The Dragon's Gate
Zachariah Avery grimaced as the tattooist pushed colorful ink into his skin. The high pitched whine of the tattoo machine was grating on his nerves. The sensation on his arm varied from a warm but pleasant massage to sharp, grinding pain, as if his bone was being chipped away by a miniature jackhammer. Most of the time, it was just painfully annoying. He stared straight ahead, trying to let his mind go blank, while remaining perfectly still in the awkward position the tattooist had placed him in. He focused on a spot in the wall's texture that resembled a sea turtle. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
Four months ago, a long-haul driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, and his forty-ton rig had mowed his parents' sedan down. It had taken the fire department ten hours to cut their bodies from the wreckage.
Zach was alone now. At twenty-two, he had no family to speak of, no close friends, no work associates. It wasn't until his parents' death that he realized he had been alive but not truly living all this time. He had lived with his parents for the whole of his life; he even attended a local college so he could keep living at home. His had been a shared existence, a half-life.
Now, he found himself a semi-grown-up who didn't know how to make decisions, or friends, or dinner. It was time to evolve into a fully-fledged person, and this tattoo symbolized his first, tentative step into the waters of independent life. As he stared at the wall, he imagined the potential--the could-be, would-be, will-be--of his future.
The buzzing stopped. The tattooist wiped down Zach's arm with alcohol. The burning sensation instantly ceased. The skin felt cool, fresh, and vibrant. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it had been reborn. For Zach, this was the culmination of a personal quest. With this tattoo, he felt he was starting his life anew, a fresh, almost spiritual re-beginning.
The reflection in the mirror was breathtaking. It looked as if a Japanese watercolor master had used his arm as a canvas on which to create his life's masterpiece. The white-and-gold koi fish looked magnificent. The king of his lair. His scales seemed to shimmer, his gills seemed just on the brink of breathing. He strongly swam upstream in azure waters the color of the sky on a cloudless midsummer's afternoon. The water parted to make way for him in graceful arcing waves. Cherry blossoms fell as if to grace his presence in a tinker-tape parade of pink and white. It was glorious!
Zach tried to convey all this to the tattooist who had created it from ink and flesh with steel. "Wow, it's great," was all he could manage. He had never been any good at communicating with people. His brain simply froze when he had to talk to strangers.
Within a day, the tattoo had clouded over, as the tattooist had said it would. Looking at it now was like going to a museum with milk glass goggles on. Zach was impatient to see it again in all its glory, but until then he kept up the ritual of cleansing it and feeding it creams and lotions several times a day.
Over the next week, it began to molt, just as real koi fish do after an illness or serious injury. Although it itched something fierce, Zach let the flaking skin be and just patted it with lotion--which he thought of as food for his tattooed fish--from time to time.
Finally on the eighth night while Zach was asleep, the koi fish reemerged from its healing process, spectacular and mighty. Zach fancied he could feel it breathing there in his arm. During a particularly vivid dream, he imagined it had risen up and launched itself free of his skin to taste the dark, night air.
When he woke up, the koi was embedded in the translucent canvas of his skin in all of its technicolor radiance. As he showered that morning, Zach imagined he could feel the fish rejoicing, splashing to and fro in the stream of falling water, drinking up its fresh bounty. After toweling off, he fed the tattoo some cream, and the ink seemed to absorb it and grow even more vibrant than before.
Every male (and some of the women) who frequented The Daily Grind Coffee Shop was enamored of Isabel de la Paz, one of the baristas who worked there. They couldn't help be entranced by her classical beauty--strong nose, delicate cheekbones, wavy black hair, and her full lips, which were always slightly open as if offering a kiss. Born in Spain, she spoke perfect English, albeit with a slightly exotic, sibilant accent.
Zach ordered his usual breakfast--a large, black, house-roast coffee and a cheese danish. As Isabel handed him his coffee, Zach's tattoo suddenly became warm and tingly--as if he'd been leaning his arm against a radiator. The sensation startled him, and his arm jerked as he took the coffee cup from Isabel. Hot coffee cascaded over the counter and the cup fell to the ground, empty and steaming. Zach found himself holding Isabel's hand, although he didn't remember taking it.
He released her hand. "Sorry about that." He smiled into her warm, brown eyes. "Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?"
She tilted her head as if considering his offer, surely not the first she had received that day. "I would love to have dinner with you. Tonight?"
Zach didn't know what had come over him today, but he was elated. He floated on his own personal cloud of confidence. As he went about his job as a bike messenger, he spoke to people when he'd never so much as made eye contact before. He joked with his boss, got to know some of the other messengers, and practically strutted as he made deliveries to uptight lawyers in posh office buildings.
