A graduate student desperate to finish her thesis and establish her independence grapples with her past, her future, and the mysteries of the present.
Sara Gorske (she/her) is a graduate student, yoga instructor, and writer currently based in Southern California. Her debut chapbook, I Left a Piece of Me in a Dream and Now I Don’t Fit Together Anymore, was published by Bottlecap Press in 2022, and her works have been featured or are forthcoming publications including Soft Star Magazine, Full House Literary, Seaglass Literary, and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. She can be located on Instagram at @meetyouonthe_matsci and www.sarafgorske.com, though she is usually found in the pages of a fantasy novel.
Walking along the spine of the Dragon gave Jordan an exhilarating feeling. The mountain ridge had been named for the spiky outcroppings that time had not weathered away, but the view from the top made her feel like she really was soaring through the clouds on the back of a beast of legend.
(“Send pictures!” Parker begged during her stop home. One stop in North Carolina to satisfy her mother, between the cross-country and transatlantic flights.
“Will do, big guy,” Jordan promised, giving him a fist bump.)
She was ostensibly here to survey the area; one last pass, she had begged her supervisor, after their previous treks had yielded nothing, and she had left his office with a smile at the hike that awaited her on the weekend. Her research team here in England was looking into reports that this ridge was drawing an unusual number of lightning strikes, high even for this region, which lay right across a well-trodden storm path. The local weather station in Greenburgh had laughed when the townies called in about the blinding flashes, especially when the claims grew in ludicrousness: the lightning strikes were not the white of an electrical surge, but the variegated colors of the aurora borealis, violets and cyans and chartreuses. The lightning didn’t spear down from the sky but coursed upward, thrusting into the dark underbellies of the storm clouds.
No one outside of this remote Pennines region would have ever heard the story, were it not for an inebriated newspaper intern who happened to tell the story over his third pint on the very night that Greenburgh’s homeborn Hollywood star, Ryan Webster, had returned in a blaze of glory and paparazzi. The paparazzo who overheard the intern worked for a tabloid that ran UFO stories in addition to celebrity gossip, and the headline blared from racks in grocery stores all over England and the US the next week: “Reverse Lightning Storms in Yorkshire—Have the Underground Inhabitants of Earth Finally Awoken?”
Conspiracy theorists and Tolkien fans alike swarmed the area over the next weeks and months, searching for little men made of hematite, hobbits, and the camaraderie of being around people who didn’t mind anyone else’s particular brand of crazy. Sometimes Jordan and her team felt like the crazy ones. They were the only ones there for a scientific purpose: the plan was to search for metal deposits that might have been uncovered in the recent rains, ones which might explain the strange colors the townspeople had seen glowing. The actual lightning they chalked up to imagination.
(“There’s a dragon?” Parker gasped when she called home. “Can we go flying?”
“We’ll ride it together,” she promised.
She swore she could hear his beam from across the ocean.)
The phenomenon didn’t repeat itself a single time that summer, and soon enough the bed and breakfast places were empty, the cooks at the diner saw only their regular patrons, and nearly all talk of magic and non-human lifeforms had dried up. Jordan and the team hadn’t found anything of note, either. The only one who seemed cheerful enough was Levi Prescott, a PhD student in psychology who had tagged along to add Greenburgh to his thesis on how even the mention of the supernatural triggered people to believe in the nonphysical. Jordan supposed she had gotten a few samples of unusual minerals that might garner an extra look from her own advisor, but she hadn’t turned up anything she hadn’t seen before. There wouldn’t be a paper on rare magnetic deposits in the northern Pennines to close out her graduate career.
The prospect of writing her thesis was daunting, especially without the kind of monumental discovery her advisor’s previous students had the reputation for churning out. She’d convinced the team to stay in Greenburgh far past the date when it would have been obvious something would turn up, mostly because the frequent hikes over the Dragon cleared her mind. Looking out over the rolling hills, the gleam of hidden tarns winking at her from between leaves starting to don their autumn glory, she was reminded of why she’d pursued geoscience in the first place, awe of the natural world refilling her depleted reservoir of certainty in her future.
