In Dragons, Po Sein, a nine-year-old boy, is sent to fetch a take-out meal by his single mother. To accomplish his task, Po Sein must navigate unfriendly streets, but along the way, he is comforted by visions of beautiful dragons.
About the Author
J H Martin is from London, England but has no fixed abode. His book Spring Wanderings chronicles his travels through China, from town to village, city to countryside, up hills and down mountains, seeking the solitude of the peaks and the wisdom of the hermits who live there . . .
Martin’s writing has appeared in a number of places in Asia, Europe and the Americas. You can find many links to his poetry, prose, and art at his website: acoatforamonkey.wordpress.com
Follow Martin on instagram @acoatforamonkey
Dragons by J. H. Martin
It was hot. Too hot.
Like his mother earlier, Po Sein didn't want to go out, but he had to.
“Noodle salad, prawn salad (no onion), barbecued chicken . . . and rice.”
Po Sein reminded himself of the list his mother had told him to go out and get before she'd left for work that morning at 4 am. It was now midday. She would return in about an hour's time, and Po Sein knew he'd be in trouble if he hadn't done what she'd asked him to do.
Yes, he nodded, five more minutes and he would go, and then he picked up his illustrated book again.
When the King went to the royal bed-chamber that night, he took with him the stem of a banana plant and hid it under the bed. He then got into bed and, pretending to be asleep, waited for the Queen, who came in soon afterwards and fell asleep by his side. Getting up quietly from the bed, Maung Pauk Kyaing put the banana stem in his place, and then covered it with blankets to make it look as if it were a man sleeping. Hiding from view, he then awaited events.
Po Sein's big brown eyes widened as he turned the page.
From behind the rafters, a dragon appeared and slid down the pillar nearest the royal bed. The dragon grew furious when he saw the form of a sleeping man by the side of the Queen. He struck with all his might at the banana stem, but his fangs became stuck. Maung Pauk Kyaing saw that the dragon was now helpless and rushed to kill him with one stroke of his sword. Awoken by the dragon's dying cries, the Queen was stricken with grief. For, not only had the dragon always defended her honour by killing her unwanted husbands, but he had also been her secret lover for many, many years.
Dragons . . .
Just the thought of them made Po Sein smile. He loved dragons, even though he knew they did not exist. Once, he'd read a story about a boy who had always dreamed of seeing dragons but then died of fright when, during a thunderstorm one night, a dragon appeared outside his bedroom window.
Po Sein didn't understand that. The only time he'd felt any kind of fear was seven years ago, just after his fourth birthday, when his father had been killed.
But Po Sein didn't like to think about that, so he closed the illustrated book, got up from the wooden sofa, and put on his royal blue sandals. He had more important things to do.
“Hello,” said Kyaw Myat, their neighbour from upstairs, as Po Sein closed and locked the front door behind him. “Where are you off to then?”
Po Sein pointed down the four flights of concrete stairs that Kyaw Myat had just climbed.
Kyaw Myat smiled and said, “Out to play with your friends?”
Po Sein shook his head. They had only moved to the township recently, and they wouldn't stay for long.
“Right,” said Kyaw Myat, scratching his head, “I must say, you're a quiet boy. Aren't you, Po Sein?”
Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. Po Sein didn't know, so he didn't reply.
“You shouldn't be afraid,” said Kyaw Myat, shaking his head and giving Po Sein a friendly pat on the shoulder. “You know what they say, ‘If you always ask questions then you will find the answers that you seek.’ Try and remember that, OK?”
Po Sein smiled back at Kyaw Myat, but again, he remained silent.
“Right,” said Kyaw Myat, still bemused by Po Sein's cool demeanour. “Well, I'll see you later, Po Sein. Take good care of yourself, OK?”
Po Sein nodded and made his way down the stairs without saying goodbye.
His mother was right when she'd told him, “When people you don't know ask questions, just nod or shake your head. We have to be careful. Do you understand?”
Yes, Po Sein may have only been a child, but he was well aware of the danger.
A lot of people liked to talk too much. Like Aung Lin, who owned the small rice shop next to the entrance of their building. Hiking his dark green longyi back up around his waist, Aung Lin stepped out of the shop doorway and greeted Po Sein with a wave.
“Morning, Po Sein,” Aung Lin said. “How's it going?”
Po Sein nodded.
As usual, he could smell whisky on Aung Lin's breath. Po Sein had heard him the night before, as he did most nights, shouting and arguing with someone outside the beer station on the other side of the street.
Po Sein didn't hate whisky. He hated what it did to people, especially his uncle.
Yes, after his uncle was released from prison, he'd found it impossible to find a job and had started drinking. One year later, his uncle was drinking four litres of cheap, local whisky a day. The following Water Festival, he had died from heart failure.
“Talkative as ever, I see,” said Aung Lin, laughing. He shook his head and spat out a mouthful of blood-red betel nut juice.
Shrugging, Po Sein ignored Aung Lin's laughter and kept walking down the uneven street.
He was thinking about dragons again. He imagined that the red LED signs for printing shops, mirror makers, and money-changers were the flashing eyes of a dragon and that the shadows from the passing balconies and the brightly coloured shop-front awnings were a pair of giant wings, protecting him from the bright rays of the midday sun.
Yes, and that was all Po Sein's uncle had tried to do that night—protect his family. His mother had always done her best to protect him too.
“You were too young then to remember it now, Po Sein,” his mother had told him, “but that's how I got this scar on my chin. Whenever he got drunk, your father became violent. That's why I left him and why we had to keep on moving. We had to stay away from him and the other members of his family.”
