Once I met a ghost full of questions. We walked for hours, losing track of time. I answered their questions as best I could, but they didn’t seem interested in my answers, which were mostly guesses anyway. They just kept asking question after question. I tried asking them one every now and then, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Here are the questions they asked. I wrote them down for you. I remember all of them except one. The last one.
Have you ever flipped a knife to see if it would land with the blade stuck in the grass? Have you ever found an old well and looked down only to find it filled with dirt? Do you believe you’ve done anything meritorious? That’s a word I learned when I got here. What do you think the first question in the world was? Someone here says they know but they won’t tell me. Everything’s instantaneous isn’t it? Have you ever pulled a sword from a scabbard and yelled: “Charge!”? I carried a secret goodness to the other side. I still have it in my pocket. Can you guess what it is? I met a guy here named Buddha. He asked me a question. Want to know what it was? If you ever came across a rope dangling all the way from heaven what would you do? I found one once and gave it a tug and ended up pulling the whole rope down. I didn’t know what to do after that so I looked around for a second and then kept walking, pretending nothing happened, although I had the feeling I should be running, and I’m pretty sure I heard a crow telling me to. Are my questions bugging you? There’s lots of gods here dressed in feathers. Why do you think that is? How old do you think I am? Want to know how I died? Have you ever seen someone walk into the woods and suddenly stoop down on all fours, grow hooves and paws or something, and just keep going? I see that all the time now. Are you sure my questions aren’t bothering you? Anyway, I only have one more and then I have to go. Want to guess what my last question is? It’s the question we all have to answer before we get here.
And that’s the question I don’t remember. I think it was something about who do I believe myself to be, but I’m not sure. Do you have any idea what their last question could have been? Why do you think it needs to get answered before I die? Do you think that means I’m going to die soon? What if I die soon? What if I die soon and haven’t answered the question? Will you hold my hand and wait with me while I’m trying to remember the last question?
A Little Story about The Purpose of Life, Chickens, Dragons, and Dark Chocolate
Jennifer Angelina Petro
Chapter One: The Ending
My parents were dead before I was born, and so was I. Hate to break it to you, but it’s the same for you too, dear reader. It’s the same for all of us. Thing is, it’s a fact that’s hard to remember. Once we infuse ourselves into a body, we’re already so delighted over the sparkling journey, that our so-called-past-becomes a distant, nearly fully unconscious memory. I say, “so-called past,” because, as the chickens tell us—there is no true beginning or end. The debate as to which who came first, is like arguing over which is better—dark chocolate Oreos or dark chocolate nonpareils—silly.
At any rate, let’s get back to me. As I mentioned a paragraph ago, my parents were dead before I was born, and so was I. Hate to break it to you, but it’s the same for—-oh, sorry, said that already. I’m trying to focus, please be patient with me. It’s not easy to be a ghost and keep your focus. Think of it—everything is radiantly timeless and sugary like cotton candy, and so it’s hard to remain focused on whatever is in front of you—not to mention the fact that you can pass your hands through everything you touch and that’s pretty cool, but nevertheless annoying.
I should probably define what a ghost actually is. It’s not what most people think. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (which remains my favorite website after all these centuries) in the original Old English, the word, “ghost,” was, “gast,” which meant, among other things, “breath; angel, demon; person, human being.” The fact that the word has devolved over the centuries to simply mean the spirit of a dead person, is a travesty. Most words today are devolutions of much richer, more wondrous meanings, and, as time goes by (which is really a very profane expression, since time doesn’t “go-by,” but more on that later—which is another word related to time that also baffles me), the human mind became less able to hold all these various meanings in one mind (which is, as you guessed it–the idea of “one mind”–a silly idea as well) and thus the intricate complexities of all words distill down to definitions that any old human intellect can tackle.
