One day this spring, while at a workshop, Kevin J Anderson said, “You always know what you’re getting with a Leah Cutter story. Two middle-class white girls from suburbia.”
(In case any of you are wondering, yes, he was being 100% sarcastic.)
He did, however, hit the nail on the head.
Readers can’t predict what they’re going to get when they pick up a story of mine. I personally believe the only thing that’s common from one of my stories to the next is that there’s some level of weird. Sometimes that story is only slightly flavored with the weird. Other times, well, the story is a bit more out there.
The story this week, I’ve been told, is weirder than normal, for me.
Part of that is because this story is based on a Hungarian myth called, “The Dragon Rider.” Eastern European myths have a different rhythm than western Europe. The cycles are different, not just the “tell me three times” that you have in fairy tales that are more familiar to most western readers, but how things escalate (or don’t).
The very first short story I sold professionally is a re-told fairy tale. It’s based on the Hans Christen Anderson story, The Red Shoes. But because she’s a country western dancer, it’s The Red Boots.
I don’t have any novels that are re-told fairy tales. I was able to figure out the “spiritual brother” of this short story, however.
Of Myst and Folly is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. (Remember, I started off this post talking about levels of weird and expected.) It isn’t so much about existing fairy tales but about ones that start with the coming of magic in a post apocalyptic world.
You can read the prequel to the novel here, Of Rifts and Myst.
In the meanwhile, welcome to my weird world. I hope you enjoy the following story.
Jelek lives in modern day Hungary. He has a club foot and walks with crutches. He spends as much time as he can tucked away in his bedroom loft, hiding from the world. He loves reading old myths and legends, like the stories of Hungarian wizards, how they only drink milk and always carry around weighty spell books.
He also knows the old wives tales about hens mating with lizards, and how they can be tricked into hatching lizards eggs instead of their own.
He thinks they’re all just stories, tales from an earlier time.
But what if some myths are true?
Based on the Hungarian folk tale, “The Dragon Rider.”
Change had crept through my little village of Bakonybél over the years, particularly once the Soviet Union collapsed and Hungary tore down the barbed wire along her borders.
We now learned English and German at gimnázium, not Russian. Foreign goods—mostly imported from nearby Austria, though some American– and Chinese–made things as well—were regularly for sale at the local green grocers.
Tourists, too, now sat at the kávé shop, particularly when the weather was nice, spreading out their maps and their books, taking up extra tables and chairs, more space than any Hungarian would, as well as always drawing attention to themselves, their voices filling the air with foreign words.
Even outside the village, beyond the picturesque white houses with red clay roofs and the thin, winding lanes, things had changed. The forests were protected—though some would claim “again,” as they’d been hunting grounds for the Habsburg royalty ages ago, and peasants caught poaching in them meant death, then, merely fines, now. Electricity flowed into even the smallest huts, and TV brought its western culture, too. We no longer had to wait, like in the bad–old–days, for a phone line—cell phones gave us instant contact.
Yet, some things remained the same. Our little house at the base of Köves Mountain had foot–and–a–half thick walls, built over a century ago, to keep out both the winter cold and the summer heat. Mice rustled in the thatched roof at night, and birds stole pieces of hay from it for their nests. In the winter, I lay dreaming in the loft above the living room, kept warm by the hearth fire there, the little lame boy out of everyone’s way and easily forgotten.
I did help Mother with the garden in the backyard during the summer. It produced tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, cabbage, and towering stalks of dill. Just beyond the stone wall, under the trees and the start of the forest, blackberry brambles rolled, tempting me to reach past the barrier of thorns to pick their sweet fruit.
Mother also kept yellow–legged, black brood hens, one of the many reasons why I wasn’t permitted a dog. The hens roamed freely through the yard, terrorizing me as a child, moving faster than I could on my crutch, with sharp beaks and large wings. I always celebrated in the fall when we turned them from brooders into stewers.
When one of them stopped laying eggs in the nest box, Mother gave me the job to go find the hen’s new nest.
Summer had just settled in, with deep blue skies and long hot days. School had let out a month before and I filled as much time as I could tucked away in my loft, reading about faraway lands, like Earthsea and America, colonies on Venus as well as in India. The rest of the time I did the chores set out for me, sometimes better, sometimes worse than what was expected.