Yes, Po Sein understood that. And that's why the comments and the gossip he overheard as he passed neighbours standing in the doorways to their buildings or underneath their umbrellas didn't bother him at all.
"Skinny kid . . .”
"Single mother . . .”
“Always leaving him on his own . . .”
“And those tight jeans of hers. I mean, honestly . . .”
“Did you hear what Than Than said the other day about her younger brother?”
No, sometimes his mother had no choice but to leave him on his own. She had to work to pay the rent and put food on the table. Her parents and her grandparents had died before she turned nine years old. As her younger brother had now passed away as well, Po Sein was her only family. And her opinion was the only one with which Po Sein ever concerned himself.
Now, thanks to his uncle, they were safe and secure.
“He wasn't a bad man,” his mother had told him, “He was a very good man. Never forget that, Po Sein. He always told the truth. It was the drinking that was bad. What happened to your father was an accident. It wasn't your uncle's fault. It was your father's. He kidnapped you and threatened to kill you if I didn't give him all the money we had. That night, your uncle rescued you. Sorry, I know you know that. And I’m so sorry you had to see it all . . .”
Po Sein wiped the sweat from his forehead and the flashing memory from his mind. Looking left past the bright blue Hindu temple and right past the mosque and its pale grey minarets, he made sure no cars were coming and then made his way across the road.
On the corner was a small Buddhist monastery. During the Water Festival, Po Sein had stayed there while his mother had her brother cremated and then grieved for him. Along the top of the monastery’s sky blue outer wall ran a green and yellow dragon. Po Sein skimmed his hand along the dragon’s rough scales, and a smile crept onto his face.
“Po Sein . . .”
The man's voice was quiet, yet unmistakable.
Peering over the low wall, Po Sein laughed to see Tejinda sitting on the shaded ground, cooling himself with a big brown fan.
“It's hot,” Tejinda said. “Come round here, Po Sein, and sit with me in the shade for a while.”
Nodding, Po Sein walked to the gateless entrance of the monastery. He had always liked the way Tejinda taught. Unlike some of the monks at the monastery, Tejinda preferred to quietly sit rather than go around talking loudly about donations and other things. Po Sein removed his sandals, walked across the concrete yard, and sat next to Tejinda.
“Close your eyes,” Tejinda said, smiling.
Po Sein did just as Tejinda had taught him. Observing nothing but his own breath, he inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, letting the rumble of the heavy traffic and the powerful aroma of fermented fish and the awful memory of his father drawing then falling on his own machete blade pass through his emptied mind, as Po Sein's emptied mind passed through all of them.
“Now, look,” Tejinda said.
Po Sein opened his eyes, and his gaze followed Tejinda's outstretched finger.
A thin and frail mongrel rested beneath a wooden bench in the middle of the concrete yard. Three light brown pups suckled on her shriveled teats, while to their right, another pup lay lame and whining, unable to get up and feed itself.
“What do you see?” asked Tejinda.
Po Sein's reply was instant.
“Very good,” said Tejinda, and he nodded, allowing himself a brief smile before closing his eyes again.
Back at home, Po Sein locked the door behind him, then tipped the food he'd bought out of the clear plastic bags and into the white china bowls he'd washed and set on the dining table earlier.
Po Sein looked at the red alarm clock on top of the small black and white TV and sat on the wooden sofa.
It was 1.05pm.
He nodded. Yes, he had a few more minutes, and he picked up his illustrated book again.
The next morning there was joy all over the city at finding the King still living, but the Queen was furious with her husband. She bribed the servants not to bury the dead body of the dragon but to bring it to her room.
“Wow,” Po Sein mouthed, and his brown eyes widened when he saw the picture on the next page.
Even in death, the dragon remained a thing of beauty. The smooth curve of his tail. The soft glow of his golden scales. The brilliant white of his teeth. Everything about him was perfect.
Yes, it may well have all been a fantasy, but Po Sein understood why the Queen found it hard to let the dragon go.
The Queen then sent for a huntsman and, swearing him to secrecy, asked him to tear off the skin of the dead dragon. As a reward, she gave him one thousand silver coins. Having done so, the Queen then sent for a seamstress, and, swearing her to the same secrecy, asked her to sew a pillow with the skin, before then giving her the same number of silver coins. Then, when the old seamstress had left her chambers, the Queen herself took one of the dragon’s bones and made it into a hairpin—
- CLICK -
That was the sound of his mother's key in the front door, which meant it was time for Po Sein to put the book down again.
Kicking off her brown sandals, his mother entered the apartment and handed Po Sein two bags of fruit and vegetables.
“Po Sein,” she said, “did you get the food I asked you to?”
He nodded and pointed to the four bowls on the dining table.
“Good boy.” His mother smiled, walked to the wooden sofa, and slumped onto it.
Having put away the durian, mandarins, apples, greens, and yams, Po Sein sat beside her and watched her rest with her big eyes closed.
Yes, his mother looked exhausted. The make-up and the thanaka she'd put on that morning had been washed away by a thick sweat, which streaked and soaked her face and clothes. Pale and pink, the long scar beneath her chin clashed violently with the burnished tone of her sun-kissed skin. Opening her tired eyes, Po Sein's mother turned and looked at him.
“Is everything alright, Po Sein?”
"Yes." He smiled. And, wrapping his short arms around her slender waist, Po Sein held his mother tight.
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