Vladimir Nabokov. The Dragon© Copyright 1924 by Vladimir Nabokov © Copyright by Dmitry Nabokov, english translation He lived in reclusion in a deep, murky cave, in the very heart of a rocky mountain, feeding only on bats, rats, and mold. Occasionally, it is true, stalactite hunters or snoopy travelers would come peeking into the cave, and that was a tasty treat. Other pleasant memories included a brigand attempting to flee from justice, and two dogs that were once let loose to ascertain if the passage did not go clear through the mountain. The surrounding country was wild, porous snow lay here and there on the rock, and waterfalls rumbled with an icy roar. He had hatched some thousand years ago, and, perhaps because it had happened rather unexpectedly--the enormous egg was cracked open by a lightning bolt one stormy night--the dragon had turned out cowardly and not overly bright. Besides, he was strongly affected by his mother's death. . . . She had long terrorized the neighboring villages, had spat flames, and the king would get cross, and around her lair incessantly prowled knights, whom she would crunch to pieces like walnuts. But once, when she had swallowed a plump royal chef and dozed off on a sun-warmed rock, the great Ganon himself galloped up in iron armor, on a black steed under silver netting. The poor sleepy thing went rearing up, her green and red humps flashing like bonfires, and the charging knight thrust his swift lance into her smooth white breast. She crashed to the ground, and promptly, out of the pink wound, sidled the corpulent chef with her enormous, steaming heart under his arm. The young dragon saw all this from a hiding place behind the rock and, forever after, could not think about knights without a shudder. He withdrew into the depths of a cave, whence he never emerged. Thus passed ten centuries, equivalent to twenty dragon years. Then, suddenly, he fell prey to unbearable melancholy. . . . In fact, the spoiled food from the cave was provoking ferocious gastric alarms, revolting rumblings, and pain. He spent nine years making up his mind, and on the tenth, he did. Slowly and cautiously, gathering in and extending the rings of his tail, he clambered out of his cave. Immediately he sensed that it was spring. The black rocks, washed by a recent downpour, were ashimmer; the sunlight boiled in the overflowing mountain torrent; the air was redolent of wild game. And the dragon, broadly inflating his flaming nostrils, started his descent into the valley. His satiny belly, white as a water lily, nearly touched the ground, crimson blotches stood out on his bloated green flanks, and the sturdy scales merged, on his back, into a jagged conflagration, a ridge of double ruddy humps, diminishing in size toward the potently, flexibly twitching tail. His head was smooth and greenish, bubbles of fiery mucus hung from his soft, warty underlip, and his giant, scaly paws left deep tracks, star-shaped concavities. The first thing he saw upon descending into the valley was a railroad train traveling along rocky slopes. The dragon's first reaction was delight, since he mistook the train for a relative he could play with. Moreover, he thought that beneath that shiny, hard-looking shell there must surely be some tender meat. So he set off in pursuit, his feet slapping with a hollow, damp noise, but, just as he was about to gobble up the last car, the train sped into a tunnel. The dragon stopped, thrust his head into the black lair into which his quarry had vanished, but there was no way he could get in there. He dispatched a couple of torrid sneezes into the depths, then retracted his head, sat on his haunches, and began waiting--who knows, it might come running out again. After waiting some time he shook his head and moved on. At that instant a train did come scurrying out of the dark lair, gave a sly flash of window glass, and disappeared behind a curve. The dragon gave a hurt look over his shoulder and, raising his tail like a plume, resumed his journey. Dusk was falling. Fog floated above the meadows. The gigantic beast, big as a live mountain, was seen by some homeward-bound peasants, who remained petrified with awe. A little auto speeding along the highway had all four of its tires blow out from fright, bounced, and ended up in the ditch. But the dragon walked on, noticing nothing; from afar came the hot scent of concentrated crowds of humans, and that is where he was headed. And, against the blue expanse of the night sky, there loomed before him black factory smokestacks, guardians of a large industrial town. The main personages of this town were two: the owner of the Miracle Tobacco Company and that of the Big Helmet Tobacco Company. Between them raged age-old, subtle hostilities, about which one could write an entire epic poem. They were rivals in everything--the motley colors of their advertisements, their distribution techniques, pricing, and labor relations--but no one could say which had the upper hand. That memorable night, the owner of the Miracle Company stayed very late at his office. Nearby on his desk lay a stack of new, freshly printed advertisements that workmen from the cooperative were to plaster around the city at daybreak. Suddenly a bell pierced the silence of the night and, a few moments later, entered a pale, haggard man with a burdocklike wart on his right cheek. The factory owner knew him: he was the proprietor of a model tavern the Miracle Company had set up on the outskirts. "It's going on two in the morning, my friend. The only justification I can find for your visit is an event of unheard-of importance." "That's exactly the case," said the tavern keeper in a calm voice, although his wart was twitching. This is what he reported: He was bundling off five thoroughly soused old laborers. They must have seen something highly curious outdoors, for they all broke out laughing--"Oh-ho-ho," rumbled one of the voices, "I must have had one glass too many, if I see, big as life, the hydra of counterrevo--" He did not have time to finish, for there was a surge of terrifying, ponderous noise, and someone screamed. The tavern keeper stepped outside to have a look. A monster, glimmering in the murk like a moist mountain, was swallowing something large with its head thrown back, which made its whitish neck swell with alternating hillocks; it swallowed and licked its chops, its whole body