From the Ground Up

She was born small.

It was a curious feat; for a Star Dragon to be born small was unheard of. But then again, no one has ever heard of her.

She was born — or rather, created, depending on one’s perspective — on a small planet, some patches of time after the creation of the universe. There have been a few generations of Star Dragons before her — not so many that the secrets of the beginning have faded away, but enough that they’ve obscured, leaving everything with a tinge of mystery that reminded her of the taste of mint.

She was born deaf and blind, much like an animal. With time she began hearing the pounding of particles around her, rattling her very core, making her shout and scream to try and match the noise. No one has tried to silence her. It wasn’t until the return of her eyesight that she realised why.

No one was there. She never would have thought; all those particles humming and buzzing and hammering nails into her mind made her think there was a whole universe out there, overflowing with beings, energies, marvels she didn’t even know she’d wanted to see until she didn’t. She opened her eyes to a darkness quite similar to the one she’d been engulfed in moments before; but where the previous had been comfortable and warm, this one was foreboding. She immediately shut her eyes again, trying to fall back into the arms of her own little nothing, but she couldn’t shake that new shade of dark off of her. It was so… cold.

Once she began seeing, she started shivering. The shiver painted the same colour that the new darkness did, coating her scales like a spiky blanket. She didn’t stop hearing the signs of existence all around her, but soon she found that she no longer believed them. She heard the crackle of fire and a thin trail of laughter, the rustle of leaves in the wind and the crunch of old sand under bare feet; but she never saw the red and orange of flames, nor the white of teeth or the green of plants.

A while not long thereafter, she discovered she could move. The dark around her shifted along with the movement of her body, and she crawled and crawled for what seemed like or was ages, until the soft black under her transformed into solid stone. She stumbled on first contact, but quickly grew used to the new support; she was steadier on the ground, no longer hovering in a sea of cotton. Rather, she gripped tight onto a promise of something new that, unbeknownst to her, was ancient. 

The stone under her was rough and cracked, uneven to the touch. She followed the path it had designed for her, not knowing it had been set in the stones long before she was born, and longer even before any stones were there. The crackling in her ears intensified with every inch that she covered, wavering between a soothing hum and an unbearable screech that resembled what she’d heard in her first few days of hearing.

A while into her journey, the heavy black seeped into an even grey, which grew brighter with every passing day. She hardly noticed, though; it was so gradual, and she was so miserable, that she refused to pay attention to the dark.

And then, between one moment and the next, everything around her exploded.

For the first time, the Star Dragon blinked.

Her eyes were crackling with millions of colours she’s never known she wanted to behold. There were the familiar red and orange that crackled to the rhythm of invisible flames; the greens and blues of unseen plant-life; mauve for the memory of wind, yellow for the sand under her non-existent feet. Dozens upon dozens of colours that swivelled above her, laughing, some mocking, others smiling sheepishly. They were playful, despite the few that seemed sad; they were buzzing with sound, louder than she’s ever heard, more exciting than she’d thought she’d ever perceive. They chased one another in the sky, some catching up and dissolving into new shades; others were running and running, never touching, trapped in an endless dance. The few that were alone seemed to carry the weight of time unaccounted in their shimmer, heavy and faded in themselves. The thought of pity had occurred to her for the first time then.

It would be a long time before the colours settled above her head, but she didn’t mind, because she hasn’t yet grasped the concept of time back then. She was enchanted in a trance that pounded inside of her, finally finding sense in the particles shouting in her head; now that they’re seen she’s there, they’ve grown considerate, knowing she was listening to them. They told her of many peculiar things — about the rising sun and the setting moon, neither of which existed yet; the gravel that will one day lie upon the stone she was pressed against. They whispered about overheard plans between breaks, when pairs stopped to catch their breath; talked of a bark and a howl, the light reflecting in the waters of a lake. Sometimes, when they were busy chasing each other, barking and howling themselves, a faint shade of purple or blue would come down to sit beside her, and told her of what used to be there, long, long ago. That was when she began to understand the concept of longing — when they spoke in hushed voices about others like them, their partners that have burnt to crisps or faded back into the nothingness from which they came. One particular spot of colour, one that was more a glimmer than a shade, told her about another like herself; a Star Dragon, he said. It used to walk this earth in the eras before them; when the colours were just beginning to become and be shaped. That colour was so old, you see, that he’s seen the last of it when it sprouted wings and flew away, leaving them particles down there. There was a shimmer about this glimmer that made her very sad inside — but she didn’t know why.

