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The Paper Dragon

Stephen S. Power is the author of the novel The Dragon Round, now out in trade paperback from Simon & Schuster. "The Paper Dragon," which was inspired by Japan's use of "fire balloons" during World War II, is his sixth story in Daily Science Fiction. His short fiction has also appeared recently in The Arcanist and Unnerving. He tweets at @stephenspower, his site is stephenspower.com, and he's a proud member of Codex and the SFWA.

Near the end of the war, my sixth grade teacher took me and some of my classmates hiking on Mount Diablo, and we found a black origami dragon in a dry pine thicket. It was bigger than my father's P-51 Mustang. Or had been. Its wings hung in tatters from the trees. Saplings and fallen branches lanced its crumpled body. Its head was intact, though, a beautiful piece of laminated folding nearly as big as me. The other kids marveled at its whiskers, spiky ruffles, and red lacquer eyes. A few kids swore it whispered. Johnny Campbell said it glared at him. I was more fascinated by what I'd discovered inside.
Through the rents in its tail, I could see the other side of the thin, but sturdy paper. It was snow white and covered in Japanese characters half-hidden by folds: mysterious, fantastic, elegantly brushed. The writing looked like art, not the crude graffiti my father said ground crews chalked on bombs: Remember Pearl; This One's For Mother; Next Stop Tokyo.
My teacher, Miss Alice, clapped her hands and told me not to touch the dragon. She said she could not imagine what it was for or how it had gotten there, but it could not be safe if the Japs had sent it, and she waited while I backed away.
Johnny, meanwhile, started kicking the head because his father and cousin had died on Iwo Jima. When Miss Alice turned to yell at him, I ran up and ripped off a dangling scrap large as a pie plate. If she'd caught me, I'd have said I wanted a souvenir before the army hauled the dragon away, like the Japanese flag covered in characters that my father had sent my brother. The truth was, the characters on this scrap were cherry red, not black like the rest in the dragon or those on the flag. They caught my eye, and I wanted to read them and know who wrote them. I knelt to fold the scrap in quarters and stuff it under my sweater. That's when Johnny gave the head a real big kick, and it exploded.
I was ten yards away and low to the ground, so the blast only threw me backwards. Johnny dissolved into red mist. So did most of Miss Alice. The rest of her splattered over me and the trees. Much of my classmates did too, followed by bits of flaming shirt and skirt, paper and pine needle.
I once asked my father what battle was like. He wrote back, "Do you really want to know? I won't lie." I said, "Yes." Months later his next letter said, "The smell never leaves your nose. The roasted hair. The rotting flesh. Gunpowder. Smoking oil." He was right.
The dragon's body burst like a string of firecrackers. The brush went up in flames. I scrambled down the trail through nagging chaparral toward our bus. After a few hundred yards, I ran into old Mr. Lively, the driver. He told me to sit beside a ghost pine while he went to help the others. I said, calm as day, "The dragon took them." He clearly thought me hysterical and hobbled off. Five minutes later he returned, his face as washed out and wary as a GI home on leave. He led me to the bus. I felt like I swam. The mountain erupted behind us.
I still had the presence of mind, however, to hide the scrap in my book bag before we reached a phone. Naturally, I didn't mention the dragon to the men in the ambulance, my mother and brother, or the Army investigators. They would've thought me hysterical, too. Nor did I mention the scrap. I was ashamed. It had saved me. Instead I told them all we'd found a huge deflated balloon with a bomb that suddenly blew up. I didn't mention Johnny kicking it, either. He was stupid and angry, but no one should be remembered for that. The newspaper the next day said it was a freak lightning strike, anyway.
At home I tucked the scrap beneath my dresser. The library had a Japanese-English dictionary, but I didn't dare bring the scrap there, and my copy of the characters wasn't good enough to translate. The Japanese girls in my school had left long ago, so I couldn't turn to them. And I couldn't risk sending the scrap to my father, who surely knew some translators, because it might've gotten lost in the mail. I decided to wait until he came home. We would puzzle it out together.
We never did. His plane went down over Tokyo. For several years, I couldn't touch the scrap, couldn't even look at it, not until my mother had to remarry and her new husband made us move to Sacramento.
While trying not to pack my room, I pulled it out. The scrap felt like snake molt. Dry. Cold. The ink looked fresh as jam, though, and my curiosity returned.
A Japanese man had recently moved in down the street, the first one back; where they'd gone I didn't know. I walked past his house for days before mustering the courage to knock. I introduced myself and asked if he'd translate something for me. He shrugged and invited me in.
I'd figured he would look at the scrap on the porch, but how could I refuse? My stomach fluttered as I followed him inside, not knowing what to expect, but his house was hardly strange. It could've been mine. Same layout. Furniture. Colors. We sat on the couch. He tightened his tie and lit a king-size Chesterfield like my father had. The smell nearly made me cry. He even had my father's DiMaggio haircut. That was what was strange.
I gave him the scrap. The man examined it, nodding, then carefully unfolded it. We winced when the laminate cracked. He held it in the window light and read:
"My name is Otsu. An officer came to our school and asked us to fold a dragon for the Emperor. It would fly across the ocean on a divine wind and attack America. He told us to write on the washi the names of everyone we knew that you had bombed or burned. They would give the dragon strength. I refuse. I will only write my apologies, my wish this war would end, and my hope this dragon hides in the woods and goes to sleep."
"It did," I said. "Then we woke it up."
Now I cried and spilled what had happened, even Johnny kicking the dragon's head, while the man smoothed the scrap over his thigh.
"Otsu was brave," he said. "It's hard to defy an emperor. It's harder to apologize."
"My father once told me," I said, "'If we apologized first, we wouldn't do much to apologize for.'"
The man smiled. "My father told me much the same thing."
He handed me the scrap, and I got up, controlling my tears. "Thank you, sir. I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"No bother," he said, standing. "We are neighbors."
As smoke from his cigarette coiled between us, I wanted to think that that could be true.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 20th, 2018
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