A sequel to If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, published on The B&N Sci-fi & Fantasy Blog on 29 November 2018 and included in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 13, ed. Jonathan Strahan.
Head of a Snake, Tail of a Dragon
by Zen Cho
There was a dragon outside Jin-dae’s cave.
Fortunately Jin-dae saw it before it saw her. She slithered hastily into a copse to hide herself.
“Why’ve you stopped?” said the human in her mouth.
“Shurrup!” said Jin-dae.
She was starting to regret picking up the human. But it wasn’t like she had any other option. In the days of her youth – the fat days – Jin-dae had feasted on elks, bison and the occasional grizzly bear. As the forests shrank and pickings grew slim, she’d adapted to a diet of birds and squirrels.
These days even birds and squirrels were hard to obtain in the quantities needed to sustain a mid-sized imugi. Jin-dae had had to resort to eating anything she could find, even including snakes – and she hated eating snakes. It wasn’t like one had lots of peers as an imugi. In fact, Jin-dae didn’t have any friends. She was used to it, but it made the loneliness worse to prey on small versions of herself.
Humans were infinitely preferable to snakes as dinner, but the disadvantage of eating humans was how personally they took it. You couldn’t eat many before they came after you with guns. And then you had to move again …
Frankly, it was tiresome.
But beggars couldn’t be choosers. Jin-dae had fasted as long as she could, but finally hunger had overcome her. She’d popped by the nearest human settlement to grab a bite.
It was just her luck that she should have grabbed an amateur herpetologist.
“Do you live in that cave? Is that where you brumate when it gets cold? Are you eating me so you can tank up for the winter?” said the human, twisting around in her mouth. “Oh my God, is that a dragon? Sick!”
“Shhh!” said Jin-dae. “And sh’op ‘aking notesh!”
It was too late. Dragons have extremely sharp hearing. The dragon raised its head and looked directly at her.
“Les – ” It coughed. “There you are!”
It looked delighted to see her. Jin-dae did not reciprocate the sentiment.
“Do I know you?” Jin-dae said suspiciously.
“Oh no, no, no,” said the dragon. “No, we have no prior acquaintance in this life or any other. Ha ha, what a ridiculous idea! My name is Aspire to Heaven and I am a complete stranger. I was flying above your cave when I noticed you and was struck by the nobility of your bearing. I have come to be your mentor and instruct you in the Way, so that you may ascend to the glorious status of dragonhoo – wait, is that a human in your mouth?”
“No,” said Jin-dae through her mouthful of human.
“Everyone’s gonna freak when they see my Instagram holo-story,” said her dinner.
“He’s a teenager?” said the dragon. “You can’t eat a teenager! That’ll delay your ascension by centuries! It’s bad enough eating adult humans, but teenagers haven’t even had the chance to grow out of being obnoxious.”
“Hey, who asked you?” said Jin-dae’s dinner.
“‘ankyu ‘or your adwice,” said Jin-dae with dignity. She edged past the dragon into her cave, dumping her dinner on the ground. She cleared her throat. “But I don’t want to become a dragon, so you can return to heaven.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want to become a dragon?” said Aspire to Heaven.
“Yeah, you can’t not want to be a dragon,” the human piped up. “It’s part of the imugi life cycle. Look, I can show you the Wikipedia article.”
“Shut up!” said Jin-dae. To the dragon she said, “I mean what I said. I like being an imugi.”
“But,” sputtered Aspire to Heaven, “you can’t like being an imugi. Nobody likes being an imugi.”
Jin-dae was starting to get annoyed. Besides, she was starving.
“Can’t I?” she said. “Watch me!”
She reared up over the human and opened her jaws wide.
When Jin-dae woke up, the dragon was outside her cave again.
“What the hell?” said Jin-dae. “Have you been outside the entire time I’ve been sleeping?”
Aspire to Heaven gave Jin-dae a strange look, as though she was the one acting weirdly. “No. You napped for three years.”
“Really?” It felt like just yesterday that she’d had her altercation with the dragon. She’d gone to sleep afterwards, worn out by the exertion.”That was a good nap,” said Jin-dae, pleased.
But then she remembered she was mad.
“You have some nerve coming here after what you did,” she said.”What happened to my dinner anyway?”
