By Jasmine Arch
August fourth, 1864
I have yet to spend one night in Hawaii and I’ve already managed to acquire a nanny.
Mrs. Melisa Perez-Granger. Tall and broad-shouldered, hair black enough to make her almost indistinguishable from the natives, but her accent betrays her: polished British with a hint of something more exotic. At a distance, one would mistake her for a man. Dressed in leather, from her boots, to her breeches, to the jerkin clinging to her waist.
Mother would have palpitations of the heart were she to see a woman attired so. But something tells me Mrs. Granger-Perez couldn’t care less about Mother’s disapproval. I wish I could learn how to do that. I feel the weight of her disapproval halfway across the globe. She’s never going to forgive me for becoming a lowly biologist instead of the desired physician.
But enough of disgruntled parents.
Mrs. Perez-Granger and her husband captain a hunter class airship called the Cazadora. They and their crew are of the same opinion as the natives, namely that dragons do not belong in captivity.
Nonetheless, they’ve agreed to bring me to the island of Kaua’i.
I’ll be staying with her father, who settled on the island with his wife, a native.
We’re in the air as I write this.
The research trip for my dissertation is swiftly becoming a collection of firsts: my first Atlantic crossing, my first time seeing a palm tree, and my first free dragon—a type I’ve never seen before. How can I call myself a draconic ornithologist when my jaw drops at the first sighting of an atypical specimen?
I almost forgot my first time aboard an airship. Like any vessel allowed in the vicinity of the archipelago, it isn’t dragon-powered. I wonder how they store enough coal for a journey this long.
The Grangers seem considerably less hostile than the Hawaiians. Especially Mr. Granger—he insisted I call him Oliver, but my mother raised me better than that—has proven rather talkative.
Though I’m under strict instructions not to approach the dragons, Mrs. Granger-Perez has promised to show me the way to their primary roosting grounds at Waimea Canyon, within walking distance of her father’s home.
Failure to adhere to the rules imposed upon me will result in immediate banishment off the islands, but I do not worry about it. The objective observer must never contaminate the subjects of his study with his presence. Such interaction would be catastrophic to my research. The presence of a second human will disturb the balance enough as it is.
Still, I think it wise to practise caution and accept these limitations. Nanny and all. At least until they begin to trust me. With time, I may be able to negotiate more favourable conditions under which to work.
—From the journal of Jeremy Coleridge, draconic ornithologist
Jeremy wiped the sweat from his brow as he glanced up the slope. He and Mrs. Perez-Granger had been hiking since dawn. Well, she hiked. He doddered after her, struggling to keep up and wheezing worse than a leaky bellows.
“I’m terribly sorry, Madame.” Leaning against a tree, he stared at her as she moved nimbly across the uneven terrain.
“How much further to this vantage point you mentioned?” He placed his hands at his sides, gasping in deep breaths of warm, humid air.
He turned, surveying at the section of forest he’d just traversed. Every tree looked equally leafy and green. Every trail they’d passed was equally overshadowed.
His breathing stuttered as he spun, trying to spot her. “Mrs. Granger-Perez?” His voice echoed through the forest—shrill and panicked—as his pulse drummed faster than an Irish reel.
Her laughter trickled down to him before she stepped out from behind a tree trunk. “Almost there, Coleridge.”
“Oh, there you are.” Jeremy wiped his clammy palms on his jacket and tried to lift his feet to take another step. He could have sworn these walking boots didn’t weigh this much when he unpacked them yesterday.
He began to count things—the trees he passed, his steps, his breaths, anything to take his mind off the burn in his calves and back and the straps of his pack chafing his shoulders. The blasted rope she’d insisted on shoving in there on top of his journals and pencils was undoubtedly woven through with lead. “Thank her later, my bootheels.”
Eyes focused on the ground in front of him, he plodded on till he cleared the trees and the glare of the sunlight momentarily blinded him.
“This is it,” Mrs. Perez-Granger said. “Pu’u Hinahina. One of the most breathtaking spots on the islands, and the best place to observe the dragons of Waimea Canyon.”
Jeremy shook his head as he stood on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a vast range of mountains and crevasses. Dragons of all sizes and colours populated the area, flying, moving about on foot or basking in the sunlight with wings spread.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, never imagined it could exist.” Jeremy removed his spectacles and polished them with the hem of his waistcoat.
