Anna Tambour presents 

 
The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
 
reprinted from
Phantasmagorium Issue 1, October 2011 edited by Laird Barron
 

 
 
Cardoons!
by Anna Tambour
 
 

"Mix some string into a bowl of sick, and pour that on a plate."

"That's enough, Riri," said her father, reaching for another Milkmaid from the box. "Your amma goes to so much trouble to fix you a healthy meal."

Let's trade troubles! thought Roariferex Glak, for the punishment in the Glak lair was: "If you don't eat your cardoons now, you'll get twice as much tomorrow." And she knew from experience that cardoons were double trouble multiplied by infinity. Roariferex, by the way, is the name she was given when she hatched. She had to put up with what her parents called her, but she was Roar to her friends.

Roar's chin trembled with indignation. Why! she thundered silently, do I get into trouble for what my body does? Her throat would jam shut and her stomach jump. Then her teeth—all one hundred and fifty of them—would close so tight that they met in a jagged clamp, her top front fangs pressed down so hard over her chin scales that each scale's root was rimmed with blood.


She could close her eyes and it still happened, just at the thought of putting any part of that dead flop and slither on her tongue. It happened even if she dipped her smallest talon into that humungous mountain just for her, of: gloop-grey, smelliverous, and slimily yeggigh as the last frog in a carton forgotten in the fridge—a heaped peak of it—forbidding and compulsory, and unfair as parents who don't eat it themselves—cardoons!

She stopped breathing, stuck in her fork, twirled and pulled up the first dripping writhing monstermassful to get it over with fast, pushed it in past her teeth, swallowed—and was caught.
A clump of stems stayed up in her mouth while the bottom tugged from somewhere in her depths, like having your legs yanked while your wings are stuck above two rocks. Tears sprang out of her eyes as her throat clutched the rope. Grey slime dripped from her chin.

Her father leapt from his chair as well as he could, and lumbered over. He swung his arm out, and with all his puny strength, whacked Roar's back. Halfway down the long drop of her throat, its muscles snapped the rope, yanking down half the clump in a gulp that hurt. The other half shot out of her mouth.

Roar wiped her eyes. In front of her, the mountain loomed. She would have blubbered snot if she had noticed the new topping she would have to eat again, extra-glistening and bubbly from her own choke.

"Would you like some water, Wiwi?" asked her mother. "It helps slip gulps," she said carefully, from experience.

Roar nodded. It took her seventy gruesome gulpfuls. Mrs. Glak watched every one, her brows knitted in a sympathetic grimace.

At the last gulp, Mrs Glak declared: "You can't expect something that is healthy to taste good."
And she reached into the box, pulled out a Milkmaid, and stuffed it in her mouth. Its smell was droolicious. Even the picture of milkmaids on the box-top almost made Roar wish she were old enough already to eat them. But the picture on the side made her turn away before it fed her nightmares.

"Parents!" she mumbled. "If they were my children . . ."


Roar's father was relaxing on the sofa, one hand wrapped around a cold can of Bloodbrew. On the big screen, dragons of the Old Days made the God of Thunder quake. Great wings filled the picture. The sound of those wings flapping was loud enough to drown out Now.

"Those were the days," her father was fond of saying, just before, "It's a mite chilly," or "Fancy a bite, dear?"

Over in her chair, Roar's mother was engaged in her favourite activity, knitting. Her second most favourite was spinning. Her spinning wheel and boxes of the stuff she spun into yarn were piled around her chair. The lair was filled with her knitted presents—blankets piled up that no one used because the lair had push-button heating. Tea cosies warmed empty teapots—the Glaks drank no tea. Roar's mother knitted sweaters and socks and blankets and gloves that she sent away to needy dragons in foreign lands. But most of all, she loved knitting for Mr. Glak, who was never seen out of her hand-spun, hand-knitted original creations. He even wore them to bed.

Roar looked at her father stretched out on the sofa, the can of Bloodbrew rising and falling on his stomach, and felt a bit less resentful about the cardoons. Maybe it is true, she thought, that if you eat cardoons from an early age (as Roar had since a baby) your wings will grow and develop ("in twelve different ways") and your claws and talons will grow.

And, thought Roar, I might, one day, maybe, just for a couple of flaps, fly. Well, that last wish was as silly as her becoming a real Dragonair—a Capable of Terror, Rampage and Fire—most Wondrous Dragon of Old.

"Amma," called her father. "You peckish?"

"I'm working, dear," said Roar's mother. "But I'll get you a bite." She waddled to the kitchen and came back with a box of Salties and another can beaded with cold sweat, that she placed at Mr. Glak's elbow. He patted her behind affectionately. Roar watched and felt a mixture of happiness for them, and revulsion. How can they love each other when they look like that?

Her father's scales didn't properly cover his skin any more. His arms and legs were thin and as muscle-free as if he'd worked to achieve it. And on his feet were . . . shoes. Roar's mother had developed "knitter's finger" and was actually thankful, saying it "helps me cast the yarn", whatever that meant. She also wore shoes to hide her feet, and for this Roar was thankful. But all this was nothing compared to the rest. They both had a behind—thick and wide like a cushion—under the tail. And their tails! Bent at the base, Mr. Glak's to the left, and Mrs. Glak's to the right.

Roar had never got used to knowing that the only mystery about growing up was which way her tail would bend. That she would grow to have a behind instead of a sloped sleek shape, that her tail would grow to be, not the slashing weapon of a dragon of Old but like that handle at the sink that her mother liked to use her elbows on. You can't beat reality. Her claws and talons would get thinner and weaker, till they just broke off at the ends of her fingers and toes. And as for wings . . .