His date with Isabel had gone swimmingly. They were still engaged in animated conversation two hours after the waiter had removed their dessert plate--a shared tiramisu. He walked her to her duplex, kissed her tenderly on the dimple of her chin and then her full, open lips, before wishing her a good night.
That night, he dreamed of swimming naked with a giant, gold-and-white koi fish in cool, invigorating waters.
Four months later, Zach was sharing a picnic with Isabel in a local park. They lay lazily on the verdant, velvety grass, holding hands. His tattoo had felt warm all day and was getting noticeably hotter.
Over the months since his tattoo had awakened from its healing slumber, Zach had learned to feel what he thought of as his koi fish's mood. Cold meant "Beware. Danger. Back off." Warm and tingly meant "Act now. Take charge." He hadn't told anyone about his "magic," confidence-inspiring tattoo, and he never would. After all, who would believe him? He hardly did himself. But this new intuition hadn't failed him yet.
He reached into the pack on the back of his bicycle and pulled out a small, red, leather box.
"Isabel de la Paz, will you spend the rest of your life with me?"
Zach had asked Isabel where she wanted to honeymoon, but she said she would rather put the money they would have spent on a fancy wedding and honeymoon into fixing up their home--the house Zack had lived in all his twenty-three years and had inherited from his parents.
He couldn't say "no" to his Isabel, and at least in this, she was being practical. So, they opted for a simple, civil ceremony, and Zach put $75,000 of his inheritance toward remodeling their old Victorian house to Isabel's liking.
He had hoped that they would make some of the decisions together, but Isabel made each and every one unilaterally. Zach didn't mind too much--after all, she should feel at home.
They would of course be sharing the master bedroom, which he still thought of as his parent's room, a sacrosanct space. But it wouldn't make sense for them to sleep in his old bedroom instead. It was time for him to grasp the reins of adulthood and take up the mantle of the master bedroom.
One evening after work, he came home to find the master bedroom re-done. It was painted a light, warm gray (a "new neutral" according to the designer Isabel had hired) and had linens and curtains in various shades of white. It looked fresh, but also cold and clinical. It wasn't as warm and inviting as his parent's old bedroom.
Then he noticed the mantel over the fireplace. The collection of framed photos of his parents had been replaced with impersonal objects d'art, faux flowers, and some pottery.
"Oh, I put them in storage," Isabel explained.
"But they're pictures of my parents!"
"I never met them. You said I should make it so I feel at home. I won't have strangers watching me sleep."
His tattoo was silent on the matter, so he compromised. "I'll put the photos in the game room, then."
That night, sleeping in the unfamiliar space that used to be his parents' bedroom, Zach dreamed of a fish out water, gills flapping desperately, drowning in air.
"Zach, you're twenty-five years old. Don't you think it's time to get a real job? You have a degree. You should do something with it."
Zach licked white frosting off his finger. Why did they have to do this today of all days?
"But I like being a messenger. The pay is decent, plus I still have a lot of my inheritance. And my free time is my own. I can spend more time with you, with our kids..."
"Zach, how can we even think about starting a family if you won't grow up?"
Isabel's brown eyes were flat and cold, her lips drawn tight and tense. She wasn't pretty when she scowled like this, which was more and more often.
Zach sighed. "I promise to look for a new job tomorrow. But can we please just enjoy my birthday today?"
Dylan was turning five today, and Zach was going to miss it. It was quarterly review and everyone at the firm was working overtime, especially the managers.
He had let Sally, one of the hardest workers under him, go home at six o'clock so she could attend her daughter's dance recital. Now, Zach and the rest of his team would have to take up the slack. He hoped he'd be home before midnight.
He promised to call Isabel to let her know when he might make it home.
"Hi, Isabel. It's going to be a late one. We're short-staffed, and we have to make tomorrow's deadline or there'll be hell to pay."
"OK, we'll manage without you."
"Love you, 'Bel. And give the birthday boy a kiss from me."
She never said "I love you" or even "bye" any more. He felt his heart contract.
He made it home at one-thirty AM, exhausted and thinking of his freckled, blond, five-year-old boy.
Isabel was still up, sitting at the dining room table, doing nothing. She was in one her moods again. He kissed her cheek. She jerked her head away, said nothing.
"I'm going to go up and give Dylan his present."
"No, don't wake him. It's a school night. You always get him too excited."
"That's because we rarely get to see each other. Come on, 'Bel. It's as much for me as it is for him."
"No. It's not important. It can wait until morning."