“I hope you realise how lucky you are to be here.” She met his gaze for the first time. Her eyes were a smoky gray, surrounded by long, thick lashes. “Haole like you haven’t been allowed onto Kaua’i since the Hawaiians and their dragons drove the British off in 1791. You’re the first one to set foot on this very spot. I wouldn’t betray their trust if I were you.”
“Why does everyone seem convinced that’s only a matter of time?”
She shook her head and gave him a sardonic smile. “Experience.”
Jeremy sat at the edge of the bluff called Pu’u Hinahina. Mrs. Perez-Granger had found a spot to the side of the clearing in the crook of a tree root, a book in her lap and a basket of food at her feet. Now and then, her gaze wandered in his direction though she was subtle about it.
For the first hour, all he did was stare.
A large dragon—bulky musculature and body type similar to the specimens commonly encountered in captivity in Europe and the United States of America—had settled below his position.
A female, judging from the drab green-and-brown colouring. At her feet, a clutch of hatchlings played in the dirt, chasing one another and wrestling. Squeals and shrieks reached him and he couldn’t resist a smile at their antics.
The domesticated dragons he’d studied in England were never this exuberant. Their comportment was far more subdued. They allowed his presence but displayed a wariness that never abated, no matter how gently he treated them.
Jeremy counted seven young. Three with the bright, gaudy colouring of males; four with the same drab colour as their dam, making them rather difficult to distinguish.
At the top of the cliff, among the trees to the left of his perch, a smaller, slender dragon curled around four eggs. This one, murky blue-gray, with a more elongated body about half again as long as Jeremy’s forearm, had wings that were rudimentary—clearly not suited for actual flight.
According to Mr. Darwin’s theories, that meant that as an evolutionary feature, the wings had no relevance for the species and would continue to grow smaller in future generations.
Jeremy could no more imagine a dragon without wings than a human without a nose.
He pulled a pencil and notebook from his satchel and began to make notes. A full sketch of the slender gray dragon emerged from a blank page.
A screech startled him from his work and his pencil slipped, gouging a deep furrow in the creamy paper, across the tail of the dragon.
A bright turquoise male appeared behind the little gray’s nest, hissing and spitting at Jeremy as it stalked closer.
Jeremy turned to Mrs. Granger-Perez for guidance but she merely watched him over the edge of her book, one eyebrow raised in an unspoken question.
As he turned back to face the advancing male, the gray unwound herself from her nest and stepped in front of what was clearly her mate, murmuring and purring at him. She pressed her forehead against his neck as she kept him from closing on Jeremy.
The little grey had watched Jeremy’s every movement since his arrival, but when he remained careful not to make a move in her direction, she’d seemed content enough.
Now, when her mate didn’t share her apparent trust, she was protecting Jeremy. Something not another soul on this island had done so far. Even the mother of the seven boisterous little ones down below had kept a wary eye on his movements.
Jeremy returned to his notes and sketches, surreptitiously glancing at the nest from time to time. But whenever he did, the male gave a low growl and the female responded with a murmur and a gentle touch of her nose to his.
Kaua’i Island, Hawai’i
August twelfth, 1864
I hope this letter finds you well and your health has improved since the time of our last meeting.
You’ll have to forgive the appalling state of my handwriting. I can scarce stop my hand from trembling as I write.
I know you were skeptical at best when I first divulged my plans, but let me assure you the journey has already given me many insights into the behavioural patterns of dragons, as well as the diversity in genetic variations.
When I first decided on the subject of my dissertation, I mainly hoped to be of some use to society and industry by way of contributing to a more efficient breeding program. Hence my desire to study the mating habits of dragons in one of the last free habitats available to them.
However, since my arrival, less than a fortnight prior to the composition of this letter, I’ve learned so many things none of us in the field of draconic ornithology would have dared to dream of. To call these last few days of observation an epiphany would be an understatement.
For this reason, I’d like to beg your permission to change the subject of the aforementioned dissertation from ‘On the Rituals and Habits of Mating in Dragons’ to ‘On the Nature and Origin of Dragons’.