The biggest reason Roar hated eating her cardoons is that she didn't believe they would work. It's not like anyone pretended cardoons were magic, but really! Might as well snort three times and make a wish. No, cardoons wouldn't save her from growing up and looking like a mockery of any dragon of Old. Not that her fate to grow up, therefore to look repulsive, gave her nightmares. For after all, she'd decided: Looking bad doesn't kill you, or there'd be no adults alive, let alone loving each other.

Roar was frightened for her parents. Why didn't they look at those boxes they were always digging into? The top of the Milkmaids showed the same plump sweet milkmaid on every box, and the top of the Salties showed the same salty sailor comically brandishing his useless cutlass. But the ads for Milkmaids and Salties could have bragged: Collect us! promising truthfully about the sides: No two terrifying close-up pictures alike. A different set of WARNINGs on every box.

The box her parents had just finished to the last little foot said:
 

Eating Milkmaids is a danger to your health.

Your mouth will develop lips.

Your bones will become droolicious goo.

You will grow hair, and it will be long and yellow.

Your eggs will be rotten when laid, if you are lucky.

Every Milkmaid you eat will bring you one step closer to a soft and smooth complexion.
 

And if that wasn't enough to scare you off, every box of Milkmaids said, in big black letters:

 

MILKMAIDS KILL
 


As for the pictures . . .

Salties were the same. Forbidden till you're grown-up, deliciously tempting at any age—and not only deadly, but terrifying to see just how.

Even the Ingredients List made the scales rise on the top of Roar's head. Reconstituted? What does that mean? No WARNING explained, so Roar guessed. Ingredients with names like maltoambidextrose and numbers like D873 can't be safe. Most of all, the sweet softness of the Milkmaids and the tongue-tingling tang of the Salties should have warned any dragon off. Nothing tasting that good can be safe.
But anyway, Roar wished she lived in the Old Days, when Dragons ate real milkmaids spiced with fear, snatched fresh from their field or dairy. Back then, dragons ruled the air and shook the mountains with their roars. A Dragon of Old didn't eat anything with labels, didn't live in heated lairs, didn't shop, didn't settle down together. Back then, they had no name or only one name, no Mr. and Mrs. in the Old Days. No dragon needed to see some ingredients list on a Dragonslayer charm to be aware of it and not only WARNED but ready to fight against it with tooth and claw and fire.

For back then, that charm was foul indeed, even in the hands of that shortcutting dragon hunter Glabarious the Sneak against the first of the lazy easy-living-loving dragons, Slothful. Now the charm was lost, as were dragon hunters. Now people were soft, but so were dragons. Roar was sometimes impatient with her father's love of those flying dragons of Old—those (to be honest) screen stars costumed with sewn-on scales, shaking their heads with scripted fury, gaping their mouths wide to throw their painted-in-later flames.

The contrast between those dragons that Mr. Glak dreamed he was and Mr. Glak himself—between Dragonair (the one he cheered the most) and Mrs. Glak—between even the comics of that make-believe Old and any real dragon today was so great that Roar sometimes got up mid-evening and stomped off to bed so she didn't stand in front of the screen and say, "They make you look worse than you are. You don't even walk anywhere. And no dragon has flown since . . . when!?"

But Roar was angry at herself, too, for dreaming of flying dragons. She'd wake remembering a slow flapping. Her mother once got someone in to inspect the lair complex ventilation, but they mustn't have fixed it. "Fans just do that sometimes," said the technician.
Roar ended her evening curled against her father on the sofa. Mr. Glak snorted convulsively and his toes curled in his shoes as he swooped and grasped in his sleep. Roar was also dreaming, yah! But not of an Old One. Roar dreamed of her hero, the one in the poster on her bedlair wall.


Roar opened her eyes and smiled at C. Roar's friends said he was so "Huhaah!", a word that Roar wished she could kill. Huhaah made no distinction between C and so many super-popular things, like Talent Time—all those imitators of successful entertainers who are famous at being fake. And those Real'Lore Longer'Lash talon extensions. And those Prey toys that as soon as you pounce on them, experience screambox failure.

And all that stuff that Amma buys at the craft shop and spins into her yarn—reindeer and octopuses, elephants and walruses, storks, lobsters and crocodiles, porcupines by the handful . . . And Amma is so "good" at it, she teaches! And then there's those made-up dragons in fake histo-sagas that Affa lives on as if the producers move the pace of his heart by their shows.


But C is as real as me. And not only that. No one can do what C does, so he means something to so many, yet how many admit it? Roar had noticed that when her mother came into her bedlair to inspect for cleanliness, she stayed longer than she had a reason to. So one day Roar secretly watched her gaze at the tattered poster. Mrs. Glak suddenly stood up straighter, slid her jaws around, and went huff once. She must have embarrassed herself even though she thought she was alone, because she followed the pathetic empty breath with a fit of coughing.

Roar's father barely approved of the poster, of what he called its "bad influence". Of course Roar had never seen C up closer than in a magazine she found once, shoved under her mother's chair.
With all Roar's heart, she wanted to believe that C really did look like his pictures. Scales shining like a hoard of jewels, green and blue and black and silver, with streaks of gold. No scale lay down flat. They stuck out proudly, defiantly, their points as hard as sword tips, their sides sharp enough to slash. His arms and legs were thick with muscles, his wings so big that they looked unreal, as did his claws and talons that were either fake, as some said, or so real they were worth Roar's dreams. C's great nose flared as though he smelled things not of this tamed world.

