Chi Wen

A short story loosely based on one of the Nine Sons of the Dragon King in Chinese mythology.

Danielle Kenwood
6 min readJan 25, 2016

If you ignore the dragon, it will eat you. If you try to confront the dragon, it will overpower you. If you ride the dragon, you will take advantage of its might and power.
–Chinese proverb

He found the flower beside the river. Its red and orange brilliance made it strange, an oddity by the blue waters and lush grasses that covered the bank. He crouched and plucked it from the wet ground, twirling the stem with small, soft fingers, the warm glow of its fiery petals illuminating the boy’s dark eyes and open mouth.

He swallowed it whole.

The flower’s flames tasted good, even better than the jianbing he’d had in the morning, its scallion and mung bean flavors already wavering out of memory.

He tossed the leftover stem into the river, disturbing the water’s clear reflection of dark green trees, and huddled on the ground with his knees against his chest. He wondered if he should tell anyone what he had done. As soon as he’d touched the fire flower, he’d felt the urge to taste it, to let the bright heat flow over his tongue and roll down his throat. It felt right, like the fire belonged in his belly.

The boy watched the ripples across the water expand then disappear. With them went his worries about swallowing the flower. Smiling, he slowly dipped each finger into the river, light coolness gently kissing his fingertips with every touch. His palms followed until both hands were submerged, and the water welcomed him like a companion, like an emperor.

After a moment, he withdrew his hands and leaned back on the muddy bank. They stayed that way for a while, boy and river, until the sun slept behind the tall mountains and only ashes were left in the boy’s growling stomach.

He stood and ran home, sandaled feet trampling long grass until he reached a dirt road that led to the village.

“Chi Wen!” Jing Fei barked when she saw the boy. She was in their small kitchen, feeding more wood to the stove’s dwindling flames. Plates of steaming food rested upon the dining table. “Your father went out looking for you!”

“Sorry, Ma Ma,” Chi Wen said, abashed. He fetched three bowls from the cupboard and filled them with rice, placing them next to the pairs of chopsticks on the table. Familiar scents of chicken and ginger flooded his nostrils, plus a wonderful, smoky one that made his mouth water.

“The neighbors keep telling me about you. You wander off so often that even the dogs don’t bark at you anymore when you walk by!” She shook her head, trying to place her worries back into the organized drawers of her mind. She knew he hadn’t ventured too far — she taught him better than that — and the peaceful area surrounding the village posed few threats, but he had been gone even longer than usual. Sighing heavily, she tossed red peppers and sliced cucumbers into the hot wok, and the sound of sizzling filled the air.

Chi Wen sat sheepishly in one of the chairs. He didn’t know what to say, so he focused instead on the noises the fire made inside the stove. It crackled and cackled, taunting him as it grew stronger.

He heard the footsteps behind him too late; rough hands clapped his shoulders, hard, and his father’s warm voice filled his ears.

“My little dragon! When did you get home?” His father squeezed his narrow shoulders briefly then went to collapse in the chair on the other side of the table. His face was tan and laugh lines touched the outer corners of his eyes.

“He just got back,” Jing Fei answered for him, shaking her head with disapproval. She poured the cucumbers onto an empty plate and placed the dish onto the table. “Eat, eat.”

Noting his wife’s displeasure, Hui Liang lightly patted her arm as she passed by. “He just needed some time for himself.” He picked up a pair of chopsticks and began moving food to his bowl of rice, humming an old song about rivers.

Chi Wen ignored them both, the smell of the stove’s fire clouding his senses. “Where are you going?” Jing Fei asked, puzzled, when he stood up and headed to the kitchen. He kept walking until he was crouching behind the stove and the flickering flames warmed his face. He stared at them for one heartbeat, two — then stuck his hand into the fire and cupped some in his palm, bringing it to his mouth and eating it all at once. It flowed to his stomach and settled there, and the only burn he felt was a desire for more.

“Chi Wen?” asked Jing Fei. She looked in the direction of the stove, but the boy was obscured from view.

He watched the fire a while longer, saliva pooling in his mouth, before pulling himself away from the odd temptation and reclaiming his seat at the table. Jing Fei added vegetables to his bowl and he stared at them sullenly, the gnawing hunger he’d felt earlier already burning away.

“What were you doing?” asked Hui Liang curiously.

Chi Wen looked at his father. His father looked at him.

“Eating,” said Chi Wen.

“What were you eating over there that’s such a secret? I know what I cooked!” said Jing Fei, still chewing a mouthful of rice and chicken.

Chi Wen shrugged and moved a slice of ginger to the side of his bowl. Hui Liang watched him with his head tilted slightly to one side; he knew that there was only fire and wood where Chi Wen had been, and that he had been telling the truth. His boy was strange, but there were many strange things all around them. The wisest village elder, Suan Ni, often talked about manifestations of the Dao and the ever-lasting movement of the world. The villagers would listen to him speak, smoke drifting out of his mouth and past the tips of his lion-like dragon mane, and believe that anything was possible. Nature, they all knew, was a mysterious force.

Thinking this, Hui Liang said nothing and began to eat.

The family talked and laughed together until the food was long gone and Jing Fei’s chickens had settled down inside their coop. Beneath the stove, the fire flared up, baring its teeth, then dwindled down to murky embers.

Chi Wen sat on the highest ridge of his house’s rooftop, legs draped delicately upon the jagged, sloping tiles. He had clambered up using the brick wall that enclosed the family’s yard, keeping their pigeons and corn stalks safe.

From his vantage point, he could see all of the other buildings in the village, small and plain compared to the magnificent mountains nearby, their jade peaks swathed with fog. Scattered villagers wearing straw hats labored in the miles of rice paddies beside the village. Chi Wen happily drank in the scenery around him and mouthed some of the poems he’d remembered from school, sharing his love for poetry with the air.

He sniffed, recognizing a newly familiar and tasty scent. Fire. Smoke was rising from one of the houses several buildings down, and the shouts of his neighbors became increasingly frantic. He carefully slid down the roof and jumped from the yard wall to the ground, following both his ears and his nose to the source of the commotion.

Angry flames danced upward, capped by gray plumes of billowing smoke. They burst from the left side of the house and spread by the second, fierce tendrils already reaching for the neighboring home. Villagers futilely tossed buckets of water at the fire as they waited for help to arrive from outside the village. They knew that by that time, however, at least a hundred homes would already be destroyed.

Chi Wen pushed past the bustling crowd and slipped, unnoticed, into the house, the heat making his face and body glisten with sweat. Instinct told him to run back out, and logic told him that he was stupid, but his heart told him that he was right where he should be.

He walked up to the fire, licked his lips, and began inhaling it all, slurping it up like it was his favorite soup. The fire roared and spat curses at him; he was nothing, an insignificant being taking on the great flames of nature itself. The boy considered this and agreed — but it was his appetite or the fire’s, and he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

The villagers outside began to yell in surprised confusion as they pointed at the disappearing flames. The burning heat that had fueled their fears was streaming back inside through a gaping hole in the roof, transforming into a different kind of fuel as it surged into the open mouth of a small boy.

Chi Wen continued to eat until every last flicker had been consumed, and he rubbed his stomach contentedly, feeling strong and full.

When he emerged from the charred building, he found his father, looking sweaty and disheveled. Hui Liang slowly took in his son’s blackened clothes, soot-covered skin, and sheepish smile. The fire was gone, its last trace in the flush on Chi Wen’s cheeks.

Finally, Hui Liang opened his arms. “My little dragon. Come here.”

Chi Wen laughed and ran to him, his whole being aglow.