Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Zen Cho from Malaysia. Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her short stories have appeared in various publications including Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, Steam-Powered II and Heiresses of Russ. Her work has been nominated for the Selangor Young Talent Awards and the Pushcart Prize. She blogs at http://qian.dreamwidth.org/.
Prudence and the Dragon
There was a dragon in town.
Statues all over the city climbed off their pedestals and went walking about. The Winston Churchill from Parliament Square gave an interview to the BBC, still squinting as if the wind were blowing into its eyes. The statue was appropriately witty, but did not seem to remember anything about World War II. It did, however, have a lot to say about pigeons.
Silver griffins bowled down the streets of the City, tripping up lawyers and outraging bankers, and Winged Victory on the Arch finished her yawn and dropped her arms.
The pigeons grew human bodies, all of which wore suits from Austin Reed. They marched in their thousands into architects’ firms, university admissions offices, food consultancy businesses, struggling non-profits; they stole colleagues’ lunches and strewed cubicles with green-grey feathers. Despite these minor eccentricities they made excellent workers: they had a firm grasp of commercial realities, and never went on Facebook.
For several days every Tesco in the country stocked only pomegranates, nothing else. If you ate the seeds from one of these you vanished and your soul was dispatched to Hades. There was a rash of deaths before anyone realised.
The buses of London turned into giant cats–tigers and leopards and jaguars with hollow bodies in which passengers sat. You could still use your Oyster card on them, but bus usage dropped: the seats were soft and pink and sucked at you in a disturbingly organic way when you sat down, and the buses were given to stopping in the middle of the road to quarrel with one another.
Meanwhile the dragon coiled itself around the tip of the Gherkin and brooded over the city.
Where Prudence came from, spirits were an everyday thing. You knew they were there and you acknowledged them when necessary. You set out the bunga melur for Dato Gong when you were going to build a house, asked permission of the grandfathers and grandmothers before you took a shit in the jungle. You apologised to tree stumps if you kicked them accidentally, and made sure the dead were fed well in the seventh month of the year.
In Britain, people were far too sophisticated to pray to their spirits. Instead, they wrote articles about them. The broadsheets did serious-minded comment pieces about how the dragon was a metaphor for the Labour party in exile from Whitehall. Thaumatologists were quoted explaining that the mere presence of the dragon increased atmospheric magic levels and that was why clothes in Primark were now labelled things like, “Made by enslaved goblins in Fairyland.”
The tabloids wanted to know whether the dragon was receiving benefits. The gossip magazines claimed to have found a woman who was carrying the dragon’s baby. The fashion magazines did spreads on draconic style. This apparently consisted of gaunt models with sunken eyes, swathed in clouds of chiffon and arranged in awkwardly erotic positions on piles of gold coins.
Because Prudence Ong never read newspapers or watched British TV, she maintained a spotlessly pure ignorance of the dragon throughout. She encountered the dragon in a rather more traditional setting. She met him down the pub.
Historically, it was the Sorceror Royal who performed the role of human-dragon liaison, but nobody had been appointed to that office for the past couple of centuries. So it was the mayor who had to take the dragon to the pub, even though he would have preferred to stay in his office and worry about public transport.
He took the dragon to a pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, where the dragon would not meet anyone the mayor knew. Everyone knew what the dragon’s visit was for, and while the mayor could think of several people he would like to have removed to another dimension, a dragon seemed too blunt and indiscriminate a tool to do it with.
In his human form the dragon was a man–imperially slim, as it says in the poem, with glowing blue-black skin and startlingly pale eyes. He was wearing a heather-grey suit and shining leather shoes. He was exquisite, so much so that when he paused at the entrance to the pub, he drew a gasp from the people inside. Men gazed hungrily at him; women touched their hair.
He didn’t seem to notice the sensation he’d caused.
“It’s considered terribly gauche now to obtain a maiden without first asking her if she wants to be obtained,” he was saying to the mayor. “I assure you, the maiden’s consent is paramount.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the mayor. He was thinking about bicycle lanes.
But he roused himself as they waited at the bar for their drinks. “Of course one would never wish to discard the noble old traditions for no good reason. But it does seem likely that there would be some outcry if there was any incident of—any sort of—anything that might possibly be construed as, er, snatching, if you understand me.”
