Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon
by Erin Cashier
"You need to bring her body back," my aunt said as I ate at her table. "They're
lighting the Dragon soon. Go and get her."
I frowned, but only my soup could see. "There'll be other lightings --"
"How often do officers die? You get her. Leave tomorrow. You'll have a week to
bring her body back."
I sighed and watched the contents of my dinner ripple beneath the weight of my
chore. "I don't want to."
My aunt leaned back, and crossed her arms across her wide bosom. "Bring her
back, or don't come back at all," she said sternly. I looked up and saw the
memory of my mother cross her face. "But wait until tomorrow."
I started off in the morning, my aunt setting me on my way. I complained that I
couldn't remember where I'd buried her, but my aunt knows that's a lie. I
protested and she ignored me and we danced until I was out the door and it was
locked behind me.
The Dragon's metallic carcass casts my aunt's home in shadow. She lives in the
wake of its botched landing, in a place where five generations of weather have worn
jagged rubble into grassy foothills. Massive fragments of the Dragon litter its self-made valley floor. Far below, on the other side of the ridge, engines as wide as
four arms apart are dreaming giant rusting dreams, waiting to be woken.
We light the Dragon when an officer has died. There's a ceremony, a long
procession, and everyone deposits the remains of their loved ones in the blast path.
Then the engines turn over, and -- chuggity-chuggity-chuggity-woooosh! -- we've
cremated them to ash, so they can lift up into the clouds.
So now I've got a bag on my back meant for my mother, and a three day walk out
to get her.
Of course I learned about death before my mother died. I know it isn't just people
who die. It's technology, too. Dust gets into things it oughtn't and then they break
down. The genoark was the first to crap out, leaving us with just chickens for our
meals. I've seen pictures of other creatures: cats, dogs, and read stories with
horses; but the only thing I've ever really seen enough of to believe in has been a
After that went the nan controls. I don't get what nans were, precisely -- my
mother told me that they were very, very, small, and that they helped a lot, once
upon a time. But they're just stories as far as I'm concerned -- I can't imagine
grains of sand working miracles on other grains of sand.
I make it to the edge of the impact crater the first day. Where the grass begins to
thin, I see Watchers, hazy and indistinct, watching me.
No one knew about the Watchers before we landed -- and maybe that's because
they weren't there until we arrived. The current theory, and the one I most
espouse, is that it was our wants and needs that brought them up -- little clouds of
wishes and hopes and fears. It's why they follow you most closely when someone
you know has died. And why when you walk alone at night, they follow you tight
behind, slipping from shadow to shadow.
I've got three of them on my trail. They follow behind me like lazy but excitable
children, drifting away for a time before veering back, as if to make sure I haven't
accidentally gone away. I control my thoughts so that they can't show me things I
don't want to see.
The people who started this -- my mother's mother's mother, with maybe another
two or three thrown in -- what would they have said after wobbling out from the
Dragon's wreckage like newborn chicks:
"Nightmares of the crash replayed out around us!"
"Many tongued demons visiting us from hell --"
"Don't come, don't follow!"
I imagine most of the original fuel was spent on keeping their camp as bright as
possible, to light the nascent trees and scare the Watchers away.
The Watchers hover around me and my strong emotions, reds and blacks flickering
on their emerging faces. I inhale, exhale, and calm myself deep down inside.
Nothing doing here, slight creatures. And I make myself so still that one of them
dissipates entirely, lost to the growing wind.
On the second day grass gives way entirely, leaving only rock behind. Two
Watchers dance and I ignore them, until one of them shows me her face.
I knew when I started this trip that this would happen.
I inhaled deeply, to try to swallow down the emotions that just a glimpse of her
raises up in me. But for a moment the air between the Watcher and me is charged.
I remember her mostly from my youth, when her skin was firm and her eyes were
bright, and it is this face that looks back at me, mouth closed, eyes wide.
"Please stop," I tell the Watcher. It's being cruel, although I know it means no
harm. I catch my thoughts before they race, bringing them back into myself, hiding
them before the thing can taunt me anymore. The more distant of the two
remaining Watchers perhaps gets disgusted by this turn of events -- I've been told
I can hold my emotions back more than most, especially by men who this fact has
left disappointed -- and it seems to descend and disappear into the earth itself,
leaving only the one with Mother's face. I ignore it as best I can until I sleep. If the
Watcher chose to show me my thoughts and dreams, I had no light to see them.
In the morning she was still there beside me. My actual mother was a bit further
out, underneath a particular stone. There was no use in pleading with the Watcher
now, it showed me her face all the time.
"I don't understand you," I told it. "What did your kind do before my kind came
As we walk, the image of my mother trails along beside me, the picture firming in
my mind. Her hair streams behind her even though there is no wind, and she is
covered in the orange plastisilk pajamas I remember her wearing in my youth.
"How can you eat? How can you change? How can you evolve?"
But I knew the answers to all of these things -- they didn't. They existed to
haplessly torment us, seeming to feed upon our sorrow.
The Watcher paused beside me and I noticed this, looking back. Despite the fact
that the thing was pisspoor company, I suddenly felt alone. "Well, come on," I
told it, and it caught up to me quickly, like a hungry hen.
The home we had lived in was gnawed away by the dust the wind held, walls
scoured thin by time. I knew her small tombstone was behind it.
"We have to come out here," she had said, when she'd taken us away from my
aunt's home. My cousins had been horrifed by the thought, as had I. They'd told
me the story each time we'd visited them, or they'd visited us, my whole life.