His eyes were like that time of night when the sun is just fleeing. They glittered like jewels of Old—purple topaz streaked with black. C made Roar shiver, he looked so forbidding. His mane was a ridge of jagged mountains from the top of his head to the tip of his tail, which ended in a spiked club that, in a battle of Old, would have caused Death in a single flick. Even Dragonair didn't have scales as glorious, and Dragonair was a make-believed Old.

Sometimes at night, Roar looked from bed at the wall where she knew the poster was, and she begged the picture to be true. Roar had never seen C perform live, of course, and her father had forbidden her to see him on the screen, saying to Roar's mother, "It's unhealthy, Flagra. Better for Riri to know her limits."

Why C was called C was something there was much debate about, as everything in C's life caused gossip and news. But that was his name. C. It was the only thing written on the precious poster, in a new and sharper version of scaly Old Time letters.

"Aren't you going to get out of bed?" said a crusty voice.

"No, Gunkl Fleer," laughed Roar, jumping up and running to wrap her arms around her father's father's grandfather's brother. Though gunkl is abbreviated dragon-tongue for Gregigk Undgkl (great uncle), no other dragon anyone knew was older than a plain Great Uncle. The Glaks called Fleer "Gunkl" because even Gregigk Undgkl is difficult for a dragon who still possesses all one hundred and fifty teeth (and the dragon-tongue for great great uncle is impossible for anyone to say)—and Roar's parents, like most grownups, had false teeth that clicked horribly and then got stuck, fangs locked into fangs, when they said anything with more than one 'g' in it.

"Looking at His Magnificence again, I see," said Gunkl Fleer.

Roar looked up at the ancient dragon's filmy eyes. "How do you know?" she asked. "And I bet he wouldn't like being called His Magnificence."

"I can smell your interest. And it's not what someone's named that makes them."

Roar winced. She certainly knew that. After all, her father's name was Terrorfik Glak, and her mother, Flagration. Everyone except Gunkl Fleer and C had a name that made this life an unfunny joke. Roar hung her head.

"You don't have to make me feel bad, Gunkl. I know my place in history."

"You know nothing. Come," said Fleer. "Let's go to my cave."

Roar found it hard to slow her footsteps enough to keep alongside Gunkl Fleer, who proceeded jerkily—swaying side to side on his bowed legs, his knotted feet and toe talons catching in the decorative flooring, all the way out of the nice lair complex . . . and around the back side of the mountain . . . to a crack in the rockface. It opened up to become a cave, so high and dark at the top that it might as well have been roofed by midnight. Somewhere close, water dripped . . . dripped . . . dropped. This was where Fleer lived now, but from his scars and the stories he had told Roar, he must have stopped in many places, long "Before," as he put it, "any dragon thought that life could be improved by progress and the things of civilized living."

"Don't dawdle out there," he snapped, walking into the gloom. "Chairs and sitting, air con and knitting. Nights gaping at stars on a screen . . ." Fleer was muttering as he tended to when they came back from Roar's home. There wasn't anyplace to sit. Fleer settled on his haunches on the dank stone. He certainly wasn't padded under his long powerful tail, which flicked once, sending up a spray of cold water. "Lairs soften you!" he huffed. The breath from his disgust left a smoke cloud hovering.

Roar's mouth fell open in awe at that smoke. She never got used to it. No one, but no one, except Fleer, could actually do this anymore. She had sworn solemnly not to tell anyone. In fact, she kept every one of her gunkl's secrets, for they were dangerous and, well . . . secrets!

"What are you looking at?" Fleer demanded. "Remember, you can touch anything and pick anything up."

"Thank you, Gunkl." She walked the length of a saggy and threadbare cloth pinned up here and there. The embroidered picture had once been bright with exotic colours, but it was milky now, filmed over by the works of a thriving community of spiders. Roar tore a hole big enough to look at the face and part of the body in the picture, and was as surprised as she always was at the sight. If Gunkl Fleer had not insisted, Roar wouldn't have believed this could be a dragon, let alone . . .

"Your great love," said Roar, who felt shy to say her name out loud, since she was Gunkl Fleer's secret. "What was she like?"

"Ahh," smiled Fleer. "She could whip the sea into froth, and tie a wave into knots. When she shook her head, she made a sound like a thousand bells. She had shining red and pink scales, and great round eyes, and a wide flat mouth and nose that you might think is ugly—"

"No, I don't!"

"Don't interrupt. I know you must, unless you really are so different from . . ."

Roar put her hand on Fleer's hard knee, and the dragon who had outlived centuries laid a leathery wing on top of Roar's arm. Roar looked at the talons on that wing, and then at the scars of battles that had left ridges on the thick scales on Gunkl Fleer's limbs. Then Roar looked down and compared feet. Fleer was the only grown-up with bare feet, something he refused to act ashamed about. Fleer's talons on his feet, and the claws on his wings were scratched dull, and aged yellow, and had grown into grotesque shapes like beings with their own minds.

Roar looked at her own neatly curved glossy black talons and claws, and thought of her future. They wouldn't go yellow, but she'd trade. Everything on Fleer's body was hard and dried, curved and scarred, ancienter than anyone—and yet, still dangerous.

"Tell me another story of your old days," Roar asked, and she didn't have to ask twice.


"I wish I could have been you," sighed Roar. "Imagine swooping down on a village and snatching my own milkmaids, and gobbling them in the air. And do salties really taste better when they're torn from ship's rigging?"

"Yes, they do," chuckled Fleer. "It makes them fluffier."

"And no one told you what was good for you."

