For this post, I had prepared something different. I made an audio recording of the following short story, Upstream, only to realize afterward that the current free version of this website plan doesn’t support audio uploads.
Well, it was still good practice besides.
So without further adieu, here’s the short story, which I wrote last year. Enjoy!
Upstream by John R. Canter
A leaf, crimson red, falls into the water and floats on top. It flows down the stream, like a tiny boat in autumn colors sailing on the gentle water’s flow. Above, the orange sky of dusk fades lazily in from the afternoon. Below, a carp swims in the opposite direction. Upstream.
The koi is old. He was once a captive creature, the pet of nobles, bred for show, that like so many others were released into the wild. He swims forward against the current, with deliberate intent but pacing himself. He remembers the climb from previous years, and in his age knows that this will likely be his last attempt.
Beside him other koi and common carp swim against the current. He eyes them, and the youngsters make a face right back, proud and self-assure of their success. “Have you come to see us become dragons?” one of them asks, swimming next to the old-timer, her shiny back so young compared to his scales scratched by a life of evading predators and scrambling around rocks.
“No,” he says only, and swims ahead, leaving them behind. Already several young koi and carp, big and strong and healthy, are reaching the cascades. They splash and leap their way up these first rungs of the ladder up the mountain. They long ago passed the forest temple, its multi-story tower visible in the distance. There are many carp jumping and leaping, pressing themselves to advance forward and up, filled with vim and hope.
The old-timer paces himself. He knows these short waterfalls are the easy part.
Over several hours the carp move their way up the mountainside. The river’s cascades are full of falling autumn leaves, and the insects and small water prey to feed upon grow scarce as they ascend. He swims in a seemingly erratic pattern, alternating between one side of the stream or another. In one area, he pauses and waits. Here, the water falls from an uneven plateau, and he watches several energetic youths leap their way from the deep part of the stream below to the low part of the higher ledge.
One of the males falls back nearby him, landing on his back, disorientated.
Yes, he thinks, I remember this spot. He goes over to the other side, the side that seems like a longer jump with more shallow water to rise out of, and with a start leaps up to the top of the waterfall, making it to the next higher level. As he escapes the trap, he sees another youth jumping into the vortex in the seemingly easier corner of the cascade, only to be spun around by the surprise eddy and spit back down and out again, bewildered.
The old-timer has done this journey several times before. Though he rests more often than the juveniles he comes to outpace them, using his memory of his past failures to advance while others grow frustrated, exhausted, or become stuck on dry shores. A few are picked out by birds, eager to make a quick meal of meaty but tired fish. The old one dodges them all.
The hours drag on into the night, and he carves out a spot for himself where he knows the current isn’t as strong, and can rest. In the morning he and the other survivors press on. Each moment is a struggle against the waters, which flow faster and faster – the gentle streams have become rapids, and whitewater, and the calm cascades have been replaced with greater waterfalls that hammer down ceaselessly with torrents. Another night goes by, this time with little rest, and it isn’t until the sky begins to turn orange again around sunset on the third day that they find their true destination.
The old-timer pokes his head from the water and gazes up with his aged and failing eyes, but even he can see the splendor of the Dragon Gate. The water coming down to them from the lake above is warm, with the invigorating heat of spring or summer. The waterfall before them stretches up far greater than the leaps of even the biggest carps. At the crest, flanking each side of the waterfall is a mighty tree, two wooden pillars whose branches have intertwined to create a heavenly gate. The leaves sparkle in the autumn sunlight, still verdant and green.
“The Dragon Gate,” one youngster remarks in awe. “The legends are true, they must be!” He rushes forward and is instantly pushed back by the powerful falling water. The youths charge ahead, thoughtless of any strategy, tired as they are, imagining only perseverance, striving, and raw fortitude as their tools for apotheosis.
The old-timer watches. He remembers, and waits, if only for a little while.
In his youth he was like them, charging headlong, imagining that to become a dragon by jumping through the Gate was something he could achieve through sheer willpower. Year after year he failed in his task, like all the others of his cohort, all dead. As the last survivor and oldest koi, he tried and learned other ways. After years of practice and careful observation, the fish discovered a secret to success. He continued to watch the young fish now, who were starting to show signs of fatigue.
Too soon and they would object and turn on him; some of his missing tail was because of that. Too late and they lacked the strength to be of any help, and the missing scales on his underside were proof of this when he reached high but crashed onto the earth, their faltering sending him ashore and nearly to his death. The time was now, and he made his move.