The grass in the yard, closest to the house, had started to brown. It wasn’t long enough to catch at my single wooden crutch—not yet, anyway. As I was finally big enough to use the push mower myself—despite only one good foot to balance with—the chore of mowing the grass had been passed from my older brothers to me.
That was something else that had changed. In the bad–old days, my birth defect would have been called an ördög láb—a devil’s foot. The old women at the market, in their kerchiefs and black skirts, wouldn’t have sold me anything, and made signs with their hands to ward away the bad luck I carried.
Now, I was merely teased, called Nagybácsi Sánta—Uncle Lame—despite being only a teenager.
I snagged a sun–warm tomato as I limped past the rows of vegetables, biting into the sweet flesh with relish, the seeds dribbling down my chin. Nothing ever tasted as fresh at the market.
I passed out of the bright sunlight and into the shade of the trees that grew just beyond the stone wall that marked the border of our property. In the corner of the yard leaned a ramshackle hut, once a garden shed for storing tools and the occasional barrel of wine. One of the walls had collapsed over the winter, changing the square doorway into a stunted triangle.
Balancing on my good, right foot, I banged on the door jams with my crutch, making sure they wouldn’t collapse suddenly. Then I knelt down and stuck my head into the hut. The smell of molding hay and the sulfur of rotten eggs rolled out to me. I held my breath, blinked, and peered into the darkness.
Sure enough, there was the missing hen, clucking and cackling. As my eyes adjusted, I saw movement in her new nest. She hadn’t just laid eggs there, no, she’d hatched them. Though I didn’t hear any peeping, the nest rustled as if half a dozen chicks lay hidden.
I knew I should go back to the house to get a basket to collect up the chicks. Even if I’d had two free hands and hadn’t needed one to handle the crutch, I couldn’t have caught and carried them all.
Still, I decided to catch at least a few now. I slid my crutch across the threshold and poked at the nest, startling the brood hen. She stood up and hissed at me, spreading her wings wide.
Five lizards sped out from loose collection of hay and grass under her.
I pushed myself back, startled, landing on my ass in the dirt.
Stupid tyúk. Lizards ate eggs. Bird probably had been keeping them warm for a week, not her chicks.
I grabbed my crutch and struck at the lizards coming out of the hut. Missed the first one as it raced away, and the second one as well. I ended up smacking the ground hard, jarring my arms as I pounded the dirt.
But the next three came out in a straight line. Whack. With a single stroke, I stunned them all. Then I took my crutch in both hands and smacked them again and again, until they were all dead.
They were some of the ugliest lizards I’d ever seen. Gray–stone colored, with nobby heads and matching points running down their spines. Their jaws were funny as well, over developed, like they could unhinge them to swallow something bigger than their heads.
The brood hen came strutting out of the hut like she owned the yard. I pushed myself forward and grabbed her, tucking her under one arm firmly. Then I slid my crutch across the grass, cleaning away the lizard guts, and struggled to get my feet under me.
Mother wasn’t going to be happy about losing the eggs. At least I had the hen, and she hadn’t been hurt.
I glanced over my shoulder at the three dead lizards. Where had they come from? Someone’s pet, maybe, that had gotten loose in the forest? Escaped across the border from Austria? Who knew?
I got myself back across the yard, then deposited the hen behind the gate of the coup. She could just stay there for a week or so until she started laying eggs in the right place again.
As I walked toward the front of the house, I heard a long, low whistle, coming from the lane out front.
I pushed my way past the roses, peonies, delphinium, and the rest of the wild blossoms that Mother grew in the front yard, stumbling all the way to the wall.
There, just beyond the iron bars of the gate, stood a boy I’d never seen before, though I’d guess he was my age. He wore all black, like the old women at the market, though his clothes were more modern, with a long sleeved shirt and jeans. Over his shoulder hung a black leather messenger bag that bulged with books. His hair was as black as everything he wore, but his eyes reflected the blue of the sky.
“Jó napot kivánok,” he said, giving the old fashioned, formal greeting.
“Jó napot,” I replied, still wary. Too many salesmen had come to our gate, believing the lies their city cousins had told them, looking to sell shoddy wares to unsuspecting peasants.
“Have you seen my lizards?” the boy asked.