It’s entirely possible you might be thinking that I’m attempting to avoid relating the actual story I started out to tell—the one about my parents and I being dead before we were born—and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. You see, it is a challenging story for me to both recall and to tell. It brings to surface, like an underground lake suddenly seeping across the land, many painful experiences that must, of necessity, be brought to light. Not the least of which involves a hungry (but vastly misunderstood) dragon, the challenging descriptions of incarnating, and the hot-button-topic-of gender identity—sure to rankle the feathers of many small-minded fundamentalists.
All that said, let’s jump into the vegetarian meat of the story: My parents were dead before I was born, and so was I. Now, as I eluded to earlier—any word that is used in reference to time— “before,” “earlier, “after,” and so on, are really misnomers, and highly inaccurate and misleading. For the sake of you, dear reader, we will stick to the conventional, human terms for time. This is not to say you are incapable of grasping such concepts, it is more to say—your heart can, your soul can, your spirit can—but your mind—well, your mind will get all tangled in philosophical debating and you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the yarn I am spinning—or, at very least, about to spin. The broader, more cosmic definitions of “time” are going to be left for another, non-existent day.
Being friends with a dragon takes some getting used to. For one thing their digestive systems are always rumbling like an old car. When they burp, which is often, foul smelling smoke comes out of both ends, and little spurts of fire sometimes ignite nearby curtains or sofas. Another thing is that they sometimes eat people which is hard to explain to the authorities when they come looking for said eaten person.
However there are many benefits of being friends with a dragon. For example, they eat people—people who are bullying you or harassing you, which really cuts down on being bullied when word spreads that people who pick on you end up disappearing, leaving only a few bits of hair and sneakers behind. Another benefit is that they burp, and foul-smelling smoke comes out of both ends—which is another good deterrent for bullies—as are the little spurts of flames aimed at particularly sensitive areas on bullies.
You might be wondering why I have so many bullies flocking around me. You see, I am trans—transgender. And I’m a kid. I was born nine years ago and everyone thought I was a boy. And even though I was born with the parts that would make some people assume I was a boy, I am a girl, and I know I’m a girl. My parents know now as well—after years of me insisting on wearing dresses they finally got it. Not that dresses defines being a girl, but my folks are old-fashioned.
I am one of the lucky ones. My parents both accept me. I also have friends who do as well. It wasn’t always that way though, and when I first came out things, shall we say, got ugly. And that’s where being friends with Harbor came in handy. Yes, Harbor is my friend dragon, and he does by ‘he.’ My name is well, we’ll get to that, and this is the beginning of many beginnings and the end of many endings and the beginning of many endings and well, you get the idea.
Zimzir and the Dragon.
As I said, my parents were told I was a boy when I popped out on a cold winter morning in January. My parents named me, “Joseph.” It was an OK name, except it didn’t fit. At first, I didn’t understand why it didn’t fit. It just didn’t. Sort of like accidentally putting both legs into a pair of pants.
My parents were pretty OK though, and so I began to grow up, or, well, as I like to think of it—grow down. You see, I always felt like I was an alien or something. Like I came from up there in space somewhere. I just felt different from the earthlings around me. And so, it took me a few years to come down, so to speak into this body I didn’t want or ask for.
When I was a toddler (which is a really funny word if you think about it) I used to toddle to the laundry basket (my family did do laundry, but always left the clean laundry in a basket in my parent’s room, and I knew this, so I would, as I said, toddle to it, and then, with some effort, toddle over and into it, sort of like a misguided cat). Once in the basket I would do an artistic little dance as I sat there on the clean laundry with quite possibly a stinky diaper, which consisted of me throwing clothes around the room while I sang (the artistic little dance, that is, not my diaper). “Sang” isn’t quite the right description of the vocalizations that came out of my mouth. My singing was more like cows yodeling.
While in the laundry basket I used to fish out the “women’s” clothes and wrap them around my head. Then I would giggle and slobber into them.
And here I want to say that, of course, clothes (and toys, for that matter) (and well, anything for that matter, especially kids) (unless they want to be) should not be gendered. So, I put “women’s” clothes in those little quotation mark thingies just to let you know I think it’s absurd that people think there is such a thing as “women’s” clothing. For the rest of this story, however, I am not going to use quotation marks, mainly because they are annoying. Trust though, whenever I mention women’s clothes or boy’s clothes, I mean (with a big roll of my eyeballs) (eyeballs is also a funny word) that I mean “women’s” clothes and “boy’s” clothes.