The koi were jumping through the falling water, each trying to leap as high as they could. Several made it within a body-length or two of the summit; one almost reached it, but lost purchase and slid down. Many were easily jumping halfway to the top. But though they thrashed and flailed and splashed and struggled, none could make the jump to the Dragon Gate from the water. The old-timer too could only ever reach a little more than half-way up the summit, and found himself reaching lower and lower each year this way.
He swam forward, having eyed a relatively consistent jumper. As he began to jump up, experimentally, he saw that she was leaping slightly lower than him. When the timing was right, he jumped into the air, up the waterfall, tail trashing to gain altitude, and landed on top of her. His body was curled like a bowed spring, which let go all at once, jumping off her back and propelling himself to the top, but just missing the edge, and as he descended down, he dove back into the water head first, swimming out and coming back around for another leap, conserving much of his speed.
He did this several times, with both her and several other youths. He had learned something through years of trial and error, of exhaustion and near-death, and of growing old: the highest he could ever climb was when he stepped on the backs of his fellows. Again and again he jumped above the other fish, landing on them, sliding off, missing, landing wrong, and occasionally, hitting it just right to find new altitude. Though other fish shunned him, he was persistent, and they were insistent on their own success, having come so far that they could not truly stop him without abandoning their own selfish goals. Each was driven by their will, but the old-timer was also propelled by his wit.
On the last jump, he saw, for the briefest of glimpses, the lake beyond and something around the trees, just before splashing down again. The tantalizing summit called to him! He felt years younger, and leapt with newfound energy, his goal almost within reach. He jumped and missed the other fish’s back, jumped and slipped down; jumped and then jumped again and reached, and finally landed on the precipice of the waterfall. In an instant the current would toss him heartlessly down to where his tiring peers struggled, but he powered forward, tail thrashing madly, mind racing with the euphoria of achievement so close, and his tail kicked him into the air and over the water. He soared above the other carp, and passed through the Dragon Gate.
He had made it.
The koi’s body glowed gold like the Sun, and he became light as air. He did not fall back into the waters, elongating into the form of a flying dragon. When his transformation was complete, his glowing ceased, and he climbed higher into the sky, flying above the river in swooping arcs to see himself in his new form. Though his pattern of white, black and orange scales were unchanged, his body was now long like a serpent, his barbels were a sagely beard of whiskers, and his fins and tail exaggerated, especially around his gills. He felt his teeth were sharp, and as he flew his newly formed arms and legs trailed behind, equipped with claws. From the air he could hover and see all the splendor of the cascades at sunset, even out to the towers of the temples in the human city built on the mountain-forest waterfalls.
What he did not see was the coiled dragon rising from the lake, charging him.
It bit into his scaly hide, triangular shark-like teeth ripping right at his throat. This other carp-dragon looked just like him, but bigger and older still, and as the two battled in the sky, they became entangled with each coiling around the other as fighting eels, but clawing at each other with their dragon talons also. The bigger one was savage, and the old-timer was inexperienced with his new arms and legs, having just recently transformed, and flailed helplessly, clawing at the empty air.
They twisted as they flew, knocking down trees and splashing into the river, crushing some of the carp and displacing others onto land to die as their fighting made the water swell over the banks with their splashing. The two dragons bit and scraped at each other, and in a stroke of luck the new dragon managed to get away and fly up into the air, and the two flying dragons had a chance to size each other up from the ambush. The old-timer was panting, panicked and confused; the bigger dragon only growled, hovering expertly still in the air.
“Now you know the legend is true,” it smirked, “any carp that jumps the waterfall and through the Dragon Gate becomes a dragon. But did you think the challenge was done?”
He lunged again, and though the new dragon dodged, the big dragon swung around and caught him, lashing him down into the river with a thunderous crash. Water flew up in a geyser, an eruption, from the fall, and the bigger dragon descended on the newer, pinning him with his larger body and strong talons.
“I became a dragon, centuries ago, because I was willing to beat out my competition, to persevere by any means,” the bigger one said. “I will not suffer the challenge, or presence, of another.”
With a flash of teeth, the older, bigger dragon ripped into the throat and gills of the younger, freshly ascended dragon. The river ran red with dragon’s blood, flowing along its length.
Among the bloodied waters and koi carcasses, a crimson leaf fluttered down on the autumn wind, and floated down the stream, away from the Dragon Gate and its slumbering guardian.