“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho
Cover illustration and design by Shirley Jackson • Edited by Joel Cunningham
Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. A hapless imugi is determined to attain the form of a full-fledged dragon and gain entry to the gates of heaven. For a long time, things don’t go well. Then, it meets a girl. The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog presents an original short story by Campbell Award-nominated author Zen Cho.
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If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
By Zen Cho
The first thousand years
It was time. Byam was as ready as it would ever be.
As a matter of fact, it had been ready to ascend some 300 years ago. But the laws of heaven cannot be defied. If you drop a stone, it will fall to the ground—it will not fly up to the sky. If you try to become a dragon before your thousandth birthday, you will fall flat on your face, and all the other spirits of the five elements will laugh at you.
These are the laws of heaven.
But Byam had been patient. Now it would be rewarded.
It slithered out of the lake it had occupied for the past 100 years. The western shore had recently been settled by humans, and the banks had become cluttered with humans’ usual mess – houses, cultivated fields, bits of pottery that poked Byam in the side.
But the eastern side was still reserved to beasts and spirits. There was plenty of space for an imugi to take off.
The mountains around the lake said hello to Byam. (It was always safer to be polite to an imugi, since you never knew when it might turn into a dragon.) The sky above them was a pure light blue, dotted with clouds like white jade.
Byam’s heart rose. It launched itself into the air, the sun warm on its back.
I deserve this. All those years studying in dank caves, chanting sutras, striving to understand the Way…
For the first half-millennium or so, Byam could be confident of finding the solitude necessary for study. But more recently, there seemed to be more and more humans everywhere.
Humans weren’t all bad. You couldn’t meditate your way through every doctrinal puzzle, and that was where monks proved useful. Of course, even the most enlightened monk was wont to be alarmed by the sudden appearance of a giant snake wanting to know what they thought of the Sage’s comments on water. Still, you could usually extract some guidance from them, once they stopped screaming.
But spending too much time near humans was risky. If one saw you during your ascension, that could ruin everything. Byam would have moved when the humans settled by the lake, if not for the ample supply of cows and pigs and goats in the area. (Byam had grown tired of seafood.)
It wasn’t always good to have such abundance close to hand, though. Byam had been studying extra hard for the past decade in preparation for its ascension. Just last month, it had been startled from a marathon meditation session by an enormous growl.
Byam had looked around wildly. For a moment it thought it had been set upon, maybe by a wicked imugi—the kind so embittered by failure it pretended not to care about the Way, or the cintamani, or even becoming a dragon. But there was no one around, only a few fish beating a hasty retreat.
Then, another growl. It was coming from Byam’s own stomach. Byam recollected that it hadn’t eaten in about five years.
Some imugi fasted to increase their spiritual powers. But when Byam tried to get back to meditating, it didn’t work. Its stomach kept making weird gurgling noises. All the fish had been scared off, so Byam popped out of the water, looking for a snack.
A herd of cows was grazing by the bank, as though they were waiting for Byam.
It only intended to eat one cow. It wanted to keep sharp for its ascension. Dragons probably didn’t eat much. All the dragons Byam had ever seen were svelte, with perfect scales, shining talons, silky beards.
Unfortunately Byam wasn’t a dragon yet. It was hungry, and the cows smelled so good. Byam had one, and then another, and then a third, telling itself each time that this cow would be the last. Before it knew it, almost the whole herd was gone.
Byam cringed remembering this, but then put the memory away. Today was the day that would change everything. After today, Byam would be transformed. It would have a wish-fulfilling gem of its own—the glorious cintamani, which manifested all desires, cured afflictions, purified souls and water alike.
So high up, the air was thin, and Byam had to work harder to keep afloat. The clouds brushed its face damply. And—Byam’s heart beat faster—wasn’t that winking light ahead the glitter of a jewel?
Byam turned for its last look at the earth as an imugi. The lake shone in the sun. It had been cold, and miserable, and lonely, full of venomous water snakes that bit Byam’s tail. Byam had been dying to get away from it.
But now, it felt a swell of affection. When it returned as a dragon, it would bless the lake. Fish would overflow its banks. The cows and pigs and goats would multiply beyond counting. The crops would spring out of the earth in their multitudes…
A thin screechy noise was coming from the lake. When Byam squinted, it saw a group of little creatures on the western bank. Humans.
One of them was shaking a fist at the sky. “Fuck you, imugi!”
“Oh shit,” said Byam.
“Yeah, I see you! You think you got away with it? Well, you thought wrong!”
Byam lunged upwards, but it was too late. Gravity set its teeth in its tail and tugged.
It wasn’t just one human shouting, it was all of them. A chorus of insults rose on the wind:
“Worm! Legless centipede! Son of a bitch! You look like fermented soybeans and you smell even worse!”
Byam strained every muscle, fighting the pull of the earth. If only it had hawk’s claws to grasp the clouds with, or stag’s antlers to pierce the sky…
But Byam wasn’t a dragon yet.
The last thing it heard as it plunged through the freezing waters of the lake was a human voice shrieking:
“Serves you right for eating our cows!”
The second thousand years
If you wanted to be a dragon, dumb perseverance wasn’t enough. You had to have a strategy.
Humans had proliferated, so Byam retreated to the ocean. It was harder to get texts in the sea, but technically you didn’t need texts to study the Way, since it was inherent in the order of all things. (Anyway, sometimes you could steal scriptures off a turtle on a pilgrimage, or go onshore to ransack a monastery.)