“Oh no,” said the dragon. He was gazing around the pub with interest, like an alien at the Grand Prix. It wasn’t clear whether he meant that there would be no such incident, or whether he was saying that he didn’t understand the mayor. The mayor did not get the opportunity to clarify, because just then the dragon froze like a dog that had smelt a squirrel. He was staring over the mayor’s shoulder.
The mayor followed the dragon’s gaze to a group sitting at the other end of the room. The attraction was obvious: at the table sat a young woman of dazzling beauty. She was so beautiful even the mayor felt his heart wobble in his chest. But he was a married man and still recovering from his most recent extramarital scandal. He said to the dragon:
“Shall we find a seat?”
They sat next to the girl, of course. The dragon lost no time. He leaned over to the next table. The flowerlike face turned to him.
“Excuse me,” said the dragon. “What is the name of your charming friend?”
“Who?” said the beautiful girl. “You mean Prudence?”
It was only at this point that the mayor noticed the beautiful girl’s friend. She was a small, round-faced woman. Usually, she would have been brown, but just then she was almost fluorescent pink. An empty pint glass sat in front of her.
“Yes?” said Prudence.
She was feeling cross. Alcohol did not suit her and she did not like pubs. She was only there because Pik Mun had asked. Prudence had ordered cider because she did not think it was worth paying £2 for orange juice transferred from a carton to a pint glass, but she was beginning to regret it. Twin tentacles of a headache were slithering along her temples and would soon meet in the middle of her forehead.
She looked at the men who had spoken to Pik Mun. One of them was an intimidatingly beautiful model type in a suit, and the other was a podgy white man with a sort of nose.
The nose-possessing white man blurted, “What, her?”
“Prudence,” murmured the model, as if he were tasting the word and finding it delicious. “It’s so nice to meet you. My name is Zheng Yi.”
“Oh,” said Prudence. She was puzzled. “Why are you named like that?”
“Prudence!” hissed Pik Mun. She smiled at the dragon. “Sorry, my friend’s had a little too much to drink.”
“I told you already I don’t need a whole pint,” grumbled Prudence.
“Could I have your number?” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence knew the answer to this one.
“No,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”
She turned her back on him.
On the bus on the way home, Pik Mun expostulated with her. “I can’t believe you just turn him down like that! And you were so rude to him!”
“It’s not like he’s my friend what,” said Prudence. “I don’t like strangers who think it’s OK to talk to you. If I wanted to talk to them we would be friends already.”
“He was just being friendly,” said Pik Mun. She sighed. “And he was so cute!”
The unfair thing about Pik Mun was that she was intelligent as well as stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks beautiful. She was creative and generous and lively. She danced and painted and wrote poetry and sold her knitted creations to raise funds for asylum seekers, and she had a fanclub of boys who followed her around and made her bad birthday cakes by committee.
These days she went by the name Angela, but when Prudence had first met her in Standard One, at the age of seven, her name had been Pik Mun. Most of the people who knew them found it inexplicable that Angela chose to keep Prudence around, considering that the only book Prudence read was Cheese & Onion and she thought the flamenco was a kind of bird.
But Prudence was the only one among Angela’s friends who still called her Pik Mun. Angela valued history.
She also loved Prudence and wanted her to be happy. She said, “He seem so interesting. He had a Chinese name eh, even though he was so dark skin. Aren’t you curious to find out why?”
“You know I am not really curious one,” said Prudence. She reached up and knocked one of the jaguar’s vertebrae. The jaguar coughed and started inching towards the pavement.
“You asked him if he was mixed in the pub what,” Angela pointed out.
“Hah?” said Prudence.
“You know, when you asked about his name,” said Angela.
“Oh, that,” said Prudence, but it was her stop.
“You better not regret ah,” said Angela as Prudence stepped out of the bus. “If you change your mind, remember we can always try to Google him, okay!”
So the chance to mention it to Angela passed. But Prudence wondered about it as she walked home. The reason why she had asked the model type about his name was because when she was small, she used to daydream about marrying the pirate Zheng Yi and sailing the waves as an indomitable pirate queen. Zheng Yi had remained her ideal boyfriend until she turned twelve, when she put away childish things. In Prudence’s world, childish things included boyfriends.
Angela would have found that bit of history interesting, but Prudence would probably forget to tell her the next time they saw each other. Prudence shrugged the shoulders of her mind. It was just a coincidence anyway.
On Monday morning, Prudence opened her eyes knowing something was different. Zheng Yi smiled at her.
“Good morning, Prudence,” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence screamed and leapt out of bed.
