would stop forever, and he would be free.
He was about to, but then some other urge took hold of him. He couldn’t say what it was, nor that he had ever felt it before, but he dropped the razorblade to the ground, where it clattered metallically.
He walked back to his bed. The sheets were cold with sweat.
Arak crested the ridge, and Benjamin jogged along after him. The sun had set and risen innumerable times since the outset of their journey, and Benjamin’s legs were sore with travel. The breeze was gentle and caressed his neck as he stretched out on the earth.
Arak smiled. “Tired lad?”
Arak slumped down opposite him, dropping his battle-axe and slugging some whisky. He offered the bottle to Benjamin, but he declined. The big man shrugged, took a sip. “Where are you from lad?”
Benjamin gave the question some serious thought, for he was sure that there were two answers. He gave the one that seemed right in the present circumstances, and pushed the other one deep down where it could lay quietly and harmlessly. “From a small village east of Ad Mandrel. My parents were killed by raiders.”
“Your attire is awfully strange,” Arak said.
The words flowed from Benjamin mechanically. Sometimes speech was a conscious construction — now it was a sub-conscious stream. “I travelled with a mummer’s show. They gave me these clothes.”
Arak was quiet for a time and then said, “I guess sometimes it’s better to be someone else.”
Benjamin nodded. Arak took another swig of whisky, lay back, and closed his eyes and snored. Benjamin lay on his side and let the wind soothe him to sleep.
He awoke to Arak’s startled face. “Get up,“ Arak said. “I can hear someone coming.”
Benjamin jumped up, drawing his sword. Arak hefted his battle-axe and stood square-shouldered facing the noise. It sounded like two men in conversation, one shouting and the other talking calmly.
Arak slugged some whisky, dropped the bottle, and returned to his fighting stance. Benjamin held his sword up and tried to remember how to fight, although he could not remember fighting before.
When the men came into sight Benjamin saw that there was only one man, and he was talking to himself. He was tall and topless, and covered in thick black hair. His face was almost invisible under his beard, except for his shiny blue eyes.
Arak sat down and so did Benjamin. The man came and sat down with them. “You have to be true to yourself,” he said, “but you can’t ignore the voices when they come for you. They say that it is bad, but I love them!” At this exclamation he threw his arms into the air and his face lit up, and his blue eyes shone with glee.
“Hello,” Arak said. “May we be of service?”
The man looked at Arak and then blinked as if waking from a dream. “I am happy,” he said, and it was the sincerest thing Benjamin had ever heard. Everything about the man indicated total contentment. The way he absentmindedly tapped his foot, his constant grin, and the way his fingers played about his shirt-neck all implied blissful euphoria.
“I am glad to hear that,” Arak said. “Would you like some whisky?”
The man fell into a fit of laughter, from which he did not recover for several minutes. Benjamin and Arak sat patiently waiting, the latter sipping from his bottle, and the former staring on in fascination. The man was happiness personified. There was nothing frightening about his evident madness; he was mad with happiness and contentment.
When he recovered, he stood and walked away, only stopping to nod at Benjamin and Arak. His voice filled the air as he resumed his quarrel.
“What a strange man,” Arak said.
“We should get going.”
They walked through open fields of green and yellow, and passed old farmers and young blacksmiths, eager whores and sad-eyed widows. A snow started as they walked, and it didn’t stop for many weeks, falling in an incessant trickle.
Arak found respite from the cold in his bottle, and Benjamin thought more and more about the dragon. For some reason that he could not discern, the dragon embodied everything that was wrong with him, and when he killed it, Benjamin would be the person he wanted to be; he would belong. He smiled through the sun and the snow and the villages and the towns. Could it really be so simple?
When the snow left, Benjamin was harder than he had been. Somewhere along the road he had swapped his mummer’s costume for a sturdy suit of leather and studded-steel. Arak smiled at him approvingly during sword practice, and Benjamin felt like he was making progress.
The journey was nearly at an end, and Benjamin was nearly ready to become someone.
