This is a wartime story. It is the spring of 1943 and Europe is burning; look down and see. In the cities at night, bomb blasts expose streets in quick flashes. Their fires light what they destroyed with an orange glow. By day the cities are grey, covered with piles of rubble and dust, their outlines blurred by rising towers of smoke.
Swing round the globe and zoom in on a patch of deep turquoise blue somewhere south of Japan, east of the Philippines, north of New Guinea, west of Hawaii. An island shaped like an hourglass sits tiny in the middle of these huge rolling seas, in neutral territory far away from the ack-ack of the guns and crashing of bombs. Rustling palms cover the island with green, except for a belt of grey rock at its middle, and headlands at each end which top and tail the island with white beach. Tides creep back and forth from these two shores, so that it looks to us as if the hourglass is being constantly turned. There is a gentle music to the island’s sounds, the wash of waves on sand punctuated by sweet staccatos of tropical birdsong. Paradise.
But if this is a wartime story, where are the soldiers?
Draw closer in over the northern bay, where the tide is out, the hourglass newly turned. Look to the edge of the green canopy where the sand meets the trees. Jutting from under the palms is the prow of a long, grey upturned boat, which goes back five or six metres into the jungle. Lying next to it, half covered with sand, are a bunch of rifles. Further back towards the rear of the boat is a large crate filled like a bursting toy chest with bigger guns, ammunition, trolleys and tripod legs.
Look further back amongst the palms, to a line of twelve grey tents facing the shore. The soldiers are inside these. It is midday and the sun is high and too strong even for these men, adapted though they are to its heat with their olive skin and black hair. Two men in one tent sit sleeves rolled up playing a game with dice and a wooden box. In other tents men lie on their backs in dirty vests sleeping or smoking, sit back to daydream at a well-thumbed photograph, perhaps crouch forward to doodle on the magazines they brought when they arrived on the island two and a half months ago.
Time has stretched in the days they have spent here. Like the pages of their magazines, the soldiers’ memories have curled and faded in the sun. Their bodies quickly forgot the efficient hours of military training, embracing days of simple emptiness structured by feeding, cleaning and resting. Orders were to monitor the surrounding seas for three months and they haven’t seen so much as a sailboat on the horizon, so have long since given up the lookout.
One man is out of his tent. Look to the hem of turquoise sea along the right shore of the island and you will see him. Fishing from a small rowing boat, an awning of canvas tied to three metal poles protects him from the sun. He sits back, occasionally bringing his hand out of the shade to swing the nose of the boat with an oar stroke, allowing the tide to carry the boat away from the beach and along the curved side of the hourglass towards the south end of the island.
The boat’s floor is half silver with fish when he hears voices. At first the man thinks he must have drifted back north, but then with a shock realizes they are foreign voices. He jumps bolt up and spins around, slips on fish, grabs on to the sides of the tiny boat and grips rigid as it rocks violently from side to side. Steadily the rocking subsides and he understands that he is safely out of sight as the shoreline and seas are as empty as ever. For a moment he imagines that he himself conjured the voices, but then hears them again, carried from the southernmost beach, just around the corner of land he is drifting towards. He quickly sits and rows close into the shoreline, moors just behind the headland and creeps squinting through the trees, until he finds a place by a fallen palm where he can watch, unseen, the action unfolding in the bay in front of him.
A boat. Five men. The first things our watcher registers are the painted symbols and dark green uniforms that mean This Is The Enemy. The tide is drawing back from the treeline and a small patrol boat is being hauled ashore.
Two soldiers are unloading a crate. They talk loudly to each other and one is smiling, though our spy reads the expression as a grimace. These must be the voices he heard from his boat, they are jumbled and streamy, he doesn’t understand the language they are speaking.
i’m not she told me about it this island’s called dragon island…they say there’s real dragons that live right in the middle … they used to hunt them … she told me her dad used to do it
she was fooling with you … dragons don’t exist
I’m tellin you … they do in the south pacific]
There is a whipped-up feeling in the man’s stomach, He drops the rope into the boat, steps in after it and begins to row back to his camp. He has no idea how long he has been away but it is beginning to grow dark.
He rows up to the north shore, to break news which will tear faster than a forest fire along the line of tents in the trees there. But for now the story stays at the southern tip of the island.
Pull yourself down to where the beach meets the undergrowth, where something else is watching unseen, from the trees, as these soldiers bring their boat ashore and unload the last of their provisions.
It is a dragon, but don’t let your imagination make a myth of it. This creature looks more like an armadillo with its heavy, humped body mass and ridiculous-looking overbite. Also, it’s only about a foot tall, not even as high as a man’s knee. The bulk of the mammal is craggy with beige scales, those around its cup-shaped ears are pointed and stick up forming a sort of spiky ruff or collar. This and its fat claws are the only features that might indicate a threat to anything bigger than a dung beetle. And even these aren’t dangerous in a dragonish sense — the collar is an obsolete heirloom from fiercer ancestors, and the claws are only used for digging and foraging for insects, which it does constantly. Nevertheless it is a dragon, and the last of the species that gave this island its name.