“Aaaaah!” She picked up the nearest thing to hand and threw the bottle of moisturiser at him. “Aaaaah!” She threw the alarm clock.
Zheng Yi put his hands behind his head and leaned back against the pillows. He was in a black suit with a plum-coloured shirt and silver cufflinks, but at least he’d had the manners to take his shoes off.
“Come live with me and be my love,” he said.
“Aaaah!” A hardcover cookery book winged its way through the air. “Get out or I’ll call the police!”
“You can’t,” said Zheng Yi. Sure enough, Prudence’s mobile phone was nowhere to be found, though she was certain she’d left it on the bedside table before going to sleep the night before. She looked around for the telephone but that had vanished as well. It had turned into a ferret and escaped out of the window during the night, but Prudence didn’t learn about this until much later.
Nothing magical had happened to the mobile phone. It was sitting in Zheng Yi’s left pocket.
“You have no reason to fear me,” said Zheng Yi. “I won’t do anything to you against your will. I’m just making you an offer.”
Prudence stopped throwing things. She glared at him suspiciously.
“What?” said Zheng Yi.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?”
Had his teeth really looked like opals? The next time Zheng Yi smiled they were normal teeth, very white against his dark skin.
“Come away with me,” said Zheng Yi. “I will show you sorcerous wonders the likes of which you have never imagined. You will learn how to put your hand into fire and grasp its beating heart. You will speak to fairies, and they will speak back if they know what’s good for them. I will teach you the secrets of the moon and the language of the stars.”
Prudence threw the hairdryer at him.
“I’m not interested in astronomy!” she snapped.
The alarm clock had dropped behind the bed, but now it started ringing.
“Oh crap,” said Prudence. She rushed out of the room.
When she came back in she was brushing her teeth. She tugged at Zheng Yi’s shoulder with one hand.
“Get up,” she said. “You can go to the living room, whatever, I don’t care. I need to change. Late for school already!”
The living room and kitchen were open plan because there was not enough space for them to be separate rooms. There were four pieces of toast in the toaster. Prudence was conscious of her duties as a host even when her guest was an importunate model with the name of a pirate.
When Prudence came back in, Zheng Yi was inspecting the stethoscope on the dining table.
“What is this?” he said.
“Don’t play with my stethoscope!” said Prudence. She picked up a sheaf of notes on the colon. “You can have toast and kaya. After that must go already. I got to go for lecture, and you can’t get out of the building without the keys. How’d you get in anyway?”
Zheng Yi gave her a long look.
“I’m a dragon,” he said. His eyes contained galaxies.
Unfortunately the comets and nebulae were wasted on Prudence. She was taking the kaya and butter out of the fridge.
“Such thing,” she scoffed. “In my country this we call stalker.”
“You are amusing,” said Zheng Yi. “Has it not occurred to you to be frightened of me at all?”
“You said I don’t need to be scared of you what,” said Prudence. “No?”
“Usually people don’t believe me when I say that,” said Zheng Yi pensively. “Humans are so narrow-minded. A little fire breathing, a few maidens here and there, and suddenly you’re not to be trusted.”
Prudence was only listening to about forty percent of what Zheng Yi was saying, which was good because Zheng Yi only meant forty percent of anything he said. She lobbed the jar of kaya at him and he caught it.
“No need to talk so much,” she said. “Spread your own kaya.”
Angela had saved a seat in the lecture theatre for Prudence. It was next to the aisle, but by the time Prudence had opened her folder and uncapped her pen, this was no longer the case. She looked up to find Zheng Yi sitting next to her.
“Oh my gosh,” whispered Angela. “He’s a medic too? He’s a bit old to be a student, right?”
Prudence had parted from Zheng Yi on her doorstep. She narrowed her eyes at him. If Zheng Yi had not been far too elegant to grin, she would have sworn that that was what he was doing.
“No,” said Zheng Yi. “We came from her flat.”
Angela’s eyes went round.
“We had a business breakfast,” said Prudence, glaring at him. “Zheng Yi is going to be my…my—”
“Everything,” said Zheng Yi.
Angela laid a hand on Prudence’s arm. She looked a little faint. “Don’t you think this is moving too fast? You only met day before yesterday!”
“Pik Mun, he’s right there. Whisper also he can hear you,” said Prudence. “Zheng Yi is just saying that he is going to be doing everything for me. He is my personal assistant.”
“Huh?” said Angela.
“Is that a yes?” said Zheng Yi.
