Birth of the Dragonlady
By Craig Laurance Gidney
The salon stands in the middle of the block, between a liquor store and a pawn shop. It’s a block that is never clean: the trashcan are always overflowing, the clumps of paper and leaves scatter, rats lurk, dogshit decorates the tree boxes, cigarette butts smolder and half empty soda bottles spin. It’s a block where grown men will lie anywhere, the bus stop bench, in the middle of the sidewalk. In summer the pavement cracks are filled with stubborn snatches of crab grass, and in the winter with ice. It’s a block that has two houses that were victims of long ago fires, board up and abandoned. There is a bodega on one corner that sells last week’s milk at a 50 percent market, and Twinkies from 1970. The bodega’s owner is a muscular, hairless man—even no eyebrows—who looks like Mr. Clean’s brother. He has a tattoo of a scarlet dragon crawling up his neck, and he always has bottle of beer next to his place at the register. The lizard-green bottle is always half-full. Maybe it’s the same bottle. At the other end, there’s a Chinese restaurant called The Hungry Dragon, that has one bright orange table that sells the Happy Family, General Tso’s Chicken, a fleet of submarine sandwiches and hot wings in mambo sauce. It’s a block that has seen drug deals, prowling prostitutes, and police corruption. It’s a block where people speak some alternatively accented version of English, liberally seasoned with native tongues.
The salon, which has no official name, is housed in the basement apartment of a former townhouse. The sign, painted on the glass door, is flaking. It reads: AILS, MAN CURES, PEDIC. The door opens and an electronic bell sounds. After pushing through a curtain made of cherry red tinsel, you must step down, into a sunken floor. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust. A riot of color flames before you. The floor is specklessly white tile, upon which chairs with overstuffed blood orange cushion rest on bases made of shiny surgical steel. Women, with skin the color of golden peaches and hair the black of squid ink hide their mouths and noses behind facemasks. You only see their eyes, feline and inscrutable. The women hover over other women’s hands and feet, and basins full of mysterious liquids. From the ceiling hang scarves and banners in hues of garnet, cobalt, teal, crimson, and lemon. Flute music wafts from a hidden boombox. And everywhere, there are dragons. On the kimonos of the attendants. On the monogrammed towels. Prowling and swirling in pictures adorning the walls.
On of the masked women stands and wordlessly leads you to her workstation. She installs you on one of the thrones, after you remove your quarter inch heels that have been killing you all day. She puts your aching feet in a cool, soothing footbath that smells of mint. It’s almost immediate, the way you drift off to the flute music.
I swim beneath the street, in a river far below. I swirl and spin, like a current. I am the only thing that lives in this stream, this spurt of water, unsullied by the debris of above. Sometimes, I wriggle up the pipes and through the latticework and unfurl like steam. I go straight to the sky, where I swoop and soar among the clouds, the pigeons, the airplanes. I am invisible, but for those who have the eyes to see. I am a ghost, even to myself.
Once, I swam in lakes and rivers, and breached them, and all who saw me bowed in wonder and terror. They sang songs to me. They called me forth, on zithers and gongs and flutes. Maidens danced on the shores, heroes sought my blessing.
Now, my image is printed on cheap menus, on energy drink bottles, and my name worn like a discarded skin on DVD covers. But I live in, in some form. Some half-life. I hover, ancient and forgotten. My 81 scales glitter in the sunlight, in waves of iridescence. But what’s the use, when no-one can see it? Even my shadow on the ground slinks by, unseen.
I was carried here, somehow, to this new world, where lakes swirl with chemicals and the sky seethes with poison. A dream, a seed, and idea. I was an image burned on the retina of a woman who immigrated here. But, she forgot me and I faded from view, became a story, an emblem for her grand-daughter’s nail salon. I, who was once queen now live underground, buried beneath waste.
But do not pity me. It is not in my nature. I will rend myself against the veil, until I emerge again, in my terrible glory.
You step outside of the Korean nailshop, rejuvenated. The street of dragons, which is what your daughter Tanisha calls it, is as dirty as ever. Tanisha calls it Dragon Street or the street of dragons because the creatures are everywhere on this pitiful block. A mural in the alley shows a rearing lizard with a blue orb in one of its claws. One of the boarded up windows has serpentine tags. It always smells of ashes and old cigarettes. You shiver; your daughter reads too many of those damn Harry Potter books. It’s beginning to affect you.