Benjamin sat at his desk and stared at the book: Don Quixote. The words were hazy black lines and his eyes ached. He stopped as the sound of mad cackling and hushed murmuring filtered in through a vent in the wall.
He swiveled in his chair and studied the vent. It was set high in the wall, and connected to the adjacent room. Benjamin closed his eyes and focused on the voice.
“I can’t take it anymore…” and then, “You have to.”
The cackling returned and stayed for several minutes, filling up Benjamin’s room. It was the maddest thing Benjamin had ever heard, and the saddest. It sounded like a forced laugh, like someone was trying to ward off something horrible with contrived happiness. There was no mirth in that laugh.
Presently the cackling stopped and the voices returned. “You can’t do this. It isn’t fair on me…” There was a gruff laugh and then, “I don’t care if it’s fair on you. I can’t take this anymore. I’m not normal, and I’ll never be normal. Just leave me alone. I just want peace.”
Benjamin felt shameful listening to the voices and turned back to Don Quixote, but ignoring them was impossible. They got louder until they were shouting. One of them was furious and the other just wanted peace, and the former said that peace didn’t come like this, and the latter said that it was the only way he knew.
Suddenly a loud crack sounded, and the murmuring and cackling stopped.
Benjamin dragged his bed to the floor underneath the vent and climbed onto it. He stood on tiptoes and saw through the vent.
A man swung from a rope. Benjamin watched as the man spun around and his bearded face came into view. He was tall and topless, covered in thick black hair, and his blue eyes were dark and dull.
Benjamin fell back onto his bed and closed his eyes, and fought the urge to follow the man into oblivion.
The mountain stretched into the sky and disappeared into a sheet of white. The snow had stopped, and every now and then a sliver of sunlight would penetrate the clouds. Deer and bears drank from the stream that ran between Benjamin and Arak and the mountain. An eagle perched on a branch and watched over the scene.
Arak had been slugging whisky fervently all week, and had worked himself into quite a state. He was currently trying to get his battle-axe strap over his head, but he was having trouble and kept getting it caught. In the end he gave up, drank some more whisky, and sat down, which was awkward because of his battle-axe.
Benjamin turned. “Is this the place?”
“Okay,” Benjamin said. “I guess we wait until you’ve sobered up and then go kill the dragon.”
Arak shook his head and furrowed his eyebrows. He spoke, and each word sounded like it took too much concentration. “I won’t – will not – be – be – sober. Go and – do — kill it alone.”
Benjamin nodded. “Okay, Arak,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”
“Come – back to – me – lad.”
Benjamin nodded and made his way toward the stream. A crow circled overhead as Benjamin bent down and sipped water. It was cold and fresh in his mouth. He took out his sword and worked it with a whetstone. When that was done he sheathed it and stood, and looked up at the mountain.
There was no entrance that he could see, so he followed the foothills around until he came to a spot where he could ascend. It was more gradual than the rest of the mountain, but still quite steep. His legs strained with each step, but the journey had made him hard. Soon he was half way up and making good progress, and didn’t think he’d need to rest until he got to the top.
When he was nearly at the top he came upon a man and a woman. They were staring down at a baby. “We should chuck it off the mountain,” the man said.
“Yes,” the woman said. “I hate the ugly little thing. I wish that it had died in my belly. Let’s not waste the energy of chucking it off the mountain. Let’s just stomp on it.”
“You do it then,” the man said. “I don’t want to get my boot all bloody.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Benjamin said.
The couple turned. A tattered rag was all the woman wore, and she was so thin that Benjamin could see her bones. She receded into the background and watched passively as the man drew two swords and pointed one at Benjamin. “Get away from us,” he said. “We never wanted you and we hate you, and that’s why we put you in the hospital.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “We don’t love you, Benjamin.”
The man said, “Stay here, you worthless parasite. Stay here and save us all some hassle.”