“He’s a management consultant,” said Prudence, inventing wildly. “But he’s thinking of changing career to become doctor. We bump into each other on the street yesterday and he ask me if he can shadow me, so I said OK lor, provided he help me with stuff.”
“Like what kind of stuff?” said Angela.
“Like taking notes,” said Prudence. “You know I find it hard to concentrate on what the lecturer’s speaking when I’m writing.” She shoved a notebook and pen at Zheng Yi. “Nah. You take notes.”
She waited till the lecture had started and Angela had turned her attention elsewhere. Then she hissed, “And no, that is not a yes!”
Zheng Yi was taking notes of the lecture with surprising diligence. He paused in the middle of a sentence to turn limpid sad eyes on her.
“I ask for your sake as much as mine,” he said. “To refuse would be to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Any magician would give his left eye for what I’m offering you. Really, you’ll regret it tremendously if you say no.”
“I don’t even know what’s the question you’re asking!”
“Perhaps over time you will figure it out,” said Zheng Yi. He turned back to his notes.
“What’s that mean?” said Prudence, but Zheng Yi raised his finger to his lips.
“Shh, she’s listing the various drugs for treatment,” he said. “This is important stuff.”
He was right, which was a pity, as Prudence was not going to have any record of it. This became apparent when Zheng Yi handed her his notes.
“What’s this?” said Prudence.
“It’s the notes of the lecture you asked me to take,” said Zheng Yi.
“I can’t read this,” said Prudence. She could not even look at the symbols for long without feeling uncomfortable. The symbols seemed to writhe on the page.
“It’s written in Draconic Runes,” said Zheng Yi. “Much more interesting than any human language. Each ideogram is itself a poem on the qualities of each drug your teacher discussed, echoing the structure of each sentence, which discusses the same subject but reveals new layers of meaning and context underpinning your teacher’s every utterance, and every sentence joins together into a giant ideogram, an uber-ideogram if you will, the significance of which is, ‘I love Pru—'”
“Can’t you write in English?” said Prudence.
“No,” said Zheng Yi.
Another thing Zheng Yi could not do was take hints. He stopped sleeping on the bed after Prudence explained that this could only lead to grievous bodily harm, but he did not go away.
Fortunately, he was good at cooking. And he would have watered the tomato plants every day, except that this had two results: first, the tomatoes thrived; second, they grew faces and began to talk. Prudence asked him to stop because she didn’t like the way their eyes followed her around the flat, but after that the tomatoes stopped meeting her eyes and started weeping and begging for mercy whenever Zheng Yi came by their pot.
He was a difficult person to manage.
Also Prudence suspected that Angela was beginning to see through her ruse.
“Does he live here?” said Angela. She had come over for a cookout on Friday night, as was their tradition.
“No,” said Prudence. “Why you ask?”
Angela looked at the sofa she was sitting on. “Then why got blanket and pillow here one?”
“I like to lie down when I watch TV,” said Prudence.
“He’s not actually doing work experience, right?”
“Yes,” said Prudence. “I mean, no. I mean, he is! Why are you asking?”
Angela cast a glance towards the kitchen area, where Zheng Yi was bending over a bubbling pot of something or other. She leaned closer. “Your tomato got face! And I found this on your bathroom floor!”
She held up what looked like a chip of black marble, cut marvellously thin and translucent, with veins of gold running through it. Colours shifted on its smooth surface, as they do on an opal when you turn it this way and that in the light. Prudence was reminded of teeth.
She took it from Angela. It was less brittle than she thought it would be, bending like a thin sheet of plastic when she folded it.
“I think it’s a scale,” said Angela. “Like fish scale. I think your personal assistant is the dragon.”
Prudence gave her a blank look.
“Hah, don’t tell me you don’t even know about the dragon,” said Angela.
Prudence tried to look intelligent. It didn’t work.
“Prudence!” said Angela. “Don’t you even read the Evening Standard? Ah, don’t answer. This is what happens when you only read textbook. The dragon came to London, what, a few weeks ago? Something like that. It comes to London every one hundred, two hundred years like that. The British say it comes to choose a maiden and then it takes the maiden away to live in this other dimension where the dragons live. Forever!”
Prudence thought about this.
“What for?” she said.
“How I know?” said Angela. “Got a lot of theory but nobody knows for sure. The dragons don’t explain. People say maybe having a human helps the dragon to do its magic spells. But you don’t know, Prudence. Maybe they eat the humans.”
