The Tender, Searing Wind by Lora Gray (August 2020)
Updated: Aug 15
Every morning, after I sweep the hearth, like a good girl, and make my father’s breakfast, like a good girl, and kiss him goodbye and smile, like a good girl, I hurry to the Long Tooth to watch the ghosts of dead girls fly.
At the edge of our village, the market bristles. Fishermen cluster, their eyes hungry as I pass. I’m so very pretty, they say. Won’t I buy a line of kippers? Sit on Captain Olmon’s knee, like a “good girl?”
I hurry past them, my head down, my strides long, until the market gives way to scrub and rocky foothills that jut toward the sea. The ocean air is sharp in the narrow, rocky cove, mingled with dragon’s breath and noxious. I press my cloak over my nose and mouth and, hiking my skirts to my knees, I climb.
The sun has just begun to rise when I reach the tallest bluff, but I can see the Long Tooth in the harbor below, a ragged spike of stone in the dimness, littered with the remnants of shackles and dragon scales.
The men in that market would be furious if they knew I was there.
I climb higher.
I remember when my mother first told me about the dragon sleeping beneath the waves in this secret harbor, its breath bubbling out of the surf, the stench growing fouler as its hunger deepened. Once a year, the dragon emerged here to feed and the men of our island chose a girl to sacrifice. It’s an honor, they say. As if death was somehow a compliment.
My mother never let them near me.
But my mother died four months ago and it’s been almost a year since they took that girl from Stone’s Throw, the one with the willowy arms and baleful eyes. Her chains are still on the Long Tooth, salt-pocked and shattered. I wonder, did the men come for her in secret? Did she go willingly, smiling as they called her “pretty” and “good?”
Or did she die kicking and screaming, dreaming of vengeance and retaliation?
The wind shifts below me. Holding my breath, I lean over the edge of the cliff and wait for the ghosts to appear.
Death has stretched their bodies to gossamer, and when they emerge, slithering like foam onto the rocks, they slip their long, mutable fingers through the chains there as if trying to recall the feel of them. Their features are jumbled, noses and mouths colliding if they turn their heads too quickly. Their hair tangles together, torn between the sea and sky, and I imagine them shrugging away the memory of flesh into the dark ocean, all the loveliness that doomed them discarded.
One by one, they ascend the Long Tooth, slinking upward until they reach its jagged peak. There they pause, their gazes shifting from the island below to the vast, curved horizon, and then, as if they can’t bear to be on that rock any longer, they fly.
Swooping toward the breakers with more joy and freedom than I’ve ever known, they soar, the pull of the earth falling away like the chains once broke from their bodies. They fill the sky, a thousand weightless girls, glorious and uncontainable.
The first time I saw it, I wept.
Today, as I watch, I whisper. I tell them the secrets I can’t tell my mother anymore. The truths my father refuses to hear. I’m trapped, I say. Unhappy. I don’t want to spend my life hiding and hunted. I want off this island. I want to see the world. I want a body as craggy as these cliffs and twice as strong.
I don’t want to be a “good girl.”
Gradually, the ghosts turn. They gather around me, their fingertips resting on the edge of the cliff, their legs fluttering like tattered banners behind them. My eyes water. The searing wind burns my throat, but still I whisper, the breath of the dragon below growing sharper and more dangerous.
One by one, the ghosts open their mouths and then, tenderly, fervently, they whisper back.
I know now what will happen when the men of this island come for me.
My dragon will emerge with the sun, her belly full of ghosts, her heart pulsing like the tide. Her breath will heave, the fires of the earth flowing from her lungs and into mine. My ghosts embrace me, their hands sinking deep and unknotting all my fear and sadness, my horrible sense of never belonging, until I am like them, light as gossamer, light as air.
My dragon will consume me with a single, glorious snap. The shackles holding me to this island will break and together we will rise. We will turn our terrible eyes to the shore and there, we will see them, the men who have bound us for generations to this wretched rock. We will spread our wings, but we will not dive back into the sea. We will soar over the island like a great rolling thunder, fire in our belly, readying to burn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lora Gray is a speculative fiction writer and poet from Northeast Ohio. Their writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in several magazines and anthologies including Flash Fiction Online, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and PseudoPod. Lora is a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a graduate of Clarion West, and a recipient of the Ohio Arts Council's Individual Excellence Award for Fiction Writing. Lora also works as a dance instructor and illustrator and can often be found wrangling a very smart cat named Cecil. You can find more from them on www.lora-gray.com.