“Your lizards?” I said. “Yes, I have. They killed our chicks!” I complained to him, suddenly angry.
“No, not my lizards,” the boy assured me. “They might breed with a hen, but they wouldn’t hurt her brood.”
Breed with a hen? How stupid did this boy think I was? That was just an old wives’ tale.
“Yes, I saw them,” I told him coldly. “I killed them, too.”
“You what?” the boy asked, turning his huge eyes toward me.
I couldn’t believe it. He actually had tears in his eyes! I knew they’d been someone’s pet and had escaped.
“How could you kill them?” he lamented. “They were my babies! My chicks to watch over, until they’d grown.”
“I didn’t kill all of them,” I grudgingly admitted. “Two of them got away.”
“Where?” the boy asked eagerly, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
I shrugged. “Out of the yard, probably over the wall and into the woods,” I told him. I gestured toward it with my crutch. “They didn’t escape too long ago.”
“No, no,” the boy said, shaking his head. “It’s too late, now that they’ve reached the trees. I’ll have to catch them later. When they’ve grown into my horses.”
Horses? Obviously the boy was touched. It made me feel closer to him, actually. An old man at the market once told me that I’d been touched by the devil, that he’d grabbed me by the ankle to keep my soul from escaping into this world. That was why my foot was so twisted and bent.
The boy paused and gave a great sigh, like one of the old timers thinking about the great deeds of his ancestors and how today’s youth could never measure up. “I will be back in seven years,” the boy said after another moment.
“Really?” I asked. I’d never heard of such a thing. It just confirmed that he was bolond, as crazy as Old Hajmás who lived up in the hills and was still armed against the Russians returning.
Though given the way the people had been voting recently, maybe Old Hajmás wasn’t that crazy.
“Before I go, could I have some milk?” the boy asked.
“Sure,” I said, though I thought it was an odd request. I passed into the cool house, got out one of my cups with a lid on it, filled it with milk and brought it back out into the heat of the afternoon.
The boy now sat on the dusty road outside the gate, one of his books open in his lap. He clutched at a necklace drawn outside his shirt collar, his hand wrapped tightly around whatever was strung from it. His eyes were closed and his lips moved, as if in prayer.
I sat down awkwardly on the other side of the gate and waited. The warm smell of freshly cut hay came on the wind. Cicadas sang in the nearby trees. I put the cup of milk outside the gate, then drew my arm quickly back to safety and waited.
What kind of boy would ride lizards as horses? Would he direct them to battle, their huge jaws crushing tanks and castles alike? Would they move slowly, ponderous as dinosaurs? Or quicker than a wink?
When I looked up, I saw the boy smiling at me from his side of the gate. “I’m Csörsz,” he said, pronouncing it the old fashioned way with two syllables—Chur–urs.
“Jelek,” I told him. We shook hands through the gate. His palm was rough, like tree bark, and strong.
“What’s wrong with your foot?” Csörsz asked, his eyes as wide and innocent as a boy half his age.
“Birth defect,” I said, surprised, giving him the short answer. It was good enough. Maybe some year we’d have enough money and I could go to Budapest to have it operated on.
Maybe someday Old Hajmás’ pigs would fly, too.
“The old folk say the devil touched you, don’t they,” Csörsz stated. He held up his necklace—an odd shaped hammer, with one hand, while holding open the collar of his shirt with the other. “Me too!” he said.
A long jagged scar ran down the center of his chest, like a lightning bolt. The skin was softly pink, as if it was newly healed. But there wasn’t any puckering around it—it wasn’t really a wound, but a birthmark.
“This mark was why my nagynéni sent me to study, far away with my brothers,” Csörsz confided. “Where I learned…everything.”
“Like what?” I demanded.
Csörsz shook his head at me, then reached for his cup and finished his milk. “Thank you,” he said. “Though you killed my lizards, you were still kind to me. For that, I will warn you. Be sure to keep all your hens in tonight. The storm will be bad.”
“What storm?” I asked. The sky was clear and hot, and the barometer probably wouldn’t change for the next month.
“You’ve been warned,” Csörsz said with a smile as he stuffed his book back in his bag.
I tried to see the title, but Csörsz moved too quickly.
All I caught a glimpse of was one of those ugly lizards, done in gold on the cover.
