“On Perfumed Wings it Ascended” by Andrew Johnston

When the dragon first wound its way through the fragrant mist that swallowed the mountain, most had no reckoning of its nature. It was a myth, one the wise and rational had discarded in ages past and that even the backward had little time for. A symbol of ancient authority and might, an icon to symbolize an old-fashioned aesthetic and drive – nothing more than that. But I tell you that when the beast made itself known, not a heartbeat passed before everyone knew its significance, and everyone fit to pay homage – and even some of those infirm – fell to the ground in awe.

I was there myself, there on the fringe of the sacred zone, gifted with just a glimpse of the thing. A glint of a gossamer scale in the hazy light, the flash of motion as its serpentine form heaved above the fog of incense – it was a trick of the eyes, not the sighting of divinity. Then if it was but a trick, why did I feel such gravity? If it was but a curious cloud that drifted too low, then why did I feel blessed in the days and weeks that followed?

They tell me that the dragon was visible for only a few seconds before it dissolved into the sky, taking with it its majesty. It made no grand moves, it did not speak or roar, it did not shine its light of creation or smash the unworthy with its unstoppable might. It did nothing more than make itself visible, tangible, in the skies over the mountain for the briefest of times. Why? Why here, why now, why at all?

There were pictures of the sacred event, as there always are – shaky, unfocused captures of what, to a later rational eye, resemble only a curiously formed cloud. A few people believed the narratives that went in tandem with the pictures, but far more opted to create their own. It was the testing of a new weapon, meant to break the will. It was a sign from some being from a world unknown, or perhaps from the secret society that had quietly served it. It was just a cloud, as seen and felt by people exposed to some novel psychedelic chemical – and where might one obtain this chemical, perchance? Stories upon stories, blending together and magnifying their absurdity. It is a strange world in which a man sighting a dragon tells a more plausible tale than the cool heads speaking from a distance.

And yet it is madness, isn’t it? There are no dragons, and there is nothing sacred. Many explanations have passed through my head, many perfectly rational, materialistic explanations for the arrival. It was a mere trick of the light as I thought, the sickly light of a weary sun broken by the plumes of incense in a very curious way for just a second or two. There was no grandeur, merely the madness of crowds – a few superstitious fools overcome with shock, to which their slightly less traditional-minded fellows likewise succumbed, and thus rippling out until even the most sober and scientific of temperament could feel it. It was not the divine, not the sacred, but the feeling of standing amid a group of people surrendering to a primitive longing for a higher world – and am I any less human?

So I tell myself, and this is most likely the truth. It explains everything without need for further excuses to justify, say, the lack of any other dragon sightings in recent times. There is nothing less than a 99% chance that this explains it, with that remainder being just the uncertainty in every hypothesis – a chance of some willful deceit, some technological artifice perhaps. But is it wrong – is it unseemly of a modern man – to save some fragment, some scrap of that 1% of doubt, for the possibility that dragons really do soar through the sky? Is there space enough in that unknown for belief?

Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, Electric Spec, Mythic and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.

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