Yuji observes the crumpled pink pellet that was once a sticky-note and steers it from afar by drawing tight circles with his slinky forefinger, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise. He’s been willing it to float and join the eclectic swarm of papers swirling above the littered room that was once his. But it defies his wishes, preferring to twitch around apprehensively as it hovers mere centimeters above the frayed tatami mat floor. The mats haven’t been changed since he fled this house ten years ago. The tightly woven rushes have long lost their grassy scent; straw yellow has replaced the original sage green.
He lies on his side with his head propped on his right hand. Under the dusty limelight of the solitary ceiling lamp in this otherwise dim room, a soy sauce-blemished bento menu pirouettes around a glossy flyer of a ten-year old Hollywood rom-com. Around them revolve a New Year’s card from heaven-knows-when and an old high school report card. Still further out, Pluto-like in its inclined orbit, circles a grease-stained french fries container.
Ribbons of mosquito repelling smoke twist up from the incense coil’s embering tip and nudge the rotating pieces off course when their paths meet. The half open window invites in the occasional breeze of August night air, still lukewarm from the muggy day, making the paper satellites tremor.
Yuji’s hardly ever done this exercise since he left, and is surprised he can pull this much off. The drill demands patience and concentration, which Yuji has never had in plentiful supply. He sees a boy kneeling in the darkness of a closet for hours on end. His dad, as family tradition incarnate, demanded it whenever the papers didn’t remain afloat for longer than half an hour. Yuji remembers being that boy, and how frightened and confused he was in the closet, and how he hated having the touch.
Giving up on the recalcitrant pink globule, he regards the five pieces dancing in the air—the sticky-note ball doesn’t count. Time was, he could make twenty pieces levitate with an effortless glance. He inwardly whinges at the thrashing this pathetic performance would have earned him as a child.
Yuji has to laugh at himself. Ten years and six hundred kilometers after running away from the constant cowering, and he’s still afraid of not measuring up to his dad’s expectations.
After a knock the door slides open and Ben, his husband, strides in with his two-meter tall exemplification of chiseled shapeliness, and lifts Yuji’s spirits.
Ben dodges a split-second before the french fries container collides with his head and lets out a curse. He crouches in front of Yuji, raising his eyebrows. “I thought you were going to clean up this mess.” Stretching out his long arm he grabs the container and flicks it at the waste bin, but misses.
“I know. I was getting around to it,” Yuji says, turning away and sitting up. The flotilla of paper plummets to the floor.
Ben sighs and plops down on the floor, resting his back against the side of the bed.
Yuji snuggles up and lays his head on the massive bulk that is Ben’s shoulder.
“Look, Yooj,” Ben says. “It’s been two days since we got here. You and your dad can’t go on ignoring each other like this.”
“Don’t you remember his face when I introduced you as my husband?” Yuji says. The second he saw that expression—Yuji read it as blend of disgust and disappointment—he regretted ever coming back and wanted nothing more than to bolt. He hates being back home, cowling again under the judgmental eye of his dad and by extension the whole suffocating community of paper levitators.
“We caught him by surprise,” Ben says. “He’s never known a same-sex couple, which isn’t surprising for his generation. Besides he’s been nothing but polite and civil to me since then.”
“My dad?” Yuji snorts. “Impossible.”
“You’d see yourself if you weren’t cooped up in here all the time.” Ben sighs. He wraps his reassuring arm around Yuji’s shoulder. “It’s not so much that he disapproves of us being together. He’s just shocked to learn there’s a whole part of you he never knew existed.”
“You can say that again. All he ever cared about is the touch and how many pieces of paper I could suspend in air.”
“And about that. It’s not my place to say, of course, but he genuinely regrets pushing you too hard when you were you a kid.”
“Oh, did he tell you that too now? Boy, the two of you are just getting along fine, aren’t you?”
The sarcasm bounces off Ben. They fall silent and listen to the frogs croaking in the distance—a short timeout.
“Yooj, if you want to leave, then I’ll respect that and we can drive back to Tokyo. But I think you ought to talk things through with your dad. Besides, he needs your help now—“
“Yeah, convenient, isn’t it, being all conciliatory and asking me to come home when he needs something from me.”
“I know it can seem that way to you, but he says he’s made a breakthrough. He thinks he’s cracked the mystery of how to fly the paper dragon.”
“Oh please!” Yuji rolls his eyes. “Don’t get me started on that old fairy tale. When Mom was still alive, she’d always have to take care of everything herself—the apple orchards, the housework, and raising me—while he stayed in his studio for days on end, trying to figure out how to fly that damned thing.”
Yuji recalls the ink brush drawings and descriptions of a paper dragon passed down in his community on old scrolls. The text describes some forty-nine paper components making up the dragon. Nobody’s been able to actually make it fly. Not only is it difficult to suspend forty-nine pieces in air for any meaningful length of time, no one’s also been able to decipher how to bring and hold the pieces together in the form of dragon. People have basically written it off for centuries as a legend. As far as Yuji’s concerned, it’s a windmill his dad’s been tilting at for his entire life—and at the expense of everything and everybody else.
