Meeting Dragons: A True Story

I turned 40 among strangers on a small Indonesian island––that one known for its population of giant carnivorous lizards, which we name dragons. In the morning, local guides herded little clots of tourists down a narrow path to a fenced enclosure, and from within, we studied groups of dragons: great lumbering beasts, drooling, tongues flickering.

No longer framed by the camera, he became real, and once real, he became abruptly terrifying, carrying the weight of a lifetime of bad dreams half-glimpsed and forgotten.

We were told that the old custom of feeding them goats for the entertainment of tourists had been ended; nevertheless, they circled our little enclosure expectantly. Threadbare deer grazed cautiously just out of reach, and our guides told gruesome stories about the deer and feral goats, about the intersecting lives of the local farmers and these languid dragons. In brief spurts of speed, they said, the dragons could run down a grown man. Their saliva contained a nerve toxin. Once every year or two, a farmer was killed and eaten.

Later, restless in the heat of the day, I went walking down the beach, studying the way the land rose abruptly, harsh and angular, from the soft sea, searching the horizon for signs of the afternoon boat. Then, coming toward me across the broken coral, I saw a dragon, 12 feet long and easily as thick around as I, walking slowly on squat, powerful legs. I got out my camera and started taking photos; it got closer and more detailed, filling my field of view; I kept pressing the shutter and flipping the lever, thinking of the enlargements I’d hang on my walls at home, the stories I’d tell (“I turned 40,” I’d say, “among strangers on a small Indonesian island…”).

When the dragon’s head blurred, I pulled my eye from the viewfinder and looked directly at its face––scales, fangs, folded flesh, venomous drool––suddenly very close. No longer framed by the camera, he became real, and once real, he became abruptly terrifying, carrying the weight of a lifetime of bad dreams half-glimpsed and forgotten. I distinctly felt the slam of adrenaline in my veins, and I backed away quickly, scratching myself on scrubby bushes and half-tripping over hidden obstacles. The dragon never altered his gait, continuing down the beach; I retreated to the comfort of the tourists’ compound with its stone paths and decrepit grass huts. Waiting for the arrival of the afternoon boat, I prepared my story and replayed the feeling of rushing terror in my veins. I did not speak to the other people, and no one knew me there.

Much later, I learned of the death of a musician who’d been one of my heroes long before, someone who had seemed to take what I felt but could not speak and transform it into rhythm and tone and soaring melody. Who had in this way spoken for me in my times of silence; on the day that I turned forty, he had died of a lifetime of self-abuse. 

Now, years later, I wrestle with the unwieldy shape of that day, struggle to bring it into shape and cohere: to tell of the eerie disconnection of that place, the strangeness of the terrain and the giant lizards, my momentary confusion between what was real and what was just raw material for the imaginations of others. You see, I am trying to render my experience of that day real by making it a story to be told by myself and others. I have always secretly carried my regret that the dragon never lunged for me, hissed at me, or gave any sign that he noticed my vulnerable presence.           

I do not think of that day without thinking also of the musician. I do not know why his death on that day still affects me so, why it seems so much a part of that time. I am trying to find a way to weave his death and my continued life seamlessly together into the story which I hope someday to tell. My regrets I hold close, like tiny treasures. 

Mark Harfenist was born and raised in New York. After 40 years in places with insufficient snowfall, he settled at last in Bellingham, WA, where he dabbles in mountain biking, motorcycling, backcountry skiing, kayaking, and world travel. In his spare time, he works as a family therapist and mental health counselor.

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