So a dragon watches, camouflaged, from low down in the trees. To its small obsidian eyes there is no distinction between the types of new thing it is seeing. Crates, bags, men, tents, are all shapes, some moving, some still now but moving before. All have the novelty of unfamiliar patterns on a familiar background, but this newness has no import for the dragon whose habit of thinking defensively is long dormant. The only thing it perceives as a solid form is the upturned boat — it can see that the boat is dark inside like the place where it sleeps, and therefore recognizes it as a cave.
The tide is far out, the beach is wide and the shadows are getting longer so the dragon turns and starts to shuffle back towards its nest — a small tunnel-like cave in the huge weight of rock at the island’s centre. The island swings into night as the dragon noses its way home, all the way rootling the earth for worms and bugs.
Cut to black-haired, tin-helmeted soldiers creeping through the jungle. It is now midnight, and they are moving down the island from the north. The moon has made bottomless black pools of the jungle’s shadows, and turned its leaves a silvery blue. The soldiers hear their own isolated sounds: the irregular sawing of breath (out-in. out-in.) and stumbling little crashes of boot on undergrowth. In the spaces between there is the constant revelry of the jungle. The chorus of insects, bats and tree frogs they hear from their camp every night is amplified and surrounds them. Each man stares wide-eyed into the blackness. The soldiers feel exposed and want to be back in the stitched safety of their tents.
Retreat Is Not An Option. News of the enemy landing has set a military machine in motion. The camp’s captain heard his voice call out old orders, the men were automatic as they fixed bayonets on to sandy, sea-salted rifles, buttoned their crumpled jackets and assembled on the beach. Each tried to collapse his soft habits of peace and force up a new frame of mind, one that can hold ideas of confrontation, attack, and his own possible death. The idea of refusing to play never seriously suggests itself.
Now the machine is rolling down the island in its obedient advance towards the newcomers at the south shore. As it gets to the central and narrowest point of the island, the soldiers step out from under trees to see a rising tower of granite stretching high up above the jungle canopy. The rock face is iridescent with moonlight and looks almost like an apparition Soldiers move forward and put their hands to its surface, which feels warm and definite. Rock juts out into the sea at either side, there is no way to get around it or over it. They have been stopped! Men slump against the base of the rock, their breath becoming even with relief (in and out and in and out and…).
They are allowed a moment to relax.
Before one wanders off to relieve himself and returns to say that he has discovered a tunnel running through the rock. It is the same fisherman-soldier who witnessed the troop landing on the south shore.
Silent, they follow him to a man-sized fissure in the granite, which gives way into a low cave. Moonlit palm trunks are clearly visible through an opening at the far end. The fisherman stands by and makes a weak gesture with his hand, as if to say, ‘You see?’ The group’s captain gives him a cold look and steps sideways through the sharp triangular gap in the rock. The other men watch on.
It is completely black inside. The cave’s floor is bumpy with huge boulders, and the captain picks his way along like a blind man, tapping ahead of himself with the butt of his rifle. It is dry, but smells nesty, as if something has been living there. The ceiling lowers and his helmet scrapes along powdery rock, he inhales and spits out dust. He is through most of the tunnel now; the soldiers watching can see his silhouette against the far oval of light at the other end. It is clearly big enough for a man to fit through.
The captain turns and begins to feel his way back. Something moves on the ground to his right, he backs up to the other wall and stabs wildly at the sound with his bayonet. There is a grunt and a creature shoots out the mouth of the cave, he sees it for a second in the moonlight. It is the size of a monkey but scaly, he thinks it must be a small crocodile. He rushes, stumbles and trips towards his soldiers at the other end.
Now they feel even less like fighting. Within a few minutes the captain has his men collecting boulders and rubble to block up the tunnel. They will leave the island at first light. The fisherman is ordered to row round to the south shore and scupper the enemy boat so they won’t be followed.
Soar up the wall of granite and over the top of its splintered peaks. For an instant you see the shape of the island, two fans of forest opening out from the crown of grey stone below.
Come down to the jungle floor somewhere south of the rock. Follow the dragon as it wheezes through the undergrowth. Blood leaks from a wound in its back and, in the monochrome light, coats its tail an inky black. Its clumsy tilting shuffle would, in a more agile animal, be called a run. And yet it moves fast, and also straight. Nose up, collar at the ready. The dragon’s habitual foraging has been eclipsed by an ancient response to fear, pain and danger. It cannot see well in the dark but knows what it heads for—to make a new nest and refuge in the other cave.