Benjamin let out a battle cry and surged forward. The man held up his swords defensively, and Benjamin rained down years’ worth of aggression and repression and hate. The man struggled to parry the blows, and Benjamin nicked his arm, causing him to drop a sword. He cursed and stepped backwards.
“Kill him,” the woman said. “Kill him now.”
Two fingers of sunlight reached down from the heavens. Benjamin tilted his sword, catching the light and aiming it into the man’s eyes. He closed them reflexively, and Benjamin jumped forward and slid his sword into his ribcage. There was a squelch and a crack as he twisted the blade and drew it out. The man dropped to the ground.
The woman screamed and tried to run. Benjamin picked up the man’s sword, measured its weight, and threw it at her. It spun through the air and struck her in the lower leg. She screamed and fell. Benjamin walked over to her, pulled the sword from her leg, and stabbed her in the heart. Her eyes went dead, and Benjamin smiled.
He knelt down next to the baby. It was sniveling and smiled up at Benjamin. He wanted to kill it, to pre-empt its misery, but he wanted more to give it a chance. If it could be happy, his life may have had meaning.
He picked it up and cradled it close to him, then returned to Arak. He was snoring softly. Benjamin awoke him with a boot to the gut and handed him the child. “Look after him,” he said.
Arak nodded sleepily. “Have you killed the dragon yet?”
“No,” Benjamin said, “but I will.”
“I meant what I said,” Arak said. “Come back to me.”
Benjamin sat propped up in bed. The doctor fired questions at him, and Benjamin answered them all in a bored stupor. A man came and knocked on the door, and the doctor left and conversed with him in whispers, then came back with a grave look on his face.
He sat on the side of the bed and placed his hand on Benjamin’s arm. It was thundering outside and rain tapped against the window rhythmically. The whole building shook with a each thunderous roar, and Benjamin could hear some girls squealing and a baby crying.
“I don’t know how to say this,” the doctor said. “Your parents are dead.”
After the doctor left, Benjamin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and in the end he did both. He curled up on his bed with his knees to his chest and sobbed and then laughed, and then sobbed some more until he fell asleep.
When he awoke he walked around aimlessly for a few minutes before sitting at his desk and staring down at Don Quixote. The book seemed awfully strange, but in its strangeness it was inspiring. Benjamin wished that he could be as bravely deluded as Don Quixote and give his life meaning, even if that meaning was a construct of his imagination, and ultimately meaningless.
The days became drearier as they passed, and each time Benjamin took out the razorblade the urge grew stronger. He didn’t take his life, however. He couldn’t, not yet. Something was keeping him here. He wasn’t sure what, but he knew that to end his existence now would be unwise.
He might yet have meaning, and to rob himself of that chance, however whimsical, would be an injustice.
Benjamin could smell Arak’s whisky in his clothes. Spending so much time with the man, he had gotten used to the reek, but now that he was away from him, atop the mountain and at the entrance of the dragon’s lair, he once again remembered how disgusting the smell was. He shook his head and cleared it from his mind. He had more important things to worry about. He‘d arrived.
The stars stared down from a cloudless sky, a million diamonds glistening from a beach of blackness, and the wind whipped at him strongly, fluttering his hair. The dragon’s entrance, which was a simple oval, shone orange and emanated heat.
Benjamin peeked in and saw the beast. It was like nothing he had ever seen. He had heard legends of dragons before, and they had always been depicted as reptilian creatures with serpentine necks and snake-eyes.
This monster was nothing of the sort. It was as tall as four men, and as Benjamin watched it stretch out its wings, he saw that it was as wide as two-score men. It was wreathed in shadow, and its black skin exuded a smoky vapor that hissed in the air. Its eyes were orange pits of fire and the only chromatic thing about it. Its tongue was a black whip and its teeth were black-grey swords, rows and rows of them descending into its black maw.
Benjamin wished that Arak was here with him. He wondered how he was going to slay such a beast. He saw that the orange light was coming from a gargantuan fire that seared in the center of the cavern. The dragon lay down next to it, resting its shadowy head on its shadowy paws and wrapping its shadowy tail around its shadowy body.