But you had to get out of the water in order to ascend. It was impossible to exclude the possibility of being seen by humans, even in the middle of the ocean. It didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t breathe underwater; they still launched themselves onto the waves on rickety assemblages of dismembered trees. It was as if they couldn’t wait to get on to their next lives.
That was fine. If Byam couldn’t depend on the absence of humans, it would use their presence to its advantage.
It was heaven’s will that Byam should have failed the last time; if heaven wasn’t ready to accept Byam, nothing could change that, no matter how diligently it studied or how much it longed to ascend.
As in all things, however, when it came to ascending, how you were seen mattered just as much as what you did. It hadn’t helped back then that the lake humans had named Byam for what it was: no dragon, but an imugi, a degraded being no better than the crawling beasts of the earth.
But if, as Byam flashed across the sky, a witness saw a dragon… that was another matter. Heaven wasn’t immune to the pressures of public perception. It would have to recognise Byam then.
The spirits of the wind and water were too hard to bluff; fish were too self-absorbed; and there was no hope of hoodwinking the sea dragons. But humans had bad eyesight, and a tendency to see things that weren’t there. Their capacity for self-deception was Byam’s best bet.
It chose a good point in the sky, high enough that it would have enough cloud matter to work with, but not so high that the humans wouldn’t be able to see it. Then it got to work.
It labored at night, using its head to push together masses of cloud and its tail to work the fine detail. Byam didn’t just want the design to look like a dragon. Byam wanted it to be beautiful—as beautiful as the dragon Byam was going to be.
Making the sculpture was harder than Byam expected. Cloud was an intransigent medium. Wisps kept drifting off when Byam wasn’t looking. It couldn’t get the horns straight, and the whiskers were wonky.
Sometimes Byam felt like giving up. How could it make a dragon when it didn’t even know how to be one?
To conquer self-doubt, it chanted the aphorisms of the wise:
Nobody becomes a dragon overnight.
Real dragons keep going.
A dragon is only an imugi that didn’t give up.
It took 100 years longer than Byam had anticipated before the cloud was finished.
It looked like a dragon, caught as it sped across the sky to its rightful place in the heavens. In moonlight it shone like mother of pearl. Under the sun it would glitter with all the colors of the rainbow.
As Byam put its final touches on the cloud, it felt both pride and a sense of anti-climax. Even loss. Soon Byam would ascend—and then what would happen to its creation? It would dissipate, or dissolve into rain, like any other cloud.
Byam managed to find a monk who knew about shipping routes and was willing to dish in exchange for not being eaten. And then it was ready. As dawn unfolded across the sky on an auspicious day, Byam took its position behind its dragon-cloud.
All it needed was a single human to look up and exclaim at what they saw. A fleet of merchant vessels was due to come this way. Among all those humans, there had to be one sailor with his eyes on the sky—a witness open to wonder, prepared to see a dragon rising to glory.
“Hey, captain,” said the lookout. “You see that?”
“What is it? A sail?”
“No.” The lookout squinted at the sky. “That cloud up there, look. The one with all the colors.”
“Oh wow!” said the captain. “Good spot! That’s something special, for sure. It’s a good omen!”
He clapped the lookout on the back, turning to the rest of the crew. “Great news, men! Heaven smiles upon us. Today is our day!”
Everyone was busy with preparations, but a dutiful cheer rose from the ship.
The lookout was still staring upwards.
“It’s an interesting shape,” he said thoughtfully. “Don’t you think it looks like a… ”
“Like what?” said the captain.
“Like, um… ” The look-out frowned, snapping his fingers. “What do you call them? Forget my own head next! It looks like a – it’s on the tip of my tongue. I’ve been at sea for too long. Like a, you know – ”
Byam couldn’t take it anymore.
“Dragon!” it wailed in agony.
An imugi has enormous lungs. Byam’s voice rolled across the sky like thunder, its breath scattering the clouds—and blowing its creation to shreds.
“Horse!” said the lookout triumphantly. “It looks like a horse!”
“No no no,” said Byam. It scrambled to reassemble its sculpture, but the cloud matter was already melting away upon the winds.
“Thunder from a clear sky!” said the captain. “Is that a good sign or a bad sign?”
The lookout frowned. “You’re too superstitious, captain – hey!” He perked up, snatching up a telescope. “Captain, there they are!”
Byam had been so focused on the first ship that it hadn’t seen the merchant fleet coming. Then it was too busy trying to salvage its dragon-cloud to pay attention to what was going on below.
It was distantly aware of fighting between the ships, of arrows flying, of the screams of sailors as they were struck down. But it was preoccupied by the enormity of what had happened to it—the loss of hundreds of years of steady, hopeful work.
It wasn’t too late. Byam could fix the cloud. Tomorrow it would try again—
“Ah,” said the pirate captain, looking up from the business of slaughter. “An imugi! It’s good luck after all. One last push, men! They can’t hold out for long!”
It would have been easier if Byam could tell itself the humans had sabotaged it out of spite. But it knew they hadn’t. As Byam tumbled out of the sky, it was the impartiality of their judgment that stung the most.
The third thousand years
Dragons enjoyed sharing advice about how they’d gotten where they were. They said it helped to visualise the success you desired.