“You mean Tyrone?” said Aspire to Heaven. “He’s doing very well. He got into UPenn, he’s planning to major in physics.” It gave Jin-dae a hopeful look. “Aren’t you glad I stopped you from eating him?”
Jin-dae’s stomach grumbled.
“No,” she said sadly. She glided past the dragon.
“Wait!” cried Aspire to Heaven. “Where are you going?”
“To get a snack. Stop following me!”
“But I brought you texts,” said Aspire to Heaven.
Glancing back at the dragon, Jin-dae noticed for the first time that it was laden with scrolls.
“It’s the latest research on galaxies,” said Aspire to Heaven. “I got some celestial fairies to copy it off JSTOR, since you haven’t got Internet.”
“What?” said Jin-dae. “What did you bring me texts for?”
Aspire to Heaven blinked. “So you can study them and become a dragon.”
“I told you,” said Jin-dae, raising her voice. “I don’t want to study or become a dragon!”
The dragon drew its head back, like a frightened tortoise. It said in a small voice:
“I don’t understand. You’re the one who taught me not to give up on my dreams. Why are you being like this?”
“Why are you being like this?” Jin-dae began. Then the significance of the dragon’s words dawned upon her. “Hold on. Did you know me in a past life?”
“No!” said Aspire to Heaven. “No, no, what makes you think that?I didn’t know you in a past life. Personally, I’ve only been born once. And I’d never knowingly approach anyone whom I’d known in their past life. That would be a breach of the laws of heaven, and a true dragon would never do that.”
Jin-dae had only suspected it before, but now she was certain.
“You did know me in a past life,” she said. “That’s why you talk like a human and make bizarro assumptions!”
“I don’t – what assumptions?”
Jin-dae opened her mouth to hector Aspire to Heaven some more, before she recalled who she was talking to. It would be unwise to antagonise a dragon.Besides, Aspire to Heaven looked so distressed Jin-dae was starting to feel sorry for it.
“Look,” she said, as gently as she could, “whatever past me was like, present me is happy with where she is. I appreciate your – er – interest in my career, but I don’t need the help. I’m already doing what I want to do.”
The dragon looked crestfallen. After a moment it said, “I understand.”
“Take the texts,” said Aspire to Heaven, before Jin-dae could move off. “You can read them in the evenings when you get bored.”
Jin-dae looked at the small mountain of scrolls. She couldn’t imagine anything less interesting.
“It’s OK,” she said politely. “You can take your texts back to this Jae Store.”
Aspire to Heaven looked bewildered and hurt. “But you love texts.”
Jin-dae’s patience snapped.
“No, I don’t!” she said. “Maybe whoever you knew back then loved texts. But I like naps and good meals and drifting on the river of life like a twig borne along by the current. And you are interfering with all of those things!”
The dragon wilted under her glare.
“OK,” faltered Aspire to Heaven. “I guess … I guess I’d better go?”
Jin-dae ignored the piteous look the dragon gave her. “What do you think?”
“OK,” said Aspire to Heaven. “OK.” It shot a last sorrowful glance out of the corner of its eyes at Jin-dae, before lifting off.
If the dragon looked back as it flew up towards the skies, Jin-dae didn’t see it. She turned her face from heaven and plunged into a stream.
Otter, she thought. It was like a prayer. Beaver, eel, trout … She wouldn’t say no to a human angler either.
Aspire to Heaven was hanging around the cave mouth when Jin-dae returned.
Jin-dae had a full stomach for once, having eaten a whole moose – an uncommon indulgence. But she came to an abrupt stop, her good mood fizzling out.
“Don’t be mad,” said the dragon. “I didn’t come to teach you.”
It had something in its mouth. It dropped this on the ground and nudged it towards Jin-dae.
It was a shining red cord. One end was tied around the smallest claw on Aspire to Heaven’s left fore-foot. Looking down, Jin-dae saw that the other end was looped around her own tail.
“Oh,” said Jin-dae.
“It’s our fate,” said Aspire to Heaven. “I asked the grandmother who arranges these matters to let me show you.
“I’m sorry I made bizarro assumptions,” said the dragon. “I shouldn’t have acted as though I knew you, or what you wanted. I just – I missed you. I mean, I missed who you used to be.” Aspire to Heaven bowed its head, a crystal tear running down its snout. The skies turned grey and a gentle drizzle began to fall.