“Zheng Yi can’t be a dragon lah,” said Prudence. “Number one, he looks like human. Number two, he likes kaya toast. If you eat kaya toast, what for you want to eat human?”
“Then the tomatoes leh?”
“Hm,” said Prudence.
“What explanation do you have for a random guy who just shows up one day and follows you around, then?” said Angela.
“I thought maybe he’s homeless,” said Prudence.
“Prudence—” Angela dropped her hands in her lap. “OK. All that never mind. But tell me honestly, OK. Do you like him? Like, like him like him?”
“No,” said Prudence. “I don’t even like him with one like.”
“I heard that,” said Zheng Yi from the kitchen.
“Then are you just going to let him hang around?”
“How to make him go away? When I try to call police I only get the Worshipful Company of Glaziers receptionist,” said Prudence. “But never mind. I sleep with baseball bat one side, kitchen knife on the other side. And you know I do taekwondo.”
“I also heard that,” said Zheng Yi.
“Good!” said Prudence.
Angela still looked worried.
“At least you’ll tell me if you are going to another dimension, right?” she said. “You know we booked the bed-and-breakfast in Lake District already.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Prudence.
“I live in hope,” said Zheng Yi, coming to the table. He laid a crockpot of stew on the table.
With a supernatural effort at politeness, Angela said, “Oh, that smells delicious. What is it?”
“Potatoes, carrots, swede, some grated apple for sweetness, fairies for protein. But only non-sentient ones,” said Zheng Yi reassuringly. “Fairies are terribly good for you.”
They were also quite crunchy, and froze well.
Prudence was by nature an incurious person, but she did find herself wondering about Zheng Yi. Dragon or no dragon, having him around did not change Prudence’s life appreciably. She taught the tomatoes to sing songs so they would not get bored when she was away. She went to the hospital and for her lectures. Zheng Yi followed her around when she did not object and went about his own mysterious affairs the rest of the time.
They were grocery shopping at Sainsbury’s one day when Prudence said abruptly, “How come dragons need maidens?”
Zheng Yi paused in the act of picking up a Basics bag of Onions of Forgetting.
“So you agree that I’m a dragon?” he said.
“I didn’t say that,” said Prudence quickly.
“One keeps explaining to humans, but they never believe one,” said Zheng Yi. “It’s a very simple reason. It just gets lonely. After thousands of years alone in a cave, one longs for companionship.”
“Why don’t you hang out with the other dragons?”
“Other dragons are bastards,” said Zheng Yi. “I moved out of my mother’s cave after my mother tried to rip my guts out.”
“Granted, I had tried to steal her Tiara of Clairvoyance,” said Zheng Yi. “Bad idea. Never try to steal anything shiny from a dragon.”
“Not to say I believe you,” said Prudence. “But say you are a dragon. Why choose me for what?”
Zheng Yi stopped in the middle of the aisle to take her hand. They were standing between the pasta and the coffee. His eyes were the deepest bluey-green. Prudence had seen that colour only once before, out of a train window in Japan, speeding past mountain rivers that had taken on the colour of the dark-green pine forests around them.
Zheng Yi spoke in a low, velvety voice:
“You,” he said, “are tremendously funny.”
Prudence jerked her hand away.
“Must get some rice,” she said. “We’re running out.”
It was all fine and good when Zheng Yi was just making himself useful, but then he became a problem. The problem was, Angela fell in love with him.
Prudence was not very good at this sort of thing. She did not really understand feelings, so it puzzled her when Angela began to act funny.
Angela started having other things to do on Friday night. Friday night cookouts were not a sacred tradition; they were allowed to miss Fridays if they had stuff on. But three Fridays passed by and Angela was busy every week.
Of course they still saw each other, at lectures and lunch and so on, but she was different then as well. They would be talking naturally, laughing away as they had always done, and then Prudence would say something about the food in her freezer and Angela’s face would just change. Prudence did not need to be sensitive to notice change in a face she had known for so long, though she did not understand what it meant.
It was worst when Zheng Yi was around. Then Angela was outrageously rude to Zheng Yi, but at the same time he was the only one she had any attention for. She had no time to speak to Prudence.
Perhaps the fight was inevitable. Yet Prudence felt she might somehow have avoided it, if only she were not such a tactless person. She had not even meant what she was saying. They were in a park eating sandwiches after lectures and before clinics, and talking about babies. Angela was a great one for baby-watching.
