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29th Dragon

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Dragon-tattoo-1

Atop the salt encrusted docks and piers of Seattle squats an ugly clapboard shack; its windows smeared with grime and the walls draped in fishing nets.

The Oil Slick – an aptly named bar riddled with age and barnacles but a sanctuary to the swarm of deckhands and sailors that spend their days scurrying across the rotting hulls of ships and their nights slipping into a drunken stupor...

It’s a rough bar, where a careless comment will earn you a punch to the face and a long fall into the grimy waters below. .

On any given night one can find an aged Chinese sailor curled up against the bar; a broad shouldered old salt with a bulging gut and an empty stare pasted across his wide face. His name is Hao Ming, but to the regular flotsam of the pub he’s known as “the man of the 28 dragons”. 28 Scaly tattooed reptiles twine sinuously across his arms and legs and twist menacingly across the bunched muscles on his back...

Hao claims each dragon represents a crucial part of his life, stories transformed into ink. Buy him a drink and he’ll be happy to share the thrilling tales behind each one, carefully describing how the dragon’s colors represent his joy, terror, love, loss, and death. Visit him 28 nights and buy him 28 drinks and the powerful stories of his life will weave and merge before your eyes until they resolve into the aging man drinking next to you.

And then, satisfied you have exhausted his treasury of adventures, you’ll excuse yourself and float out into the night, the light and noise of the Oil Slick bobbing away across the dark waves. And the man of the 28 dragons will finish his drink and clutch his faded shirt to his chest; his last secret, his hidden dragon safe.

He swore long ago to never reveal the tattoo or the story to any living soul. And he never has. Except once… Once, on a stormy night, when the rain spattered like ink across the grimy windows and the wind howled through the cracked wood, when he told the story to me...

It began as an entertaining night as I leaned on the counter sipping my poison and watching Ming pummel the face of some quartermaster who had drunkenly slurred a remark pertaining to “damn slant-eyes” from across the bar. Stumbling backwards, the sailor grabbed at Ming’s shirt, tearing the front and momentarily revealing Ming’s chest.

With a roar, Ming caught him under the chin and the drunkard slumped to the floor. Game over. Ming pulled his shirt back across his shoulders and walked back to his drink. The noise in the bar returned to normal, everyone laughing and continuing their private banter. I was the only one who noticed it - the black serpent scrawled over his heart. A Chinese dragon, its broad tail curling in loops behind it; long whiskers sprouting from its face like tangles of wet hair...

Arming myself with the twin barrels of guile and alcohol, I took the seat next to him and offered him several slugs of amber liquid. He recognized me as one of the regulars and knowingly accepted my offer “Okay friend,” he winked, holding out his arms, “What story you want to hear tonight?” I pointed my finger at his chest, indicating the hidden serpent curled around his heart. His smile vanished in a flash. With an inscrutable gaze, he stared into my eyes, his heavy lips curled down into a frown, almost a grimace. “No good story,” he grunted, “forget you seen it, okay?”

I was tempted to give up but noticed he was rocking slightly in his chair. Seizing my chance, I clapped him on the shoulder, telling him not to worry about it and ordering him several more drinks in “the spirit of good will.” Two hours and a dozen drinks later he broke.

He began to sob quietly into his cup, telling me he was sorry, that he wanted to tell me but swore he wouldn’t. With the precision of a surgeon I knifed across his slurred words and stabbed into his psyche, prodding and poking until he dissolved completely. Closing his eyes, he began the story of the black dragon. I share it with you here:

The old clipper threaded its way across the currents of the South China Sea. With a hull filled with rice she was bound on a three week trip to Sydney. Ming, the lines of age not yet etched so deeply into his face, was a simple deckhand on the rusted, peeling bucket. The days rolled into nights as Ming performed his duties, his mind locked on their destination.

The poor condition of the ship meant it needed a long overhaul in dry-dock when it reached port; granting the crew a long shore leave. The men joked every night around the dim steel cabin about the things they would drink, the places they would go, the women they would meet... But on the tenth day of the voyage, fate rose its middle finger against the ship - and Ming’s life...

As the morning wore on, a steady breeze from the North quickly built into a Typhoon. Waves pounded against and over the ship as the stinging wind tore across the bow. For the next thirty hours Ming and the crew struggled against the howling chaos; shifting ballast and pumping the holds. Each man put every ounce of strength into saving the clipper, and ultimately, his own life. Two of the crew were torn from the deck and swallowed by the storm. And at long last there was nothing left to do but sit in the dark cabin and beg Poseidon, for mercy...

The crew awoke to a cloudless sunrise, the sea once again tranquil and flat. Walking outside, they surveyed the damage. The rudder had been torn free and the engine blocks destroyed – the ship was adrift. The cargo hold had been flooded, the cargo lost. Even worse, the crashing waves had reached over the boat and sheared off the communication tower. Without radio or navigation, low on food and fresh water, the crippled ship drifted helplessly across the blue expanse...

Ming lay prostrated on the metal deck, feeling the sun beat savagely against his body. Three nights ago the food supplies had run out and the water was put on ration. A deckhand had died of an infected wound. Another injured man had escaped slow, lingering death by hanging himself. Morale was nil - even the captain had begun to eye the end of his own pistol... The next night, a light appeared on the horizon...

