The next day on a patch of tropic quag they came upon the skeleton of a cow, its ribs outsplayed, upturned and bleached clean of all flesh. All its organs were gone too, but its sadeyed face was left intact, and its hooves. So much like an educational demonstration of a cow skeleton abandoned here in this swamp, and so far from any farmland the cow must have wandered, that the children were forced to wonder: Was this some kind of lesson staged just for them? They crouched in a wide circle about the exemplary carcass on this strange wetland stage, and, as if rehearsed, old Wise One hobbled forward to take his place by the cow, and with his hands clasped behind him, he began to speak:
You may not be able to see from where you are, but just here – he stooped and pointed to a patch of suede above a hindleg hoof — there are a pair of fang marks. But not those of a snake.
Those children crouching closest leaned in and nodded.
Our neighbours to the South live in strange lands, said Wise One, lands unlike anything you've seen. Exotic birds and plants populate the thousands of islands that form their disparate nation chain. On those islands they cultivate dragons taller than men, great and terrible lizards, with armour harder than inhuman warcars. The dragons stalk low on all fours, their bellies almost scraping the ground, like this, and the old man quite spryly pantomimed for the youngsters' amusement.
He told them that when he was a much younger man he'd been stationed on Komodo as part of a support unit accompanying a column of armoured cars and tanks. They conducted purges across the island, rooting out rebel activity, interviewing any survivors — a task in which the young Wise One had excelled — but in their downtime the soldiers had the leisure to explore the alien tropics. There was a beach of candy-pink sand at one end of the island, and it was littered with bent parang swords, and dozens of barong masks, the lion devils of those lands, with their bulging eyes and crossed sabreteeth. His platoon found no blood trails or bodies unaccounted for on the beach, nor in the sunny orchards of the lowlands, but everywhere they discovered the traces of humans snatched away, as if by dreams.
One bright morning the column and platoon set out West to cleanse another reported hive and in their slow patrol through the grasslands Wise One spied a stray white cow feeding in a rambutan orchard. The cow had the strangest black pattern along its side: a map of Pangaea. The supercontinent that was the world before the world was formed, Wise One explained to the children.
He pointed the cow out to his friend Hwang-Huai as they passed by the orchard. And as he did so they saw a lone dragon scuttle up on all fours and sink its fangs into the Pangaea cow's ankle. This dragon had rolled itself red in the blood of some previous prey or carrion and its scales were painted with a handful of yellow stars. The cow bellowed and kicked at the great lizard, who only backpedalled a few metres and waited there, watching the cow, its pink string tongue silently flickering about its smile. Some of the platoon lagged behind to watch the cow limp off into the grassland, the red dragon slowly trailing after it.
A week went by in which their forces razed most of the island, travelling in wider circuits in their inquisitions. They were over a hundred kilometres South-East of that rambutan orchard when they came upon the Pangaea cow again.
Hwang-Huai spied a shape on the hill and called out to me, That's the same cow! And it was: through my rifle scope I saw the same black patch on its flank that looked like the world map distorted. But now the cow was terribly sick, with poison or blood loss I don't know, and it was limping like each step would be its last. And behind it now trailed five dragons — five! — our bloodred dragon with yellow stars, yes, but it was joined too by a dragon with scarred stripes and stars running up a flank, and another in a tricolour of saffron, green and white, set with a blue chakra wheel like an eye. Another dragon painted with a pair of farm tools, and another with a ring of stars about its coarse azure neck. All of them kept a very polite and respectful tailing distance, simply watching the dying cow, keeping up with it. It must have wandered painfully in circles about the island all week, never sleeping, always hounded by the cheerful lizards. Myself, Hwang-Huai, and a few others detached from the rest of the column; the war could wait. We joined this far more interesting procession of soldiers, following painted dragons, following this beast lumbering slower and slower on through the high grass. The dragons kept watching the cow when it stopped to lap from a puddle, or when it collapsed to rest beneath a palm. It always bellowed when it broke down and appeared to almost die, but it continued bellowing, its sides rising and falling, the supercontinent squeezing in and out, like this — then it rose to its hooves again and struggled on. At last the cow collapsed and it did not bellow, and through the scope I could see that it wasn't breathing. Its eyes were fixed open, and the map didn't move.
The dragons waited a full thirty minutes yet, the old man told them, just watching the cow as before, perfectly still apart from the licking of their smiling lips. Then, like some bell had sounded, they slowly closed the gap in their weird, bowlegged walks, shuffling over like they had all the time in the world — and would always have it — and all five painted dragons united in a frenzy devouring the Pangaea cow.
After they'd played in its blood and picked it to bones like the carcass that lay now before the children, the dragons slunk away through an ornate flower garden. They disappeared like ghosts, no peony brushed, but every rose roused.
Wise One was silent, and the children nodded in silence. Few understood but many pretended. Wise One ate one of his pills and stretched his shoulders and back, then all stood and gathered up their weapons and packs and went around the skeleton of the cow and on through the wetlands.
As they reentered the jungle Han found himself walking at Wise One's side.
You know, he said, I think I've heard that story before. But in the version I heard, the cow's birthmark corresponded to constellations, whole galaxies of stars.
The old man simply smiled and shook his head at Han. Any story once told becomes only a story, he said. What does it matter how much is true?