An era later, the colours all settled down in their respective places in the sky. The pairs that have never caught up to one another slowed to a stop next to each other, interlocked in a gaze that won’t be broken in the upcoming ages. A few of the old colours, those who have dimmed their lights, faded away before her very eyes. The one that’s seen her kind was the first she saw disappear; those of luck managed to find themselves a quiet corner in the forming sky, from which they vowed to overlook their kin.

The buzz and hum and laughter and screeches have evened down into a white background noise, which most days she didn’t notice anymore. The sudden stillness in the sky overhead startled her. Even though it wasn’t sudden, and never truly still, she found herself a little scared. She could no longer speak with them; no more legends or stories or promises were passed down to her. 

When the stars finally became stars, she understood the concept of loneliness. 

It was a long while before the lights high above began to sprinkle down on her. Different colours came at different times, falling and then standing up beside her, sending her silent, knowing smiles. They greeted her in their own ways, but never stuck around long enough to talk; they had work they needed to do. When the lights and colours became shapes and scents, she thought that maybe, in a way, she began to understand to concept of creation.

It wasn’t until much, much later that she realised she’s misunderstood. 

Back on that small planet, the small Star Dragon saw the world shape into something for the first time in her seeing days. She saw the stone break and mold into mountains and valleys, dozens of layers stacking upon one another to the old predictions of the stars. The promised sun and moon started to rise and fall in a soothing rhythm, and alongside them, water began to find its way into the land around her, folding into waterfalls and shining lakes.

She finally managed to see the fire and hear it crackle to the beat of the flame, the same way it had in her mind; she could touch the leaves that rustled in a mauve wind, and their crinkle surprised her. Those days, in fact, were the first to present her with the sensation of touch unrelated to the stone under her. When she tried to touch the fire, she found out about pain; and when she gingerly reached for the water, she could breathe in the feeling of a moving stream — a feeling that has later followed her throughout the rest of her days.

There was joy when she first heard the bark of a dog. The dog was small, like her; its tail never stopped wiggling, and the glint in its eyes was reminiscent of that of someone else she used to know. 

Slowly, the land filled with animals and beings that, however similar, were never quite like her. She expected the birth, or creation, of another Star Dragon like her — it took her a long time to realise that the knot in her chest was unanswered anticipation. Never answered, never answered, there was no one quite like her, quite like the tales the oldest light used to tell. One day, she suddenly learned of disappointment, and from that point forward she stopped observing the beings sprouting and withering around her. 

She already knew of aloneness, and already knew of loneliness, but this sensation tasted different. It had a bitter flavour, similar to ashes or charcoals — it prickled on her tongue, and no amount of water could cleanse it away.

When she heard the first baby crying, she decided she didn’t want to stay.

She remembered what she’d been told, ages and ages ago — the wings her ancestor had sprouted, and the way it had disappeared into the vast sky, searching for new paths. She wanted a pair of wings for herself, like those of the birds that twittered overhead; but larger than that, stronger than that, so she wouldn’t have to stay bound to this earth like them.

She’s never actually grown wings — but on one bleak, rainy night, she discovered she could fly.

That night she discovered the concept of freedom.

She was a little sad when she ascended over the clouds, eyes darting between what was under her and what was held far, far above. An ache was added to the knot in her chest. Since starting to see, she grew used to the sights of life that have built themselves around her; she knew every nook and cranny of that world, climbed every mountain, descended every hill. She swam in the oceans and savoured the different flavours of everything that touched her tongue; smiled at wiggled tails and laughed at the sound of wind that tore through the trees all around. 