And maybe a single word. Sárkány. Dragon.
Seven years passed easily. I didn’t spend much time thinking about Csörsz, or how he’d played at being a garabonciás, a Hungarian wizard with magic books who drank only milk.
More changes came to Bakonybél: more tourists visiting the beautiful forests, the mountains, and the old abbey; the picturesque streets growing wider to handle the summer traffic; broadband internet arriving and even a club–footed boy finding he could make a living on the web.
My brothers moved out but I stayed, my old wooden crutch replaced with stronger metal ones. I still worked with Mother in the garden through the long summer days, chasing chicks and hens and wondering about lizards growing to horse–size in the nearby trees.
Mother had just hung up the laundry and gone to take her afternoon nap when I heard a long, low whistle coming from near the lane.
I didn’t remember Csörsz, not until I saw him again. Then I recognized the call, the same as he’d given before. He was all still in black, with the same messenger bag slung over his shoulder.
“Jelek,” Csörsz said, smiling. “I told you I would come back.”
“Has it been seven years?” I asked, though I knew it had been. “Have you come back for your horses?”
“I have,” Csörsz said. “But first, may I have another glass of your excellent milk?”
“Of course,” I told him. I still used a cup with a lid—habit from the old crutch, when I was a teen and less steady on my one foot.
Csörsz sat on the ground outside the gate again, eyes closed and lips moving in prayer.
I boldly opened the gate this time, set his milk down, then leaned against the jam, the warmth from the stone sinking deep into my sore back muscles, encouraging me to close my eyes as well.
When I opened them, Csörsz was staring at me. “You’ve grown into a fine young man,” he said, as patronizing as any uncle from the market.
“Thanks,” I said, unwilling to tell him the same. “Where are you going to look for your horses?” I asked.
“Up Köves Mountain. I know a spot, where they might be hiding,” Csörsz said. He finished his milk, then caught my eye. “You should get your mother to take her laundry down. There will be another storm this afternoon. Worse, much worse, than the last one.”
I remembered, now, the storm that had blown up out of nowhere the afternoon Csörsz had first come looking for his lizards. Ancient trees had fallen and blocked the road leading out of the village. It had taken three days before they’d been cleared. All our hens and their chicks had survived, thanks to Csörsz’s warning.
“I’ll make sure it gets put away,” I told him. I took the cup, then stood as he did, pushing myself up against the warm wall.
“I’ve thought about you,” Csörsz suddenly told me. “How you were marked, like I was. How you could have been a brother of mine.”
“But your mark is hidden,” I complained. “Mine—everyone can see.”
Csörsz nodded slowly. “Yes. That’s probably why you weren’t chosen. Why you can’t be.” He held out his hand. “But I’d still be honored to call you brother.”
I took hold of his hand and shook it. It still felt like rough bark, though even stronger, now.
Before I could escape, Csörsz pulled me closer and whispered in my ear, “You can still fly,” he promised. “You already do.” Then he let me go and walked away, up the road toward the trees, whistling a jaunty folk tune.
I went back into the yard and closed the gate, locking myself inside. Bolond. Crazy. I was safer here, inside my walls, with my mother and our thin connection to the rest of the world.
The sun beat down with familiar heat. I looked around the proliferation of flowers, everything known, nothing new.
Nothing really changed.
Suddenly, the yard seemed too small and I had a hard time breathing.
I knew I had to follow Csörsz, to see his horses. Even if he was just crazy and not a real wizard. I’d spent too much time dreaming as a boy.
Maybe it was time for me to fly.
I raced along the clothesline, pulling everything down, damp and dry alike, before throwing it all into a basket and dumping it inside the door. I grabbed my second crutch, then I ran out the gate and up the road.
Of course, I wasn’t really running. I couldn’t even jog. The way my foot twisted, riding a bike was impossible too.
But with the second crutch, on smooth ground, I could make good time, swinging myself like a pendulum, leaping forward with an easy gait.
The road curved up the mountain easily. It was paved, now, making it easier for tourists and their cars and bikes. The smell of pines filled the air. Songbirds happily cheered me on, along with a chorus of crickets. I passed from bright sunlight into shade and back into the sun again as the trees dictated. White snowdrop flowers with their double cups bobbed their heads in the cool mountain breeze.