His koi fish tattoo had been silent for the past six years. He was beginning to think he had imagined it ever turning hot or cold. Still, before any confrontation or major decision, he was in the habit of feeling or "listening" to see if his tattoo had anything to say on the matter. Nothing. It was just a regular arm with ordinary ink.
"I'll just go up and peek in on him, then. I promise not to wake him."
Dylan was sleeping on his side, his cheek flattened, hair ruffled, mouth slightly open. He was wearing the striped pajamas that he said was what young wizards like himself wore to bed. Clutched in his hand was a plastic wand, a birthday gift from one of his friends. Zach imagined that Dylan was having happy, young wizard dreams filled with magic birthday cakes and enchanted parties. He remembered when his life was so simple and filled with wonder, sparked by imagination. It seemed so long ago.
Dylan woke up, smiled, and waved at his dad. Zach put his finger up to his mouth, making the international "shhhh" gesture. He mouthed "Hap-pee birth-day!" Dylan grinned and waved his magic wand. "Ver-ry nice! See you in the morn-ning." He blew Dylan a kiss, closed the door with a quiet click and went to bed.
As long as his day had been, Zach was having difficulty falling asleep. His mind was troubled. He had been aware for a long time that he was profoundly unhappy with his life. Work was a soul-draining experience--he no longer felt fulfilled by a job well done, by promotions or accolades or even his paycheck and 401-K. His marriage to Isabel had been a mistake from the start. He had been in denial at first, but now he couldn't refute that it just didn't work for either of them. She was cold where he was warm. Dylan was his sole joy.
If he turned away from Isabel, what repercussions would that have in Dylan's life? Would he become a little-boy-lost like so many children of divorce? Would the damage be worse if he stuck it out with Isabel and made-believe that they were a happy couple?
Zach knew what he would do if Dylan hadn't existed. But Dylan had been born. And what was best for Dylan mattered most of all.
When Zach eventually dozed off, he dreamed he went fishing. He cast his rod in a long, floating arc. The pond rippled in overlapping, concentric circles. A giant gold-and-white koi fish surfaced, un-snared. The fish stared straight at him and its mouth moved, but he couldn't understand what the fish was saying. He didn't speak fish anymore but remembered that he once had.
Zach and Dylan walked through the park, enjoying a rare Saturday afternoon together.
"Dylan, we need to have a serious talk, man to young wizard."
"You know that your mom and I both love you, right?"
"Well, if your mom and I no longer live together, we'll still love you just as much. Do you understand?"
Another nod, but now Dylan looked worried. "Daddy, who would I live with? You or Mommy?"
"Well, that depends. Most likely, you'd live with your mom some of the time and with me some of the time."
Dylan pondered this for a few minutes, twirling his plastic wand. "When I'm with you, will you work all the time like now?"
For the briefest flicker, Zach thought he felt his tattoo flare warm, but it passed so quickly he decided it must've been just a muscle twitch.
He squatted down until he was eye-level with his son, and put his hands gently on Dylan's head, stroking his hair. "Dylan, I promise that when it's our time together, you'll have my undivided attention. It will be so much better than now. Cross my heart, little man."
"Daddy, I'm a wizard!"
"Right. Of course. I stand corrected, young wizard." He tickled his son until he squirmed with glee.
On Monday morning, Zach woke up, alone in bed (as usual), a good fifteen minutes before the alarm went off. His to-do list rotated through his thoughts. (1) Quit his job. (2) Break up with Isabel. (3) Contact a lawyer (ugh). (4) Celebrate with Dylan.
He didn't remember the last time he'd been so happy, so excited. He started a pot of coffee brewing and made his morning ablutions in record time.
He poked his head into the guest bedroom where Isabel now slept and told her she could sleep in, that he would take Dylan to school.
"It's time for all young wizards to rise and shine! Come on, Dylan, wakey-wakey."
As they both ate a hearty breakfast of Loopy-Loops cereal that turned the milk a lavender hue, they discussed the intricacies of a young wizard's schooling. Dylan didn't think that letters and numbers were important for wizards, that they were better off learning to draw or make wands--something more useful.
"Books are magical, Dylan. Just wait until you learn to read. You'll see. In fact, why don't I start teaching you? There's no reason you have to wait until first grade."
While Dylan sat at the dining table, drawing in his coloring book filled with black-and-white images of young wizards at play, Zach got dressed for work. He first put on his suit and tie, then took it all off, leaving it on the ground in a wrinkling heap. "Screw that," he mumbled, and put on a t-shirt and shorts instead.
"You can't quit without giving at least two weeks' notice!" His boss, Frank, who had as much personality as his name indicated, was becoming dangerously rubicund, flushing from temple to too-tight necktie knot. Zach hoped he had taken his blood pressure medicine.