“Rescue!” cried the men to one another. They quickly built and lit a signal fire on deck and waved flashlights into the dark, yelling and screaming out to their saviors. Their efforts were successful, the bright light was moving closer. . At this point in his story Ming dropped his voice into a low whisper...

The crew’s elation only rose as the ship drew near. Soon, a second light could be discerned under the first. The glow from the ship lit up the dark outlines of the men on the deck; they laughed and shouted “Helllooooo!” across the water. But not Ming...

Backing away from the light, Ming stumbled down the deck until he reached the cabin. Peering out of a metal porthole, he watched the men slowly realize what he had noticed first. There weren’t two lights. There was one light, reflecting off the undisturbed surface of the water... Above, floating high over the waves, the “ship” glided into view. A dull silver dome, hundreds of meters across, eclipsed the stars as it bore down upon the boat, its underside blazing with the inferno of the sun. A fire of light climbed up the sides of the hull and spilled across the deck, enveloping the crew...

Heart hammering, Ming collapsed below the porthole. Outside he hears the surprised cries of the men rising above the crackling of the luminous air. A pistol shot rings out. And another… Ming flees across the cabin - spotting a metal locker he ducks inside, pulling the door shut. More shots. Then the cries of the men morph into screams and shrieks. Crouched over, Ming peers through a gap along the floor of the locker. Suddenly, the screams stop in mid-breath...

A spear of light smashes into the boat, the steel hull groaning and twisting. The inferno spreads across the length of the boat, penetrating into the cabin. The light pounces from the gap into Ming’s eyes - with a yelp he falls back. The blaze vanishes. Silence shrouds the ship...

Ears ringing and eyes burning, Ming’s head reels. He crouches down to peer through the crack again. Nothing. Minutes pass. With short breaths he slowly reaches up to the latch. But as vision swims back into his clouded eyes and the ringing in his head subsides, he freezes. A soft noise brushes against the cloud of silence, “pit………” . “pat………”

Half - deafened by the hammering of his heart, Ming listens to the stillness outside. . pit…….pat……pit…….pat……pit……pat…. . He leans back down to the slit and peers across the cabin, blinking the darkness out of his eyes. . Pit……Pat……Pit……Pat….. the gentle disturbance growing louder… . pit…….pat……pit…….pat……pit……pat…

Struggling to see what lies beyond the upper edge of his vision, he lays his head flat against the metal floor. A long, black tendril drips down from the darkness above. pat. Ming nearly cries out, but swallows before it escapes his lips. pit. Wide-eyed, he gazes as the thin legs of some unknown creature gently slap against the floor. pat. Cylindrical, an inch wide, the legs end in a knobby stub that flattens as it hits the metal. pit. The legs stalk back and forth in front of the locker with the gentle rustling of disturbed leaves. pat….

pit. pat. pit. pat. pit. pat. pit. pat. pit. pat. The feet patter as the creature slowly walks the length of the cabin. . Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. Pit- . . The tendrils pause in front of the locker. Frozen in fear, Ming watches as they delicately lumber closer. . Silence…

With a softer sound than before, like the brushing aside of a curtain, unseen arms explore the door of the locker, prodding, searching. A sharp screech of metal and the latch begins to rattle. As the bolt slides open, Ming clamps his eyes shut…

A sudden brilliance of light flows in from the gap. A sudden pitter and the latch falls down, soft footsteps retreating from the cabin. The light disappears.

Once again, Ming is left in the blackness… The next morning he slowly exits the locker and wanders onto the deck. The boat is devoid of life. The deck and cabin are seared glossy black; a wide hole melted through the steel yawns down into the hull below.

Quickly, Ming grabs the remaining fresh water and stores them onto the ship’s lifeboat – along with a scorched pistol he finds near the railing. With starvation a certainty, he casts away from the clipper, rowing endlessly until its dark shape disappears over the horizon…

The next day he’s discovered and rescued by an Australian freighter. He rages deliriously of floating lights, thin tendrils of legs that slap, and soft rustling in the night. A week later, he explains to an official inquiry that the ship’s fuel tanks exploded and sunk with all hands but himself. The clipper is never found and the public’s interest fades. Ming moves on with his life…

As he finishes his story he opens his eyes. I’m astonished, not to mention doubtful, at his vivid account. Still, I can’t figure out why he has kept such an incredible tale silent for so long. I ask... He turns towards me, tears rolling down from the wrinkled corners of his eyes…

“I shouldn’t have told you story,” he mumbles, “I no tell story, and people stay happy.” Annoyed, I grab my hat and rise to leave. Suddenly, he grabs my coat in both hands and pulls me towards his face…“The sounds!” he cries, “I hear them before! I hear them after! My whole life I hear them, but not see them! Now I know! I know what stalks in the night outside my window!”

He waves a finger in front of my face. “You hear them too, but you not know what they are! I know!” “They following you too! Pit pat pit pat pit pat pit pat, behind you in the shadows!” Anguished, he screams, spit and tears flying off his face… “Always! Always, they watching! Watching you from the darkness!

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