I only caught sight of Csörsz just as he stepped off the road, onto a trail. Had he been waiting for me? Did it matter?
I followed eagerly, plunging into the shade under the trees. I had to go much more slowly now. The trail wasn’t wide enough, or smooth enough, for me to swing along easily. I debated stashing one of my crutches along the side of the path, but in the end kept both.
The trail wound up and up. I was surprised I didn’t meet any tourists hiking. The afternoon grew still under the trees. Not too far off the path I spotted the red caps of csíp⊝s gomba, Mother’s favorite mushrooms. I’d have to remember to come back, or to tell her about them.
Though I was used to the long walk into the village from our house, my arms and shoulders still ached after a while. I had to pause and breathe, sweat flowing from me in the humid air trapped under the trees.
I didn’t spot Csörsz again until after the trail broke, up on a grassy plain, far above the village. While Csörsz walked over to the very edge, gazing down, I stayed apart, under the trees. What was the crazy garabonciás going to do now?
Next to the cliff stood two boulders, gray colored and nobby. Csörsz sat down between them and took out one of his books.
I was too far away to see, but I would have bet that it was the same book I’d seen before, the one with the picture of the lizard on the cover, done in gold.
Csörsz closed his eyes and prayed, rocking back and forth. A cold wind sprang up, chilling the sweat still gathered across my back. Beyond the clearing, clouds rolled in, covering the sky.
I shivered, knowing I was about to get soaked. I wasn’t looking forward to making my way down a muddy trail on my crutches in the rain.
I stubbornly stayed where I was.
This would be my only chance, I knew.
Csörsz continued to rock and pray, keeping his eyes closed as if oblivious to the coming storm. Groping blindly, from inside his bag, Csörsz pulled out a short leather cord. He shook his hand once, twice, three times.
Suddenly, the short cord grew, curling out of his hand. It stretched out long and thin, turning into a set of reins.
The rain started then, cold and biting. Wind pushed at me. If I’d been standing, it would have knocked me over. I pressed my back firmly against a tree, and kept wiping the water from my eyes.
I had to see.
Suddenly, one of the nobby rocks next to Csörsz shifted. It grew, forming an ugly snout first, with huge, over–sized jaws and cold lizard eyes. Csörsz moved faster than lightning, tossing the bit of the reins into the mouth of the lizard and jumping behind it, staying out of its way while it unwound, forming legs and spiny back and…wings?
The creature tossed its head from side to side, but it couldn’t dislodge Csörsz’s bit. With a great leap, Csörsz landed on its back, yanking the creature’s head up. It shook itself all over like a wet dog, but it couldn’t throw Csörsz from its back. Finally, it settled down, its muscles bunched and tense, as if about to take off.
Csörsz shouted his prayers to the sky now. Most of the words were lost to the wind but I caught a few, entreating saints I’d never heard of before, as well as words of power that I didn’t understand but recognized all the same.
Maybe I could have been his brother, in another life, in other circumstances.
Another set of reins formed in Csörsz’s hands, silver and lean, made out of chain. I was ready for the other rock when it transformed. Csörsz caught it with more difficulty, first tossing an end of the chain around its neck and forcing it to the ground before finally driving the bit into its mouth.
I pushed myself up, ready to race across the clearing and leap on the second dragon’s back. This was my chance to fly.
Then I realized my crutches were gone.
Csörsz had used them for the second set of reins.
With one leg now on both steeds, Csörsz tugged on the reins of his lizards—his horses, his dragons. They leaped off the cliff, into the storm, carried away on the winds. His wild yell echoed across the valley. Thunder responded and they disappeared into the clouds.
I found a downed branch to use as a make–shift crutch to get myself off the mountain. The worst of the winds passed below me, though I was soaked through, shaking and sick by the time I got home.
Things changed a little more after that. Within the month, my web business took off and I was finally able to afford the operation to rebuild my club foot. I’d always limp, but instead of a crutch, a cane sufficed.
A year later, a package arrived, containing a beautiful cherry–wood cane that had a silver dragon’s head handle. No return address, of course, but I knew it had come from my brother.
As for flying, I continued to soar the same as I always had, traveling to faraway places in my books and stories and myths, dreaming in my loft of dragons and magicians and stone–colored horses and lizards that could fly.