Furthermore, I need to bring to your attention the idea we discussed briefly as I began the preparations for my journey—the notion you found so preposterous.
While biologists have always classified dragons—being winged, warm-blooded, egg-laying, vertebrates—as a subspecies of birds, I’ve encountered a far larger diversity of dragon species here in Hawai’i than any of us deemed possible.
Not only that, but their cognitive and empathic abilities are considerably greater than thus far assumed—perhaps due to the difference in upbringing.
Therefore, I must beg you to reconsider your previous refusal. As a professor in draconic ornithology, you have already done groundbreaking work, revolutionising the way society employs dragons.
It would be my honour to stand beside you as we take your work further. Not by a step, but by a leap of epic proportions.
Let us strive for a better, more complete comprehension of dragons, and pursue this as a separate field of study. We could be pioneers in dracology, you and I.
I look forward to discussing this with you in further detail and remain,
—Letter from Jeremy Coleridge to his sponsor, Professor Baldwin at the University of Cambridge.
Jeremy mopped the last of the scrambled eggs from his plate with a piece of flatbread. “I didn’t think I’d be having a meal this comforting and homey in Hawai’i.” He smiled up at Mrs. Perez as she brought him a cup of tea.
“My husband may have settled in like a real islander, but one thing he could never leave behind is his food.” She wiped the crumbs from the table and refilled her husband’s cup before returning the pot to the kitchen.
“She’s right.” The older man, dark-haired like the natives but with the same pale skin as his daughter, nodded and gestured towards the bread basket with its rounds of purple bread. “It did take me a while to get used to the colour of the bread and porridge. They use taro root in absolutely everything.”
He sipped his tea and leaned back in his chair. “But to live without salt pork, chicken or eggs? That’s more than this old man can bear.”
A small, graceful red-and-gold dragon flew through the open window, perching on Mr. Perez’s shoulder. “Aloha, little one,” his host said before grabbing another piece of bread.
A modest flame burst forth from the exquisite creature’s jaw, singeing Jeremy’s mustache before the little beast shot forward, jaws snapping shut inches from Jeremy’s nose.
Mr. Perez raised a hand, pulling the little growling dragon back. “Ah, Iwalani, you haven’t met our guest. This is Mr. Coleridge.”
Jeremy hesitated, keeping his eyes pointed at his plate. He couldn’t risk a response on his part being interpreted as interacting with a dragon.
Mr. Perez chuckled as Iwalani hopped onto the table, curling up right in front of Jeremy’s plate and swishing his tail back and forth like a cat about to lose its temper.
“Leave the boy alone, Iwa. He dares not even look at you for fear you’ll get him in trouble.”
“Is he always this angry?” Jeremy stood and backed away from the table.
“Give him some time.” Mr. Perez stroked the dragon’s flank in a slow, soothing rhythm. “Took him months to learn to trust me, and I was the one who freed him. He hasn’t been treated very well by haole. Kept in a cage, claws and fangs blunted. For decoration. And he was one of the lucky ones. Most owners have fangs and teeth pulled completely.”
“I didn’t know people did that.” Jeremy nodded. The fact that Iwalani had suffered at the hands of his owners shouldn’t have surprised him.
He’d seen furnace dragons submitted to treatment far worse than dulled claws. He’d felt sorry for them, of course. The way one did for a horse when its master was too fond of crop and spurs. But that was before he’d seen them like this. Free, uninhibited, and clearly more than dumb brutes.
“I’ll get out of your way so he can calm down.” Grabbing his satchel from its spot by the door, he walked out. He was getting more accustomed to the daily trek to Waimea Canyon, but it would still take him almost two hours to get there.
April twentieth, 1865
Dear Mr. Coleridge,
Forgive me for jumping straight to the matter at hand.
I cannot emphasise enough how detrimental it would be to your future as a draconic ornithologist if you were to pursue this folly.
After everything I’ve invested in you, not to mention the sacrifices your parents made to enable you to attend the University of Cambridge, it would be highly unseemly, ungrateful even, to dismiss the work of your forebears, merely because you’ve spent a few weeks in the field.
Next thing, you’ll be attempting to convince me these creatures are sentient. I urge you to return home at once, so that we may salvage what is left of your academic career.