"I think you'll find I can." Zach's calm air contrasted Frank's apoplexy.
"You'll get no recommendation if you quit on me like this, you... you... quitter!" Frank's spittle was flying now.
"I don't need a recommendation. There's nothing you can do to stop me from quitting without notice."
Now that he was free from this meaningless, soul-siphoning job, he looked at Frank with empathy instead of animosity.
"I wish you the best, Frank. Really I do. But I have to do what's right for me. And this is it. Goodbye, Frank."
Everyone stared at Zach as he made his way from the fourth floor where Frank had a corner office, down the elevator, through the lobby. Not only was his attire inappropriate enough to garner stares, but Zach couldn't stop smiling. His grin was over-large, ridiculous, and frankly starting to hurt his cheeks, but there it was. He couldn't get rid of it. People acted as if he'd been transmogrified into a clown or The Joker--an aberration of correct corporate culture.
"What's gotten into, him?" they whispered as he passed by.
"I don't know, but he'll never make it if he pulls any more stunts like this."
If Isabel was surprised that Zach was home at 11AM, she didn't show it. She didn't say "hello," or ask why he was home early, or whether he wanted to get an early lunch out--a special treat. She merely glanced at him once and went back to reading the paper.
"'Bel, we need to talk." He took a gulp of air, and decided to just get right to the point. "I want a divorce."
She looked up from her newspaper briefly. "OK," she said. Then, she went back to reading. She read for several minutes, turning the pages and everything, as if she found the local news more engrossing than her family's moment of crisis.
"'Bel, I want to keep the house." He paused, thought for a second, and blurted, "And full custody of Dylan."
"That's fine. I want a quarter-of-a-million dollars."
And that was that. It was both more painless than he expected and more painful. He wasn't grinning like The Joker now. He felt as if he was suffocating, but he knew as the weeks and months passed, he would recover. And he would have Dylan by his side while he did.
Isabel stayed at the table until she had finished reading the paper, folded it, and put it down.
"I'll just get some of my things. In case you need me, I'll be staying with Steve Ericson."
Dr. Steve Ericson was Dylan's pediatrician. As it turned out Isabel and Dr. Steve were very close friends and had been for years.
"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! There's a fish in the bathtub! A magic fish!" Dylan bounced on the bed.
Zach tried to clear the grogginess from his head. He checked the alarm clock. 6:36 AM. A bit early for magic fish, but he was happy to see Dylan so excited. He had been a bit glum since his mother left.
"'Morning, Dylan. Did I hear something about a magic fish?"
"Yes! Come see!" Dylan jumped out of bed and grabbed his dad by the hand, pulling him like an exuberant, little tug boat.
Zach realized he needed to pee something fierce, but it could wait until he checked the bathtub.
The tub was filled to the rim, water cascaded over the side as the fish--a real fish--swam carefully in the too small tub. It was the largest koi fish Zach had ever seen. It had shimmering gold and white scales. It gave Zach a look--a knowing look.
He recognized this fish. It was his fish. His tattooed fish.
He looked down at his arm. The tattoo was gone. He checked the mirror. Not a trace of it remained. Not a scale or whisker or wave or cherry blossom. His arm was skin-toned, freckled, and completely unfamiliar to him.
"Daddy! What's that on your back?"
Zach craned his neck around to get a look in the mirror. His entire back was covered with a brand new tattoo.
What he saw in the mirror was astonishing. A golden dragon had taken residence in the musculature of his back. It was so large that it meandered in an s-shape from his scapula to his coccyx. Its scales were so detailed, so perfect, they looked real, like he himself had grown scales. He touched his back, but it was smooth skin. The dragon had animated, blue eyes. It seemed to be grinning and sticking out its forked tongue as if in jest.
"Daddy, it's a dragon!" Dylan said in awe. "Can I touch it?"
As father and son worked at digging the large pit that would be the koi pond, Zach told Dylan the legend of the fish that becomes a dragon for the third time that day.
"Once, there was a little koi fish. He had always lived in a pond with his parent fishes. It was the only life he knew..."
As the years passed, Dylan grew up and outgrew wizarding, but still he learned to speak fish.
Zach still communed with the giant gold-and-white koi fish they called "Dragon." Sometimes he spoke aloud, but sometimes he just sat on a stone bench by the koi pond and thought his thoughts. At the end of their "conversations," Zach always felt more clear-headed, more sure of himself and his decisions.
He imagined that Dragon would live for generations more, and that Dylan's kids and grandkids would learn to "speak fish" as he and Dylan did. He also got Dragon some regular koi fish for piscine companionship. Perhaps they would mate, and their children would be extraordinary, too.