rocked, and it gently lay down in the middle of the street. "I think it must have dozed off," finished the tavern keeper, restraining the twitching wart with his finger. The factory owner got up. The robust fillings of his teeth flashed with the golden fire of inspiration. The arrival of a live dragon aroused in him no other feelings than the passionate desire that guided him in every instance--the desire to inflict a defeat on the rival firm. "Eureka," he exclaimed. "Listen, my good man, are there any other witnesses?" "I don't think so," the other replied. "Everybody was in bed, and I decided not to wake anyone and came straight to you. So as to avoid panic." The factory owner donned his hat. "Splendid. Take this--no, not the whole pile, thirty or forty sheets will do--and bring along this can, and the brush too. There, now show me the way." They went out into the dark night and were soon at the quiet street at the end of which, according to the tavern keeper, reposed a monster. First, by the light of a lone, yellow streetlamp, they saw a policeman standing on his head in the middle of the pavement. It turned out later that, while making his nightly rounds, he had come upon the dragon and had such a fright that he turned upside down and remained petrified in that attitude. The factory owner, a man with the size and strength of a gorilla, turned him right side up and leaned him against the lightpost; then he approached the dragon. The dragon was asleep, and no wonder. The individuals he had devoured, it so happened, were totally impregnated with wine, and had popped succulently between his jaws. The alcohol on an empty stomach had gone straight to his head and he had lowered the pellicles of his eyelids with a blissful smile. He lay on his belly with his front paws folded under, and the glow of the streetlamp highlighted the glistening arcs of the double vertebral protuberances. "Set up the ladder, '" said the factory owner. "I'll do the pasting myself." And, choosing flat spots on the slimy green flanks of the monster, he began unhurriedly brushing paste on the scaly skin and affixing ample advertising posters. When he had used all the sheets, he gave the brave tavern keeper a meaningful handshake and, chomping on his cigar, returned home. Morning came, a magnificent spring morning softened by a lilac haze. And suddenly the street came alive with a merry, excited din, doors and windows slammed, people poured into the street, mingling with those who were hurrying somewhere, laughing as they went. What they saw was a perfectly lifelike dragon, all covered with colorful advertisements, slapping listlessly along the asphalt. One poster was even stuck to the bald crown of his head. "smoke only miracle brand," rollicked the blue and crimson letters of the ads. "only fools DON'T SMOKE MY CIGARETTES," "MIRACLE TOBACCO TURNS AIR INTO HONEY," "MIRACLE, MIRACLE, MIRACLE'." It really is a miracle, laughed the crowd, and how is it done--is it a machine or are there people inside? The dragon was feeling rotten after his involuntary binge. The cheap wine now made him sick to his stomach, his whole body felt weak, and the thought of breakfast was out of the question. Besides, he was now overcome by an acute sense of shame, the excruciating shyness of a creature that finds itself amid a crowd for the first time. Frankly speaking, he very much wished to return as soon as possible to his cave, but that would have been even more shameful--therefore, he continued his grim progress through the town. Several men with placards on their backs protected him from the curious and from urchins who wanted to slip under his white belly, clamber onto his lofty backbone, or touch his snout. Music played, people gaped from every window, behind the dragon automobiles drove single file, and in one of them slouched the factory owner, the hero of the day. The dragon walked without looking at anybody, dismayed by the incomprehensible merriment that he aroused. Meanwhile, in a sunlit office, along a carpet soft as moss, paced to and fro with clenched fists the rival manufacturer, owner of the Big Helmet Company. At an open window, observing the procession, stood his girlfriend, a diminutive tightrope dancer. "This is an outrage," croaked over and again the manufacturer, a middle-aged, bald man with blue-gray bags of flabby skin under his eyes. "The police ought to put a stop to this scandal. . . . When did he manage to cobble together this stuffed dummy?" "Ralph," the dancer suddenly cried, clapping her hands. "I know what you should do. We have a number at the circus called The Joust, and--" In a torrid whisper, goggling her doll-like, mascara-lined eyes, she told him her plan. The manufacturer beamed. An instant later he was already on the phone with the circus manager, "So," said the manufacturer, hanging up. "The dummy is made of inflated rubber. We'll see what's left of it if we give it a good prick." Meanwhile the dragon had crossed the bridge, passed the marketplace and the Gothic cathedral, which aroused some pretty repugnant memories, continued along the main boulevard, and was traversing a broad square when, parting the crowd, a knight unexpectedly came charging at him. The knight wore iron armor, visor lowered, a funereal plume on his helmet, and rode a ponderous black horse in silvery netting. Arms bearers--women dressed as pages--walked alongside, carrying picturesque, hastily devised banners heralding "big helmet," "SMOKE ONLY BIG HELMET," "BIG HELMET BEATS THEM ALL." The circus rider impersonating the knight spurred his steed and clenched his lance. But the steed for some reason started backing, spurting foam, then suddenly reared up and sat heavily on its haunches. The knight tumbled to the asphalt, with such a clatter one might think someone had thrown all the dishes out the window. But the dragon did not see this. At the knight's first move he had stopped abruptly, then rapidly turned, knocking down a pair of curious old women standing on a balcony with his tail as he did so, and, squashing the scattering spectators, had taken flight. He was out of the town in a single bound, flew across the fields, scrambled up the rocky slopes, and dove into his bottomless cavern. There he collapsed onto his back, paws folded and showing his satiny, white, shuddering belly to the dark vaults, heaved a deep breath, closed his astonished eyes, and died.