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Once We Were Dragons


George Zebrowski

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Paul Gauguin (title of his 1897–98 oil painting on sackcloth)

One day the people of the world awoke as dragons, with scales and sharp yellow teeth and hot, horrific halitosis, leathery hides, and big-toed odorous feet that left slimy tracks across hard flooring and made carpets unspeakable. Torn and now useless human garb was cast into bonfires all over the planet by drooling, terrified saurians.

The dragon shapes varied, but still managed to fit into their wealthy and middle class houses, into apartments, and even into the crate dwellings of the homeless, because the change did not increase the mass of a previously human body.

The largest dragons, derived from the biggest humans, went to live in parks and forested estates. Black dragons were indiscernible from white, Hispanic from Chinese, whosoevers from whatevers; short and tall people were still quite distinguishable, as were men from women, sometimes. The tallest bore uncanny resemblances to Godzilla.

“What has happened to us!” cried the people. “What has done this to us?”

“It's obvious,” said one doubter, “that this is a delusion of some kind. It gives itself away as such, too much so. Much too much like a literary conceit.”

“But it may also be true, in one way or another,” said another.

“Clearly, in some way or other,” added still another, “what we see in our mirrors . . .”

“In some way, indeed!” the skeptical deniers cried. “We're being hypnotized.”

“That's it, that's all it can be, a delusion.”

Some suspected that it wasn't just seeing dragons but also thinking about them. “It's all our fault!”

“But how could we have been hypnotized?”

“With hypnosis you never know when you've been done.”

“An engine . . . of some capacity has cast a mirage over our minds, if not our whole world—a phenomenological field, if you like. That's all it can be. A powerful virtuality of some kind. Our inattention let it creep up and work on us. You can have anything you want happen in your mind.”

“Find the engine and stop it! Then all this will just fade away.”

“Without a doubt. Think! This just can't be true. The world is still out there for us, waiting, as it has always been and will be, along with our true selves!”

“Maybe it is just words—spoken too loudly. Power of suggestion. We must shut up for a few hours . . .”

The lure of self-control beckoned like a liberation. Look inward, take charge, and be whatever you want to be.

“Yeah, someone babbled in just the wrong way, and evicted us.”

But the seizure of silence failed. Somewhere, someone was always muttering, pulling stuff up from the sewers of the unconscious. There was no way to find everyone and silence them.

As for an imaginary engine casting a mental field, where would it be hidden and how was it powered to cover the whole world? Magic was just as good an explanation. A miracle needed no explanation at all. Any all-powerful being could do it any time.

Conferences convened. Delegates came in planes, trains, and autos, to meeting halls, to radio and television stations, and to sporting arenas, each according to his means—some even flew in on their own wings—to commiserate and discuss the problem. Some could still speak, in a growling fashion; many roared, but all were well understood by their fellows, sooner or later, one way or another.

The dragon people met, analyzed the situation, and found no provable cause for their hard skins and toothiness. Speculative madness crept into their minds.

Slowly, after the consumption of more than the usual amounts of meat and drink and vegetable matter, endless deliberations concluded that nothing much could be done. The dragon people went back to work, ran businesses, farmed and tended herds, governed cities and states and countries, no better or worse than before, and tried to get along with the dragons in their beds.

“After all,” they said, “we are still mostly who we are. We answer to the same names, possess the same skills and deficiencies, hopes and fears. Carve out a pound of dragon flesh from any of us and we will hurt just as much.”

“Exactly,” said the politicians, showing their teeth. “Let's be done with all this worry and get on with our lives.”

But around all the brave declarations hung the vast questioning silence of how, and worse—why?

“How was it that we didn't know that this might happen?” nagged a few.

The world's saurians nodded their heads and knew in their large-chambered hearts that there was no going back. “After all, we are still mostly who we were,” they repeated.

Mostly covered a lot but explained nothing.

A child's love of dinosaurs and ancient legendary monstrosities was a clue, reptilian evolutionary cruelties another, justifying social competition and the free market's absolute need of winners and losers, as necessary as the corruption that fed the soil.