"We need to come out and live on the edge. Everyone is so inward looking, and
each year we lose the fields that the nans began. If no one fights for the edges, the
center will fall.
"Life's easier in the center," she'd told me as we'd carved out the edges of our
garden. "But if we work hard enough, we can make it easy out here, too."
And sure enough, at the time, she'd been right. Oh, it'd taken a year or two, or five
-- but somehow she'd brought the center with her. Things took root there, seeds
sprouted, trees grew.
But all that was gone now. After her death, I'd been alone. And the world around
me had seemed to wither like my heart -- the work that I put in in frustration bore
no fruit. Rocks that I took out of a field one day seemed to reappear the next.
Slender stalks of corn grew only knee high, when under my mother's ministrations,
they'd once risen up to the sun. Not even grass withstood the onslaught of my
ineptitude -- I felt like the world itself had receded around me, first in my grief, and
second, in my garden. I stood, viewing the desolate plain that had once contained
my childhood, with the image of my mother hovering beside me, and I knelt down
The Watcher waited. Of course it waited. What else did it have to do? I wanted
to be angry at it, I wanted to shoo it away -- but it held her face, peaceful,
determined. I knew meditation techniques I could use, to tamp down the emotions
inside myself until it disappeared entirely, but --
It began drifting away on its own.
"Stop! Wait!" The thought of losing her again, even a simulacrum of her, here of all
places -- I chased after it, jumping over a fence post that it merely pushed itself
through, until I found myself on the far side of my childhood home.
There, at the foot of her tombstone's lonely rock, a portion of our old garden still
remained. A small square patch of green.
I drew myself up from a run to a stop, and stared at the space of grass. Slowly, I
sat myself down on its edge, touching it, to make sure it was real.
If I were to cremate her properly, according to the tenets of my people, I'd have to
dig her up -- bring her up again through this, the thing she loved most of all, most
likely ruining it in the process. Even while I sat there, I imagined the grass getting a
little grayer. The Watcher mimicking my mother sat beside me.
"It's not fair," I told it. "I can't destroy this. This is more her than anything I'll
find underneath the soil." I patted the thick green blades with the palm of my hand,
felt them give under the pressure, watched them spring back up when it passed.
Come back with her, or don't come back, my aunt had said. But what did I really
have to return to? I could try, here, again. I looked at the Watcher's mute face.
"What would you do?"
But the Watcher wearing my mother's face was silent.
"I know. You can't tell me the answers. I'm always having to find them myself."
I stretched out atop the fresh grass, and watched the clouds chase one another
overhead. I imagined her reaching up through the soil and hugging me. There for a
moment, with the smiling image of the face of my mother looking down at me,
breathing the clean scent of grass, I felt it.
"You'd hope. That's what you'd do."
The Watcher's face broke into a smile.
"You're only reflecting her back at me, you know. The version of her I want to
I propped myself up on one elbow. Desolation was visible all around me. And, in
that moment, it came overwhelming. So much desolation. How was I supposed
A blade of grass on the plot's edge dipped low and disintegrated, right before my
"No. No!" I moved to a crouching position, staring at what I'd just seen. "Please
Another blade trembled. The Watcher's hand reached for it, plucked it before it
could wither too, and tried to hand it to me. It fell through the Watcher's grasp,
and I caught it before it landed, hiding it from myself inside my palm.
It could be one of two things there. Bright, green, living -- a piece of thread from
the tapestry that this world was missing -- or a fresh small pile of ashen grey. I
looked at the Watcher who viewed me with my mother's face, and I knew what I
wanted it to be.
Our colony was like the petals of a dying flower, and had been since we'd landed.
All the promise that this world had once held for us had been defeated by our
overarching fears, our inability to be inspired. We suffered from a lack of hope
that was, perhaps, contagious. And if so, I should consider myself one of its most
"I want -- I'm tired of expecting the worst!" I stared at my closed hand, still not
knowing what waited for me inside. "Please -- be alive. Please be green. Grow."
I opened my hand wide. And the blade of grass waiting there was still fresh and
intact. The Watcher that was not my mother, but that now -- thanks to my
memory of her, reflected in itself -- took the piece from my hand and set it down,
outside the boundary of the burial plot we sat upon. It blew away, but it blew away
"Was it really so easy all this time?" I stood and reached down a hand for the
Watcher, out of polite habit. It took mine in its own, and I felt my mother's flesh
against mine for a moment, before its hand washed on through. And I remembered
the times we'd hid in our cabin against thunderstorms, and how even in the best of
times, we'd still had to work -- but it was work with hope that had made change
possible, so much more so than work done looking backwards with despair.
There was a future here, if only we would take it.
My mother had been right, after all.
I always knew I could have gone back to live under the shadow of the Dragon if I
wanted to. But I didn't. The Watchers visit me now, often, and I like to think I set
them onto chores. I think about them crossing our new planet, seeding grass,
forming streams. I don't wish for them to show me horrors from my imagination
-- I wish for them to show me pictures of my children yet to be.
And slowly, things have changed. My cousins came to visit, and one of them
stayed. She brought her family, and then her brother-in-law's niece moved out,
too. There's more of us out here, growing every year. I tell them stories, not of a
world we left behind, but of a place that's yet to come, a place that we can make
And so my mother's tombstone stayed where it was, and she stayed beneath it.
I don't see her face on the Watchers anymore, but sometimes I think I feel her in