“That’s a pretty one,” she said, waving her ciabatta at a little curly-haired brown baby. “I think I would like my baby to have curly hair.”
“Where got Chinese got curly hair?” said Prudence.
“I’ll just have to marry somebody non-Chinese lor,” said Angela. Prudence hmed.
“I don’t mind,” said Angela. “My parents are quite chilling about this kind of thing. My auntie got marry a Mat Salleh. Blue eyes, blond hair, everything.”
“Mat Salleh are OK,” said Prudence. “It’s when they’re not-Chinese not-Mat Salleh. Then you see whether your parents are chilling or not. Especially if darker skin.”
Angela made a face. “True.”
They lapsed into silence, Angela considering the merits of each passing baby, and Prudence struggling with her baguette. Despite four years in a sandwich-eating country, she had yet to master this tricky form of food. Her chicken mayonnaise was starting to drip out the other end.
“I think I will name my baby Tristram,” said Angela.
“Very posh,” said Prudence. Perhaps if she started eating from the other end? But then the chicken mayo started coming out of both ends. It was difficult to know what to do.
“Don’t you like Tristram?”
“It’s a bit hard to pronounce,” said Prudence. She caught a piece of chicken before it could make a break for it, and put it in her mouth. “And maybe the other kids will make fun.”
“What you want to name your kids?”
“I don’t want children,” said Prudence. “OK, OK, but if I have to, I wouldn’t name something like Tristram. If I have children already they will probably be bullied.”
“Because they’ll be mixed mah,” said Prudence. “Not so many people are half-reptile.” She was too much entangled in mayo-smeared disaster to observe Angela’s expression, or to notice the way she said, “Oh.”
Prudence managed to get the remainder of the baguette in her mouth and chewed, feeling relieved. Next time she would get sushi to go.
“Are you and Zheng Yi together?” said Angela in a low voice.
“Ngah? Ngro.” Prudence swallowed.
“No,” she repeated. The past five minutes replayed themselves in her head. She had not really been listening to what she had been saying. For some unaccountable reason her cheeks felt hot.
“No lah,” said Prudence. What a ridiculous thing to have said! What could have possessed her to say it? Such things did happen. You said something meaningless, for no reason, to fill the air with noise. It was just embarrassing when other people noticed it. The only thing to do was to pile more noise on top of it until it was forgotten.
“Why so curious? You’re interested, is it?” she said jokingly. “You can have him if you want. I don’t want him.”
Angela’s face closed up, like a gate clanging shut. The voice that came out of that taut pale face was like a stranger’s.
“Well, that’s a remarkably stupid thing to say,” said Angela. “Even for you. And not like you’re known for saying clever things like that.”
Prudence had never seen Angela’s face so mean. She managed to get out, “What?”
“You know I like him!” shouted Angela. “You pretend like you’re so blur but actually you just pretend because it makes things easier for you! If you’re blur then easy lah, you don’t have to see anything you don’t want to see, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. People will accommodate you because you are so naive konon. You think it’s cute, is it? Maybe you think you’ve fooled everybody. Maybe you’ve even fooled yourself. But you don’t think you’ve fooled me.”
She stood up. In the way of Angela, she did not even have any crumbs on her lap to brush off. She looked Prudence up and down and for the first time Prudence was acutely conscious of the bits of bread and mayo stains on her jeans, of the width of her thighs, of the depressing lankness of her hair. Her hoodie did not look good on her; her face was too big. The whole world could see this.
“Just remember this,” said Angela. “I don’t need anybody’s leftovers. And I especially don’t need yours.”
She stormed off.
Prudence put her hand on her chest. To her surprise, it was still whole.
Mostly Prudence felt bewildered. She was confused enough that when Angela didn’t meet her at the station, she simply got on the train to Oxenholme by herself. It didn’t occur to her to call the B&B and cancel the room they had booked for a week.
She had made it clear to Zheng Yi that he was not to come along. She hadn’t said so in so many words, because Zheng Yi had an inconvenient way of ignoring direct orders, but he had instructions to look after the tomato plant and use up the food in the fridge.
When she looked around and saw him in the seat next to her, she was not surprised, or even annoyed. It seemed quite natural for him to be there.
Zheng Yi did not say anything. He took her hand. Prudence nodded, and turned to look out of the window at the countryside flowing past. The green fields, the little red houses in the distance, the gentle grey sky above. Angela loved this kind of scenery: “The English countryside is so romantic,” she liked to say. Prudence’s face felt numb.