“I’m not saying you should forgive him for what happened in the past,” Ben says. “But now he’s old, ill, and frail. You’ve seen him. He has a hard time walking and gets worn out after levitating even just a newspaper. He needs someone else with the touch to help him.”
“But why me? They’re plenty others here in the community.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s the only way he knows of to connect with you!”
Picking at the tattered rim of the tatami mat, Yuji attempts one last struggle. “No one’s solved the puzzle for centuries. What makes him think I can help?”
“It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. It’s his lifelong passion. He wants one final chance at this and he wants to share the experience with you.” Ben pats him gently on his head. “And I think it’ll help the two of you move beyond your pasts.”
The next morning Yuji glances out the window at the front lawn, but his dad isn’t practicing calisthenics as he usually does, which is unusual. His mom always said she could set her watch to his dad’s morning exercise routine.
The sound of the front door rattling open snaps him out of his thoughts. He rushes down to the entrance.
It’s Ben. “You’re dad’s headed out to the crag,” he says, panting heavily and pointing north towards the coast. “I noticed he wasn’t in the house this morning, so I looked outside and saw his tracks on the footpath.”
“Shit, he’s going to attempt to fly the dragon.” Yuji slips on his shoes and rushes out with Ben in tow.
Locals refer to the precipice jutting out into the tumultuous straits dividing them from Hokkaido, the island to the north, as the crag. The winds there are tempestuous. Yuji’s dad, in his current frail condition, could collapse from exhaustion after trying to fly the dragon. One wrong step and the old man could easily topple into the choppy seas beneath.
Yuji and Ben storm up the path leading to the crag. The deafening sound of waves crashing against the sheer cliffs grows louder.
“Tosan!” Yuji calls out for his dad but the blustering winds mercilessly scatter his voice every which way.
When they finally arrive, they find him kneeling in the early morning light on the end of the rocky ledge, catching his breath. The man wears a simple windbreaker covering his robes. Next to him lies a bulky bundle wrapped in straw mats and tied shut with strips of cloth. His dad carried all forty-nine pieces of the dragon from his studio.
Yuji sits down, facing him. Ben crouches behind and holds on to the old man’s shoulders, as though to pin him down and prevent the gusts from blowing his father-in-law away.
“What’s come over you?” Yuji asks. “This is madness. You’ll only drain what strength you have left and make yourself more ill. Come, we’ll take you home. It’s too dangerous here.”
“Son,” his dad says and lays a hand on Yuji’s shoulder. The firmness of the grip is unexpected. “I have to try this.” His eyes penetrate Yuji’s, reaching deep into his soul. Yuji can’t remember his dad ever gazing at him this imploringly.
“I’ve been working on the dragon all these years, as our forefathers have. I’ve got to try one last time. Please.”
Every instinct in Yuji’s body tells him he should carry the old man back home, yet he can’t. He glances at Ben, who smiles back reassuringly.
“Alright, Dad, but we’ll try this together, okay?” His dad nods in gratitude, eyes moistening.
Together, they unwrap the bundle. Ben plants his arms on the pile of paper, making sure they don’t flutter away. His dad has laid the different pieces of the paper puzzle, each the size of a futon mattress, in the order stipulated in the ancient texts. Side by side, Yuji and his dad unfold each sheet and use their touch to make each one hover in front of them.
Working in concert, Yuji senses first-hand how frail his dad has become. As a child his dad’s mind would simply shove Yuji’s thoughts and emotions to one side whenever he made Yuji perceive how to harness and use the touch. Now it’s him guiding his dad.
The wind thrashes the suspended paper sheets, but they are of durable washi paper, resilient as bamboo. Soon all forty-nine pieces hover above the tip of the ledge, laid out in the shape of flat coil, spiraling outward. Each piece has a distinct shape—some narrow with jagged ends and some broad with curved tips.
Yuji can feel the strain on the old man, and is worried. “Sure you want to continue?” he asks.
His dad nods and fishes out a sheet of paper from his robes. On it he has written down—in that stoic calligraphic style of his—a famous passage from the old scrolls. People in his community have long understood it to be an incantation that brings the components together into the shape of a dragon. It has never worked, though, leading some to speculate it needs to be recited with a certain melody and cadence, long forgotten already in the age of their ancestors.
But instead of reading it out loud, his dad crumples it into a ball the size of a tangerine and lets it waft over to a point over the center of the circular phalanx of paper fluttering in the wind.
His dad notices Yuji’s confused expression. “It’s not meant to be chanted,” his dad says. “That’s what our ancestors got wrong. The text isn’t an incantation. It is the binding force. It’s the heart of the dragon.” He lets out a dry chuckle. “I got the hint from you, actually.”
