Capture

by

Dragon \ˈdra-gən\ (n) Derived from the Greek word “drakon,” which comes from a verb meaning to see, to look at, and more remotely, to watch.
– from Brewer’s Concise Phrase and Fable, rev. ed. 2000

April 2008
After graduation, he found himself back at the beach: the old cottage, to the cliffs and the sea and the cove. The memory of a dragon’s eye moon, photographs burned in a cleansing fire, was still seared in his memory. He clambered down the rocky outcropping and walked the length of the shore, the sand between his toes an intricate, transient lacework. He made his way carefully, alone, towards the cave.

He found the creature just before the sun set across the horizon, casting brilliant rays of light across the flowing surface of the ocean. Remembering the stories of their old caretaker, he looked on with a mixture of wonder and revulsion as the last red-orange flickers of light licked the obsidian dragon scales, the folds of translucent emerald wings that grew from the back of the prostrate mound of flesh in front of him. As the last of the sunlight faded, the figure in front of him began to fade – become smaller, slipping into a form that was both achingly beautiful and strangely familiar. The entire cave smelled like a forest, newly washed by rain. Her hair was spread over the dark surface of the rock, melding perfectly with the shadows.

April 2005
The first time they made love, he traced the sinuous shape of her tattoo with careful fingers, cresting the curve of her spine. It wound from her back to her stomach, winding around her waist like the proverbial serpent, tempting him to taste a forbidden fruit. She moaned and bucked underneath him as his lips and tongue and fingers made slow, languorous love to her, playing her finely as one would an exquisite instrument. The thin sheen of sweat on their skin glistened dimly in the lamplight.

She was older than Sam, though by how many years he was never quite sure. He had seen Lydia enter the dormitory across his, and saw her jog around the university quad quite regularly, just before the bell tower chimed seven o’clock. She was a student, that much was certain, but from which college and what course, he was never able to ascertain. It was only in his summer photography class that he had gotten to know her, classmates that never quite spoke, but passed small, folded notes to each other while Professor Alcantara talked about capturing the chiaroscuro, about looking at the world through light and shadow.

Are you doing anything Friday night? she wrote once in her careful, looping handwriting.

Sam glanced briefly in her direction as he received the folded piece of paper. They were sitting at the back of the classroom, half-hidden in the darkening afternoon. It looked like it was about to rain. He couldn’t read the notes on the blackboard. No, I’m not. Why? he asked, hurridily scribbling underneath her sentence.

Do you want to have dinner?

A clap of thunder punctuated the droning voice of the teacher. Half the girls in the class screamed in surprise. Lightning sliced through the sky, cutting across the ominous clouds. Thunder boomed again. Rain spilled across the horizon, filling the spaces between the tree and the roof, windows and glass. Circles of water formed patterns on the maroon-tiled floor of the classroom. Shutters were hurridly closed. Students folded their arms over their chests, makeshift warmth of skin against skin. Professor Alcantara’s voice refused to rise over the crescendo of the storm.

Sure.

Later that afternoon, he brought her back to his dormitory, his umbrella heavy with water. The sleeve of her blouse, where the curved edges of the umbrella dripped rainwater, was soaked. He gave her an old sweater to wear while he set about drying her blouse in front of the electric fan, painfully aware of the fact that a woman he considered beautiful was in his room, in his bathroom changing her clothes. He rushed around the small room, setting his books in order, his sheets quickly folded, and his stack of porn videos stashed in their secret place underneath the bed. Aaron, Sam’s roommate of two years, was out of town for the week on fieldwork, for which he was profoundly grateful.

Lydia came out of the tiny bathroom, her hair tousled and her eyes twinkling in amusement. “So this is what a boy’s bedroom looks like.” Then she stepped forward, and before Sam could say another word, had traveled the space between them. A kiss, hot as dragon’s fire, brushed his lips.

Outside, the storm refused to abate.