“Envision yourself with those horns, those whiskers, three claws and a thumb, basking in the glow of your own cintamani,” urged the Dragon King of the East Sea in his popular memoir Sixty Thousand Records of a Floating Life. “Close your eyes. You are the master of the elements! A twitch of your whisker and the skies open. At your command, blessings – or vengeance – pour forth upon all creatures under heaven! Just imagine!”
When Byam was low at heart, it imagined.
It got fed up of the sea: turtles kept chasing it around, and whale song disrupted its sleep. It moved inland, and found a quiet cave where it could study the Way undisturbed. The cave didn’t smell great, but it meant Byam never had to go far for food, so long as it didn’t mind bat. (Byam came to mind bat.)
Byam focused on the future.
This time, there would be no messing around with dragon-clouds. Byam had learned from its mistakes. There was no tricking heaven. This time it would present itself at the gates with its record of honest toil, and hope to be deemed worthy of admission.
It should have been nervous, but in fact it was calm as it prepared for what it hoped would be its final attempt. Certainty glowed in its stomach like a swallowed ember.
It had been a long time since Byam had left its cave, which it had chosen because it was up among the mountains, far from any human settlement. Still, Byam intended to minimise any chance of disaster. It was going to shoot straight for the skies, making sure it was exposed to the judgment of the world for as brief a time as possible.
But the brightness outside took it aback. Its eyes weren’t used to the sun’s glare anymore. When Byam raised its head, it got caught in a sort of horrible basket, full of whispering voices. A storm of ticklish green scraps whirled around it.
It reared back, hissing, before it recognised what had attacked it. Byam had forgotten about trees.
It leapt into the air, shaken. To have forgotten trees… Byam had not realised it had been so long.
Its unease faded as it rose ever higher. The crisp airs of heaven blew away disquiet. Ahead, the clouds glowed as though they reflected the light of the Way.
Leslie almost missed it.
She never usually did this kind of thing. She was indoorsy the way some people were outdoorsy, as attached to her sofa as others were to endorphins and bragging about their marathon times. She’d never thought of herself as someone who hiked.
But she hadn’t thought of herself as someone who’d fail her PhD, or get dumped by her boyfriend for her best friend. The past year had blown the bottom out of her ideas about herself.
She paused to drink some water and heave for breath. The view was spectacular. It seemed meaningless.
She was higher up than she’d thought. What if she took the wrong step? Would it hurt much to fall? Everyone would think it was an accident…
She shook herself, horrified. She wouldn’t do anything stupid, Leslie told herself. To distract herself, she took out her phone, but that proved a bad idea: this was the point at which she would have texted Jung-wook before.
She could take a selfie. That’s what people did when they went hiking, right? Posted proof they’d done it. She raised her phone, switching the camera to front-facing mode.
She saw a flash in the corner of the screen. It was sunlight glinting off scales.
Leslie’s mouth fell open. It wasn’t—it couldn’t be. She hadn’t even known they were found in America.
The camera went off. Leslie whirled around, but the sky was empty. It was nowhere to be seen.
But someone up there was looking out for Leslie after all, because when she looked back at her phone, she saw that she’d caught it. It was there. It had happened. There was Leslie, looking dopey with her red face and her hair a mess and her mouth half-open—and in the background, arced across the sky like a rainbow, was her miracle. Her own personal sign from heaven that things were going to be OK.
leshangry Nature is amazing! #imugi #이무기 #sighting #blessed #여행스타그램 #자연 #등산 #nature #hiking #wanderlust #gooutside #snakesofinstagram
The turning of the worm
“Dr. Han?” said the novice. “Yeah, her office is just through there.”
Sure enough, the name was inscribed on the door in the new script the humans used now: Dr Leslie Han. Byam’s nemesis.
Its most recent nemesis. If it had been only one offence, Byam wouldn’t even be here. It was the whole of Byam’s long miserable history with humans that had brought it to this point.
It made itself invisible and passed through the door.
The monk was sitting at a desk, frowning over a text. Byam was not good at distinguishing one human from another, but this particular human’s face was branded in its memory.
It felt a surge of relief.
Even with the supernatural powers accumulated in the course of three millennia of studying the Way, it had taken Byam a while to figure out how to shapeshift. The legs had been the most difficult part. Byam kept giving itself tiger feet, the kind dragons had.
It could have concealed the feet under its skirts, since no celestial fairy ever appeared in anything less than three layers of silk. But Byam wouldn’t have it. It was pathetic, this harking back to its stupid dreams. It had worked at the spell until the feet came right. If Byam wasn’t becoming a dragon, it would not lower itself to imitation. No part of it would bear any of the nine resemblances.
But there were consolations available to imugi who reconciled themselves to their fate. Like revenge.
The human was perhaps a little older than when Byam had last seen her. But she was still alive—alive enough to suffer when Byam devoured her.
Byam let its invisibility fall away. It spread its hands, the better to show off its magnificent sleeves.
It was the human’s job that had given Byam the idea. Leslie Han was an academic, which appeared to be a type of monk. Monks were the most relatable kind of human, for like imugi, they desired one thing most in life: to ascend to a higher plane of existence.
“Leslie,” crooned Byam in the dulcet tones of a celestial fairy. “How would you like to go to heaven?”
The monk screamed and fell out of her chair.