"My mother died when I was young," said Fleer. "And my father was away fighting. So nobody cared."

"Oh." For a moment, Roar felt bad, but then she remembered how angry she'd be soon. As soon as the next meal.

"You didn't have to eat cardoons!"

"Is that what's bothering you?"

"That and . . ." She clamped her mouth shut, wishing she hadn't said anything.

"Huff it out," ordered Fleer.

Roar gulped. "It's the Milkmaids and Salties. That's practically all they eat. I . . . I don't want them to . . ."

She squeezed her eyes closed, not able to say more. Already, her stomach felt like there was a fight to the death going on in there. Something tickled her chin. Fleer's leathery wing, wiping her tears.

"So you worry," said Fleer, "that the promises on the boxes will happen to them?"

Roar nodded, and then remembered her gunkl's blindness. "Yes."

"And you worry that if you hadn't noticed those warnings and the promises written there, that nothing bad would happen?"

"How do you know?"

Gunkl Fleer laughed, a big sound that started deep inside and came out warm and misty. It was very infectious, and Roar couldn't help giggling, though she was glad her gunkl didn't see her bright yellow blush.

"The greatest temptation we all face," he said, "is not seeing what we don't want to see. If your mother and father live on Milkmaids and Salties, and don't look at the warnings, they won't protect themselves from what's bad. And you telling me doesn't make all those bad thinks happen just because you're worried that they will."

"But they will, won't they?"

"Too much of anything can hurt you, even if it's comfort. But a bit of this, and a bit of that. Now, that's the way we used to live. And feel my muscles!"

"Or cardoons?"

"What about cardoons?"

"Why don't cardoons have warnings? Why do I have to eat them? I don't see you eating yeggigh, stupid, deadrottlenfrog cardoons."

"So this is where you're leading?" smiled Fleer. "How would you like to go to a concert?"

"Please don't change the subject," said Roar, really disappointed. She had been hoping that her gunkl, even though he was old, would understand. She had hoped that Gunkl Fleer would tell her parents just how wrong they were, and that Roar wouldn't have to live with such unfairness. Gunkl Fleer wouldn't be unfair, Roar was sure of it. So sure that she had almost asked her parents if she could move in with Gunkl Fleer, but every time she planned to, she was safe and warm in bed. She never thought of living here while visiting. There was so much to see here and pick up and explore, but it was all so uncomfortable. Everything was wet and cold, with lots of sharp places that poked into you if you weren't tough like him.

"So you don't want to go to a concert," he shrugged. "You might as well run along. Play some nice imaginary game, safe inside where your mother can watch you."

"I don't want that," she lied. She had wanted just that. Not the mother watching part, but lying on her bed, imagining being someone else. Besides, Gunkl Fleer's ideas of concerts would be as weird as his idea of beauty. Roar looked at the old painting of Fleer's great lost love—that coiled serpent body as thick as a normal dragon's but twice as long. Roar boggled at the total lack of wings, and Roar's eyes narrowed at that swollen flattened face. Roar used to shudder at the sight, but now she tried to see with different eyes—the eyes of someone in love, but more—the eyes of someone who had eaten Vikings for breakfast and Huns for lunch.

"So you don't want to see see," said Fleer.

"See see?"

"Your hero?"

"C! You know about C?"

"I am not blind in the brain, young one."

"But . . ." stammered Roar, totally confused.

"But nothing," snapped Fleer. "Do you want to go? I'll sit in the back of the crowd, so I won't embarrass you."

"I don't want that!"

Gunkl Fleer was right about the embarrassment. So it doesn't make sense, but a moment after Roar lied again, she really wanted Gunkl Fleer beside her at the concert of the year, almost as much as she wanted to go to the concert so famed and so unique that it had a name: C You at The Mountain.

"See us at the concert," Fleer chuckled.

"But Amma and Affa won't let me."

"Is that a warning?" asked Fleer, raising a jagged mountain ridge of scales above one milky eye. "Come," he said. "I'll choose to ignore your warning. Let's tell them that we're going."


Roar wouldn't have dreamt it. Everything was too unimaginable. At a quarter to midnight by the moon, almost late, she and Gunkl Fleer arrived at the edge of the crowd. That was where she expected to stay, not being able to see or hear the concert. But a plump attendant dressed in a fake-scale jacket bustled forward and called out: "Here!"

A streamlined dragon-mover slewed over. "At last," snarled the driver. "Get in!"

The mountain loomed over them, black and jagged. The dragon-mover sped up the mountain, stopping at a rock-shelf just below the top.

Yet another overstuffed attendant opened the door beside Gunkl Fleer. "This way," said the attendant, gripping Fleer's scarred and wrinkled wing.

"Thank you, but Roar here will lead me," said Fleer.

So Roar touched Gunkl Fleer's wing lightly with her own as they followed. Roar worried that they had come too late. Row after row was full, and the attendant kept on walking. Finally, he found two seats side by side in the middle of the front row. After making sure that Roar and Fleer were seated, he blew a whistle and withdrew into the shadows.

Roar relaxed in her chair, relieved. "We almost didn't get seats," she said, "But everything's alright now." She looked up, and just ahead was the peak of the mountain, black against a dark blue sky.

Braah! went a horn.

Dwomp buh brrrrrrrrah! went a drumroll, just like Talent Time. The audience went wild, over nothing. The only thing that sounded different compared to watching it at home was that here, Roar didn't hear the clicking of knitting needles. She choked back a schoolyard curse. Gunkl Fleer must have won two studio audience tickets, and didn't know the difference between Talent Time and a real concert, let alone C. Age had caught up to Fleer. He was just what Roar's parents called him in the privacy of the lair.

