The Bestiary

This is the first entry in the Stories category: a freebie out of my back-catalogue of short pieces, most of them written several years ago as an undergraduate. You may read it for free, here, or share the link. But even as a rough draft, this is still my own work and I retain all legal copyright. Do not copy or publish the text without express permission. ~ J. J. Griffing


Let me tell you about last Saturday. On Saturday I was in my studio again, trying to sketch a dragon for the mural I’m doing at the public library. No matter how I posed him, however, the shoulders were all wrong. I browsed through my fantasy book collection, studying the covers. All the dragons looked alike. All of them. I threw the pencils on the desk and fixed myself a roast beef sandwich. Hot rye toast, smooth Swiss cheese, plump red tomato, crisp lettuce, smooth mayonnaise, chopped jalapeños, cold brown mustard, thin slivers of red meat— but I’m getting carried away here.
I was pouring myself a tall glass of milk when the telephone rang, and I had to set my lunch down to answer it. It was the most unusual call I have ever received. The speaker’s voice was unusually deep, as though a rock was speaking. He called himself Leonard, and he was calling from my gallery on Broad Street. I did not know anyone named Leonard. He said he was a model.
“Sorry, man. I just do fantasy art. If you’re willing to sit as an elf or a dwarf or a berserker, I could fit you in, but general

 

ly I don’t work from live models.”
“How about dragons?” asked Leonard. I was certain he was joking.

“Dragons?” I asked. “You pose for dragons? Doesn’t the latex suit get hot after a while?” He assured me there was no latex–no suit at all. He didn’t need them.
“I’m a real dragon, sir. There’s not many in town, and I’m the only one I know who models, but I’m the real thing. That’s what I’ve got to talk to you about.”
I had to sit down. I slapped myself in the face until my hand was sore to make certain I wasn’t dreaming. 

“This is important, mister. I’m serious. I need your help,”
said Leonard.
“I need you to listen:
“For several decades I have been working odd jobs as an underground model for various artists. There’s actually been quite a demand for dragons in the art studios over the past several years, especially among professional illustrators. I’ve posed for a lot of cover art. It is a credit to the artistic imaginations of today’s art-school graduates that the dragons you see don’t all look identical. But there’s a way you can tell which ones I posed for: I’m a deformed dragon, and the artists working from my poses or copying those that did get the deformity in there every time. You see, they don’t know any better. Humans who haven’t seen a real dragon before can’t tell the deformity, although a good dracologist could tell you.. One reason for the ignorance is that modeling, among dragons, is considered less-than-respectable. But for me, already an outcast, it was a job I could do.
“You see, I can’t really fly. When I was hatched I only had— and I still only have— one set of shoulders. My wings and forelegs are mounted on my foreleg shoulders, and there was never any room for my flight pecs to develop. That’s why I got into modelling in the first—”
IMG_0289“Why are you telling me this stuff?” I asked him. I was getting rather peeved.
“I’m not a shrink and I’m not a priest. I’m not even Catholic.” I hung up and the phone rang. Of course it was Leonard. He begged me to hear him out.
“You’re an artist. That’s why I have to talk to you,”
he insisted.
“Let me go on:
“When a dragon develops in the egg, it develops three standard pairs of limbs, each upon its own joints. In some species, such as my own, the wings are foremost, and in others, its the forelegs— what men call their ‘arms’. Whichever way they develop, they have six limbs on six joints, and never six limbs on four joints. Most illustrated dragons in the past hundred years, however, have had six limbs on four joints, for which error I hold myself personally responsible.
“Around posing for cover art and acting in film (it took them several days to edit out all the cables and hoists from my flight-harness in Dragonheart, but I got to hobnob with Sean somebody in the meantime) I have had a lot of dead-time on my hands to read up on science, especially flight and aviology, which interest me. You see, for powered biomechanical flight, a beast needs wings that are free to swing independently from its other limbs, and this applies to both four and six-limbed creatures, because of the range of motion involved and the size of the required muscles.
“Very few of the dragons on the covers of books can actually fly, because the dragon who posed for the pictures can’t fly; that dragon, of course, was myself. I posed for all of Mme. McCaffrey’s books, and hundreds of Saint George pictures and illustrations for Arthurian novels. Modeling pays well enough, I suppose, if you’re the only young and hansom dragon in the industry. But the public perception of what a real dragon is— toasted like an amateur princess who screeches when cued to scream. And it’s my own fault.
“A real, well-built, self-respecting dragon, on the other hand (are you getting all this down? You need to take it all down, I’m telling you), has three sets of limbs and three sets of connections for them. The wings are large and long and powerful, and the forelimbs are squat and muscular, long enough to keep the giant keelbone from dragging on the ground. Unless, of course, the dragon wants it to. It’s a way of leaving deliberate tracks, and of scent-marking: much cleaner than many other species’ methods of doing so, I must say. But the wings never share their glory or their shoulders with the fore-claws (except in my case), nor were they ever intended to. You cannot forget the keelbone. A deep breastbone with a protruding keel, as it were, to which the pectoralis muscles of the wings attach. Without it all vertebrate flight is impossible.
“This is the way dragons ought to be drawn and painted, and gryffins, too. You just can’t have a creature built like that— with wings and four feet— unless each pair of limbs has a separate collar on the spine. Look at your centaurs. Perhaps its their semblance to human artists that makes them so much easier to remember correctly. Not once have I met or seen illustrated a centaur whose arms came out of the same place as his forehooves. But with dragons, the freak and the exception is the rule. And they look horrible.
“I don’t suppose it would be so villainous a proposal if the bad results of my modeling only affected the perception of dragons; after all, I have known a few dragons, otherwise normal and healthy specimens, in fact, who also turn a profit modeling from time to time. Some have even made it onto book covers. But gryffins are even prouder than dragons, and refuse to model. Men being what they are, and artists, what they are, it is a commonly held assumption that gryffins’ wings attach the way dragons’ do— and that is in fact more or less correct, as far as it goes. But the truth is that the model they base it on is myself— my own deformed self. Neither dragons nor gryffins have wings like that! None of the gryffins I know are anything like the gryffins you human artists paint.”
I fumbled in my desk drawer for my pipe. “So you’re saying, Leonard, that we’ve been drawing everything totally wrong all these years? What am I supposed to do about it?” His answer left no room for discussion. I blew smoke rings absently and listened.
“Tell other artists. Make skeleton drawings and stick-figure cartoons to demonstrate proper anatomy. Publish it on the internet where many more will read it and see the diagrams. Not just for the dragons’ sake, but for gryffins’ as well. For all six-limbed beasts.”
A thought came to me. “What about pegasids?” I asked him.
“You can forget pegasids. There’s no such thing. The closest you’ll come is a hippogryff, and those are rare enough. Wings on a horse are useless, too large for stowage and saddles and too small for use. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” The dragon at the other end snorted in contempt.
“But there are gryffins just as assuredly as there are centaurs. Gryffins are a sort of centaurine, or did you know that?”
I hadn’t even considered it.
“Just look at their skeletal structure. Biped-semblance fore and quadruped-semblance aft. For a centaur or a manticore the foreparts look like a man. For a gryffin (or again, a manticore) the hindquarters look like a lion’s. Conversely, for gryffins and hippogryffs, the foreparts look like a raptor. (And for centaurs and hippogryffs, the hindquarters are hooved like a horse’s.) It’s just because of my own folly, sir, and the natural pride of the gryffin race, that their anatomies have been so cruelly maligned.“Next time you get the chance to look at a real gryffin, sir, pay close attention to the structure of his chest. Go ahead and compare it with a centaur’s. Just don’t do it aloud where he can hear you. Draw a true diagram. Draw gryffins who can fly! Look at a centaur. His arms do not hang from the shoulders of his forelegs. Likewise, the wings of a gryffin rise from similar upright shoulders.
“But some people will never get it. Some artists can’t conceive of more than two sets of limbs on anything, and so when they’re up against so many limbs, they can’t rightly deal with it. The only way, I think, that a centaur gets away with what he does is that he looks like a man. Or at least, to men he looks like a man. That’s why some people fill their worlds with centaurs and harpies and fauns, without attempting to portray the unknown: the gryffins, the hippocamps, and us.