Angela was not at Oxenholme station either. Perhaps she would be at the B&B. There was no harm in going. They had booked it already.
When Angela was not at the B&B, and Prudence came to the awful realisation that she was not going to come, that this was serious, that they were fighting and perhaps they would never be friends again, she turned to Zheng Yi.
“Might as well go for a walk,” she said. “Get to know the area a bit.”
She only started crying when they were safely away from the village.
If Prudence was confused, Zheng Yi was in an even worse state. He had been looking at Prudence the whole time with the expression of a dog who does not understand why you won’t play fetch with it. This expression intensified with Prudence’s tears, with an added dimension of panic. Now he looked like a dog who is worried that you might be thinking of throwing the stick away altogether.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Seventeen years!” said Prudence. “We were friends for seventeen years. That’s how old some people are! Some people have only lived seventeen years!”
“I don’t understand,” said Zheng Yi.
“I’m never not friends with Pik Mun before,” wailed Prudence. “Why…why…why she doesn’t like me any more?”
“What is that coming out of your eyes?” said Zheng Yi. He looked closer. “And your nose?”
“What?” said Prudence. She touched her face and her hands came away wet, but they were not any alarming colour. “It’s water. I’m crying, you doink! You’ve never seen tears before?”
She had not meant it seriously, but for the first time since Prudence had met him, Zheng Yi looked shy.
“Never,” he said. “I’ve never actually had a human. You’re my first.”
“This dragon bullshit again!” Prudence rounded on him. “Can you stop talking nonsense? Pik Mun doesn’t want to friend me any more and you can still talk cock like this!”
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi. “You know that.”
“I don’t know anything!” snapped Prudence. She turned and made to stomp away. However, she had not been looking where she was going for quite some time. She found herself stomping right into a river.
It was too late to stop by the time she realised. The ground was muddy and treacherous—it had just rained. She slid down the bank and the water came up and hugged her close. It was freezing cold, and the force of it swept her along with the course of the river with dizzying speed. She pushed both her arms straight out and kicked.
Don’t panic, she thought. Must stay calm. Swimming couldn’t be that hard, you just kept moving and somehow that made it so you didn’t sink—but she was sinking. And she couldn’t breathe. Everything was a white swirl, and the roaring in her ears made it difficult to think. She was drowning—she had to stop drowning—
Stay still, said Zheng Yi’s voice. She heard it as if he was speaking directly into her ear. Stop fighting me. You’re safe.
The water trembled with the words.
Everything came together, the disparate elements of air and water and sound reconfiguring themselves into a logical pattern. The river turned from chaos into one long smooth curve, and Prudence was locked safely in its heart. She was not being battered any more, not being flung about by the untamed force of the river. She was inside the river. The river was the dragon. She was sitting on a fixed place and she was moving, but in the way that you are moving when you sit in a plane—there is the forward motion of something larger than you that you scarcely feel.
She put out her hand and touched river water, cold as winter. She put out her hand and touched warm pulsing flesh. She was sitting in the dragon’s mouth. She could see daylight through the gaps between his teeth. Magic clogged her nose and tingled on her skin.
The river and the dragon spat her out on the bank, and when the river receded it left the dragon. Prudence saw through bleary eyes a long, gleaming black creature like an overgrown gecko. When she blinked Zheng Yi was human-shaped again.
“You see?” said Zheng Yi, looking smugger than anything that isn’t a cat should be able to look.
“Can’t see anything,” Prudence managed to croak, before a fit of coughing overtook her.
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi superfluously. “Now will you come away with me?”
Zheng Yi helped Prudence sit up, but there was still a pressure in her chest. She pressed her hand against her chest to relieve it. The wail burst out of her startled throat.
“Shut up! I say no means no already! You don’t know how to listen meh? Go away!”
“What?” said Zheng Yi, but Prudence was sobbing.
“You shouldn’t make fun of people,” she hiccupped. “You shouldn’t invite people when you don’t want them to come.”
“What’s this?” said Zheng Yi. His voice had gone all soft. Prudence felt embarrassed and hid her face, but she was soaking wet and it wasn’t all that pleasant. She looked for somewhere else to hide her face and found a convenient expanse of warm fabric right next to her. Unfortunately, this turned out to be Zheng Yi’s shoulder, and dragon or not, he understood enough about human norms to take this as an indication that he should put his arms around her.
