The air was suffocating, but it was salty and delicious. Even though she was drenched in sweat she was cheerful after the long day and a half of travel, the freedom of no longer being in an airplane cabin for fifteen hours. The cab from the airport had been jangly. She felt jangly. So much moving about. A deeply foreign land, a place she’d always dreamed of visiting, and was now simply stunned by the reality of actually being here in a vast, mountainous, ancient place with a heritage dating back thousands of years, down here at the bottom of the Earth, a land removed from the turmoil of the Northern hemisphere. The countryside she viewed from the car had been exquisite, rich, deep forests of evergreens, a line of mountains always to her right, inland, and the ocean, an immense swath of dark, roiling blue extending to the horizon, dotted with a few yachts, and some colorful fishing trawlers always to her left.
She arrived at the hotel which was located near the rocky edge of a promontory overlooking the blue-gray ocean. A thin porter wearing a red jacket, a man in his late fifties, she assumed, helped her with her luggage, and she entered into a large lobby with a vaulted ceiling, and a mezzanine level above the front desk. It was a dark lobby, Spanish Baroque style, frescoes along the walls and in the high ceilings above. It felt tired, she thought.
She approached the desk, her bags in tow. The hotel clerk, a tall, thin man who appeared to be gassy and annoyed, looked down at her, his long nose pointing, and his eyes staring narrowly with what appeared to be a growing suspicion.
“Do you have a reservation?” he asked, appearing to immediately dislike her mousy, sweaty appearance.
“I booked it online.”
“An unlikely name.”
“It’s a horrible name, actually. You cannot imagine the torment I experienced as a child. My father told me our name was something to bear proudly, that there had been many significant people with our last name. I have always wanted to change it, personally, but I won’t do it until…well...He couldn’t bear it.”
“Yes…well there is no reservation under the name Bigglenix in our records. Could you have used, perhaps, a more conventional name ?”
The hotel lobby was quiet in the off-season, not a lot of activity. Their voices carried somewhat uncomfortably, she thought. She was wondering if her last name and her explanation for it were patently absurd, which caused her to question a number of other things .
“It does seem possible,” the tiny woman replied. “I’m subject to fits of paranoia and micro-amnesia, sometimes I just get bored . Do you have any Jane Does?” she asked.
The hotel manager punched his keyboard for a bit.
“Yes, we do. I must inform you that although we condone the use of false names for paranoid purposes, we do require a legitimate passport to process your reservation. We do promise not to tell the ‘bad guys’ that you are here. It is part of our corporate charter, actually. It even says so, distinctly, in our brochures and other advertisements .”
“Well, that makes me feel safer. The ‘bad guys’ are everywhere these days, unfortunately.” The woman reached into her purse, a very large, ornamental purse with fake diamonds and rubies and a couple of unicorns woven into the coarse outer fabric. She dug around for a bit and finally produced a passport.
“Hmmm, your name truly is as awful as you suggested,” the manager replied after he had been handed the passport and determined it was legitimate. “You must have led a very interesting life. Tell me what brings you to our humble hotel here on Cape Wishmegon? Here in the great mountainous land of Goneweare.”
“I’ve come to study the dragons,” the mousy little woman smiled broadly, a bit manically. “I have a special translation machine which will allow me to talk to them. I think it is high-time we learn more about their culture and their thought patterns. I spent seven years monitoring dragon recordings, sifting through the data, comparing behavior, all that I could, and I even created a heuristic algorithm that digests dragon speak and should allow us to catalog, once and for all, the tremendous and fascinating culture of the dragon. It is my life’s work. I’ve come to complete the research that will finally earn me my Ph.D. I have traveled great distances to fully realize myself, to achieve academic greatness, plant my stick in the ground and prove my worth. This is me about to achieve my position and high esteem for all my long hours of lonely, silent toil. I now stand on the precipice, figuratively, and somewhat literally, and am looking out at all that my life will become once my theories are proven correct about dragon behavior, thought processes, et cetera. I have come here to do great things and to achieve academic immortality,” she said confidently, her tiny chest swelling with a bit of pride. “I have come here to plant my flag in this great universe.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’re fresh out of dragons,” the hotel manager replied dully. “Had to eradicate them. No more left.”
“No dragons!” the color drained from her face. She appeared weak on her feet.
“Few bones, I suspect, nothing of consequence.”
“How am I supposed to communicate with a few bones? A séance?”