It had been a very long time since she last heard that hum, that buzz, that screech, that she used to hear constantly when she was crawling through the dark. And once she broke away from the bubble of the planet on which she had been born, she heard it all again.

But it wasn’t quite like what she remembered. It wasn’t the familiarity of the colours and the stars that used to produce these sounds; it was harder, colder, sharper. It yelled, penetrating like a knife through her mind, slicing, hurting, driving her crazy. It was so loud and overwhelming, and it threw her thoughts into a disarray she might have never bounced back from. All the particles that have settled into shapes and things on the faraway land were now skidding around her, everywhere, screeching and screaming and clawing at nothing.

She flew and flew, overlooking quiet planets and blazing stars, to whom she inclined her head in lieu of greeting. The stars didn’t always greet her back; they looked busy, so she forgave them when they didn’t. And when she didn’t recognise a star or two, she tried to forgive herself, although it was uncertain whether she did in the end. 

She didn’t look back. Every inch she covered ushered her away from the urge to do that; at first, she almost glanced behind her, but then all the darkness and the spots of ground and stars took her mind off of the memory of what she was leaving behind. 

She was searching for a new path, like the one that had lead her to the colour and the light. Every once in a while she fell into step along a certain way, but it never fit her quite right, and she found herself wandering off in the end. 

She wasn’t as small as she was when she was born, but she was still small enough to manoeuvre between wreckages and tight passes. 

She arrived at her first graveyard a few centuries after leaving her earth. 

She didn’t know what it was at first.

It was a vast patch with a dark background, like everything usually was. But there was something different about it. The first thing she noticed was the silence.

Oh, that silence.

She never knew what silence was before that.

When she came across it, she completely stopped for the first time. She couldn’t understand what was missing at first; it was something primal, fundamental, something that she couldn’t recognise the absence of. And when she realised it was the sound that was gone, she started panicking; only when she screamed did she understand it wasn’t the sound that was gone, but everything she’s been hearing her whole life. 

She looked around her, eyes open wide for the first time in a long while. It looked to her like the fields of meteors she passed through every once in a while, with rocks and shredded planets floating about. 

And then she saw the broken stars.

They were strewn around in a manner similar to the pieces of rocks and planets, and the only thing that made her distinguish them was the familiar, faint glow that she recalled from all that time ago, when she used to converse with the oldest lights.

The star pieces were barely still alight; their low hum was gone, and instead a silent coat covered them, setting prickles on her tongue. All their colour had bled out, and she couldn’t really recognise them; broken as they were, she didn’t even know if she could distinguish between the remains of one star or another. 

That was the first time she has cried. 

It was a shame, she thought, as crystal tears filled the graveyard. It was a shame they couldn’t see how pretty her tears were. Whatever little light did remain in the fading stars reflected off of the crystals that now joined the pieces and corpses floating around; the faintest, clearest blue, glinting like fire sparks. She cried and cried until she had no tears left in her; until she saw all her sorrow and regret transformed around her into gems. It was a shame, it was a shame, it was a shame they would never see this.

When she flew away, she left her tears behind, and continued on her journey with a new emptiness in her chest. 

She felt the absence of aim sink into her the farther away she went. The nothing was bigger than anything she’s ever encountered; the years of floating through pure black, accompanied by a screeching sound, stretched ever longer than the days she came across a star or a planet. She went around a couple more graveyards, never daring to get close enough as she had that first time. At some point, she has even stopped crying at these sights. She didn’t know, she didn’t know, what she would’ve found in the graveyards she hadn’t ventured into; didn’t know, didn’t know, that she was missing the very thing she was looking for.

And maybe it was better that she never saw what she hadn’t seen. 

At a certain point, she stopped to talk with a familiar star. 

He has grown so very old, but she recognised his pinkish-yellow hue, and the glint of mischief in his shimmer. He was not overlooking any solar system or galaxy, unlike most of the stars she had passed by, and he wasn’t busy building or looking for a new one. In fact, he seemed quite alone, not a second star to be seen for many, many patches of sky. He wasn’t lonely, though; she remembered the day he’d merged with his partner, a strawberry-pink joyful light that used to run away from him as if he was going to scorch her. She was still with him, and he was with her, and so even though they were alone, they were never quite lonely. 