As I grew down some more, I used to go into my parent’s room and not only fish out my mom’s clothes, but I try it on and parade around the house. This made my mother laugh and my dad yell.
“Take those off, Joseph. Those are girl’s clothes. You’re a boy,” he would say.
To which mom would say: “Oh, honey he’s just pretending.”
To which I would say to myself: “No, I’m not. These clothes might be too big for me now, but they are the kind of clothes I want to wear forever.” And then I would take them off and treat them as if they were threaded with gold, and fold them up neatly and put them back in the laundry basket.
One day, when I was around seven, I was at my cousin, Annabelle’s house, and I stole one of her dresses and wore it to school the next day. I felt so proud and happy. It felt like I was wearing cool, refreshing sunshine.
Sitting in the principal’s office after getting sent there by my teacher for causing a ruckus in class just because I was wearing a dress, was the first time I remember wishing I had never been born. “This sucks,” I thought, “I just want to be myself and everyone either gets mad or thinks I’m a joke.”
And while waiting for my mom to come bring me a change of clothes, I heard Harbor for the first time.
I say, “heard,” because the first thing I heard was a fart. I looked around the office. No one else was there but me. Upon sniffing however, I knew someone, or something—judging by the intensity of the fart-smell—was with me.
Then I heard a burp and saw a little burst of smoke and flame appear in the middle of the room near the ceiling. I jumped and let out a little scream.
“It’s alright,” said a voice that sounded like gentle thunder. It was a sound that soothed me and resonated through my lungs, “It’s just me, Harbor.”
“Hhh-Hhh,” was all I could manage to say. I sort of sounded like I was practicing dramatic exhales.
“Harbor,” the voice said again, causing a little storm to wave pleasantly through my heart.
“Harbor?” I said, “But, where are you?”
“Right here,” came the voice. And then, there—right there—in Principal-Poopy-Pant’s office (not his real name) (unfortunately), the air in front of me began to shimmer and quiver and take form and color and weight, and as it did, a dragon appeared before me—large, aqua green with purplish markings and wings folded neatly against the ceiling.
“You’re a dragon,” I sputtered, and my mouth, if it could have, would have opened down enough to hit the floor.
“Yup,” he said, “so I am.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I am here for you.”
“For me?” I gulped. “Like, here to eat me?”
“Oh no,” said the dragon. “I am here to be your companion. If you will allow me, that is.”
“Why do you want to be my companion? Do I need one?”
“Because I want to be. I know what it’s like to not be accepted for who you know you really are.”
“Yes. And ‘yes’ to your other question. We all need companions sometimes, and you have an especially challenging journey ahead, and I am offering my services.”
“Services?” I asked.
“I will be your protector; guardian angel, if you will.”
“I see,” I said, “I’m not sure what to say. I mean, here I am, in trouble again, talking to a dragon. I’m not sure how I feel about that or having a protector—let alone a dragon protector. I’ve always had to protect myself. I’m used to it, even when I do a crumby job at it.”
“I see,” said the dragon, “are you saying you would rather me go?”
I hesitated a moment, and then said, “Yes. I have always felt alone and that’s sort of how I like it—or at least, sort of like how I’m used to it.”
“That’s fair,” Harbor said, “I’ll just be going then.” And the dragon began to dissolve into the air.
“Wait,” I said, standing up for the first time since this encounter began, “can I change my mind? You know, if I decide later I want a companion, can you, I mean, will you, still be there?”
“I’m sorry,” the dragon said, pausing in mid-disappearing into thin air, “I may not be here for you. There are many like you who need protecting. However, someone will always be there for you, even it isn’t me.”