When nothing else happened, Byam floated over to the desk, peering down at the monk.
“What are you doing down there?” began Byam, but then the text the monk had been studying caught its eye.
“Oh my God, you’re – ” The monk rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t think celestial fairies descended anymore! Did you – were you offering to take me to heaven?”
Byam wasn’t listening. The monk had to repeat herself before it looked up from the book.
“This is a text on the Way,” said Byam. It looked around the monk’s office. There were rows and rows of books. Byam said slowly, “These are all about the Way.”
The monk looked puzzled. “No, they’re about astrophysics. I’m a researcher. I study the evolution of galaxies.”
Maybe Byam had been dumb enough to believe it might some day become a dragon, but it knew an exegesis of the Way when it saw one. There were hundreds of such books here—more commentaries than Byam had seen in one place in its entire lifetime.
It wasn’t going to repeat its mistakes. Ascension, transcendence, turning into a dragon—that wasn’t happening for Byam. Heaven had made that clear.
But you couldn’t study something for 3,000 years without becoming interested in it for its own sake.
“Tell me about your research,” said Byam.
“What you said just now,” said the monk. “Did you not – ”
Byam showed its teeth.
“My research!” said the monk. “Let me tell you about it.”
Byam had planned to eat the monk when she was done. But it turned out the evolution of galaxies was an extremely complicated matter. The monk had not explained even half of what Byam wanted to know by the time the moon rose.
The monk took out a glowing box and looked at it. “It’s so late!”
“Why did you stop?” said Byam.
“I need to sleep,” said the monk. She bent over the desk. Byam wondered if this was a good moment to eat her, but then the monk turned and held out a sheaf of paper.
“What is this?”
“Extra reading,” said the monk. “You can come back tomorrow if you’ve got questions. My office hours are 3 to 4 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
She paused, her eyes full of wonder. She was looking at Byam as though it was special.
“But you can come any time,” said the monk.
Byam did the reading. It went back again the next day. And the next.
It was easier to make sense of the texts with the monk’s help. Byam had never had anyone to talk to about the Way before. Its past visits with monks didn’t count—Leslie screamed much less than the others. She answered Byam’s questions as though she enjoyed them, whereas the others had always made it clear they couldn’t wait for Byam to leave.
“I like teaching,” she said, when Byam remarked upon this. “I’m surprised I’ve got anything to teach you, though. I’d’ve thought you’d know all this stuff already.”
“No,” said Byam. It looked down at the diagram Leslie was explaining for the third time. Byam still didn’t get it. But if there was one thing Byam was good at, it was trying again and again.
Well. That had been its greatest strength. Now, who knew?
“It’s OK,” said Leslie. “You know things I don’t.”
“Hm.” Byam wasn’t so sure.
Leslie touched its shoulder.
“It’s impressive,” she said. “That you’re so open to learning new things. If I were a celestial fairy, there’s no way I’d work so hard. I’d just lie around getting drunk and eating peaches all day.”
“You have a skewed image of the life of a celestial fairy,” said Byam.
But it did feel better. No one had ever called it hardworking before. It was a new experience, feeling validated. Byam found it liked it.
Studying with Leslie involved many new experiences. Leslie was a great proponent of what she called fresh air. She dragged Byam out of the office regularly so they could inhale as much of it as possible.
“But there’s air inside,” objected Byam.
“It’s not the same,” said Leslie. “Don’t you get a little stir-crazy when you haven’t seen the sun in a while?”
Byam remembered the shock of emerging from its cave for the first time in 800 years.
“Yes,” it admitted.
Leslie was particularly fond of hiking, which was like walking, only you did it up a hill. Byam enjoyed this. In the past 3,000 years it had seen more of the insides of mountains than their outsides, and it turned out the outsides were attractive at human eye-level.
The mountains were still polite to Byam, as though there were still a chance it might ever become a dragon. This hurt, but Byam squashed the feeling down. It had made its decision.
It was on one of their hikes that Leslie brought up the first time they met. They weren’t far off the peak when she stopped to look into the distance.
Byam hadn’t realised at first—things looked so different from human height—but it recognised the place before she spoke. Leslie was staring at the very mountain that had been Byam’s home for 800 years.
“It’s funny,” she said. “The last time I was here…”
Byam braced itself. I saw an imugi trying to ascend, she was going to say. It faceplanted on the side of a mountain, it was hilarious!
“I was standing here wishing I was dead,” said Leslie.
“Not seriously,” said Leslie hastily. “I mean, I wouldn’t have done anything. I just wanted it to stop.”
“What did you want to stop?”
“Everything,” said Leslie. “I don’t know. I was young. I was having a hard time. It all felt too much to cope with.”
Humans lived for such a short time anyway, it had never occurred to Byam that they might want to hasten the end. “You don’t still…”
“Oh no. It was a while ago.” Leslie was still looking at Byam’s mountain. She smiled. “You know, I got a sign while I was up here.”
“A sign,” echoed Byam.
“It probably sounds stupid,” said Leslie. “But I saw an imugi. It made me think there might be hope. I started going to therapy. Finished my PhD. Things got better.”
“Good,” said Byam. It met Leslie’s eyes. She had never stopped looking at Byam as though it was special.
Leslie pressed her lips to Byam’s mouth.
Byam stayed still. It wasn’t sure what to do.