The peach-skinned lady Mora scrubbed the dead skin off your feet. It flaked, like scales. Your feet are smooth and young again. Your nails are bright scarlet, and match the lipstick you’re wearing. You step away from the nail shop and feel a sudden breeze that stirs the trash on street. Dust, grit and pieces of paper eddy in the gust. Instinctively, you look up and see something in the sky that does not belong there. Something that does not belong anywhere, because it’s impossible. It slithers in the air like a snake. Bright scarlet and feathered, with the face of demon. Teeth as sharp as razors and as beautiful as diamonds. You drop your purse as you watch monstrous miracle slide through the sky. You don’t know whether to scream for joy or for terror. Is there a difference?
“What you looking at?” The voice makes you jump, and you turn to face a bum, dressed in rotting clothes, smelling of old alcohol. You’re about to answer him, when you realize, quite suddenly, that he does not see the thing in the sky. To him, the wind is an invisible thing. Only you can see this S-shaped thing in the air. Was it the fumes of the nail salon’s chemicals? Stress at work? You ignore the vagrant, and look back in the sky. The monster is still there, gracefully navigating the clouds. It looks down at you, a paisley with a face, and screams—
I feel her before I see her. I swirl in the sky, commanding winds when I see two faces glancing up. Only one pair of eyes, however, are tracking me. My scales glitter in her dark brown irises. And I then I notice that she is gifted with sight. She wears the sacred colors, green and red. Dressed as a handmaiden is she. Fire fills me, floods me with searing joy.
I cry to her, “Oh, handmaiden, bow down and sing my praises. I long to hear your voice, o sister of mortal flesh!”
But rather than the ornate genuflectution that I require, she covers her ears, and rather than the dulcet songs of praise, I hear a scream. Two of them, in fact.
A hiss of steam,
the clang of a gong,
the roar of a hurricane,
the movement of tectonic plates,
the shattering of a thousand windows.
None of these sound can quite compare to the savage sound that tears through your brain,
That unmakes you,
Rearranges your very being, your nails, your hair, your damned soul into something else.
That thing in the sky, that is cat and snake and bird and more, you know that it’s not just screaming at you. It is speaking to you. And you understand what it—what she—is saying to you. For it is a she. A queen of air and wind. And you sail with her, and see all.
And you stop crouching. Stand tall. Your nails, just painted scarlet as her feathers, are as sharp as hers. You see everything, the earth below the street, the sky above. And in one dark alley, behind the bodega where the bald man with scarlet tattoo presides, you see/hear/smell a woman screaming.
In the alley behind the nail salon, a peach-blossom maiden struggles against a man, who bashes her head against a dumpster. A tendril of blood, red as my hide, snakes down her face. She gives one cry before he drags her out of the alley by the hair, into another darker outlet behind my street.
And you see, in your mind, that it’s Mora, who painted your nails the color of the blood that seeps from the wound in her head. And you forget the weird beast in the air above you. You turn and rush towards the shop, not sure what you’re going to do to save her, but you have do something, when—
She runs away from me. I cannot bear to have her leave me! Life is loneliness, the color of the savage blue sky that stretches into infinity. Diving, to her form, before she vanishes, I swoop down, and devour her. But instead, she devours me. Into the retina I go, everything I am, my terrible glory drowning in her magnificent eye. And we fuse.
I am made new, infused with ancient magic. A million years of water and fire and under-earth and above the sky joins with the serpent strand of DNA. I am woman and dragon queen. It happens all at once, me carrying her, she submerged in me, histories now one thing. But I don’t notice it, at the moment. My intent is to strong. I streak and slither through the salon, so fast that the attendants look like heat ghosts. I emerge in the alley, where I smell Mora’s blood on the dumpster. I follow the smell to the back of an abandoned house, a husk that has signs that say Trespassing: City Property on a fence eaten through with rust. I rush through the hole in the fence, and smash open the backdoor. Mora’s assailant turns from her prone body, his pants bunched around his knees. He yells some insignificant curse. I laugh at him, and the dragon lady emerges. With my sharp nails, I rend him. Flesh parts, blood sings. I singe him with my contempt, and hurl him into the depths of the rotting habitation.
The peach blossom maiden Mora is sleeping, a gash in her forehead. I call up a wind, and it carries her, gently, back to the salon.
© Craig Laurance Gidney