Benjamin sat down outside the entrance and stared up at the sky. He was overcome with the pointlessness of the endeavor. The infinite grandeur of the universe dawned upon him in a wave of realization. He could not see the point. He was just a single boy with a single cause fighting a single beast, and he thought that it was a horrid yet true thing that it would achieve nothing; but then he remembered something else
He remembered how he had felt when he’d first embarked on this trip. He remembered the indiscernible warmth of meaning and the incomprehensible drive. The dragon had to die. He did not know why, nor why it seemed so important, but he knew that he would feel incomplete if it was allowed to live. It was as if the beast were taking something from him, and in the killing of it he would reclaim what was rightfully his. It was no longer just an animal, but a symbol of everything he wanted to be, even though he wasn’t sure exactly what that was. Benjamin wanted to belong; he didn’t know where, but for some reason he knew that the dragon was the key.
He stood up, drew his sword, and charged into the cavern while his mind was pure. The dragon opened its eyes and Benjamin met its orange stare with his sword, jumping at it and driving with all his strength. The dragon hissed and slithered backwards, and Benjamin fell short.
“I have to kill you,” Benjamin said. “I have to.”
The dragon stared at Benjamin dumbly for a few seconds and then flapped its shadowy wings and ascended into the darkness above. Its fiery eyes burnt out, and Benjamin could feel beads of sweat dripping down his back, caking his arms and legs. The dragon hissed loudly and then dived at the earth, aiming its head at Benjamin.
Benjamin screamed and fell to the side. The dragon screeched out shrilly as it pulled short and flew back into the darkness. In the air, where it had nearly hit the ground, black smoke lingered, hovering for a few moments before dissipating. The dragon roared out. Benjamin clutched his sword, wondering what to do. It dived twice more and nearly hit Benjamin before he knew that he needed a plan.
He looked around frantically. The fire in the middle threw sparks and ash and heat into the air, and when Benjamin squinted past it he saw a sheet-covered mound. He made towards it, impulsively placing his life in a fool’s hope, and threw back the sheet. A pile of corpses stared back at him, and the eyeless skulls were grinning. Benjamin rooted through the pile, through the clothes and flesh and weapons, until he found what he was looking for, and then the dragon screeched and came at him.
Benjamin nocked an arrow and fired at the beast. The arrow flew straight and fast, but missed its mark. The dragon reared and circled above, and Benjamin fired another arrow, and another. The first one missed, but the second one hit it in the wing, and the dragon screamed out in agony. Its voice was humanlike as it flapped its wings, the wounded one causing it to moan and whine.
It hovered in the air for a few seconds. Its screams getting louder and more furious, and Benjamin knew that he had angered it. He nocked and aimed another arrow, and let it fly. It went up and up, hitting the dragon in the neck. It quivered and let out a guttural cry, and then began to fall.
As it fell it seethed black smoke. The smoke filled the air and travelled upward through the top. As the smoke cloud got bigger, the dragon got smaller. First its tail went, disappearing into nothingness, and then its wings and its head, and finally its body. When it landed it was no longer a dragon. It was nothing but a pile of ash.
Benjamin decided to examine where it had landed anyway, just to be sure. Its smell was pungent and Benjamin had to cover his nose.
He sifted through the ash. It was a big pile, and it was a while before he found it, but when he did he said it aloud, as if to make it seem more real.
“It’s a razorblade.”
Benjamin held the razorblade in his hand. The room was dark, except for a few fragments of moonlight that sifted in through the blinds. The building was deathly quiet, but as Benjamin stood there, staring down at the blade, footsteps made their way down the hall.
It started as a quiet tapping, and then became a loud patter that permeated the room. Soon Benjamin could hear a voice, and he was sure that it was coming for him. He turned and jumped onto his bed, and held the razorblade to his wrist. He needed to do it now, before the doctors found it and robbed him of his escape. He pressed down and there was no pain, only the promise of release. Then the door flew open.