“Sorry. I’m sorry!” Leslie stepped back, looking panicked. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought maybe – of course we’re both women, but I thought maybe that didn’t matter to you guys. Or maybe you were even into – I was imagining things. This is so embarrassing. Oh God.”
Byam had questions. It picked just one to start with. “What were you doing? With the mouths, I mean.”
Leslie took a deep breath and blew it out. “Oh boy.” But the explanation proved to be straightforward.
“Oh, it was a mating overture,” said Byam.
“I – yeah, I guess you could put it that way,” said Leslie. “Listen, I’m sorry I even… I don’t want to have ruined everything. I care about you a lot, as a friend. Can we move on?”
“Yes,” Byam agreed. “Let’s try again.”
“Phew, I’m really glad you’re not – what?”
“I didn’t know what you were doing earlier,” explained Byam. “You should’ve said. But I’ll be better now I understand it.”
Leslie stared. Byam started to feel nervous.
“Do you not want to kiss?” it said.
“No,” said Leslie. “I mean, yes?”
She reached out tentatively. Byam squeezed her hand. It seemed to be the right thing to do, because Leslie smiled.
“OK,” she said.
After a while Byam moved into Leslie’s apartment. It had been spending the nights off the coast, but the waters by the city smelled of diesel and the noise from the ships made its sleep fitful. Leslie’s bed was a lot more comfortable than the watery deeps.
Living with her meant Byam had to be in celestial fairy form all the time, but it was used to it by now. At Leslie’s request, it turned down the heavenly glow.
“You don’t mind?” said Leslie. “Humans aren’t used to the halo.”
“Nah,” said Byam. “It’s not like I had the glow before.” It froze. “I mean… in heaven, everyone is illuminated, so you stop… noticing it?”
Fortunately, Leslie wasn’t listening. She had opened an envelope and was staring at the letter in dismay.
“He’s raising the rent again! Oh, you’re fucking kidding me.” She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I need to get out of this city.”
“What is rent?” said Byam.
Which was how Byam ended up getting a job. Leslie tried to discourage it at first. Even once Byam wore her down and she admitted it would be helpful if Byam also paid “rent,” she seemed to think it was a problem that Byam was undocumented.
That was an explanation that took an extra long time. The magic to invent the necessary records was simple in comparison.
“‘Byam’,” said Leslie, studying its brand-new driver’s licence. “That’s an interesting choice.”
“It’s my name,” said Byam absently. It was busy magicking up an immunization history.
“That’s your name?” said Leslie. She touched the driver’s licence with reverent fingers. “Byam.”
She seemed unaccountably pleased. After a moment she said, “You never told me your name before.”
“Oh,” said Byam. Leslie was blushing. “You could have asked!”
Leslie shrugged. “I didn’t want to force it. I figured you’d tell me when you were ready.”
“It’s not because – I would’ve told you,” said Byam. “I just didn’t think of it. It’s not my real name.”
The light in Leslie’s face dimmed. “It’s not?”
“I mean, it’s the name I have,” said Byam. It should never have set off down this path. How was it going to explain about dragon-names—the noble, elegant styles, full of meaning and wit, conferred on dragons upon their ascension? Leslie didn’t even know Byam was an imugi. She thought Byam had already been admitted to the gates of heaven.
“I’m only a low-level attendant,” it said finally. “When I get promoted, I’ll be given a real name. One with a good meaning. Like ‘Establish Virtue,’ or ‘Jade Peak,’ or ‘Sunlit Cloud.’”
“Oh,” said Leslie. “I didn’t know you were working towards a promotion.” She hesitated. “When do you think you’ll get promoted?”
“In 10,000 years’ time,” said Byam. “Maybe.”
This was a personal joke. Leslie wasn’t meant to get it, and she did not. She only gave Byam a thoughtful look. She dropped a kiss on its forehead, just above its left eyebrow.
“I like ‘Byam,’” she said. “It suits you.”
They moved out of the city to the outskirts, where the rent was cheaper and they could have more space. Leslie got a cat, which avoided Byam but eventually stopped hissing at its approach. Leslie went running on the beach in the mornings while Byam swam.
She introduced Byam to those of her family who didn’t object to the fact that Byam appeared to be a woman. These did not include Leslie’s parents, but there was a sister named Jean, and a niece, Eun-hye, whom Byam taught physics.
Tutoring young humans in physics was Byam’s first job, but sometimes it forgot itself and taught students the Way, which was not helpful for exams. After a narrowly averted disaster with the bathroom in their new apartment, Byam took a plumbing course.
It turned out Byam was good at working with pipes—better, perhaps, than it had ever been at understanding the Way.
At night, Byam still dreamt of the past. Or rather, it dreamt of the future—the future as Byam had envisioned it, once upon a time. They were impossible, ecstatic dreams—dreams of scything through the clouds, raindrops clinging to its beard; dreams of chasing the cintamani through the sea, its whiskers floating on a warm current.
When Byam woke up, its face wet with salt-water, Leslie was always there.
Byam got home one night and knew something was wrong. It could tell from the shape of Leslie’s back. When she realised it was there, she raised her head, wiping her face and trying to smile.
“What happened?” said Byam.
“I’ve been – ” The words got stuck. Leslie cleared her throat. “I didn’t get tenure.”