LOCAL NEWS: April 12, 2006

A fire near the seaside town of Santa Jacinta in Batangas was reported by residents of the small seaside village last night at approximately 2:34 in the morning. A hectare of dry brush on an abandoned lot near the Ines Santita beach was said to have been burned to the ground, reducing cogon and the pale yellow grass into ash.

June 2005

“She’s been missing for over a week now,” Mitchie told Sam frantically. He was coming from the dormitory cafeteria and was crossing the lobby when he saw the slight figure of Lydia’s best friend rushing towards her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he yelled furiously, his voice rising over the noise of the television. The group of freshmen boys watching the basketball replay quietly turned it off and slunk back to their rooms.

Mitchie burst into tears. “I was scared,” she sobbed. “I didn’t know what to do. She told me, the last time I saw her, that she wanted to escape.”

“Escape from what?” he asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Mitchie couldn’t answer him, couldn’t look him in the eye, couldn’t stop crying.

May 2005
The campus, newly watered with the summer rains, smelled like a universe newly born. Glistening with rainwater, leaves hung heavy from the acacia branches that lined the main thoroughfare of the university. They were walking down the sidewalk, careful with the cracks in the cement. She carried her books close to her chest. His hands were shoved inside his pockets. They were coming from class.

“So what made you want to take up photography in the first place?’ she asked Sam, smiling.

“Just wanted to fill up some units so I won’t be left behind,” he said nonchalantly. “It was the only class that still had slots when I went in to sign up. Still, it’s better than Math.” He shrugged. “And you?”

“I like the idea of looking at the world through a lens,” she said, looking down, watching her step. She was conscious of the puddles, the damp slippery moss. “That you can create borders around what you see, the focusing and capturing of a moment that will never happen again.” She grinned, her face lighting up. “My mother said that I’m a watcher, not a doer. Maybe it’s because I never do anything around the house – I just watch her do the chores.”

Sam laughed. “My mom says the same thing about me.”

She slipped an arm around his. The mere whisper of her skin against the cloth of his shirt sleeve was overpowering.

FROM AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED APRIL 14, 2006

“It swept down from the sky,” reported old Tatang Anding, the caretaker of the Gonzaga cottage perched just above the Ines Santita beach. “I’ve never heard of manananggals in the area, but maybe those new people from Siquijor had something to do with it. Brought the curse with them.”

“Is there anything in the old stories that said that manananggals can breathe fire?” asked the newbie reporter, painfully oblivious to the folklore and old wives’ tales.

Tatang Anding paused for a moment, his wrinkled brown nut of a face slowly knitting ideas and words together into a coherent thought. Then he slowly shook his head.

May 2005
They were partners in class on the final project, model and photographer, their roles silently agreed upon without any discussion. Sam was getting used to reading her mind, anticipating Lydia’s actions by her inactions. She wanted to be seen, to become a mirror for his ideas, a reflection of what he saw. He wanted to use her fascination for mythical creatures as an anchor to the images. Black and white, stark skin and shadows, the dragon tattoo framed by the lines of her body. He loved to capture the curve of her back, the shallow plains of her bones giving shape to flesh, the length and flow of her legs. She agreed to pose nude.

They scheduled it over a weekend at a deserted strip of beach in Batangas called Ines Santita, staying at a small rest house owned by Sam’s family. The house overlooked a patch of white sand, built on a stone shelf sheered by rock. Shallow caves dotted the cove, just by the shore. During peak season, Sam told her during the drive, they rented to cottage out to other members of the family or to friends who wanted to get away. Right now, nobody was staying there: summer was almost over, and enrollment was only a couple of weeks away. The rains were heavier now, threatening to swallow the inland cove. It was dangerous to swim at night.

“It’s a beautiful place,” she said once they reached it, lying spread-eagled on the bed. “I wish I could live here forever.”

The cottage itself had only one bedroom, with one bed. They quietly made the bed, tucking the covers underneath the mattress, plumping pillows. He offered to sleep on the couch in the living room. She shook her head. On the first night, Lydia watched him sleep curled up beside her, his body avoiding a narrow strip of moonlight that slipped beneath the edge of the bedroom curtain.

