Of Myth and Fable
In the mountains of a place where human feet never traveled, the souls of forest, water, and earth walked in the forms of young women, bodies as fresh as the new day. These nymphs were known as naiads, when they came from the lakes and ponds, dryads, when they embodied the trees, and oreads, if their spirits grew from the stony bones of the mountain itself. One other kind of nymph counted the mountains as home. These were the Wild Sisters, the maenads, essence of all the things nameless and untamed.
One of these nymphs was Nem. Nem was the lonely wind that sighed and sang across the jagged rocks, topped with snow and starlight. She was the nymph of the forest’s shadow and the cold mist that lingers near tumbling waterfalls, trying to catch the fragments of Iris’s path in the facets of geode crystals.
Since the new moon, she had been picking around the cave of the dragon, Haxe. He was a curiosity, a creature out of place who had made a home where one mountain sloped into the next. None of the nymphs could remember having seen a thing like Haxe before. The dryads whispered to each other among the leaves that his long body, roughly scaled from neck to tail, was like trunk of an elder cedar. The nymphs of the waters gurgled their delight at his sinuous curves, which rippled like the deepest currents. Nem heard even the oreads, who were no more easily moved than the basalt of their nature, compare the glitter of Haxe’s eyes to pyrite and his tongue to a vein of silver.
Haxe noticed the nymph, Nem, as the moon waxed. She knew that he mistook the wine-stains for dirt, the dried blood under her fingernails for clay. The dragon spied her standing in the moonlight fascinated with a bit of gemstone ore and thought that she must be one of the nymphs of the rocks. Nem ran away when she realized that she had been seen.
Intrigued, the dragon began leaving invitations where the nymph could find them: a few gold nuggets on the path to his demesne, a twist of electrum. Nem collected these pieces of a foreign world from the dragon’s treasure, unsure of where they belonged.
It was the kimberlite, studded with adamantine crystals, that finally coaxed her close enough for conversation. The light of the moon broke upon the diamonds in the pieces of their native ground. “I like those,” she said, approaching with her wild hair covering her face.
“Their sparkle is brighter in the daylight,” said the dragon. “I can show you whence they come, if you return by day.”
“But day has already passed,” grieved the nymph, gesturing to the west.
“Another day will come, anon,” the dragon laughed.
Nem hesitated only a moment, twisting her bare feet in the loose dirt. “I will come tomorrow.” She stepped more closely. “I am Nem.” The dragon slipped away, satisfied. The nymph lingered, befuddled by the brief contact. She scrambled away at last when she realized that the conversation was done.
On the following day, Nem found her way to the dragon by following the sounds of merriment that echoed through the low hills, leading to an unfamiliar valley. Nymphs played in the sunshine, some with hair of scarlet, others with tresses iron-black. At first, she only saw the crowd of naiads, dryads, and oreads that laughed and danced, but she soon saw the dragon, and he, her. In the early sunlight, his copper scales had the glossy heat of freshly spilled blood, and his talons glinted like firelight against bleached bones. She was caught by his eyes, by his intense focus as he looked at her in daylight for the first time.
His voice had a smooth, rolling timbre over the laughter of the nymphs. “Come, meet my friends,” he beckoned. He presented her with a handful of the pink diamonds that were popular with oreads, then left her in the company of the others.
She had washed herself in a waterfall and smoothed her hair, shy of such a gathering but prepared for it. Nem was a stranger to these oreads and other nymphs of daylight. She never pretended to be a nymph of their kind. Only the nymphs closest to the copper dragon seemed leery of her, as if almost recognizing her true nature. Still, she found herself frolicking with the rest until the hour grew late, and the other nymphs began to return to their forests, caves, and ponds. Many, including Nem herself, took a portion of treasure as they left, gifts of the generous dragon, who claimed to be content with the remaining size of his horde.
With a word of parting, she began to walk away, but she stopped, returned, and placed a caress upon the dragon’s wing as she had seen the others do, though her touch lingered with an unforeseen intensity. Then she quickly fled into the growing night without turning to glance backward.
She came near to Haxe’s cave more easily afterward, less shyly. Though she kept mostly to the night, she spoke with him when she was near, and sometimes even appeared by day when the dragon’s customary collection of attentive nymphs gathered. She left him gifts, baubles that she presented without explanation, and he was touched. They counted each other as friends.
One nymph, a dryad named Stel, was a special favorite of Haxe, and the other nymphs deferred to her. At first, Nem did not care that the nymph guarded the copper dragon possessively. At first, a place by Haxe’s side was enough for her. But she grew weary of Stel’s rules and favored status. An unknown feeling filled her, and she went alone into the darkness of the new moon night.