Byam had learned enough about Leslie’s job by now to understand what this meant. Not getting tenure was worse than falling when you were almost at the gates of heaven. It sat down, appalled.
“Would you like me to eat the committee for you?” it suggested.
Leslie laughed. “No.” The syllable came out on a sob. She rubbed her eyes. “Thanks, baby, but that wouldn’t help.”
“What would help?”
“Nothing,” said Leslie. Then, in a wobbly voice, “A hug.”
Byam put its arms around Leslie, but it seemed poor comfort for the ruin of all her hopes. It felt Leslie underestimated the consolation she was likely to derive from the wholesale destruction of her enemies. But this was not the time to argue.
Byam remembered the roaring in its ears as it fell, the shock of meeting the ground.
“Sometimes,” it said, “you try really hard and it’s not enough. You put in all you’ve got and you still never get where you thought you were meant to be. But at least you tried. Some people never try. They resign themselves to bamboozling monks and devouring maidens for all eternity.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad life,” said Leslie, with another of those ragged laughs. But she kissed Byam’s shoulder, to show that she didn’t think the life of a wicked imugi had any real appeal.
After Leslie cried some more, she said, “Is it worth it? The trying, I mean.”
Byam had to be honest. The only thing that could have made falling worse was if someone had tried to convince Byam it hadn’t sucked.
“I don’t know,” it said.
It could see the night sky through the windows. Usually the lights and pollution of the city blanked out the sky, but tonight there was a single star shining, like the cintamani did sometimes in Byam’s dreams.
“Maybe,” said Byam.
Leslie said, “Why aren’t you trying to become a dragon?”
Byam froze. “What?”
Leslie wriggled out of its arms and turned to face it. “Tell me you’re still working towards it and I’ll shut up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Byam, terrified. “I’m a celestial fairy. What do dragons have to do with anything? They are far too noble and important to have anything to say to a lowly spirit like me –”
“Byam, I know you’re not a celestial fairy.”
“No, I am, I – ” But Byam swallowed its denials at the look on Leslie’s face. “What gave it away?”
“I don’t know much about celestial fairies,” said Leslie. “But I’m pretty sure they don’t talk about eating senior professors.”
Byam gave her a look of reproach. “I was trying to be helpful!”
“It wasn’t just that…”
“Have you told Jean and Eun-hye?” Byam bethought itself of the other creature that was important in their lives. “Did you tell the cat? Is that why it doesn’t like me?”
“I’ve told you, I can’t actually talk to the cat,” said Leslie. (Which was a blatant lie, because she did it all the time, though it was true they had strange conversations, generally at cross-purposes.) “I haven’t told anyone. But I couldn’t live with you for years and not know, Byam. I’m not completely stupid. I was hoping you’d eventually be comfortable enough to tell me yourself.”
Byam’s palms were damp. “Tell you what? ‘Oh yeah, Les, I should’ve mentioned, I’m not an exquisite fairy descended from heaven like you always thought. Actually I’m one of the eternal losers of the unseen world. Hope that’s OK!'”
“Hey, forgive me for trying to be sensitive!” snapped Leslie. “I don’t care what you are, Byam. I know who you are. That’s all that matters to me.”
“Who I am?” said Byam. It was like a rock had lodged inside its throat. It was hard to speak past it. “An imugi, you mean. An earthworm with a dream.”
“An imugi changed my life,” said Leslie. “Don’t talk them down.”
Though it was incredible, it seemed it was true she didn’t mind, and wasn’t about to dump Byam for being the embodiment of pathetic failure.
“I just wish you’d trusted me,” she said.
Her eyes were tender, and worried, and red. They reminded Byam that it was Leslie who had just come crashing down to earth.
Byam clasped its hands to keep them from shaking. It took a deep breath. “I’m not a very good girlfriend.”
Leslie understood what it was trying to say. She put her arm around Byam.
“Sometimes,” she said. “Mostly you do OK.”
“I wasn’t good at being an imugi either,” said Byam. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It wasn’t like the name. This, I didn’t want you to know.”
“If you’re an imugi, everyone knows you’ve failed,” explained Byam. “It’s like wearing a sign all the time saying ‘I’ve been denied tenure.'”
This proved a bad comparison to make. Leslie winced.
“Sorry,” said Byam. It paused. “It hurts. Knowing it wasn’t enough, even when you gave it the best of yourself. But you get over it.”
You get used to being a failure. It was too early to tell her that. Maybe Leslie would be lucky. Maybe she’d never have the chance to get used to it.
Leslie looked like she was thinking of saying something, but she changed her mind. She squeezed Byam’s knee.
“I’m thinking of going into industry,” said Leslie.
Byam had no idea what she meant.
“You would be great at that,” it said, meaning it.
It turned out Byam was right: Leslie was great at working in industry, and her success meant they could move into a bigger place, near Leslie’s sister. This worked out well—after Jean’s divorce, they helped out with Eun-hye, who perplexed Byam by declaring it her favourite aunt.
A mere 10 years after Leslie had been denied tenure, she was saying it had been a blessing in disguise: “I would never have known there was a world outside academia.”
They had stopped talking about dragons by then. Leslie had gotten over her fixation with them.
“I’m fixated?” she’d said. “You’re the one who worked for thousands of years – ”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Byam had said. When this didn’t work, it simply started vanishing whenever Leslie brought it up. Eventually, she stopped bringing it up.