(“And they lived happily ever after,” her mother finished, closing the picture book with a clack of its thick wooden pages. Snow White and her prince disappeared, to be reborn the next time it was read.
“Again?” wheedled Parker. As their mother frowned, Jordan smiled, remembering herself asking the same question years earlier. Then she’d grown up, walking away into reality.)
The autumn wind trailed cool fingers down her neck. No fire-breathing monsters stalked these parts to banish the chill. She lost herself in the walk, her feet taking on a rhythm syncopated by the occasional burst of crackling leaves underfoot. This might be her last hike here, and she let her gaze wander over the rippled landscape. They were still south of Scotland, but a few of the ridgelines reminded Jordan of the cresting backs of sea serpents, perhaps extinct kin of Nessie.
Staring at one hill that looked remarkably like a snarling maw, she forgot to check the scanty path, and on her next step her left foot slid over a patch of scree. She went down with a whoomph, her back thankfully cushioned by her oversized backpack.
Jordan rolled over with a groan and spied her fluorescent yellow water bottle, which had toppled off the path and gotten caught in a thicket of bramble. She groaned at the thought of the waterspout covered in dirt, but picked herself up to retrieve it.
The drop down from the path was farther and steeper than she expected, and she almost got herself stuck in the thicket before succeeding. She crouched down to pick up the water bottle, dusted off the spout, and grimaced before sliding it back into the side pocket of her pack. Then she looked back up the hill to gauge the best route back to the ridgetop.
Only it was gone, or rather, out of place. Jordan stared up at the impassable barrier that now shot straight up more than a hundred feet before tapering into the familiar spiny crest. She was positive she had only gone down twenty or so steps; she had seen her bottle from where she landed, for fuck’s sake. And yet the impossible fact of distance not being what it seemed paled next to the strangeness of the rock face itself.
The vertical slab of rock was shot through with streaks of vermilion and emerald, not unlike sections of the Grand Canyon, except that these dipped and wove far more than was geologically feasible. In some places the veins of color veered around sharply and ran parallel to themselves, wiggling back and forth, defying sedimentary intuition, while in others the streaks abruptly changed color, morphing into some different rock variant instantaneously.
Jordan ran her hand over the rock in wonder, flinching when sparks tickled her fingers as she made contact. The surface was uncannily warm, as if it had been sitting above a magma chamber for millennia before shooting out of the earth; the watery sunlight bestowed no real heat this late in the year. She kept her fingers on the surface as she began walking roughly in the direction she had been going, hoping the crest would dip and her path would meet the ridgeline again. She shoved any thoughts that didn’t jive with all the practical facts of geology and reality to the back of her mind. Like the fact that rock faces took millennia to rise out of the ground during the formation of a mountain range, and that they certainly didn’t do so along old, non-active fault lines. Nope. She wouldn’t think about any of that.
(“Take me with you!” Parker cried as she gathered the last of her belongings back into her ratty blue suitcase.
Jordan glanced up to see her mother, frowning just outside the doorway. She gave her brother a weak smile. “Can’t, big guy. It’s too dangerous. But I’ll find the dragon for you, okay? I’ll fight it and tame it and bring it back so you can fly wherever you want.”)
Relief sang through her when her path started to rise. Even the prospect of an uphill walk was no issue if it got her back to the top of the ridge and she could verify she still knew where she was. The sun was starting to dip past its zenith, and she frowned before hurrying. She had only set out a few hours ago, right? And the sun had barely risen then, because she had wanted the bright early morning light to highlight any interesting rock features once she was at the top.
The path continued climbing, but the ridge didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Its dips and crags were still familiar — that one, up ahead, she’d nicknamed the Dorsal Spine, because it was situated right before a dip that she imagined could be the fabled dragon’s shoulder. But, impossibly, the ridge was still rising, faster even than her climb. And the sun was still sinking, her shadow spooling off to the east as though Jordan was Ariadne, dropping thread behind her through the labyrinth.
Panic began to spool through her as the edge of the sun kissed the horizon. She was nearly directly below the Dorsal Spine now, and the rock face was no less steep, although it was even more brightly colored, the veins widening and undulating organically. Jordan broke into a run, passing the shoulder just as the sun dove out of view with a flash of multicolored light.