Stel came to Haxe one morning, distraught. “In the forest is a terrible wailing,” she complained. “It is madness, and it frightens me. Wild fires burn, and the odor of death is abominable.” The dragon made noises of comfort, but the dryad would not be soothed. She led him to the forest’s edge and pointed him toward the origin of the chaos.
At first he only found the remains of mayhem — mangled bodies of animals, the bones of spent fires, spills of reeking wine. He searched the darkness under the trees until he found the source of the shrieking and the screams. In a glade, one mad creature trailed behind her sisters. It was Nem; blood dripped from her hands and from her hair, and it painted her bare skin. She looked into the changing color of the dragon’s eyes with fear and a growing despair, but when she opened her mouth, she spoke without lies. “I was always a maenad,” she said. “Hate me if you must.”
“I accept you for what you are,” answered the dragon. “But you must not upset Stel. Consider her feelings, because her tree is in this forest.”
Because Nem had grown too fond of Haxe, she gave him a rare gift: the promise of her silence. The dragon mistrusted her word, but he took her promise away with him, and when he left, Nem stuffed her mouth with rue to keep from releasing the scream that tore through her wild spirit.
A promise to a dragon is not something to take lightly; Nem felt the geis of what she had done. Yet it is against a Wild Woman’s nature to be silent. She choked on the bitterness of the rue; her mouth filled with bile. In the nights that followed, she spied upon the dryad’s tree, at times contemplating tearing at its branches or burning it to ashes. In the days, she could not bring herself near the cavorting of Haxe’s nymphs.
The maenad, Nem, tried to befriend the dryad, Stel, but such an act was against a maenad’s nature as well, and seeing how the dryad was wary of her, Nem wanted to rip the nymph into pieces. Nem did not know what to do. Would she succumb to her true nature, invoking the dragon’s wrath and the terribleness of his claws, or would she hold her tongue, even if it meant fading away like Echo?
Nem could not bear a long separation from Haxe. Again she washed and settled her appearance, and approached as near to him as she could be, while still keeping the favored, Stel, out of her view. She could not look at Stel, for the sight of the dryad maddened her and threatened the promise that Nem had made to Haxe. Pretending to be an oread, as still as a stone and as quiet as the dirt, the maenad bore the pain of longing for the satisfaction of keeping the exquisite dragon in her vision. In cycles, the darkness would claim her; she would take herself away from the company of Haxe and his nymphs then, and only return when she had again restored her outward calm.
In the time that passed, Nem often wished and regretted. Haxe rarely came near to her, and when he did, his attitude was careful and often uneasy. However, she came to enjoy the company of many of the nymphs, and to become accustomed to the manner of an oread. She saw this in herself as if at a distance, with a clarity that sprang from the stillness of forced restraint. The taste of rue, while no less bitter, had ceased to make her choke. With a fatalistic daring, she tested the stability of this new habit by moving herself into a perilous proximity of Haxe… and Stel.
It was as if Nem was seeing the dryad for the first time. Stel, draped against Haxe’s gracefully curved neck, looked as small and plain as her tree. Her size was incongruous with the span of the dragon’s immense wings; her coloring looked dull and common against the blaze of his scales in the sunlight. Like untainted water, realization flowed upward through the granite of Nem’s calm: Haxe was a dragon. Stel, in this one thing like Nem herself, was a nymph.
Nem walked quietly into the woods as a night without moon fell.
In the throes of bloodlust, rage, and drunken madness, she tasted the truth of herself. In the black night she saw her sisters illuminated by destructive fire, glorious to her in their revelry. The ichors of meat and grape that bathed her also bathed them. She heard her own voice in their growls and shrieks; she heard her own voice as if it was a ringing tap against an unbroken crystal. “What I love in the dragon,” she heard herself declare, “is what I see in my sisters.” She thought of the power of Haxe’s being, of the sharpness of claw, tooth, and scale, of how she envisioned him in fire and blood. “What I see in my sisters,” her voice continued, “is what I have in myself.” She looked upward into the sky beyond the trees and saw that the new moon night held treasure greater than an ocean of diamonds, and she howled.
When daylight came again, Nem went alone to the river and washed herself. She let her hair flow in the current until it was clean of all traces of her night. In a pool among the rocks, she nodded at her placid reflection, and then she went carefully again to the valley where nymphs gathered around the creature that she loved.
She waited until Haxe showed no wariness at her approach before speaking in gentle tones that sparkled like jewels set in her guileless smile. Meeting his eyes and meeting her fear, she spoke words without adornment. “I give you, plain, what I know truly. I have always been a maenad.” Distance sat in the space of her pause while Haxe listened. “I love you,” Nem said. The statement was like a benediction of parting. “I will never be a dragon,” she said with slow, beautiful, and fierce joy.