Over time, she seemed to forget what Byam really was. Even Byam started to forget. When Leslie found her first white hair, Byam grew a few too, to make her feel better. Wrinkles were more challenging; it could never seem to get quite the right number. (“You look like a sage,” said Leslie, when she was done laughing at its first attempt. “I’m only 48!”)
Byam’s former life receded into insignificance, the thwarted yearning of its earlier days nearly effaced.
The years went by quickly.
Leslie didn’t talk much these days. It tired her, as everything tired her. She spent most of her time asleep, the rest looking out of the window. She didn’t often tell Byam what was going through her head.
So it was a surprise when she said, without precursor:
“Why does the yeouiju matter so much?”
It took a moment before Byam understood what she was talking about. It hadn’t thought of the cintamani in years. But then the surge of bitterness and longing was as fresh as ever, even in the midst of its grief.
“It’s in the name, isn’t it?” said Byam. “’The jewel that grants all wishes.’”
“Do you have a lot of wishes that need granting?”
Byam could think of some, but to tell Leslie about them would only distress her. It wasn’t like Leslie wanted to die.
Before, Byam had always thought that humans must be used to dying, since they did it all the time. But now it had got to know them better, it saw they had no idea how to deal with it.
This was unfortunate, because Byam didn’t know either.
“I guess I just always imagined I’d have one some day,” it said. It tried to remember what it had felt like before it had given up on becoming a dragon and acquiring its own cintamani. “It was like… if I didn’t have that hope, life would have no meaning.”
Leslie nodded. She was still gazing out of the window. “You should try again.”
“Let’s not worry about it now – ”
“You have thousands of years,” said Leslie. “You shouldn’t just give up.” She looked Byam in the eye. “Don’t you still want to be a dragon?”
Byam would have liked to say no. It was unfair of Leslie to awaken all these dormant feelings in it at a time when it already had too many feelings to contend with.
“Eun-hye should be here soon,” it said. Leslie’s niece was almost the same age Leslie had been when Byam had first come to her office with murder in its heart. Eun-hye had a child herself now, which still seemed implausible to Byam. “She’s bringing Sam, won’t that be nice?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m an old person,” said Leslie, annoyed. “I’m dying, not decrepit. Come on, Byam. I thought repression was a human thing.”
“That shows how much you know,” said Byam. “When you’ve been a failure for 3,000 years, you get good at repressing things!”
“I’m just saying –”
“I don’t know why you’re – ” Byam scrubbed its face. “Am I not good enough as I am?”
“Of course you’re good enough,” said Leslie. “If you’re happy, then that’s fine. But you should know you can be anything you want to be. That’s all. I don’t want you to let fear hold you back.”
Byam was silent.
Leslie said, “I only want to know you’ll be OK after I’m dead.”
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” said Byam.
“I don’t want you to die.”
Byam laid its head on the bed. If it closed its eyes it could almost pretend they were home, with the cat snoozing on Leslie’s feet.
After a while it said, without opening its eyes, “What’s your next form going to be?”
“I don’t know,” said Leslie. “We don’t get told in advance.” She grinned. “Maybe I’ll be an imugi.”
“Don’t say such things,” said Byam, aghast. “You haven’t been that bad!”
This made Leslie laugh, which made her cough, so Byam called the nurse, and then Eun-hye came with her little boy, so there was no more talk of dragons, or cintamani, or reversing a pragmatic surrender to the inevitable.
That night the old dreams started again—the ones where Byam was a dragon. But they were a relief compared to the dreams it had been having lately.
It didn’t mention them to Leslie. She would only say, “I told you so.”
For a long moment after Byam woke, it was confused. The cintamani still hung in the air before it. Then it blinked and the orb revealed itself to be a lamp by the hospital bed.
Leslie was awake, her eyes on Byam. “Hey.”
Byam wiped the drool from its cheek, sitting up. “Do you want anything? Water, or – ”
“No,” said Leslie. Her voice was thin, a mere thread of sound. “I was just watching you sleep like a creeper.”
But then she paused. “There is something, actually.”
“You don’t have to.”
“If there’s anything I can give you,” said Byam, “you’ll get it.”
Still Leslie hesitated.
“Could I see you?” she said finally. “In your true form, I mean.”
There was a brief silence. Leslie said, “If you don’t want to…”
“No, it’s fine,” said Byam. “Are you sure you won’t be scared?”
Leslie nodded. “It’ll still be you.”
Byam looked around the room. There wasn’t enough space for its real form, so it would have to make more space. But that was a simple magic.
It hadn’t expected the sense of relief as it expanded into itself. It was as though for several decades it had been wearing shoes a size too small and had finally been allowed to take them off.
Leslie’s eyes were wide.
“Are you OK?” said Byam.
“Yes,” said Leslie, but she raised her hands to her face. Byam panicked, but before it could transform again, Leslie rubbed her eyes and said, “Don’t change back! I haven’t looked properly yet.”
Her eyes were wet. She studied Byam as though she was trying to imprint the sight onto her memory.
“I’d look better with legs,” said Byam shyly. “And antlers. And a bumpy forehead…”
“You’re beautiful.” Leslie touched Byam’s side. Her hand was warm. “It was you, wasn’t it? That day in the mountains.”
Byam shrank. It said, its heart in its mouth, “You knew?”