On the ridgeline, green fire burned, highlighting the mountain even in the utter darkness. All the light had leached from the sky in an instant, and now Jordan had to consider that something strange was happening. The sun simply could not have sunk that fast, and this — this wasn’t even the lightning the residents of Greenburgh had reported, but something far more terrifying.
(Parker’s heart had flatlined in the NICU when they put him in the incubation chamber.)
The crackling sound of the flames reached her, but when she looked up, the fire had not spread but was still concentrated along the Dragon’s spines. There was a rhythm to the noise, too: a pause, then a double click like someone calling their dog to heel, followed by an eerie whistle. Other noises were strung between the base pattern, until the mountain sounded like it was occupied by a group of people chanting in the language of fire and air.
(The doctors had revived his breathing, and the light and heat had started to dissipate the purple hue of his skin, but they still said: “permanent brain damage” and “possible loss of motor function” and “sorry, sorry,” so many times sorry.)
Darts of blue and red and purple flashed in her vision, little beads of light following the curves of the colorful rock veins like they were fish swimming downriver. A great groaning began to swell; she felt it in her ears and through the soles of her sneakers, and she huddled close to the rock face even as it shook. Jordan pressed her back flat, turning away from the lights and sounds, but in the next instant the rock had retreated, chill air seeping into the gap behind her. Then it returned, the groaning intensifying; a pause, then the pulling away, the groan softening into a loud whine.
Inhale. Exhale. Jordan’s mind wasn’t working right, and her breath was coming much too fast. Inhale, and the air caught in the back of her throat like a sob. Exhale, and it whistled between her teeth. The noise stopped her. Suddenly her mind was calm, sinking into that place where she went when she needed to relate her collected data to the observations she’d seen in the field.
The rock — the goddamn mountain — was breathing. Slowly, but still faster than anything on a geologic time scale Jordan knew of. Trying to let her own breath flow normally — it wouldn’t do to hold it and pass out — Jordan backed away from the rock face. In the dim green light, she started to see things she hadn’t noticed before. The way the rock rippled and shadows roiled over what had seemed an irregular surface almost evoked a pattern of overlapping scales.
(“You’re majoring in biology, right?” her guidance counselor had assumed.
“Geoscience,” Jordan answered, feeling like the response was somehow wrong.
“But don’t you want to research cerebral palsy? Help your brother?”
I’ve already been witness to one miracle, she thought. Why press fate for another?
And somewhere else deep inside her whispered, When is it time for my life to be my own?)
Something strained against the fabric of her backpack, pulling away from her spine until she could feel the sweat dripping from one vertebra to the next. She didn’t trust herself to move, but soon the straps gouged into her chest. During the loud wheeze of the mountain’s exhale, she slipped one arm through and whipped herself around to face the cliff, the backpack caught between them. The magnetometer she’d brought to justify her story of data collection was inert, but the flimsy dowsing rod one of the locals had gifted her was jittering. There was also a bulge near the top of the pack. She unzipped the smallest pocket, where she kept her jewelry while climbing, and she reeled her head back as her gold class ring spun out and slammed against the rock. It hung there, suspended.
The sound of breathing hitched and stopped.
(“Be careful!” her mother shrieked as Jordan pushed Parker’s wheelchair up the ramp. One of the paving stones was out of alignment, its edge poking up past its neighbor, and the chair jounced slightly going over it. Parker just giggled. Jordan rolled her eyes at her mother.
“Just like a roller coaster, huh buddy?” she asked. She sobered when she remembered he’d never ridden one.)
Jordan didn’t want to so much as twitch in the oppressive, sudden silence, but she had to have her ring back. She’d pushed and punished herself all the way through undergrad, and the ring was the one thing her parents had scraped together enough leftover funds from Parker’s treatments to give to her. She reached forward, her fingers trembling, and snatched for the ring. Despite its strange adherence to the mountain, it slipped away without even a whisper. As she drew her hand back, her fingertips grazed the rock, softer than a butterfly’s wing.