James Baldwin, PhD
“What the Dickens!”
Jeremy crumpled the letter in his fist and resumed his pacing across the clearing at Pu’u Hinahina. “Surely wrote this in jest. He can’t mean it. He always told me academic life was divided into two streams. The thinkers and the swallowers. And he wanted me to be a thinker.”
The palm trees and birdsong were absolutely useless in soothing his nerves. “If he expects me to turn round and come to heel like a spineless lickspittle…”
The little gray hopped down from her perch and approached him. Graceful head tilted to one side, she purred gently.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but I think you’d best stay back, my dear.” Jeremy smiled briefly at her before returning his gaze to the balled-up letter in his hand.
“I’m stuck between two worlds. Back home, people think I’m deluded for believing we do your kind a disservice by treating you like objects to be used at the leisure of humans.”
He shrugged and sat down in the grass at the edge of the cliff. “Over here, people treat you well, but in me they see nothing but what they expect to see: a man in search of more dragons. More slaves.”
Behind the gray, two of her young peeked over the edge of the nest. They’d hatched a few weeks ago, but already nearly doubled in size.
She looked over her shoulder, murmured something to her children, and came to sit next to him, pressing her forehead into his hand.
“Nice to have someone believe in me, at least. Even if you’re the only one.” Jeremy pulled his hand away. “But I’ve finally gotten permission from my custodians to come up here unsupervised. If anyone were to see this, they’d consider it a violation of the rules. I’m sorry, love.”
She shook her head and nuzzled up against him again. With a sigh, Jeremy lay back in the grass and closed his eyes while the little gray’s hatchlings chittered to each other in their nest.
An earsplitting shriek echoed across the clearing and Jeremy sprang up. “What? What’s happened?”
The little gray stood at the edge of the cliff, staring down and whimpering.
Jeremy glanced at the nest. There were only three hatchlings. Where was the fourth?
“Oh good Lord.” He ran to the little gray’s side and knelt to look down. On a narrow ledge, about twenty feet down, sat the fourth hatchling. The only male from the nest, purple and silver scales shifting colour in the harsh midday sunlight.
“Flaming fiddlesticks!” Jeremy leaned back.
How were they going to get him back up?
A terrified whimper came from below, along with the sound of rocks falling. Jeremy crawled forward again. “Hang on! We’re coming.”
The gray lifted one leg over the edge and turned to climb down, but Jeremy pulled her away. “Don’t. He’s almost as big as you are. You’ll never be able to carry him up.”
She made a keening sound as she shook her head and reached for the edge once more.
“I know,” Jeremy said, stroking her side. “But think about this. What will become of your three girls if you climb down and get stuck as well?”
At this, she looked back at her nest, where three little faces peeked over the edge, and let out a cry that made Jeremy’s hairs rise.
“It’s alright, love. We’ll think of something.” He patted her front paw and headed back to his pack. He unbuckled the satchel and started to rummage through his supply of pencils, hardened glass tubes for samples, and notebooks. At the bottom lay the neatly coiled rope. “Mrs. Perez-Granger was right, after all.”
Jeremy looked at the gray as he unrolled the rope and tied one end around a sturdy-looking tree near the edge. “You know the big house by the river? Where the Perez family lives?”
She nodded and gave another little moan.
“Of course you do. Who else would teach you English? Run over there as fast as you can. Mrs. Perez-Granger will know what to do. I’ll climb down and keep him safe.”
She turned and scuttled out of sight between the trees before Jeremy could blink. He nodded, looked at three females still in the nest, and raised an eyebrow in what he hoped was a stern expression. Always worked for his father.
“Right, you three. I want you to stay there. Do not come up to the edge to look. Do not go exploring elsewhere. Do not leave that nest.”
Three little heads—two gray like their mother, one dull green—stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Don’t give your poor mother, or me for that matter, any more reason to worry than your brother already has. Have I made myself perfectly clear, girls?”
They nodded in unison.
“Good.” He turned, rope in hand, and faced the edge of the cliff. “Right.”
Now what? He’d never done something like this before. On all fours, he crept close enough to peer down again. The little male scratched at the cliff face and keened.
“Don’t worry, I’m coming.” Jeremy pushed back and picked up the rope again. He tried to wrap it around each leg to rig a harness like one of the men had worn aboard the Cazadora.