“Hardly be the first,” the hotel manager responded.
“How in god’s name am I supposed to complete my doctoral thesis? More importantly, why did you get you rid of the dragons? They were a significant part of your cultural heritage, part of what made this region unique!”
“Change in economy, I suppose. We were once a great fiefdom that relied on dragons as part of our tourist economy. We evolved. Foreign investment firms came in, wanted to turn the land over to soybeans, corn, other crops. Dragons were in the way. How can you invest in a place that is subject to the capriciousness of a dragon who might wake up after a bad night’s sleep, then go and burn down a few thousand hectares of land to ease off his angst? It was intolerable. Especially for the investment class.”
“How though, how did you get rid of the dragons? That is quite a feat for a place with no standing military and only a few princes, none worth shouting about.”
“Well, we had to get creative. We developed a few animatronic virgins, had their limbs covered in sausage, laced the dummies with poison, and voila, no more dragons.”
“Perhaps. We don’t talk about it much. Foreign investment has brought jobs, raised people up from the muck, given them better incomes than the service sector economy could. Union protections, healthcare. So what, we gave up the dragons, tossed away the last vestiges of our mysterious past. We’re better off. Average incomes have sky-rocketed. Standard of living as well. Most of our economy is finance-sector based now. We have some trade imbalances, but this ultimately works out to our favor when it comes to diplomatic relations.”
“But we’ve lost the mystery of the dragons, lost it forever.”
“We must break a few eggs from time to time. Progress, don’t you know.”
The woman appeared suddenly frantic. She dug into her suitcase and produced a small machine which she placed on the top of the counter between her and the hotel manager. It was quirky, lots of brass pieces, lots of tubes, several microphones, and a small readout screen above a tiny keypad. How she had made it through customs with this absurd device was a true enigma, he thought.
“I devised this machine to help us understand mystery! You have wiped it out. Wiped mystery from the Earth! This,” she waved a hand over the machine, “is worth no more than scrap metal, but what is worse is that the wisdom of the dragons is forever torn away, lost in time, lost to progress.”
“Yes, it is the way of all things. So much mystery lost throughout time,” the clerk mused. “Could make one unhappy if you spend too much time contemplating it. Lead to reactionary tendencies.”
“You have no more dragons?”
“None. All gone.”
“Well,” she pondered aloud for a moment. “What am I to do? I’ve booked for several weeks. I had thought that this journey would make some sense of my life, define me even.”
“You’ve traveled a long way, perhaps a drink by the poolside? Given your manic nature, though, I might suggest a more plausible course.”
“You have a device capable of translating reptile thoughts. Could you recalibrate the machine for something else, say salamanders?”
The woman brightened up as though a bulb had been lit from behind her eyes.
“You have salamanders?”
“In great abundance,” the manager replied.
“I suppose I could recalibrate the machine. I don’t suspect salamanders have anything like the sophistication of dragons, but they have an allure all their own. They are rumored to be very territorial, and they make an interesting pok-pok type of noise after devouring their prey.”
“Shall I have your bags brought to your room so that you may continue with your research?” the manager asked.
“Yes, that would be in order,” the woman said, her mind drifting off to lizards, and other things she might recalibrate her translation device to.
A few minutes later and she was in her room, unpacking her things, her mind wandering. Salamanders, she thought, little weird creatures they were. Also, maybe centipedes. One must adapt to the circumstances, she supposed. Scorpions…there might lay something to truly puzzle her mind for a satisfactory bit, she mused. There was always some mystery ahead, some challenge worth meeting. It was the whole getting a grant thing that made things a bit rough from time to time. Pity about the dragons, but so it had gone with the griffins, and the unicorns, and almost all of the strange creatures of old. The new mysteries were still on the horizon, and their novelty commanded respect and fascination, she thought. One could not be overwhelmed by the constancy of change. Therein lay madness, she thought.
She reached over to the phone after some thought and pressed the button for room service.
“A strange request,” she said, “But could you possibly dig up a scorpion or three and bring them to me in a terrarium?”
“Of course, madam, we will have one or three sent to you right away.”
I’ll bet the scorpions have something to say about modern affairs, she thought, puzzling over how to make them squeak enough for her device to work. Lot of work ahead, but perhaps a quick dip down to the pool and a couple of margaritas might be in order. It had been a long, very long flight. A margarita or three sounded just perfect.