What is Hitherby Dragons?

Hitherby Dragons is a story about the emptiness.

If you look out at the world, there’s a lot that you know. There’s a lot that you understand. But at the edge of your map, there’s emptiness.

There’s questions that are hard to answer.

There’s things that are hard to explain.

There’s choices that don’t make sense and there’s a sea of chaos and there’s emptiness.

So Jane goes to the edge of the world, where Santa Ynez touches on the chaos. She walks across the bridge to the abandoned tower of the gibbelins. Finding that its machinery is in recoverable order, she assembles a theater company of gods and humans to answer suffering.

Also they put on shows.

Kids Today

It’s all about the Riding Hood. The blood-capped girl-spirit of the forest.

She used to be an ordinary girl.

She snapped when she found her grandmother dead.

She hauled that woman down to the river of the world and from water and blood she made her hood.

She swayed and chanted and she spoke the words

And her grandmother’s eyes popped open.

“What big eyes you have!” she told that corpse. And with them that ancient could see the world.

“What big teeth you have!” she told that corpse, and filled its flesh with hunger.

“Such love you have for your little girl!”

Right there that’s where things left the script. That’s not what you’re supposed to say when you raise a monster; so instead Red’s magic raised a wolf.

“I’ll huff, and puff, and I’ll guard your kind.”

That’s what her grandmother said.

And she sprang off—a beast in a grandmother’s cap—to hunt the creatures that might hurt young girls.

And that’s why a girl can walk in the woods.

And that’s why a girl can go out alone.

Because the world is scary and the world is dark but a girl can always turn her cap and cry to the darkness and call the wolf:

“Red Hood! Red Hood! Blood calls to blood!
Send the beast
In your grandmother’s cap
To the aid of this young brownie.”

They teach you this in the Girl Scouts, you know, while the boys learn chopping wood.

The Truth

While waiting for dinner, Jane and Bob made a world out of firewood. It was five hundred miles wide and ten miles deep. It had lots of firewood animals and firewood cities and firewood people.

“Jane! Bob!” said their mother. “Look what you’ve done! How are we going to burn our firewood now?”

“But Mom!” said Jane. “We were bored!”

“You are very bad little children,” said their Mom, and sent them to bed without supper.

Jane and Bob were very angry. So they snuck out to the world they had made and became monsters. Each had seven hundred teeth and five hundred claws! They also had LAW rockets.

That’s why firewood is so afraid of people. It’s not because you might burn it. It’s because you might turn out to be Jane or Bob!

Silly firewood. Jane and Bob aren’t real! They’re just a story somebody made up.

She Puts on Shows

I didn’t really finish explaining what Hitherby Dragons is, so let me pause things there and talk about “shows.”

Have you ever had one of those days, when your chest bursts open and an alien flies out, only instead of an evil parasitic alien, it’s actually an aromatherapy alien? And so you grab two armfuls of alien and inhale deeply and go, “Ahhhhh?”

They’re sort of like that.

Jane and Martin do things in the chaos. And . . . well. It creates worlds, or ideas, or truths—or something.

It’s not always what they expect, exactly, any more than the aliens are.

You might get a sweet vanilla alien or the soft smell of violets. You might feel fulfilled, like your whole life was a vehicle for the alien’s emergence, or you might feel empty like you never really existed and the world was an illusion all along.

There’s a moral there but I’ll let Jane tell it. Watch the show!

The River at the Edge of the World1

1 which is to say, the sky.

Once upon a time, there were the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rooster (but not Hen, since girls are a different animal), Rabbit, Monkey, Dragon, Horse, Hopping Vampire, Snake, Goat, and Alien. They could not decide what order the zodiac years would go in. So they held a contest: they would order the cycle based on the order the various animals reached the far side of a river.

“Hey!” said Hopping Vampire. “Why is this river made of sanctified rice?”

“Purely a coincidence,” said Rat, ruffling whiskers.

“And patrolled by Ninja Tathagata, with his kung-fu grip?” asked Monkey, who had had unfortunate encounters with Tathagata before.