March 2006
It was the first time he entered her room at the dormitory. She slept alone, one of the privileged few who were given single rooms. The landlady still kept it the way after her disappearance at the request of her parents. He wondered why he never used the key before – Mitchie gave him the spare a week after her disappearance. But then again, Sam reasoned, it wasn’t as if they were together anyway, right? She was just a friend, a fuck, a memory. So why did he feel as though there were claws around his heart, sharp dragon-nails digging around the fluttering muscle, thumping faster and faster.

The room smelled of Glade and old potpourri. Her bed was made, pale peach sheets patterned with scarlet tulips. Her blanket was folded at the foot of her mattress. Her laundry was folded and piled neatly at the middle of the bed. Lydia’s desk was neat as well – notebooks stacked together, ballpens and other colorful markers inside a ceramic mug. Books were lined up like toy soldiers according to height against the wall: a dictionary and thesaurus, books on Celtic mythology, Joseph Campbell, a dragonology sourcebook. Her camera was perched on top of the cabinet, lens facing forward, an all-seeing eye.

But the walls – Sam marveled at the walls of Lydia’s room. A mosaic of photographs, developed by her own hand, judging by smudges on several of the prints. They were all in black and white, stark images taped on the wall, fluttering like a thousand butterfly wings in the almost-imperceptible breeze. The prints covered two of the four walls, and it looked like she was beginning on the third when she disappeared. The photographs were mounted neatly, row after row of glossy prints, arranged almost like fish armor, or dragon scales.

Sam stepped closer to the walls, studying the photographs, searching for something – a clue, a lead, an arrow pointing to the next step. Her disappearance, the explanation for it all, was an itch he wanted so desperately to scratch. She loved doing close-ups, capturing the detail of an eye, a shoe, the scattering of clothes across a surface. Everything seemed familiar, somehow, a world he knew but was distorted by some kaleidoscope vision he failed to understand completely.

May 2005
“Let me develop the pictures,” she said on the way back from Batangas. Sam felt a twinge of possessive of Lydia’s body. He didn’t want anyone else to see it, particularly the one who owned it. He felt like a paradox, an undefined word. She was driving, he was in the front passenger seat, and they were driving along a deserted strip of side road, which Sam remembered was a short cut, or so his father had said before they left Manila. Cogon and tall grass surrounded them on both sides of the road. The car lurched forward, the path unpaved and rocky. An occasional stubby tree punctuated the otherwise lonely landscape.

Sam stared straight ahead, clutching his camera to his lap. “No. I’ll do it.”

“I want to see it too.”

“I’ll give you prints.”

“I want to see the ones you discard as well.”

He didn’t answer. Darkness began to close around them. Stars carefully uncovered themselves in the twilight. Lydia flicked on the headlights, illuminating the ground in front of them.

“It’s our project,” she said finally, “and I just want to see how you took pictures of – ”

“NO!”

Lydia slammed on the brakes hard, so hard that they both careened forward and flopped in their seats, held back only by seatbelts. Sam brushed his hair out of his eyes and turned to face her. She was clutching the wheel tightly, her knuckles pale in the gathering night, delicate veins tracing patterns across her skin. She seemed tinged slightly green in the weird light. They sat in silence for some time before he spoke again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Asshole,” she muttered, staring straight ahead. She flicked off the headlights. They sat in the car, the airconditioning humming in their ears, their only source of illumination the slanted half-moon, the distant stars.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked up. “It’s waning right now,” she whispered. “Sometimes it’s called the dragon’s eye moon. They say that a woman’s magic is strongest during this lunar phase.”

“Why?”

She cast him a sideways glance. “Take a wild guess.”

Sam leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She turned her head, wide-eyed, her hair a dark waterfall framing her too-pale face. “Why,” she whispered.

He leaned in and kissed her again, on the mouth, his lips prying hers open, his tongue tasting her sweet, cold flavor.