He greeted her kindly, and she inclined her head to him, like she did for most stars, and sat down beside him on a patch of dark. 

He told her of the solar system he and his partner used to guard. How it was formed, the quirks and habits of the planets, and his and his partner’s relationships with them. The older they were, the more they wanted to stay close to their sun, said the star. He and his partner couldn’t help but pull them in with a hug a little warmer than they gave the younger ones.

He told her of how they’ve died, one by one. She was quietly reminded of the graveyard. Their tears, as opposed to hers, had dissolved a while ago, and the remains of their planets have scattered around, until they were gone. Neither of them could reach that far.

The mischief moved aside to allow a shimmer of wistfulness, and a sadness she didn’t know could belong with stars.

She asked them if they missed their planets.

He said they did.

In turn, she told him of the rain, of the moon and of the sun of the place from which she’d ran. She told him of the sprinkle of a star that created the mountains and valleys, the softness of the water and the crispy leaves of autumn. She talked about the dogs and the cats, and all the different kinds of creations she’d witnesses and grown accustomed to. She told him of her desperation when she’d realised that even though there was so much around her, she became so lonely, looking for something she knew she would never find there. Something she was still yet to find.

He listened with attention he hadn’t had when he was still a particle. She realised then how she longed for someone to listen to her; she’d spent so much time moving forward, on her own, that she’s never even considered settling down to open her heart. And once she did, it was like a dam breaking down; under the heat of the star and his partner she cried, her tears filling the space around the three of them with faint, blue crystal shards.

He told her words of comfort that didn’t really comfort her, but that day, she learned what gratefulness was.

When she resumed her flying, her body was heavier than it had been before.

It was a long while before she saw anything again, and she couldn’t help but be reminded of the darkness she saw when she’d first opened her eyes. It sent a shiver down her spine; she felt cold all over, and began counting the sights she’d seen before. The sounds mushed into an incoherent mess in her head, not quite alive but nothing quite dead; the electricity that danced across her tongue in beat with the shivers, unrelenting, unforgiving, was pushing her under until she couldn’t remember which way the stream flowed. She couldn’t find her footing in this darkness; the stones were no longer paving her way.

They haven’t done that in a long time, she realised.

In that patch of time, the small Star Dragon learned what hopelessness felt like, and she would never be able to forget that. 

She wasn’t crying anymore. Why would she, if she couldn’t even see her tears? She didn’t know whether she was still going; every inch resembled the one before it, and every breath tasted the same, smoky way. Her thoughts were a mess she couldn’t make sense of; the sounds in her head were yelling and shouting and confusing her even more. She was lost, she was lost, and she had no idea where she was going; there was a faint reminder of what she was looking for, but it’s been so long since she had last believed in it, that she began to think it wasn’t really possible. 

When she found the light again, it wasn’t the way it had been before.

The stars were smaller, fainter, and she immediately knew that many of those she used to know were gone. The graveyards were no longer as far and few in-between. She saw the light depart from some of the remains; she saw others dissolve into a bitter dust she couldn’t shake away. Those she came across who were still shining bright were so old, she almost didn’t recognise them; they were older than the oldest light ever was, which, she guessed, meant he was no longer the oldest light. She frowned upon that.

Then, at a certain moment, she discovered that she could take their light.

She was floating through a graveyard, much like the first one she had come across. There were great many pieces of stars who were gone, but still shining ever so faintly — and suddenly, she thought of reaching out to them.

When she touched a piece, there was warmth, and she realised that the star wasn’t dead yet like she thought before.

It startled her, but she couldn’t bring herself to break away. The warmth was small, but it seeped into her bones. Her core, which has become so old and so cold, was suddenly tingling with a sensation she thought she’d forgotten; she felt it glow. She felt herself glow, in a manner she never has before.