But a moment after feeling angry and ashamed of Fleer, Roar felt unaccountably tender for all those good times in the past. She leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Remember when—"
"Huff!" said Fleer, frying the air.

Then suddenly, another sound erupted, deep as if it came from the stomach of the mountain. It was as wide as the sky yawning, and bright as the sun. It made Roar's head jangle. It was the roar of a dragon. A real dragon, nothing reconstituted, nothing made up for the screen. Roar rubbed her ears, but the roar was still there, hovering in the air like a cloud of smoke, shimmering like a flame.

And now C leapt out of nowhere, to stand against the sky. He looked different now, like a new top of the mountain, a moving one, black and terrible and magnificently spiky against the ink-blue starry sky.

And now C roared in colour.

He snorted flames out of his nostrils. He spurted flames from his sword-toothed mouth. He roared and shook the mountain, and poured out fire that lit the sky—making thunder that rolled and then snapped—zigzagging fire-lightning. He whispered tiny huffs of smoke clouds that clothed him in a mist--and then he waved his wings and tore them into wisps. He poured out curlicued flagrations, and waved his head and contorted his mouth, and out came fire-paintings—great fighting monsters of Old, poised to leap upon him. And he played with them, balancing one on a wing, tossing it onto an elbow, then dropping it and stamping it squished with one foot. He stabbed another monster with a flick of his talons, and smithereened another with a snap of his bristling tail.

Sometimes C painted with fire so silently that sounds squirmed in Roar's earwax. And then C roared so earshakingly that pictures jiggled in Roar's eyeball juice.

And all the time, C moved blackly so that whichever way he stood, he looked magnificent but mysterious—wild, unapproachable, not of this time and world.

"See," the crowd shrieked. "See see see!"

Then he painted a flaming ship with little salties leaping from it, and the crowd screeched, "Sea sea sea!" Or anyway, that is what Roar screeched with them. By that time, Roar had shrieked and screeched and yelled so much that she lost her breath.

Finally, C slashed the air with a sweep of his claws, waved his wings with a swooshing flap, filled his mighty chest with one humongously long deep snort—and threw out the longest and most curlicued flame of all—this time, of a flame-red, wide-headed, flat-faced wingless dragon that looped like a giant serpent.

"It's her!" screamed Roar into Fleer's ear.

And the dragon that C painted danced in the air, as delicately as a falling blossom, as lithely as a flame.

And from a sound of the crowd that Roar had had to scream over, to try and still fail to be heard, there grew the sound of four thousand nine-hundred and ninety-nine dragons (all the audience except Gunkl Fleer) holding their breaths.

And then she evaporated, to be lost to the night, just as all of C's amazing pictures.

"No wonder you loved her," Roar sighed. "I wish you could see."

Roar turned to Fleer, but already had to scream into his ear. "Oh, Gunkl. I'd give anything for you to have seen."

Fleer patted Roar's hand, which had clutched his wing in a surprisingly strong grasp.
"I do see," Fleer said. "That's what memory is for."

Roar had to lip-read in all the noise, to understand, but she did. And she also saw an unusual catch the light in a zigzag amongst the scales from Fleer's left eye, all the way down to his chin.
"Don't want to miss the show," he said, turning to the stage.

C was doing his last encore—a showy starburst of flames.

And then C dropped below the peak to disappear. The sound of one last roar rumbled to nothing, lost in the cries of the crowd.

Gunkl Fleer leaned towards Roar. "This was probably bad for you."

"Yes," grinned Roar, but she had yelled so much her chest hurt. "I wish . . . you could . . ."

"Breathe in and out in little sips," said the ancient dragon. "Ah. Hah."

"Ah. Hah."

"Keep going," said Gunkl Fleer.

"Ah. Hah. Ah. Hah."

"Good. What's that smell you're making?"
"I don't know," said Roar.

"Open your eyes."

"It's smoke!"

"Ahh," said Gunkl Fleer. "Your first huff. Our secret?"

Roar could hardly believe her eyes, so she rubbed them. Before she had a chance to open them again, a curled claw lightly scratched her knee. "Stay here," said Fleer.

"I wasn't going anywhere," said Roar, a bit hurt that Gunkl Fleer had so quickly forgotten this amazing event—Roar being able to puff smoke.

"Wait till everyone has left," said Fleer. "And then we'll go."

Roar dreaded the trip down the mountain. All that attention earlier, but now she and her ancient crippled gunkl were forgotten. Everyone was leaving, a few on foot till they got to the bottom with its parking lot, but most in dragon-movers from their places where they had watched—for who walked anywhere any more except for Gunkl Fleer? Roar didn't know how long it would take to guide Fleer home, but it would be at least all night. She wished she had enough money for a dragon-mover trip, but she didn't, and she'd never seen Gunkl Fleer spend money.
"Oh well," Roar thought. "He must have asked for help because of his age, but forgot to ask for help both ways." She sighed. "I guess I'll never be able to huff again, either."

"Patience," Fleer chuckled, "is often an excuse for laziness."

But Roar wasn't listening. She had closed her eyes to relive the best night of her life . . .

"Master!"

"Mischief maker!"

Roar's eyes sprang open. There in front of her, his great spiked head carving out a piece of the sky, stood C, wreathed in smoke. He was bowing to Gunkl Fleer, and grinning.

"And you must be Roar," said C.

Roar nodded. She couldn't think of a word to say.