FROM A FEATURE ARTICLE, “Here Be Dragons!”: April 20, 2006

The summer fires are spreading, and a number of the local residents have putforth a number of theories about the recent happenings that had set the town of Santa Jacinta aflame. Some people are blaming arson, others an accident. Everything from faulty wiring to children possessed by the devil were used as reasons by the local populace. The local parish priest is suddenly well-versed in the rituals of exorcism. The monsoon season is approaching, neightbors reminded each other, so how could the damp ground suddenly catch fire?

However, the elders, Honoracio “Tatang Anding” Gonzales included, reported seeing a dark figure swooping down from the sky, sharp wings momentarily overshadowing the stars, a lithe and serpentine silhouette that always appeared before each new incident of fire. A creature of myth residing in the imagination of these poor townsfolk, or the proof of dragons finally discovered on our native soil?

April 2005
“Was it painful?” he asked once, sitting beside her on the dormitory steps, watching the liquid sun set over the watery horizon. Pale strands of light dripped from the damp trees, rippling across the buildings and the sidewalks, the streets and passing cars.

She thought for a moment, sipping her iced tea carefully. “It was…like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It was painful, yes, but it was also cleansing, if that makes sense to you.” She looked at him. He noticed that her eyes were flecked with gold, and wondered if it was just a mere trick of the light.

“I don’t think I can explain,” she continued. “It’s like, you have to transcend the pain, I guess – because it really does consume you, for the moment, and then you just want to make it stop, but you can’t, and so you find a way to go beyond the pain, and then you realize it’s just momentary, that everything passes, and so all you have to do is wait for it to end. And it did.”

March 2006
It took a few seconds before he realized that all of the photographs on her wall were of him. Grainy and off-focus, but still recognizable, the way a puddle reflects and distorts one’s features. Pictures of Sam walking down the sidewalk with his basketball teammates, hair slick with sweat. Sam waiting for a jeepney at the shed. Sam walking beneath the trees during twilight. Sam leaning against the classroom wall, his hair in his eyes, texting. Sam’s eye, peering from the print, larger than life. Sam hunched in a library carrel, studying. Sam’s mud-encrusted rubber shoes, leaning crookedly against the wall.

He whirled around, momentarily dizzy. All of this – all of him – she was taking them – taking him –

He gripped the edge of her bed, frightened. Questions spun inside his head, a whirlwind of half-formed sentences, phrases all jumbled together, spliced with question marks, tremors of fears and partly-justified assumptions. He wanted to get out, stumble out into the street and inhale the cloyingly sweet smell of the rain-soaked loam. The photographs shivered, as if a cold wind had blown inside the room.

May 2005
Lydia was sleeping at the back of the car, curled across the backseat, covered by his jacket. Her hair scattered across the upholstery, a dark penumbra around her head. He was in the driver’s seat, speeding down the highway. The scent of sex coated the inside of the small vehicle. Sam could still taste her on his fingers.

She had made small, whimpering sounds of pleasure as he entered her, her body shuddering as she moved to the age-old rhythm heard by countless other lovers before them. The dragon on her body curved and undulated in its own silent dance across her skin. Sam held her until she came, finally, their sweat mingling, her skin flushed pink. Lydia curled up in the back seat, naked, afterwards, her eyes closed and a small smile of desire playing on her lips. The dragon curled around her possessively, its small inked eyes staring at Sam as if in challenge, guarding its treasure with its own sinuous form.

He had stared at her for some time, lost in thought, the countryside wind sweeping through the open windows of the car, drying his skin. He dressed quickly and arranged his jacket around her slumbering body, a concession to modesty. It was only when his fingers closed around her bare body that he noted the green tinge of her skin, the slight row of shallow bumps across her back, past the tattoo, woman-flesh that seemed to transform into the sleek surface of a dragon.

FROM AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED APRIL 30, 2006

Tatang Anding, now living with his grandchildren at the town proper, said that before the rains had begun, the serpentine shadow once associated with the searing flames that had destroyed twenty homes and burned an entire field had circled the center of the town one last time.

“What did it do?” asked the reporter, shoving the microphone into the old man’s face.