A crank theory of human features, those resembling reptilian types, suggested that the shape had been there all the time, clutching the spinal cord, inciting hatred and violence, held at bay only by pretentious, angelic sentiments. The reptilian was the violent creeping, crawling, groveling default setting of survival, not to be tampered with or abolished, but held in reserve of dire need. Heavenly impulses had lost the war a long time ago; they were simply impractical.

For some years reptiles and amphibians had been on the rise as pets, especially in the British Isles, suggesting a growing nostalgia for humankind's true shape, and perhaps a prophecy of needs to come.

Time ran forward into its usual amnesiac darkness, and it seemed that everything had always been so. No amount of wishing and movie watching, as a remembrance that might prime the return of forms lost, would bring back the naked ape without a tail, but many sat in the dark, one with the flickering frames of film in their unblinking eyes, and hoped that by the time they were out the door the horror would be gone and forgotten.

“Nevertheless,” a few continued to insist, “we are not like the great saurians at all! We only look like them.”

“We are more than one kind of creature,” someone whispered. “We can be many.”

The questions proliferated, suggesting indigestible answers. Reproductive issues created a controversy about reptilian eggs. As laying increased, a great many were eaten; others were hatched, even though this only helped to support the acceptance of a non-human future; it was not enough that some were warm blooded, furred, and viviparously given to birthing live young, and thus closer to a lost humanity.

The dragon people segregated into types, like to like, single-chambered hearts from multi-chambered; but some found no kin, because they resembled the one-of-a-kind dragons of storybooks, and fled alone into wilderness areas.

The winged flocked together.

Then one day a great thinker said, “We didn't like being dragons, so we conjured up human shapes and . . . forgot. And now it has all come back to us.”

“Forgot? How could we have ever forgotten such a horror?”

“We needed to forget.”

The admission was devastating, especially to those who had started to accept their new state. Humankind had always hated itself, one way or another, which explained all the killing, and the fact that people had been better at killing and tormenting each other than at anything else, and did more killing than anything else, even in their most imaginative expressions and noble cathedrals of knowledge, from which came the cruelest weapons. Killing was a main feature of plays, movies, and novels, where every kind of weapon was wielded with delight. People tortured and killed in their dreams. Awake, uncharitable and violent impulses warred with civil order, as some people struggled not to kill each other, but merely to hurt in the way of the rationalizing coward.

“Yes, we learned to adjust how we saw ourselves, as a kind of collective delusion, a cosmetic means to a measurable peace with ourselves.”

“So why did we suddenly remember?”

“It's a glitch. Or there's some purpose to our remembering.”

“A purpose?”

“Maybe we timed it—to remember after a point.”

“Timed what?”

“A clock!”

“We must forget again!”

The nostalgic said, “Actually, we like being this way.”

“But we are monsters!”

“Best to accept our identity!”

“I can make us forget again,” said the head of a major corporation.

“How?” cried the hopeful many.

“How?” whispered the threatened few.

“Sales techniques can sell anything.”


“There's a timer somewhere in our genome. It may even contain a message from our distant past telling us why we remembered, and might show us how to forget again. We may have done so many times before. The engine that casts this delusion is inside us!”

“We'll be cured!” cried the dragons all over the world. Somehow, even the despondent loners in the deep valleys sensed the promise of salvation and roared in relief at the sky.

“It will be expensive,” said the CEOs, “but it must be done.”

“But do we want another cover-up?” asked a few.

Then came a rumbling, and a great gong sounded in their heads, but they didn't notice at first that it was coming from inside them.

“We're being called!” cried the people.

“By whom and for what purpose?”

They listened.

The gong was long and slow between beats, relentless.

The dragon people looked into their mirrors and saw their sleepless bloodshot eyes set in scaled, weary faces, waiting for an even more terrifying revelation . . .

“It was better,” said the religious, “when we discovered our kinship to the apes. But at least we were no longer apes. We had progressed.”

But, of course, it was dragons before apes. To be descended from apes had been a step forward.

“We must sleep, and we must forget again,” the analysts said. “If we can sleep, we'll wake up to . . . our humanity. That is our true shape, this is the nightmare.”