C laughed. It started out small, and ended big. It started out all by himself, but was followed by the laugh of Gunkl Fleer, so that soon the Mountain reverberated with their laughter, for they were all alone on it—C and Gunkl Fleer, and Roar.

When at last, C and Fleer were finished laughing, C said, "Shall we go?"

"By the old means!" cried Fleer.

And with a sweep of his arm, C scooped up Roar and leapt in the air. He flapped once, twice, and the mountain slipped away from under them.

"Gungk—!" Roar was so mixed up, she couldn't have told you if that meant:
Gunkl, look at me (which would have been silly to say)
or
What a long way to fall

She looked down, terrified and thrilled as they cleaved the air. All her dreams were not as good as this moment rising toward the moon, but she felt sick inside.

"I have to go back," she said. "My gunkl can't see."

"I doesn't need to,"—and there was Gunkl Fleer, flying alongside, the slow flap of his wings being the exact same sound as—.

Roar's heart jumped into her mouth, and she almost exploded. "You're not a fan!"

"Not when I last sniffed," laughed Fleer. "Slow down for an old dragon."


Just when they were far away, C and Fleer landed, halfway up another mountain.

"Welcome to my home," said C.

"Where?" Roar looked up and down the mountain, looking for the mansion lair of a star.
"Here," said C. He led through a crack that opened out to a cave no bigger than Gunkl Fleer's. It also leaked.

C's home also had a few curiosities, not as big a collection as Gunkl Fleer's but enough that Roar was even more confused.

"She doesn't want to eat cardoons," said Fleer.

"Gunkl," Roar was so embarrassed, she wished she could slither out the crack.

"But she huffed tonight," said Fleer.

Roar didn't know what to say. She was ashamed and proud and confused, and surprised by everything all at the same time.

"Did you ever wonder about my name?" asked C.

"Everyone does," Roar said.

"I'm called C," C said sadly, "because they said I couldn't admit my real name."

"You?"

"My managers."

"But that's the past now," Fleer said in a tone that was a command. "Meet Cardoon," said Fleer.
"Cardoon!" said Roar.

"Roariferex," said Gregigk Ggidskxidg Undgkl Fleer, "Close your mouth or you'll swallow bats."
And the night continued far into day, and they still had so much to talk about.

"Those cardoons they grow and shove into cans really are disgusting," said Cardoon, who insisted on being called plain C in such intimate company, as C is easier than Cardoon, especially when talking about cardoons.

"They have made them grow all puny and stringy, the easier to boil them and can them. But come dawn, we'll fly to where cardoons grow wild and free—and you'll see that they are what made me, well . . . me!"

"And me," said Fleer modestly. "With a little this and that."

"Your Gunkl Fleer hasn't let this world know of his power."

"And I wasn't planning to yet. Not till you were old enough," said Fleer. "You pushed the time forward."


When dawn purpled the sky they flew out, this time with Roar asking to be held by Fleer, who was slow and steady in the sky and who used his nose like other modern dragons use their eyes.
They travelled over real villages and fields of sheep, where C and Fleer swooped down, plucking up, here a milkmaid, there a shepherd. "Try this," they'd say, tearing a head or leg off and offering the morsels to an astounded Roar.

They hovered over a cargo ship and tore the captain from his cabin.

"Not as good as the old salties," said Fleer.

"I wish I'd tasted them," said C.

Eventually they hovered over a field. It was not like a normal field or forest. This was green and blue and glints of silver, and it had a wonderful glitter, as though everything in it was made of points. And the field was dotted with fat spots of the colour of jewels of Old—purple topaz streaked with shining black.

"Now!" yelled C and Fleer together.

"Pick up your feet, Roar," said Fleer, but not fast enough, for as he swooped and plucked a graspful of cardoons from the field, "Yow!"—Roar's legs were slashed by a thousand little swords.

"That'll teach you," laughed C. "I've got the scars, too, from before I toughened up."

They landed on another mountain, where C and Fleer taught Roar the way to eat cardoons.
You hold a stalk in your talons. You need the thickened skin of your feet for what's to come next.
Now you cook it with a quick breath. Don't breathe too long or too hard, or you'll burn the cardoon right up. It should just toast. And then you eat it. The spiky spiny leaves—sharp and pointed like a handful of knives—now curl and go all crispy, each edge and spine and spike leaking a curl of smoke. Their former sharpness now makes the tongue tingle just right, and when you crunch, they shatter between your teeth. There's nothing smelliverous about a wild cardoon, or slimy or anything faintly resembling that stuff that they pack in cans.

These didn't look or taste like dead frogs, and they weren't puny either. They looked magnificent—standing taller than a man. They weren't a boiled colour, but what Roar would never have dreamed . . . blue and green, streaked with gold.

Fleer picked up Roar and they flew on with C at their side, picking a bit of this and that.

"Now this is a balanced diet," declared Fleer, "with shreds you can suck from your teeth."

Roar nodded because her mouth was full. She'd just been given a scrap of woodsman by one of Fleer's feet, and with the other, a toasted cardoon leaf. They were now over another cardoon field, this one even more colourful.

"Pick her a head," said C. "She can look at it."

"Good idea," said Fleer, He circled over the field, sniffing, and swooped on one of the round splashes of purple topaz streaked with black. Roar heard a mouthwatering snap.

"That's what Vikings sounded like," said Gunkl Fleer. "Take this."

It was a cardoon head, and it smelt droolicious but it looked even better. Huge sharp scales that refused to stay flat. They shined blue and green with streaks of gold. On the top of its head, a kind of flower burst out, purple topaz streaked with black. It didn't look cannable. It didn't look boilable. It looked like it could fight monsters, and win.