“I’ve known for a while.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Guess I was waiting for you to tell me.” Leslie gave Byam a half-smile. “You know me, I hate confrontation. Anything to avoid a fight.”
“I should have told you,” said Byam. “I wanted to, I just…” It had never been able to work out how to tell Leslie its original plan had been to devour her in an act of misdirected revenge.
Dumb, dumb, dumb. Byam could only blame itself for its failures.
“You should’ve told me.” But Leslie didn’t seem mad. Maybe she just didn’t have the energy for it anymore.
“I’m sorry,” said Byam. Leslie held out her hand and it slid closer, letting her run her hand over its scales. “How did you figure it out?”
Leslie shrugged. “It made sense. You were always there when I needed you.” She patted Byam gently. “Can I ask for one more thing?”
“Anything,” said Byam. It felt soft and sad, bursting at the seams with melancholy love.
“Promise me you won’t give up,” said Leslie. “Promise me you’ll keep trying.”
It was like going in for a kiss and getting slapped in the face. Byam went stiff, staring at Leslie in outrage. “That’s fighting dirty!”
“You said anything.”
Byam ducked its head, but it couldn’t see any way out.
“I couldn’t take it,” it said miserably, “not now, not after… I’m not brave enough to fail again.”
Leslie’s eyes were pitiless.
“I know you are,” she said.
One last time
They scattered Leslie’s ashes on the mountain where she had first seen Byam, which would have felt narcissistic if it hadn’t been Leslie’s own idea. When they were done, Byam said it wanted a moment alone.
No, it was all right, Eun-hye should stay with her mother. Byam was just going round the corner. It wanted to look at the landscape Leslie had loved.
Alone, it took off its clothes, folding them neatly and putting them on a stone. It shrugged off the constriction of the spell that had bound it for years.
It was like taking a deep breath of fresh air after coming up from the subway. For the first time Byam felt a rush of affection for its incomplete self—legless, hornless, orbless as it was. It had done the best it could.
Ascending was familiar, yet strange. Before, Byam had always striven to break free from the bonds of earth.
This time it was different. Byam seemed to be bringing the earth with it as it rose to meet the sky. Its grief did not fall away—it was closer than ever, a cheek laid against Byam’s own.
Everything was much simpler than Byam had thought. Heaven and earth were not so far apart, after all –
“Look, Sam,” said Eun-hye. She held her son up, pointing. “There’s an imugi going to heaven! Wow!”
The child’s small frowning face turned to the sky. Gravity dug its claws into Byam.
It was fruitless to resist. Still, Byam thrashed wildly, hurling itself upwards. Fighting the battle of its life, as though it had any chance of winning.
Leslie had believed in Byam. It had promised to be brave.
“Wow, it’s so pretty!” continued Eun-hye’s voice, much loved and incredibly unwelcome. “Your imo halmeoni loved imugi.”
Sam was young, but he already had very definite opinions.
“No,” he said distinctly.
“It’s good luck to see an imugi,” said Eun-hye. “Look, the imugi’s dancing!”
“No!” said Sam, in the weary tone he adopted when adults were being especially dense. “Not imugi. It’s a dragon.”
For the first time in Byam’s inglorious career, gravity surrendered. The resistance vanished abruptly. Byam bounced into the clouds like an arrow loosed from the bow.
“No, ippeuni,” Eun-hye was explaining. “Dragons are different. Dragons have horns like a cow, and legs and claws, and long beards like Santa…”
“Got horns,” said Sam.
Byam barely noticed the antlers, or the whiskers unfurling from its face, or the legs popping out along its body, each foot adorned with four gold-tipped claws.
Because there it was—the cintamani of its dreams, a matchless pearl falling through five-coloured clouds. It was like meeting a beloved friend in a crowd of strangers.
Byam rushed toward it, its legs (it had legs!) extended to catch the orb. It still half-believed it was going to miss, and that the whole thing would come crashing down around its ears, a ridiculous daydream after all.
But the cintamani dropped right in its paw. It was lit from the inside, slightly warm to the touch. It was perfect.
Byam only realised it was shedding tears when the clouds started weeping along. It must have looked strange from the ground, the storm descending suddenly out of a clear blue sky.
Eun-hye shrieked, covering Sam’s head. “We’ve got to find Byam imo!”
“It’s getting heavy,” said Jean. “The baby’ll get wet. Get Nathan to bring the car round. I’ll look for her.”
“No, I will.”
“I’ve got an umbrella!”
They were still fighting, far beneath Byam, as the palaces of heaven rose before it. Ranks of celestial fairies stood by the gate, waiting to welcome it.
They had waited thousands of years. They could wait a little longer. Byam turned back, thinking to stop the storm. Anything to avoid a fight.
But the rain was thinning already. Through the clouds, Byam could see the child leaning out of his mother’s arms, thwarting her attempts to keep him dry. He held his hands out to the rain, laughing.
With thanks to Miri Kim, Hana Lee, Perrin Lu, Kara Lee and Rachel Monte.
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Zen Cho is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and the editor of the anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia. A nominee for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, her short fiction has been honor-listed for the Carl Brandon Society Awards. Her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown—about magic, intrigue and politics in Regency London—won a British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was a Locus Awards finalist for Best First Novel. Her next novel, The True Queen, will be published in March 2019. She was born and raised in Malaysia and lives in the UK. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @zenaldehyde.