“From me?” This catches Yuji off guard.
“I remembered how you would crumple up the exams you flunked or did poorly on, levitate them out of your window and drop them in the woodlands to keep them out of my sight.”
Yuji blushes. “You knew?”
“I always went out later and picked them up.” His dad grins before fixing his gaze again on the crumpled ball.
Yuji does the same and concentrates. He’s not sure what to do, exactly, but he follows his dad’s lead and focuses his thoughts on the ball.
The morning sky grows bluer and the pieces of paper beneath it quiver and twitch in a complex dance, seemingly chaotic, but with a clear underlying plan. Yuji and his dad no longer have to will it. The puzzle moves of its own volition, much as elements come together in a chemical reaction.
Ben gasps behind them. “What the . . .”
Defying the wind, the pieces fit together one by one and make up the shape of a long torso and tale, out of which four short legs extend—each ending in a foot with three claws.
It’s impossible to follow each step of the complicated transformation with their paradoxical twists and turns. It’s as though a four-dimensional object is trying to appear in a three-dimensional world. A sublime mixture of realistic and abstract design, some pieces overlap and some parts leave open blank spaces, similar to an ink wash painting.
The most amazing process of combination, however, occurs where the head will be. There several pieces fold into each other using infinitesimally small tabs and slits until a magnificent dragon’s head with glorious whiskers finally takes shape.
Yuji cannot believe his eyes. “I can’t believe you did it, Dad!”
“It’s so beautiful,” Ben says.
Once lifeless pieces of paper, they’ve come together in the form of a water dragon, shimmering with white refulgence in the sun’s rays against the azure sky.
Emitting a groan, Yuji’s dad tilts his body to one side. Yuji wraps his arm around him and pulls him up. Ben also kneels and supports him from the other end.
“We should take you back home now and rest,” Yuji says.
“No!” he says. “We need to make it fly.”
“Okay,” Yuji says, his voice not without worry. “We’ll try moving it around a bit, and then we’ll go home, alright?”
“Son, I need to apologize to you,” the old man says, out of the blue. His dad’s voice is soft but still has strength. His eyes are still fixed on the dragon shining before them. “I was so intent on keeping our traditions alive, I kept pushing you relentlessly. I didn’t try to understand you.”
“It’s alright, Dad,” Yuji says. “You’re not feeling well. We can talk about this later.” To stave off the feelings surging in him, he squeezes his dad closer to him.
“No, I need to tell you now,” his dad says with eyes still locked on the dragon. “I was so strict I broke you in the end and pushed you away. I don’t blame you for running away from me. Forgive me.”
Yuji lays his head on his dad’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you have Ben to share your life with. Nothing could make me happier. And thank you for coming back. I couldn’t have done this without your touch.”
Yuji barely restrains his tears. Ben’s long arm reaches over and strokes his head from behind.
His dad’s eyes widen. “But we’re not quite done yet, boys. It’s time to fly this thing.”
Yuji perceives his dad push forth with his thoughts and joins suit, matching his dad’s mental pulsations.
The dragon twitches and contorts its long torso and tail. Using a gust of wind to its advantage, it gracefully lifts itself up, towering high above the edge of the crag. It crunches its torso tightly again and waits for the next gale. When it gushes from the side, it whips its tail against the wind, elongates itself in a burst of energy and flies toward the sky.
“Geez,” Ben says. “It’s alive!”
Yuji and his dad focus inwardly again. Their thoughts soar with the dragon, painting beautiful patterns in the sky. Its movements draw in and create more winds, stronger than before, churning the waters of the rough sea below.
Gradually, the writhing winds gain momentum, whirling up the brine into a small cyclone while the dragon winds itself up and down around the finger of ocean spiraling toward the heavens.
The sky grows murkier as lead-colored clouds gather around the twisting column. The first drops splash against their faces. Soon it’s coming down in sheets, drenching them and the entire region surrounding the crag.
The maelstrom ends after several minutes, though. The twirling tower of seawater crumbles down to the watery surface, and the winds blow away the rain clouds.
The sun gleams through, revealing the bright blue sky again, and conjures a rainbow.
In the distance, forty-nine pieces of white paper drift on the shimmering sea like flotsam.
Ben carries his father-in-law on his back as they head back home, drenched. His head rests against Ben’s broad back, sound asleep from the exhaustion and excitement.
“So I guess that’s what the touch is for, Yooj” Ben says as he carefully negotiates a patch a wet and slippery stones.
“What? To fly magical paper dragons?” Yuji asks.
“Well, yes, but the real purpose is to make it rain,” Ben says. “Think of how useful that could be during droughts.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Yuji says, thoughtfully.
He’s glad he came home. He feels he can better appreciate the touch now, for the first time in his life, with Ben and his dad by his side.
A profound sense of gratitude overwhelms him.
He whispers to the old man slumbering on Ben’s back. “I love you Dad.”