Three boys, all dark haired and light hearted, sat cross legged in front of the dwindling fire. Their eyes reflected the glow of the embers like little paper lanterns twice tethered to the earthen floor of the cottage by their still growing bodies. On the stool, a pile of robes and wrinkles and wisdom hunched, shoulders rolled forward, leaning on a piece of gnarled ash as if trying to keep his body from tumbling into the flames.
“Kawakuchi-sensei, tell us another one! Tell us about the dragon!” The smallest boy fidgeted as the other two took turns teasing each other and trying to resurrect the fire.
With much effort, Kawakuchi no Ichiro sat up, coaxing the years out of his spine with several impressive cracks. He tapped his staff on the ground twice. The universal call for silence.
“Many years before you three were born, a dragon lived in the mountains above our village. Naka was his name. He was a runt, some say, an unwanted son of the great seadragon Watatsumi. He was reclusive and few ever saw him, to the point where most locals thought him a myth. He hid in the caves and behind the waterfalls, always fleeing deep into the serpentine caverns of the undermountain when anyone came too near.”
The little lanterns faced forward, wide open, fixated on the storyteller.
“Despite his lack of size he was kind and bold, and wanted nothing more than to make his father proud. He’d watched the great dragon, a torrent of watery power, put out massive forest fires with a flick of his tail, or change the course of rivers to save crops from withering droughts. Naka knew there was greatness in him, and he traveled the land looking to help man like his father before him. But whenever Naka saw a chance to help, witnessed the sad plight of the struggling mortals in the towns and villages, he caused more harm than good.”
Ichiro passed the staff to his other hand and leaned in closer.
“Most men began to fear Naka. He’d accidentally set houses ablaze when trying to help a blacksmith light his forge, or uproot field after field of newly sprouted rice as he beat his scaly wings trying to cool off farmers toiling in the summer sun. His shadow on the ground became a herald for destruction.”
“Eventually he just gave up. Stopped trying to help. Stopped trying to be a dragon who could bring pride to the family. He retreated to the northern mountains and most thought he had died there, forever lost to the snowcaps and drifting mists.”
With both hands on the staff, the old storyteller sighed and sagged, as if the weight of the dragon’s shame was his own.
“Many years passed and Naka faded into legend. The dragons all but disappeared from the land; their majesty forced out by metal and machines, man-made modernity. Men became drunk on their inventions, swollen with hubris, thinking they were better than nature, stronger than the land that had nourished them since the first sunrise.”
“Naka watched from his solitude, watched as the men built and bent the world to their will. A town had grown like a mushroom at the doorstep of his home, and just beyond that a great dam, a wall of stone and wood and steel, stood in the path of the river like a shield in the path of an arrow. It turned the river into a sea; a sea perched atop of mountain.”
The six lanterns bobbed up and down in agreement.
“But one day, Naka noticed commotion in his village. The men ran about and the women cried, holding their babies and praying aloud. Water had begun to spout from the river-wall, and the town was slowly filling like a freshly overturned hourglass. The sea-atop-the-mountain had sat serene long enough; it wanted to be a river again and nothing would stop it, not even the destruction of the town and death of many people.”
“Naka watched as the hole in the grey stone grew bigger. Without thinking of his past, he flew down to the dam, forcing his claws against the hole. The water rushed past his thin fingers. His feet were no better. His flames turned to mist as he tried to seal the hole with heat, drowning the valley in a dense fog.”
The lanterns were now fully alight, the flames flickering in them betraying their excitement.
“The water would not stop. Out of frustration, refusing to fail again, thinking of his father, Naka sunk his teeth deep into the dam. One tooth, a large curved thing much bigger than a man, slid into the hole. A perfect fit. The mountain-sea stopped its surge and was quiet again.”
“Naka could hear the people cheering below, the reverberations of their shouts an echo of his father’s spirit in the valley. But Naka could not go celebrate with the people. If he removed his tooth, the water would flow again.”
The old story teller trailed off slowly rolling his neck upwards to look at the ceiling. The lanterns blinked and turned to each other. ”What happened to Naka?”
“No one really knows. Some say he stayed there, tooth stuck in the dam, until nothing was left but bones. Some say his father saw his sacrifice and turned him into the biggest mountain in the range, a testament to his bravery. Some even say that, with much effort and a roar that could be heard the world over, he sheared the tooth from his mouth and disappeared into the mountains once more.”
The lanterns dimmed, squinting looks of disbelief falling onto the old man. “Well what do you think?”
“We’ll never know.”
He smiled a perfect smile at the boys. Perfect but for the one black spot. A missing tooth.