“I want you to come,” said Zheng Yi. “Why would I ask you if not? Why would I go to all this trouble?”
“Don’t simply hug people,” grumbled Prudence, but only half-heartedly. It was difficult to tell someone not to hug you when you were busy wiping your nose on their sleeve.
“Why wouldn’t I want you?” said Zheng Yi.
“You always laugh at me,” said Prudence.
“When do I ever laugh at you?”
“You said I’m amusing!” said Prudence.
“Oh, that. You are,” said Zheng Yi. “Terribly.”
This was the most he would ever say. As dragons go Zheng Yi was actually quite good at feelings that weren’t goldlust, but he would never understand that he had to explain that when you are a dragon, and thousands of years old, most things become boring. The most wonderful thing anything can be is amusing. It was his way of telling her that he was madly in love with her.
“I bet you don’t think I’m pretty,” said Prudence, who was in a mood for self-pity.
“Oh no,” Zheng Yi agreed.
“I don’t even know why you want me to go with you then,” said Prudence.
Zheng Yi seemed puzzled. “But I’ve told you so many times.”
“Anyway,” said Prudence. “We can’t go anywhere. I haven’t finish med school yet. And after that I still want to get a job and work a few years in UK first.”
“I don’t mind staying in your dimension for a few years,” Zheng Yi conceded. “Not more than a thousand or so, mind. I’d want to get back to the cave after a couple of millennia.”
“Hah!” said Prudence. “I’ll be dead by then lah. Don’t you know anything about humans?” She stretched within the confines of Zheng Yi’s arms, and noticed something.
“I’m not wet,” she remarked. Even her canvas trainers were dry. Even her socks. The tips of her fingers were warm.
“Don’t you know anything about dragons?” said Zheng Yi.
Well, it was like having any other kind of roommate. Zheng Yi looked human most of the time anyway.
“What about the time the dragon was seen drinking up half the Serpentine and the Daily Mail said he should be deported back to where he came from?” said Angela.
“He was hungover! I made beef stew and you know I don’t drink. So he had to drink up the rest of the red wine,” said Prudence. “Anyway, the Daily Mail says that about everybody.”
“True,” said Angela.
It was a relief to have made up with Angela. It turned out that the falling out, like everything else, was really Zheng Yi’s fault. A few days after they had come back from the Lake District, Angela had come to visit. She brought pandan-flavoured cupcakes with gula melaka icing that she’d made, and they talked as if nothing had happened, until Angela said suddenly,
“I don’t even like him. He’s not even my type. I don’t know what happened.”
“Oh,” said Prudence, in a voice full of cupcake.
“No, that’s a lie,” said Angela. “I think I know what happened. It’s not a good excuse, though.”
“It’s OK, we don’t have to talk about it,” she said quickly. She did not want to talk about feelings. To have Angela back and pretend that nothing had happened was her idea of an ideal happy ending.
“I think,” said Angela, “it’s because he was glamouring super hard. I really never felt like that before. It was like when he was around I couldn’t think. And then when you all went away, it was like a cloud went away. Suddenly I could see clearly again.”
“You think it was magic?” said Prudence.
“Oh, I wouldn’t accuse your boyfriend just based on what I think,” said Angela. “I went to a thaumaturge and she confirmed my magic levels were super high. I don’t have any talent myself so she say probably I kena secondary glamour.”
“But why would Zheng Yi want to glamour you?” said Prudence. Angela thwapped her on the back of the head.
“You never listen. I got secondary glamour. It was a side-effect of hanging out with you. He was glamouring to impress you lah. Did it work?”
Prudence tilted her head from side to side. Her thoughts shot around and bumped into each other inside her skull, as lively as ever.
“I think I can think. Don’t feel like there’s any cloud,” said Prudence. “But Pik Mun, sorry. What did you call Zheng Yi?”
“What?” said Angela. “‘Your boyfriend,’ is it?”
“Oh,” said Prudence. So that’s what it was.
First published in Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 (February 2011)
UGH ZEN SO JEALOUS. HOW COME THIS STORY GOT SO MANY AWESOME ONE-LINERS ONE.
Has World SF Blog published a piece by Zen Cho before? I seem to remember a Malay undead story with in the past year with the same dialect (which I find very intriguing) in the dialogue.
What a super story! I’m amazed by the author’s inventiveness. Especially love the pigeons as office workers and the singing tomatoes!
So gorgeous, Zen.
Oh my god how is this story so perfect?