“I have been the bane of my race: because nobody sees how they do exist, very few men anymore think that dragons can exist. I have only one last wish, sir. Work to undo what I have done. Remember me like Hamlet’s father, and restore the honor to my race. I know you are an honorable man. It is too late for me, sir. I ask that you would do this one thing, so that my spirit may rest in peace.”
This brought me up short. “What? Leonard, what are you talking about?” I screamed into the phone. “You can’t do this. What’s this ‘last wish’ and ‘too late’? It’s never too late, chap. Don’t give up…”
“Goodbye! I won’t be seeing you, I expect. So long, sir. You’ve been most kind.”
said Leonard.
“No! Don’t do anything until I get down there, Leonard! I’ll be with you right away!” The line was dead before I finished. I slapped down the receiver and grabbed my hat on the way out the door. The sandwich stayed where I had left it. I took the stairs three, even four at a bound to the street, and dashed up the sidewalk to the Broad Street gallery where I’d rented a room for my exhibit. I did not quite know what the caller intended to do, but I was going to stop him. The door was ajar and the building all but empty. As I dashed up the stairs to my own exhibit, the air grew hotter, and denser. There were dribbles of something on the floor, but I didn’t stop to investigate. Leonard’s life was at stake, whoever he was, and every second was one too many. I began to see smoke stains on the ceiling that weren’t there yesterday, and I wondered. There was something dark red-greyish sticking out around my sign.
It was his tail. I stepped over it into the smoke-filled alcove and found him lying there, his ineffective wings in a pile of hot leather over his contorted body. His head was slumped beside the courtesy phone, and I wondered why I had been such a knucklehead as to post my studio number beside it. I stooped beside the majestic bony head, and put my pipe into Leonard’s left nostril. I blew softly at first, then harder. The eyes flickered a little, but they were already glazing over. I saw that I had come too late. Beneath his cooling claw (and it takes a while for a dragon’s body to cool) was an empty fire extinguisher. I pulled my pipe out of the dragon’s nostril and threw it away, never to smoke again. There was a strange footstep at the door and I turned around.
“Is this the fantasy bestiary exhibit? I’ve come to see the artist.” A tall bay stallion ducked through the door, and unfurled a magnificent pair of wings that filled the smoky gallery. Light from the skylight over our heads reflected from golden feathers.


Love it? Hate it? Want to read more? Be sure to tell me in the comments below!

1 thought on “The Bestiary”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s