“Look,” explained Rat. “I am not responsible for the condition of this river, which we have chosen at random.”

“But there’s a billboard,” said Ox. “River by Rat.”

“Calvin Klein,” said Rat. “It’s River by Calvin Klein. Abbreviated Rat.”

“Ah,” said Ox. “That makes sense, then.”

“Besides, what are you worried about?” asked Rat. “It’s not like you have anything to fear from rice or Ninja Tathagata.”

“This is true,” allowed Ox. “My anti-enlightenment stare defeats all Buddhas!”

“It’s a NINJA BUDDHA,” said Monkey, in frustration.

“Okay, look,” said Ox. “Just in case, we’ll distract Ninja Tathagata with the goat’s Buddha Call.”

Monkey looked hopefully at Goat.

Resignedly, Goat trudged a ways down the river. “Help, help,” he said. “I am suffering the pangs of desire brought on by ignorance of the true nature of reality. Can anyone save me from the burdens of the skandhas?”

Ninja Tathagata’s ears sprang straight up. “Someone’s in trouble!” He threw down a Ninja Buddha Ball and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“RUN!” said Rat. “Before he returns from Ninja Nirvana!”

They all bolted for the river, save for Hopping Vampire, who could not touch sanctified rice.

Ox was the strongest swimmer, so pretty soon Ox was almost to the far edge. But secretly, Rat was riding on Ox’s head!

“I’m so clever!” laughed Rat. “Soon I’ll rule the zodiac!”

“What’s that?” asked Ox.

“I mean, look out, Enlightenment Shuriken!”

Ox weaved from side to side in the river, dodging the hail of shuriken manifested by Ninja Tathagata’s magnificent beneficence towards all living things. He was almost to the far edge, when Rat LEAPT for the shore!

Suddenly, Rat’s chest burst open and Alien jumped out! That’s how Alien won the zodiac, and why so few people are born in the year of the Hopping Vampire.

Darn it, Ninja Tathagata!

Somehow, it’s all your fault.

Creating Reasonable Explanations1

1 an authorial interjection, with inexplicable allusion to melomids.

To save the world you have to understand it. That’s why you can’t just start talking about a dancing army of Popes without a bit of backstory.

* Where did the dancing Popes come from?
* Why are they an army?
* To what sinister purpose and uses are such forces put?

A petty metaphysician handwaves the dancing army of Popes, declaring, “They are: they exist: they sprang into being from nothingness, most likely, ineffably participating in the warp and weft of material existence without independent cause or creator.”

Shun the petty metaphysician!

Rather look back through time and see the roots of things; then tell yourself stories, put things in order, try to understand.

If you had a lens made from the skin of a melomid—

For example—

You might peer back through the centuries, into post-apocalyptic Rome, and (after that pitched battle shown in so many historical films) you’d see the Pilate, with Jesus at his mercy.

“I will put you in a sinister deathtrap,” exclaims the Pilate, washing his hands, “from which there is no possible escape. Then I will leave.”

“You imperialist fiend!” Jesus rages. “You won’t get away with this!”

But he would!

He’d nail Jesus to a cross, next to two equally helpless thieves, and he’d get away with it too. He’d laugh, saying, “In a few days, Jesus, you’ll die of exposure. And if that’s not enough, this entire crucifix is a bomb!”

Jesus would try to use the God Communicator, but if he hears anything, you wouldn’t know it from his face.

He’d look like he was hearing static.

So “It’s a grim situation,” Jesus would tell the thieves, “but there’s one . . . last . . . hope!”

And if he bursts into a country-western ditty right then as you’re watching—

If his heart shouts to the world his sorrow that his God has left him and some Roman has nailed him to a cross—

Wouldn’t that say a lot about the Popes?

If the thieves realize that Jesus has a better plan than they did (theirs involved number theory) and backed him up all the way? If they were a baritone and a tenor and if their song together rose to Heaven?

If Apostle Paul, Roman talent agent, would walk by just then and say, “Jesus! You could be a star!”