After a moment Aspire to Heaven sniffed and looked up, squaring its shoulders. The skies cleared, a ray of sun illuminating the bump on the dragon’s forehead.
“But you’re someone new and you get to be yourself,” it said. “I should have respected that.”
Jin-dae stared at the red string binding them together, evidence that heaven had ordained that their destinies be entwined. “Why are you showing me this?”
“I wanted to make amends,” said Aspire to Heaven. “I didn’t know what I could give you – but then I thought of this. If you snap the thread, we won’t have to meet again, and I won’t bother you anymore.”
“You don’t – ” have to do that, Jin-dae was about to say.
She stopped herself, surprised. Why did she want to give the dragon a chance? It had been utterly obnoxious. The fact that it was cute, with its jewelled eyes and jade-green scales, was quite besides the point.
“Thanks,” she said stiffly. She lowered her head to gnaw through the cord, but then a thought struck her. “Won’t I get in trouble with heaven if I do this?”
“Oh right,” said the dragon, starting. It snatched the thread up. “It would break the laws of heaven. Sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking!”
“It’s fine,” said Jin-dae.
Oddly, she felt relieved. For a moment she gazed into Aspire to Heaven’s eyes. They were like rubies under handsome beetling brows, and their expression was totally sincere.
“I guess I’ll see you around then,” Jin-dae was saying, when the dragon put out a gold-tipped claw and sliced the thread in two.
“There!” said Aspire to Heaven. “Now you’re free, and I’ll be the one punished by heaven if they find out.”
“Why did you do that?” Jin-dae almost squawked, but she managed to swallow the protest. All that came out was an “Erp!”
“I beg your pardon?” said Aspire to Heaven.
Jin-dae coughed. “Nothing. It’s nothing. Great. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said the dragon. It fixed Jin-dae with a long look,as though it was trying to imprint her on its memory. “Take care of yourself. I hope you’re very happy.”
It rose into the air, the red string dangling from its claw.
“Wait!” shouted Jin-dae.
Aspire to Heaven looked back.
Jin-dae hadn’t known she was going to speak until she heard herself shouting. Now that she had the dragon’s attention again, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
“What did you call me, back then?” said Jin-dae. “When we knew each other, I mean.”
The dragon descended to the ground. “Do you really want to know?”
“No,” said Jin-dae, after a moment.
“I didn’t think so.” Aspire to Heaven gave Jin-dae a wistful look, but shook its head. “That’s all in the past. Don’t worry about it. Just be who you are now.” The dragon turned away.
Jin-dae hesitated, but if she didn’t speak now, she wouldn’t get another chance. The thread was broken. She could spend the next hundred years all by herself, as alone as she’d been for the last hundred years.
“Don’t you want to find out who that is?” she said.
Aspire to Heaven paused. “What?”
“I’m not … whoever it was you knew,” said Jin-dae. “But you could get to know me. As I am now.”
The dragon looked at her, then down at the red string knotted around its claw. “But you’re free. You don’t have to have anything to do with me.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” agreed Jin-dae. “Except what I want. That’s what’s so great about being a bad imugi.”
“You’re not a bad imugi!” said Aspire to Heaven indignantly, in direct contradiction of all available evidence. Then the dragon registered what Jin-dae meant. “You want me to get to know you?”
“Only if you want,” said Jin-dae. “It’s no big deal if you don’t.” The dragon probably had lots of friends in heaven. No long empty days making shadow animals on cave walls with its tail for Aspire to Heaven.
But Aspire to Heaven said softly, “I would like that very much.”
“Great,” said Jin-dae. “Great.”
They looked at each other until Jin-dae started to feel awkward. She hadn’t done social interaction in a while.
To be accurate, she hadn’t done it ever. Talking to humans you subsequently ate didn’t really count as socialising.
To break the silence, she said, “And I could get to know you. Right?”
“If you want,” said Aspire to Heaven cautiously.
Jin-dae felt reassured.
“I think that would be nice,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
“OK,” said Aspire to Heaven. It settled itself in a tidy coil, close enough to talk comfortably, but leaving a polite distance between it and the cave mouth.
“Once upon a time,” said the dragon, “my name was Byam.”
Thanks to Perrin Lu for the story idea and Hana Lee for Leslie’s name in her new life as a bad imugi.