The light she touched went out like a candle, and she almost broke away.

But it wasn’t gone.

She closed her eyes, sending herself into the darkness — looking for that light, that warmth.

She couldn’t see it, and she couldn’t quite hear it, but she felt it. She felt it still glowing; it was dissolving into her bones, etching itself into her being, tying around the knot in her chest. 

She opened her eyes, gazing at the cold piece of star in front of her.

In a day, she managed to absorb every dying star in that graveyard, until she was certain they weren’t dead inside of her.

When she went on, she found that she didn’t feel quite as lost anymore.

She made it a habit to go through every graveyard she came across and absorb the light of the dying stars before they were gone. She didn’t regret it, and she knew they were grateful. Some of them recognised her, even if she, sheepishly, found that she didn’t remember them all. Some others were too young to have been born when the sky had gone into order, all those ages ago.

Some time later she began noticing the light she emitted.

The warmth was a comfort, the faint hum a familiar blessing. She found that she didn’t feel as lonely anymore; some of the lights began playing tag again, just as they had when they were young and playful, as if the eras of lives and deaths have never existed for them. And maybe, finally having someone to take care of them, what had happened no longer mattered to them. 

The small Star Dragon grew old collecting dying stars, and the purpose of her journey began to fleet away from her clutches. The reminder was always there, at the back of her mind, but it was overshadowed by the lights and their lives inside of her, and by everything there was outside. Every once in a long while she came across a living star whom she used to know, and now, every time she saw one, she sat down to talk. They usually happily obliged. She spoke to stars who’ve lost their partners; those who had promised to keep them interlocked were no longer there to watch that mission. She sat and listened to stories about monsters and galaxies; those who used to run and those who managed to settle down, and even those who still, after all this time, were looking for their purpose. Again she thought about the graveyard.

She traded them tales of her journey; now, they all noticed the way she was glowing, as if she was molded from a thousand different galaxies. Those who have lost their partners were comforted by the thought of them still being alive inside of her; they made her promise that when their time came, she would come back for them, so that they would be able to find their lost partners again.

She always promised, hoping she would be able to find her way back.

There were no longer any of the original blue or purple stars. Those who were now coloured such have been painted by a brush of tragedy, those who’ve lost their partners that the Star Dragon wasn’t able to save in time. She still tended to cry when they did, and every once in a while, she found one of her crystals treading along her newfound path.

She watched as all the lights went out in the sky, one by one. Some she found her way to; others, far too many to count, were lost on her. There were many tears inside and outside of her; sometimes the cries overflowed her mind so much that she started hoping she would grow deaf again. It never lasted, though. At some point, only the yet unabsorbed dying lights that she found were the ones who had any tears left to cry. 

That was how, at a certain moment, she found herself floating in a deep shade of darkness again.

It wasn’t cold this time, and it wasn’t all that dark, either. Ever since she’d started collecting dying stars, her glow kept magnifying, until she became brighter than any star there’s ever been in the sky. None resented her, though; perhaps except for herself. She knew they were all grateful, but sometimes, she felt like it wasn’t really fair.

At one point, the lights inside of her began to break back into particles, like they used to be all that time back then. They grew skittish and impatient, pushing to get out, wanting to reset the dance again.

At first she refused, thinking she would lose them.

But they always did what they wanted anyway.

And so then, between one moment and the next, her whole world exploded again.

Relief was a soft sensation in her tired muscles, and when all the lights were set free again, she was reminded of the way the crackling of fire sounded and felt — and suddenly, she was home again.

The Star Dragon didn’t get to see the universe build up from the ground again, but she did talk to every particle of colour that was once a star and a light, and every single one promised they’d remember her.

She had never actually found what she was looking for, but she found that the taste of mint was welcome in her mouth. She was tired, and she was content, despite a certain knowledge of guilt and regret.

When she laid to rest, the particles made sure her bones made their way to the type of graveyard she never did manage to attend.

That day, the Star Dragon’s knot unraveled in her chest.

From The Ground Up © Michal Rotko

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