And as I stared hard into Harbor’s eyes and saw nothing but oceanic light, and kindness, and wisdom, and a sly sense of humor, I found myself saying: “Wait, please. Stay. Actually, being alone kind of sucks. Well, not all the time. Sometimes I love being alone and need to be alone and wish I could be alone forever, but in general, I have no one who accepts me as me, and you seem to. So, will you stay?”
With that Harbor fully materialized into the office again and lowered its great head down to eye level and said: “It would be an honor. And now, what shall I call you?”
I looked at the ground and shuffled my feet. “Well, my given name is ‘Joseph,’ but that’s not the name I want or call myself.”
“Well,” Little One in the Beautiful Dress, what would you like to be called?”
I looked up at Harbor and couldn’t believe I was about to tell someone the name I had always treasured secretly in my heart.
“It’s OK,” Harbor said, “you can tell me later. On your time. Always on your time.”
His voice rumbled gently through me.
“Besides,” he said, “we have work to do here. We need to get you out of this pickle the limited minds of the grown-ups around you have put you.”
“How?” I said.
“Watch,” Harbor said and winked, and then, shimmered into invisibility, but not before breathing a little puff of fire and placing it on my head where it disappeared into me like warm apple cider. And before I could say a thing, Principal Poopy Pants came out of his office.
“Your dad is here,” he said, “and he’s not happy.”
Just then, the office door opened and in stormed my father, jeans and a t-shirt in hand.
“What were you thinking, young man?” he said, lifting me from the chair by my arm. “Why do you do this? I don’t get it. It’s infuriating. Why do you want to dress like a girl?”
“Because I am a girl,” I found myself shouting, my whole body feeling as if it was filled with some kind of strange, warm power.
“You are not a girl!” my dad and the principal shouted together.
“Yes, she is,” said Harbor appearing suddenly in the room, smoke and ribbons of flame streaming from his flaring nostrils, his voice thundering.
My dad and Principal Poopy Pants leapt into each other’s arms and turned around to look at Harbor. They screamed like frightened sheep.
“Get this into your heads,” Harbor said, lowering his own to meet their terrified eyes, “If you still want to keep your heads. She is a girl. She feels better in dresses. Accept her for the truth of who she knows herself to be, or else.” And he puffed a burst of smoke around their heads. They coughed and tried to wave the smoke aside.
“But,” my dad began.
“But nothing,” Harbor growled.
“But…that’s my son, my son Joseph.”
“That’s not my name!” I shouted, and I felt like my words were smoke and fire.
Harbor puffed out a little flame that came inches from my dad’s nose. “Don’t,” said Harbor, pausing before growling the rest of his sentence, “Ever. Call. Her. That. Again.”
“But,” my dad attempted.
And then Harbor roared a roar that shook the furniture in the room. “No buts!” He bellowed.
“OK…OK,” my dad said. And then he looked at me, “This is going to take some getting used to.”
“Then get used to it,” Harbor said.
“Yeah,” I said, “Get used to it.”
I had never sassed my dad before, but instead of getting mad, he bent down and looked at me, gently putting his hands on my shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I think somehow I’ve always known, but I was afraid of what others would think, what people at church would say, what your friends or grandparents would say. But, if this is who you are, then I accept you, and will do everything I can to help you feel accepted. I never want you to feel wrong about being who you are. I’m so sorry.”
It was the first time I ever saw tears in my father’s eyes. I teared up too, and so did Harbor, who sniffled out a little fart scenting the room with, well, dragon fart smell, which was a lot like burnt toast, not altogether unpleasant, like the smell of horse poop that smells like mowed grass and straw.
“Now,” my father said, still holding my shoulders and wiping a tear from my eye, “what would you like to be called?”
I bowed my head and then lifted it up proudly and looked first at Harbor and then at my father. “My name,” I said, with all the power of a phoenix rising from the flames, “is Zimzir.”
My dad smiled and stood up and turned to Principal Poopy-Pants. “Mr. Poopy Pants,” he said (and I burst out laughing), “This is my daughter Zimzir. She likes this dress and she is going to stay in it and you and your school are going to everything in your power to help her feel accepted. Educate the students, teachers, parents. That’s your job. So, do it.”