Immediately, she was flung somewhere else. Stars wheeled above her, whirling into streaks of light, and the sky flashed through innumerable shades of magenta, indigo, purest cerulean, and storm gray. When the dizzying motion settled, she was seeing out of someone else’s eyes.
Or, rather, something else’s eyes.
From a familiar vantage point high on the Dragon’s spine, she gazed over the land, but it was altered. The wide green spaces where sheep now grazed were blanketed in thick forest. Where Greenburgh now nestled was a single stream of campfire smoke.
She could feel herself slowing, entering the long slumber that awaited her kind. She had gathered gold and all kinds of other treasures, aided and fought kings with magic swords and emperors from distant lands. There was too much memory in her bones, and it wove like ivy around her legs to fasten her to the ground. She sank. The divisions between her scales closed to resemble rock, her feet plunging deep into the earth so only her spine poked over the top. Her nose lifted like a sea serpent’s out of the water for the life-giving stream of air that would sustain her until she woke again.
She was stirring again, now. The memories were distant enough that the land no longer held onto them, no longer awaited the return of a king and his retinue, and they fell from her like autumn leaves. Except…was it truly time? A single human perched on her back — one with the right strain of belief, yes, for their minds were melded, but the magic in the land that could sustain her was missing, drawn deep into veins that shrank from the surface, and its new ley lines were marked with vehicles and pipes coursing with thick oil.
No. It was not time yet. She did not need to walk to know this truth. The magic would return when it was ready, and so would she. She prepared to release the human back into her own mind, but paused when the flow of memory abruptly changed directions.
(“Higher! Higher!” Parker laughed as she pushed him in the restraining swing. It never went too high, but she made buzzing sounds like an airplane floating high above them.)
(Already well beyond the age when other babies had started toddling beside their parents down the street, Parker pulled himself up and took one wavering step before collapsing. She cheered, and he burbled.)
(Reading him tales of knights and princesses, switching the roles with every telling. Everyone needs rescuing, but everyone can be the rescuer for someone else.)
(Diving into books, her time finally her own, just like she’d told herself she wanted, but memories tugging her back: hearing his laughter in the background, and her mother’s call for help from downstairs.)
(The phone calls across the ocean.)
Maybe she was wrong. There was magic in the world after all. Still, she did not need to wake. There was no king that needed her to vanquish enemies, no war that could be settled with one flap of her wings. Darkness still made its nest within the humans, but there was joy pushing back as well.
She let the human go. The world did not need her to walk. But she left one reminder: even the strongest sword needs to rest. No battle is ever won with a single fighter and a chipped blade.
Jordan blinked. The sun was blazing above her, and she stood on the highest plateau of the mountain. She took a swig of water, wondering if she’d come down with a strangely sudden attack of heatstroke, but she felt fine apart from a ringing in her ears. No, that was her equipment, alerting her to the presence of something strangely magnetic. She knelt and swept the magnetometer over the scattered rocks, and it lit up like a meteor shower.
Hastily, she took out her sampling gear and picked out a few promising pieces of discolored stone. There were strangely waxy patterns in them, and the shapes were oblong, like flat arrowheads. Her pulse galloped, and she had a sudden visceral memory that was somehow not her own, of soaring over a pair of racing destriers rushing to the aid of a burning village. Of victory when the civilians’ cheers bolstered the flagging rescuers.
It felt right to murmur “Thank you,” though she didn’t know what she was addressing. Fate? Mother Nature?
Her cellphone rang. Strange to have reception all the way up here, but she smiled when she saw her home number light up the screen.
(“You’re going to do awesome,” said Parker before she departed for grad school. It was going to be the farthest away she had ever been from home, and her mother’s disapproval hung over her like pungent vinegar.
“Thanks, buddy,” she replied, giving him a hug.
She’d long grown used to his stilted speech, the words that sometimes fought to come out. She knew it frustrated him, but she understood him perfectly. And, she thought, he understood her.
He would be the first acknowledgment when she finished her thesis, she knew. Even when the esoterica of her work eluded everybody except other geoscientists, he listened like she was reading him the most fascinating fairy tale. And maybe it was, in a way.)
“Hey big guy,” she said. “Have I got a story to tell you.”