Then Jesus would look away, in his blood and loincloth and people who’ve just heard him sing, and suddenly all shy, and the seeds of the dancing Pope army would be sown.

Wouldn’t they?

Skip forward through the years.

People say that after Jesus left it to its own devices, the country-western Vatican got set in its ways. That’s why the “blue suede Pope” brought in the Vatican II with his hip-thrustin’ and his gyratin’ and his sparkling white Pope pants.

He had no choice!

The whole Church was stagnating!

And once again a petty metaphysician would leave it there. “Elvis was Elvis, and the Popes are the Popes.”

But Elvis was an unusual Pope in more ways than one.

First, he was Elvis.

And second, he kept coming back. Even after he “died.” He kept showing up, at gas stations, at minimalls, his face in your burrito—so much so you kind of wonder if he really died at all.

And then, if you were Jane, you might come up with a better answer.

If you stared into the chaos long enough, you’d start to see a pattern there.

He didn’t die at all.

Isn’t that a better explanation?

He didn’t die.

None of them have.

Popes are immortal. Jesus gave them eternal life.

The mausoleums under the Vatican aren’t musty places full of dead people. They’re like a giant rave full of ever-living Popes.

They’re down there.

They’re immortal.

And ever since Pope Joan, they’ve been breeding.

Just look at this timeline.

First, there was Pope Joan.
Then, she “died.”
Nine months later, the first cardinal showed up.

And maybe some of the other people at the tower would argue. They’d say,

“This is a crazy conspiracy theory, and there’s a perfectly rational explanation.”

“Cardinals are probably just like in those stories, a natural stage priests pass through on their way to Pope—nature’s crimson allegory to puberty. Or their garments are stained red with the blood of aliens. Or it’s all due to government mind control rays.”

Insightful minds are drawn to deepness!

These arguments would not stand.

The Dancing Popes

Pope Joan “dies” and nine months pass.

The first cardinal emerges.

Red! His clothes are red as blood. He has left the white of the Papacy behind.

It dwells with those he has abandoned, in the caves below the Vatican, where the endless Popes must dance.

There is a prophecy too.

Elvis spake it.

The Popes—the dancing army of them—they won’t attack. Not if they don’t have to.

Not unless the day comes when people lose sight of basic neighborly love and kindness.

But when they do, look out.

When they do, that dancing Pope army is going to boil out of its homeland and pour over the surface world. They’ll wash over the petty politicians and the stars, the preachers and the demagogues, and with their sequins and their Popetanks the tidal force of that army will can-can the old regime away.

You won’t really understand until you’ve seen it. No one could. You can’t really know what we’re facing unless you’ve gone down there yourself and seen the army dancing.

But there are a few things that you may know.

People who use condoms should be careful. The Pope army doesn’t approve of condoms. They’ll pass by like a white tide, and if they see someone using a condom, YOINK, they’ll just yank it right off.

And there’s some issue or other with homosexuals. Nobody knows what the Popes will do, not even Elvis, but the wise money says that the Popes won’t put up with it. If you’re having homosexual sex when the army sweeps past, they’ll seize your condom and your shoes. They will not stop to wonder whether what they do is right.

They will clean your floors, whirling and dancing and scuffing and then unscuffing as they pass. They are a floor polish as well as a dancing Pope army. They will be unstoppable because they will transcend our mereology.

They will distract us all with their glitz and their glamor. They will be the newest and strangest calamity of all.

But, scary as they are, we must not let them distract us—Elvis said.


he said, and then he licked his lips, and you could tell his heart was hurting. He’d been trying so hard to be alive when everybody thought that he was dead, and now he had to say bad news.

“Look, the real threat’s the mutant alligators.”

It’s bull, of course, the last bull of Pope Elvis.

“Isn’t it enough they have to live in the sewer? Do we have to irradiate them too?

And there was a splash and a slither and maybe we oughtta’ve listened but people were worried, even then, that they might have lost kindness;

That they’d be swept over, any moment, by the dancing army of Popes.