“Yes,” added Harbor, breathing fire tinged smoke around the principal’s head, “Do it.”
Principal Poopy Pants shook his head like a bobble head in a car on a bumpy road.
And so, my father walked me back to my classroom, opened the door, looked at the teacher and then the other students seated at their desks.
“People,” he said like a warrior announcing the arrival of a princess, “this is may daughter, Zimzir. Whatever you may have thought of her before, this is who she is and if any of you have a problem with that you will have to deal with me.”
“And me,” said Harbor snaking his great, scaly head into the room.
The class and teacher screamed and Harbor winked at me and then disappeared.
The other kids shook their heads not knowing if what they just saw or heard was real.
My dad looked down at me and said: “You want to stay here…Zimzir, or would you like to go for some ice cream?”
“I want to stay,” I said, looking up at him and smiling, “let’s get ice cream after school.”
“You got it,” he said and turned to go pointing his finger at the teacher and class. “Remember what I said,” he warned.
And as I walked proudly to my desk, I looked out the window and saw Harbor. He looked like he was about to fart. The classroom windows were open. He got up real close to the window and winked at me. I plugged my nose. I knew what was coming. I sat down, smiled at him and knew I was me. Zimzir. And I, Princess Zimzir had a protector forever.
We may not all have a dragon as a friend, or parents who accept us. We can dream though, and we can do our best to be ourselves in however form that takes, and in however time that takes—even if it takes a lifetime. We need to do what is best and safest for us. And since not all of us have dragons, may we all be Harbors for one another—safe places we can go when we need understanding, support, love, laughter, and a place we can burp and fart with wild abandon. May we all be dragons and protectors for one another. May we lift each other up and take care of one another. And if you’re reading this and you’re not trans, then accept your kid, accept your friend, accept your relative. Or else. I know someone hungry just waiting for you to make the wrong move. Live your faith. Be a parent. Be a friend. Be an ally. Be a Harbor and breathe fire for the sake of people like me.
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No One was there when I opened the door after being awoken by a frantic knocking. I stood there, afraid, and yet, by some miracle, invited No One in. I cleared off a chair and invited No One to sit down. I asked if they needed a drink of water. They nodded yes. I turned to get some water and No One started weeping. I stopped, knelt at No One’s side, and took their hand. No One wept like a torrent of rain. They collapsed off the chair and into my arms. They started to try to speak through the sobs. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I caught pieces of words and phrases: Lonely, please, it’s chasing me, afraid, tired. I rocked No One in my arms and they wept for a long time. In fact, Time stepped aside and let us be together for as long as No One needed. I was grateful for Time for letting go of control and allowing No One’s pain to be witnessed in the kind of timelessness they reserve for dreams.
No One gradually wept into a deep sleep. I stayed there, holding them in my arms on the floor. My legs started tingling and falling asleep. I got up slowly and lifted No One into bed. I stroked their hair and pulled the blanket up over their deeply breathing body. I sat down in the chair and wondered why No One had come to me. Who, or what was chasing them? What could I do to help? And with those thoughts drifting through my heart like wisps of mist, I too fell into a deep sleep.
Inside (or outside?) my dream, No One had risen from the bed and stood radiant and strong, alive. I watched in awe as No One began to change their form. Their body shifted and fluttered, lighting up like a million fireflies, taking on other shapes and forms, until, at last, No One had transformed into Everyone, and it was then I understood why they had come. But then, Everyone too began changing shape. Their illumination settled a bit, and their form, a moment ago like a sun that somehow fit into the space of my apartment, began to shrink in size. As Everyone continued to distill in form and intensity, their light became focused and channeled to a specific spot in the room. It was then I understood why Everyone had changed. They had changed, wonder of wonders, into myself. And yet somehow, Everyone was still there. We were one being, one light, one heart. And No One suddenly flickered into the room, never to be alone again. And I let myself, wonder of wonders, be embraced by Everyone, as they rocked me in their arms, for I had collapsed from the chair weeping like the rain.