When he tied the last knot, the whole thing dropped to his ankles in a tangled mess. “Come on, Coleridge. Get yourself together, man.”
He sorted out the knots in the rope and tried again. In the end, he settled for a loop, just large enough to fit around his chest underneath his armpits.
With the slack coiled over one shoulder and both hands clamped on the rope, he lowered himself over the edge, toes scrabbling for leverage in his unwieldy walking boots.
It seemed like he dangled from that blasted rock for a decade at the least, but the sun was still a ways above the horizon by the time he stood on the ledge, legs trembling and shirt soaked with sweat.
The hatchling squealed and bumped his head into Jeremy’s leg.
Jeremy sat down next to the hatchling, wiped his brow, and winced as the sweat stung the palms of his hands. They were red, raw, and covered in blisters.
He’d never make it back. The edge of the cliff looked three times as far from down here. If the gray couldn’t find the house, no one would come looking for him before sunset.
All he could do was wait.
The wind picked up, chilling the sweat beading on his skin. With a shiver, Jeremy wrapped his arms around his body as the hatchling nestled against his side.
Moments later, clouds rolled in from the north and a drop of water hit his arm. Another spattered against his nose.
Soon, the raindrops came faster than he could count until he was drenched. The wind increased in intensity, blowing his hair into his eyes and chilling him so badly his fingers went numb.
Teeth chattering, he huddled against the cliff face, trying to find shelter where none was to be had. The little dragon—his only meager source of warmth—he kept as dry as he could underneath his shirt, close to his skin.
A warm hand touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes with a gasp. “What—”
He pushed the blanket off and tried to sit up, but the hand held him down.
The voice appeared to belong to Mrs. Perez-Granger, but the tone was not the mocking one she usually reserved for him. “Stay put,” she said. “You need to rest a bit longer.”
“The hatchling is fine. Thanks to you.” She smiled and looked over her shoulder before standing up from the bed. “They insisted on coming along.”
Behind her, in the doorway, stood the little gray, her mate, and the four young ones. While the parents stood patiently, with a softness about the eyes that reminded Jeremy of a smile, their offspring writhed in their enthusiasm to enter the room, yet they didn’t step one foot past the threshold.
“Go on.” Mrs. Perez-Granger gestured towards Jeremy’s bed. “Just be careful and don’t exhaust him too much.”
At her final nod, the hatchlings jumped onto the bed. While the females stayed at the foot, looking at him with large, bright blue eyes, the male purred and bumped his head into Jeremy’s hand.
“Hello again,” Jeremy said, as he stroked the dragon’s head. The shiny scales didn’t feel like Jeremy had expected at all. Out on the ledge, he’d been too preoccupied with keeping himself and the hatchling from falling. Here, in the quiet of his bedroom, he gave himself permission to fully embrace the moment. The little dragon was warm and smooth and his purrs vibrated through his entire body.
“You didn’t have to do it, you know,” Mrs. Perez-Granger said from her spot by the door. “After the instructions not to approach any dragons, no one would have blamed you if you’d just come to find us.”
Jeremy shook his head and stared at the little male. “I couldn’t leave him down there.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. If he’d been a bit bigger, he would have been fine, rain or no, but as it was, he’d have died of hypothermia or been washed off that ledge.”
She stepped forward, pointing at him. “But that was the sloppiest safety line I’ve ever seen in my life, Jeremy Coleridge.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeremy said, leaning back into his pillow. “I’ve never needed one before.”
“I guess I’ll have to teach you. When you’ve recovered. You’ve had a nasty fever. But I’m sure you’ll be fine in another few days.” She turned to leave but halted, resting her hand on the doorpost. “Oh, before I forget…”
She pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket. It had seen better days and had been crumpled and then smoothed out at some point. “I hope the rain didn’t wash all the ink off. Wasn’t this the letter you’d been waiting for? The one from your mentor? I found it in the clearing, next to your satchel.”
Jeremy sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the letter. Crumpled, dog-eared, water-stained. He should have known professor Baldwin would react this way.
How could he ever go back to Cambridge? Without his mentor’s support, his findings would never be accepted. And nothing would change.