"You can't eat it yet," said Fleer, "but your tongue will know it soon."

Roar looked at C, and suddenly knew.

Cardoon looks like cardoons!

Roar was having a hard time eating, even though it all made her saliva run. But her jaws had never worked before. She'd never eaten anything that needed chewing. She'd never before seen food that needed serious chewing. Everyone thought it too much work.

"Your teeth hurt," said C. "Mine did too at first, but we'll keep them."

Finally they stopped in a valley. "Just beyond is a city," said Fleer. "Do you think you're ready?" he said to C.

"What do you think, Roariferex?" asked the dragon whose full name is Cardoon.

Roar didn't know what to think, so she did the next best thing. "Gunkl Fleer says that patience is an excuse for laziness."

"That's a good enough excuse for me." And to Roar's surprise and terror and thrill, they flew to the city and snatched up office workers from offices, laptop-tappers from their beds, couriers from their bicycles, Hells Angels from their motorcycles, screen watchers from everywhere. They flew over a beach so they could snack saltily, and opened up a movie house so they could pick up some snack-filled children. And before they were full, they flew off, the sweet sound of a city's screaming trailing them like ribbons in the wind.

They ended up at C's place, where they did some more explaining.

"You had a much easier time eating the city people, didn't you?" said Fleer.

"They didn't need half as much chewing," agreed Roar.

"They're still better than Milkmaids and Salties," said C, "which reminds me."

He walked off and came back with a box of each, opened. He offered them to Gunkl Fleer, who sniffed and took two Salties and a Milkmaid.

"Droolicious," said Fleer.

"Have some," said C, offering the boxes to Roar.

Roar could have been turned to rock. She couldn't believe her eyes.

"She's frightened of them," said Fleer.

"I'm not frightened of anything," said Roar before she could help herself.

"You should be," laughed C. "These'll rot your teeth out if they're the only things you eat. But—"
"Moderation." said Fleer. "A bit of this and that."

"That's what you taught me," smiled C, though Fleer couldn't see.

So, before Roar fell asleep, exhausted, she learned even more things.

That Gunkl Fleer had noticed C on his travels—a starving, neglected young dragon wandering on the edge of a crumbling city. That Gunkl Fleer had taught C everything needed to live, but that Gunkl Fleer and C had both needed to be independent. At least that was what they said.
They also said that even Roar's parents could learn how to fly, if they stopped sitting and did some exercise. Sure they'd fly in circles because of those bent tails, but circling is better than nothing.

Then they told Roar how C had invented a simple elastic band that grown-ups like Roar's parents could use to keep their false teeth in, so that they could pluck up softies (that's what C and Fleer call city people).

They said, and then they swore, that any dragon, with practice, can learn to not only huff, but roar and spout flames (though painting with flames is a talent that takes exceptional practice, dedication, skill and talent).

But by the time they were almost finished telling, Roar's mind had wandered back—back to C's invention. Roar flicked her tail back and forth and closed her eyes.

"She's had too much today," Fleer and C agreed, and began to talk together of the old times, before civilisation wreaked bottoms on dragons.



By the time Roar flew home, not always being held by Cardoon or Gunkl Fleer, she was ready to tear the poster from her bedlair wall because she could never imagine wanting to live in a lair complex again. She loved the feel of wind on her wings, the way the air combed the rising scales on the top of her head. She loved to flare her nostrils at the scent of water falling from rock. She thrilled to sniff the smell of fear in a fresh-plucked snack. She loved looking back at herself as she flew, and watching the way the scales on her back caught the sun (and the moon!) now that she was living a healthy outdoor life.

She had new secrets, too.

In this world, Roar learned, there are only rare places where real milkmaids live, and woodsmen and shepherds. She kept the secrets of Fleer and C, so that these places could live on. Plucked lightly, and occasionally, there will be milkmaids and shepherds as forever as dragons, if they are not harvested without care. That was what happened to the salties on the sailing ships. All gone, as gone as those old ships. Fleer and C showed Roar villages that they'd camouflaged with nets that sprouted with what looked like real cardoon factories and factory fields of stunted plants the colour of dead frogs. The nets even sprouted those advertising signs bragging of the way these cardoons will make you grow "in 12 different ways".

"When dragons fly again," said Fleer, "they'll fly over this as fast as they can."

And they all three laughed at their secret.

By the time Roar flew home, she was missing her parents fiercely. Of course, they knew that Gunkl Fleer had taken their little one someplace special and that she would be gone for a while, and they had hoped that Gunkl Fleer wasn't old and silly, but old and wise.

So when Roar got home, there was a celebration to beat all others in the Glak household, even though—when Mrs. Glak opened the door not only to her dear Wiwi and Gunkl Fleer, but to . . . oh! she fainted.

There was so much everyone had to say, and so many promises made. And in the spirit of all this honesty, there were even some confessions.

Roar confessed that she had been worried that Amma and Affa would die from eating Milkmaids and Salties, because she believed the WARNINGs on the boxes too much.

Mr. Glak confessed that he LOVED the idea of wearing knitted creations made by his beloved Flagration, but that he HATED wearing them. "I have sensitive skin," he said, lifting his sweater up. "The porcupines itch."

"I'm so sorry," said Mrs. Glak. "I tried to make the sweaters to fit your handsome, rugged look."
"Me? Rugged?" He lifted his shoulders from their slump.

She rushed to tear the sweater over his head and off his back, and narrowly missed his left eye with a giraffe hoof, or maybe it was a sheep's horn.

But what surprised all of them the most was Cardoon's confession.