Electric yellow light exploded into the room and for a second Benjamin was blinded, and then he saw the man. He was broad and his smile was eloquent of intoxication. He stumbled into the room, falling and then getting back up, and then falling again. He sat on the floor, pulled out a bottle of whisky from a brown paper-bag, and took a long pull.
He stood, then sat on a chair next to Benjamin’s bed. He wore a hospital gown. Benjamin still held the blade to his wrist.
“What – are you – doing?” the man said.
Benjamin felt an immediate affection for the man, and yet he couldn’t say why. His face was ordinary, if rather silly with drink, and as far as he knew they had never met; even so, Benjamin knew that he would place his life in this man’s control. He was the arbiter. That much Benjamin knew.
“Should I do it?” Benjamin said.
“You have – completed – your – quest,” the man said, “and you – you — promised to come back to me. Do it, so we – so we – can be reunited. I promise to – be – be – better. When you come – come back we will – raise that child to – be – be – happy.” His head fell forward and he dropped the whisky bottle. He presently began to snore loudly, and Benjamin was left with his confusing advice.
In the end he didn’t know what made him to do it. It could have been the man’s advice or the moon or a whim or a hope, but he drew the razorblade across his wrist.
His sheets were red when the doctors found him, and his eyelids drooped and then finally closed.
Benjamin dropped the razorblade and turned his back on it. He felt free. He knew that he had just been tested and that he could have failed and died today, but he hadn’t. His shoulders were lighter as he descended the mountain.
The sun was rising over the horizon, a thin slice of yellow that lit up the world. A squirrel nibbled on a nut and watched Benjamin with wide eyes. Benjamin threw a rock at it and laughed as it ran away.
He still didn’t fully understand the meaning of the journey or the dragon or his part in it, but he knew that he felt like something had been achieved. He felt like, despite his ignorance, he had created something for himself instead of waiting for something to happen. He had done some good and yet he didn’t know what that good was.
As he neared where he had left Arak and the child he saw a plume of smoke rising over the trees. A flock of birds flying toward it squawked and edged around the smoke, and when he got even closer he heard the crackling of flames and a baby crying.
“Shh now,” Arak was said as Benjamin rounded the corner. Arak had the child in his arms and was staring down at it with loving eyes. “It’ll be okay. It’s just fire.”
Benjamin slumped down with exhaustion and dropped his sword. “I did it,” he said. “I killed the dragon.”
The baby coughed and Arak put it on his shoulder and tapped its back until it stopped. He looked at Benjamin and said, “What about the razorblade?”
“I left it in the ash,” Benjamin said. “How did you know about that?”
Arak shrugged. “Dragons show us our deepest and most depraved desires,” he said. “For some reason I thought that was yours.”
Benjamin thought that made sense. The razorblade spoke to a part of him that he didn’t know he had, and in the refusal of it he had killed it before it’d had a chance to grow.
“Anyway,” Arak said. “I’m glad you came back to us.”
Arak handed Benjamin the child and collected his things. As he gazed down at its little face, Benjamin promised himself to make this child’s life happy and hopeful and full of memories that he would cherish and not ignore. He cuddled it close and kissed its cheek, and looked at Arak and said, “What’s with the fire?”
The blaze was roaring now. It reminded Benjamin of the dragon’s lair. Arak smiled. “I burned all my whisky,” he said. “From here on out it’s just water.”
Benjamin smiled. “What do we do now?” he said.
Arak hefted his battle-axe onto his back and returned Benjamin’s smile. “We live, boy,” he said. “We live.”
Nathan James is an English literature student who spends much of his time in his own head. When he comes out you can find him at lectures and seminars and pubs and bars. His favorite color is red, his brother’s mop-like hair is a constant source of amusement to him, and Harry Ward is the poshest person he knows. He sometimes blogs at: http://nathanjames19.wordpress.com/