“Yes! If only we could get enough sleep!”

“Go to bed for a week or two and all will be well.”

“All will be well!”

“Why should it, why should we think so?” asked the critical minority. “How can we believe that we can stimulate the return of our better selves?”

“Humanity is our true shape,” said the analysts, “we have only misplaced it. Humanity!”

“Saying won't make it so!” cried the doubters. “And even if true, why did we lose it?”

The question swept across the world and hung in a mocking silence.

“There's something about dragons,” said one analyst.

“Yes, there is something about dragons,” said another.

“To accept, even to love.”

“We stand on a precipice from which we secretly yearn to leap into this shape,” said yet another.

“We must stop thinking like this!”

“We're people, and this is all some kind of trick! That's all it has ever been. Something is playing with us.”

“There's some special charm in being a dragon. There must be . . . something about dragons, something wonderful and good.”

“We're thinking in circles!”

“A good charm. Out in the open, one we can all embrace and live by. Middle-class mannerly, soft-spoken, never shouting, nonviolent, sitting down to civilized din-dins.”

“But look at us!”

“I am not ashamed of being a dragon!”

“What? Smell your droppings, gaze into the mirror for five minutes. Get a whiff of your own breath!”

“It's always been bad.”

“It was better when saurians couldn't speak.”

“Maybe we can work back to being human!”

“Do any of us really want to go back? Do we truly wish to be what we called human? We may say so, but it's deep in us, and if we fail, it will be because we don't want the human shape, no matter what we say. Remember, our children are born forgetful, and have to be reminded as they grow.”

“Taught and disciplined!”

“Kill them and eat them!”

“What in all hell were we to begin with? Can we be sure that our dragon form is our true shape? How many shapes have we slipped through on our way up from the beast?”

“Where did we begin!”

Wishful assertions circled the mystery like frightened sheep, bleating that insistence would dissolve the illusion.

“You still believe that what we see is a an illusion, a self-inflicted delusion?”

“So what are we?”

“Can we find out? Will we ever find out?”

“We can't just guess!”

“Do we have any choices to make?”

“Who or what has done this to us!”

“We must reengineer ourselves back to human.”

“But we share so much with dragons! I look in the mirror and smile at my teeth.”

“Yes—I like them too!”

“But we can't just settle for something not of our own making! Not in a million years.”

“In a million years, we could make just about anything . . . better.”

“In a million years I couldn't have done worse.”

“Who has done this to us!” they cried.

And the answer whispered itself in seven billion minds, and was understood and misunderstood, hissing, “We have always been dragons.”

And from some fabulous yonder now came the joy of dragon-slayers as they struck their gong and shouted, “Aha! So that's where you've been hiding! But now we've found you—and we're coming to get you!”

“Who are they!” the world cried in fear.

Laughter invaded all dragon minds. “Who do you think? Who else would seek to slay dragons except the real people? You can't hide from us anymore. We're coming to get you at last—you who stole our world!”

“Where are you from, where have you been?”



“The battle is within, where it has always been fought. You drove us out, but never forever.”

It had been a dismaying seesaw among the descendants of the small mammals, who had eaten the great saurian's eggs but had failed to purge the dragons from their genome, making the seesaw the only solution, with each side conquering a share of time's march.

But never forever.

Forever never, only the swing endured.

Then, in desperation, an engine of illusion was dug up in New York's Central Park. A million dragons gathered around the hole, and roared as the device was smashed with hammers—and reburied.

Nothing happened. A wave of comprehension passed across the massed minds:

A ritual denial would never hold.

“Psychosomatic cures will not save us from the seesaw,” confessed a team of dragon therapists.

“We have failed,” said the pendragon mayors, governors, presidents and dictators to the millions, as the pendulous truth hung in their minds . . .

The dragon peoples shut their eyes—and saw the hosts gathered inside them for the struggle.

Vast armies stood ready to cross the inner horizon.

“Save us!” the dragons roared as their slayers, smooth-skinned and dewy-eyed heroes of heaven, burst from within.

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