But if not Cambridge, where could he go? His parents’ estate?
He could just see the look on Mother’s face upon his return, after a shameful expulsion from Cambridge. Lips pinched together, eyes frowned, and that tilt to her chin as she looked down her nose at her youngest son. The exact same expression she’d sported when he last visited home to inform her of his plans. “After all Papa and I sacrificed to put you through school,” she’d said before she turned away, leaving the maid to see him off.
As he looked around the little bedroom—so much more home than Father’s house had ever been, the little grey trotted into the room, followed by her four hatchlings.
“Hello little ones.” The corners of Jeremy’s mouth curled up in a grin he couldn’t contain. “You seem to be settling in well here.”
With a purr, one of the females hopped onto the bed and curled up in his lap. He stroked her flank as he swung his legs onto the bed.
Leaning back against the wall he watched the shadows creep across the rushes on the floor like the hands of a clock.
He hung his head, tearing little corners off the accursed letter and letting them flutter to the ground. Of course Mother would expect him, disgrace or no. It was his duty to return to his family and hers to salvage what she could of his reputation, distasteful though she’d find it.
“My apologies, poppet.” He shifted the little murky brown dragon to the side, and walked to his desk.
He pulled a notebook from his trunk, one of the ones he’d packed away for now—somewhat rumpled, the leather cover worn smooth at the edges. Filled from cover to cover with notes, observations, sketches. He had three just like it. A fourth was half full.
He hated leaving it all behind but this sort of material would have no place in Cambridge. Even with a published book to his name, the academic world would never stop denying the veracity of his hypothesis.
He turned back, smiling at the little dragon who’d tucked her tail under her chin as her siblings fought a mock battle at the foot of the bed under the watchful eye of their mother.
He packed his writing desk and some stationary into his backpack. Goodbye notes were dreadful. To write and to receive. But if he had to write one, he’d at least enjoy his favourite spot on the island while doing so.
Kaua’i Island, Hawai’i
January 31st, 1866
I hope this letter finds you well. I’m sitting on the edge of the bluff of Pu’u Hinahina as I write this, looking out over Waimea Canyon, where the dragons of Hawai’i roost.
A place this beautiful can only be the work of God. I’ve befriended a little grey dragon and she’s sitting next to me this instant. Her purrs vibrate against my thigh. I’ve named her Charlotte. Her protective nature and stubbornness remind me of my little sister. I trust she’s thriving at school and hope you will pass on my best wishes for her seventeenth birthday. By the time my words reach you, the day will have passed, but for me it still lies in the future.
I expect Professor Baldwin has contacted you and if I know you at all, a scorching letter is already on its way across the Atlantic.
However, I don’t need your advice in order to make up my mind. It is already firmly made up. And I certainly don’t need to read your tirade in order to formulate an appropriate reply.
My book is already well under way, and I mean to continue my study and observation of dragons for the foreseeable future. Mr. Perez, my host here on the islands, has kindly extended an invitation to stay on as long as needed to finish my work.
When I return home, it will be with a finished manuscript in my hands. I hope you will have come to accept my chosen path by the time I arrive.
In the meantime I remain,
Your affectionate son,
PS: Please ignore the ink blots. One of Charlotte’s hatchlings is fascinated by the tip of my pen wobbling about and he thinks it a marvelous game to try and capture it.
“On the Nature and Origin of Dragons” is also published in 87 Bedford’s Historic Fantasy Anthology.
© Copyright 2020 Jasmine Arch
“On the Nature and Origin of Dragons” is the third story I’ve written in this world. The original question I asked myself was “What if an enslaved dragon was forced to power a steam engine?” From that, multiple stories sprouted. Jeremy, a young and idealistic dracologist, quickly became one of my favourite characters. I simply had to learn more about him, and I can’t wait to write more stories featuring him, Melisa, and the dragons.
Writer, poet, kitchen witch, and narrator Jasmine Arch lives in a rural corner of Belgium with four dogs, two elderly horses, and a husband who knows better than to distract her when she’s writing. Her brain is constantly on the go, cooking up new stories to tell. Her work has appeared in The Other Stories podcast, Digitally Disturbed, and Nightingale & Sparrow, among others. Find out more about her at JasmineArch.com.