"I wish I belonged to a family."

"You do!" said Roariferex, Flagration, and Terrorfik Glak, all at the same time.

Gunkl Fleer smiled, but now that Roar had developed her senses a bit more, she thought he smelt a little sad.

"Gunkl Fleer hasn't confessed anything."

"What do I have to confess?" said the ancient dragon.

"You know," said Roar. "I can't reveal your secrets."

"There's a lesson to you," said Roar's father, running a hand over his now naked belly.

Everyone was quiet, and they stayed quiet till Gunkl Fleer huffed once, a gentle sound that pushed a small cloud into the air.

"Would you like some help?" asked Roar.

"I don't know where to start," said Gunkl Fleer. "So yes."

"We'll start with a question," said Roar, imitating Gunkl Fleer's own teaching style. "Why did you lose your love?"

"Love?" broke in Flagration Glak, clasping her wings to her chest, her eyes glowing.

"Shh," said Terrorfik, reaching for her.

"I lost my love," said Gunkl Fleer, "because she always had a line of people who came to her for their good fortune. Back in those days I could see around the world and up my own back to the top of my head, and the line of people who came to her was almost that long."

"And she didn't eat them up?" said Terrorfik Glak.

"Oh, I wanted to! But her kind doesn't eat people. Her kind of dragon does good things for people. I really don't know why, but that's as they are made. The only people she considered right to eat are bad people, but who can decide that?"

Everyone gasped except for Roar.

"So we could never be together," said Gunkl Fleer, "Even if you had accepted her."

"She makes Dragonair look like a dead frog," said Roar.

Gunkl Fleer's hard eyebrows rose, and fell. "That's the past," he said. "Centuries ago."

"I've seen her," said Cardoon quietly. "She misses you, too."


But Terrorfik Glak had not been listening.

"You mean those boxes really scared you?"

"No Affa. I was happy reading how you'd die, and looking at those pictures. The closeups of blue-eye, hooknose, a gangyellowed jaw. Why didn't they scare you?"

"They're ugly. I turned them—"

"My way."

Flagration Glak uttered a low growl. "The Curlopsis Council has a lot to answer for. I shall write them a stinging letter."

"No, Flagra." Terrorfik tore off his gloves and raised his puny fists. "No one wrote letters in the old days. A fear for a fear, I say."

"Oh, Affa!" Roar laughed, wanting to curse. "That's just a theme song."

"Not quite," said Fleer. "Ee fleerrr frr ee fleerrr. That is the Old Code."

"Fleerrr?" everyone said with various capabilities (Mrs. and Mrs. Glak having to turn around to reinsert their dentures).

"Everything's too easy on the mouth these days," grinned Fleer. "A fear for a fear it shall be."
"Their lairquarters is a short ride away," said Flagration. "And oh!" She rushed to the kitchen and came back brandishing a can of cardoons. "See?" she demanded.

Everyone looked at the big Circle of Recommendation from the Curlopsis Council, and the sudden air-fry from several mouths caused the temperature-constant on the air-con to whir itself to death.

"No more of these," Flagration Glak declared, shaking the cardoon can. "And no more boxes. From now on, I'll throw all the Milkmaids and Salties into serving bowls. But, dear," she said to Terrorfik. "How will you serve the Council a fear for a fear?"

He hung his head. "I can't, but perhaps Fleer and C—"

"Patience," said C. "And we'll make it a family outing." He turned to Fleer. "As I was saying, I've seen her . . ."


And now, so much has changed.

These days Gunkl Fleer and his great love (who has a name everyone delights in, as it tickles the tongue) travel far and high together. Sometimes she carries Fleer on her back as she races over sea and land—and sometimes she is coiled around Fleer's scarred but wiry body as he flies. And sometimes they fly with the rest of the Glak family (who can now swoop right or left or divebomb straight as an arrow, due to the Roar Flying CrookTail Service which provides all needy adults—which means pretty much all grownups—with training and the Roariferex Tailbase Corrector, now with knitted anti-chafing pads). But that's a diversion, so let's get back to Gunkl Fleer and his love.

Sometimes they fly quite alone—just the two of them—out to find new wilderness. And they live by their new agreement: Whenever they stop and a line of people forms to ask her to do good things for them, Fleer and his love eat only every third person.

And now when no one eats canned cardoons any more, all those still, silent, stunted fields meant for the boilers have grown wilder and freer than ever before, and spread. Muscled leaves unfold, relaxing talons. Great heads rear up, flashing gold and topaz spikes. So, reader, heed this WARNING. Eat your vegetables, or choke them to death, or teach them to fly away, or dress them in something so craftily knitted that they scratch themselves to death. Everyone is droolicious to someone else. We are Cardoons! We not only scratch. We bite. Hear us, Roar!
 

 
 
 
 
Cardoons! The story behind the story
 
But that's only part of the story. Scary packaging that's called 'plain'
This story
is dedicated to

Vincent Michael Simbulan

Why reprint here?
Though the editor, Laird Barron, and the other authors in this issue deserve the highest esteem, the actual dead-tree- and e-productions were not up to scratch because those involved in that side of things were enthusiasts but unaware of what's needed and what should never be created (such as indenting and spacing between paragraphs). The size of type in a printed issue also needs to be large enough that newsprint doesn't dwarf it. As for the e-editions, they were good for people who like eating spaghetti through a sieve while decoding the curves through mesh — thus this reprinting.
 
 
The virtuous medlar circle
is part of
Anna Tambour and Others
 
 "Cardoons!" and the graphics are copyright © Anna Tambour, 2003 – 2012