“It called out something. It made a sound. Sent chills running up and down my back.” Tatang Anding rubbed his stick-thin arms with his spidery-like fingers. “It was a heartbreaking sound. And then it flew away.”

“Where do you think it had gone to?”

The old man shrugged. “To its home, I guess. To the beach. The caves.”

June 2005
“I feel trapped,” Lydia said the last time they saw each other. They were having dinner at a rundown Thai canteen just off-campus. Sam wanted something to warm his bones. “I feel like I’m growing out of my skin.”

Sam swallowed a spoonful of hot spicy soup. “Maybe it’s because summer is ending.”

Lydia gestured to the rainshower outside, painting the scene outside the window gray. “Never felt like summer in the first place.”

“True.”

“I don’t know.” She propped her elbows on the table and cocked her head. “I feel like I need to do something, get out of here, find something else to do.”

“Sounds like you want to run away.”

“Something like that.” She took a long drink of her Diet Coke.

“The question,” said Sam thoughtfully, “is why.”

Lydia paused for a moment, watching Sam wolf down the last of his meal. After he had cleaned his plate, she said, “I think…I think it’s because I don’t really belong here.” She spread her hands out on the table and stared at them dejectedly. “I don’t know. I’m just babbling.”

She looked so desperate, so alone, that Sam wanted to put his arms around her and pull her to him, tell her that she was important, that she was doing something for him, to him. But he just kept his hands to himself and busied himself with looking at the rainwashed street and the damp, waterlogged sky.

June 2006
The rainy season began with a spectacular downpour at the beginning of the schoolyear. Buildings smelled like mildew and damp. Trees dripped verdant leaves down unsuspecting pedestrians. Everyone carried an umbrella expectantly. Dark clouds obscured the merest ray of watery sunlight.

Sam moved out of the dormitory and into an off-campus apartment. He returned the key to Lydia’s room. One night, he burned all the photographs he took of her. The white paper seared and crackled, disappearing into the depths of pale, pale fire.

Epilogue
The three prints that Same took of Lydia that were part of the final exhibit of Sam’s photography class were the ones that received the highest mark for that summer semester. The serpentine shadows that Sam skillfully played with as they slithered across the bare skin of his model was lauded by Professor Alcantara, before shaking his head in regret at the disappearance of Sam’s partner.

In the first photograph, Lydia was seated at an angle on a flat rock inside a cave, her head draped with a sheet of white lace. Sunlight pierced through the gloom of the interior, the shadows of rocks. Her eyes were closed, lashes curling demurely on her cheeks. A hint of a smile danced on her lips. Her tattoo danced across her belly, the head of the dragon just above her pubic mound, the flickering tongue pointing downward.

In the second photograph, Lydia was still inside the cave, standing on the flat rock. Her lace headdress trailed at her feet, an abandoned heirloom. She was facing the camera, her tattooed dragon visibly encircling her torso. In her cupped hands, an offering, she held an apple.

In the third photograph, Lydia was curled up on the flat rock, her back turned towards the camera. Her arms were wrapped around herself, her fingers peeking from where she was gripping her shoulders. A knife seemed to be embedded on her side, and a dark liquid trickled from her prone form onto the sand. The tail of the dragon curled around her lower back, the top half disappearing as it seemingly climbed over the curve of her waist. Her hair was spread over the dark surface of the rock, melding perfectly with the shadows.

Born in 1984 in Manila, Philippines, Gabriela Lee earned her degree at the University of the Philippines and completed her master’s at the National University of Singapore under an ASEAN scholarship. She was a Fellow for Poetry in English at the Dumaguete Writers’ Workshop, the longest-running creative writing workshop in Southeast Asia. Her stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines such as The Sunday Inquirer Magazine and the Philippine Free Press, and anthologies such as Philippine Speculative Fiction, Vol. 1, Crowns & Oranges: New Philippine Poetry, and A Different Voice: Fiction by Young Filipino Writers. She currently works with teenagers in an online virtual environment in Singapore.