Reaching the upturned patrol boat, the dragon finds the widest opening and burrows in. Follow it to the end of the boat, where it presses itself against a corner, and uses its claws to rake and plough up the earth into a compact circular ridge around its body. Then hunches down and shuts its eyes. Its heart pulses violently, its hump quivers, and a screaming pain floods through from a wound it isn’t flexible enough to tend to.
When the fisherman’s bayonet slides under the end of the boat it slices through small square scales and a tough layer of outer flesh into the dragon’s stomach. As the rifle is used to prise the boat up on to its side, the blade cuts down and out of the dragon’s underbelly, releasing it and making a right-angled wound that immediately spews blood. The dragon hurls up at its attacker gripping on with gnarled claws and opens its beak to roar, baring four peg-shaped teeth. This is the first time in its life it has done something dragonish.
Soldiers inside their tents in the south bay hear sounds that feature briefly and formlessly in their dreams before waking them up. They unzip canvas and emerge disoriented. It is still night but the left horizon is flat and luminous with an approaching dawn. The tide is drawn back and they come out from under the trees to see a comedy being played out against the shoreline:
A man is running left across the beach.
He kicks his legs up and flaps his arms, as if hopping across hot sand. A tin hat bounces off his head as he runs. His mouth makes a silent theatrical ‘O’. The men start to laugh.
Making clumsy lunges at his ankles is an absurd looking creature, the size of a monkey but possibly some kind of big lizard, the men think, although its protuberant nose looks like an anteater’s snout and its body is bloated and humped.
The animal gallops, rocking back and forth implausibly fast. The men laugh harder. It appears to be serenading the man in a high falsetto as it charges, nose up, squealing at his heels. It is bleeding visibly from a wound in its side.
One of the men by the trees grabs a pistol from his tent and trains it on the creature. His fellow soldiers begin to holler and whoop with the thrill of a hunt. They cheer as a shot pings across the beach. It misses and they whoop louder. The soldier feels the sport of it and fires off a round. With the last shot, the animal stumbles and its squeals become gurgled and weaker.
The running man now stops and turns to stab, lowering his bayonet to knee height and pointing the blade backwards. The creature runs straight on to it. The squealing stops. Everyone on the beach looks at where the squealing has stopped and sees the beast impaled. The man holds it to the ground for a second on his blade and then discards the heavy bulk, pushing it away with his foot. This is the end of the dragon’s story.
The soldiers by their tents are howling with laughter. They are still laughing as they begin to register the black hair, grey uniform and gun. Slowly the man on the beach raises his hands above his head. Even now this looks like the preliminary to a bow rather than a gesture of surrender.
The fisherman looks at his audience with his arms raised. His audience and also his enemy, who are mostly topless, dishevelled and sunburned. The enemy looks back at him. For a moment they size each other up.
Nobody moves. The intruder holds a rifle but the others are within a few steps of tree cover and more weapons of their own. The men by the trees are breathing with the quick chestfuls of recent laughter. This can’t be battle – they aren’t even properly dressed! This is a confusing crack in the protocol. Not knowing what to do, they wait for an order.
But nobody speaks for fear of snapping the silence. In fact if you were to close your eyes the beach would sound empty, there is only the chirrup of dawn birds and the constant, regular, never-ever-ceasing sound of tide lapping the sand.
Eventually, and very slowly, the fisherman pushes his left hand forward in a signal to the men under the trees. Then, very slowly, and with eyes still fixed on them, he lowers his right arm and places his rifle in the sand at his feet. Then with arms raised, he begins to make little sidesteps across the beach towards the headland. All the time he does this his eyes are on the men under the trees, who do not move. When he reaches the edge of the beach, he slowly backs up over the headland, eyes locked forward and moving in small, silent backward steps.
As he disappears the sun comes up and floods the beach with orange light. The other soldiers left by their camp in the trees watch the spot where he vanished long after he has gone.
By midday both shorelines are empty; boats, tents, men, gone. From above, the island looks very similar to the way it did at the beginning. Grey rock, green trees, white beach and turquoise sea are squarely hit and robustly coloured by the twelve o’clock sun. Soldiers’ footprints have already been erased from the sand at the north shore, where a wide crescent of new beach makes the hourglass top heavy.
But on the south beach there is a stain of red like a bullet wound at the edge of the incoming tide.
The dark humped shape of the dragon’s ruined body lies on its side, amongst scarlet pools of its own leaked blood that billow out like the petals of a poppy. As you watch, waves begin to lap at the edge of the flower, diluting its redness into the sea. The water reaches and swathes the dragon, eventually lifting its heavy bulk which begins to twirl and buffet in the swell. Rough waves wash away old blood, leaving scales polished and shining. The tide pulls back and takes the dragon with it, gathering up, claiming the body. It is borne away, bobbing and tilting into the bay, glinting prisms of sunlight on its wet hide. Before long its familiar shape merges with the other fluid ovals of light and dark in the ocean. And the tide keeps turning and turning.
Photograph © Jonathan E. Shaw