The Welsh exist exclusively in my mind as men. No, I know they’re not Tolkien’s dwarves, sprung fully formed, beards and all, from the ground. But my entire perception of Wales is through the robust verse of Dylan Thomas: tortured poets with dark hair and darker eyes and wicked smiles; mistakes waiting to happen; all bad choices and bad decisions. This is Richard Burton country. This is the land of men. Men who drink with the thirst of a whirlpool to wash the taste of coal from their tongues, to forget the bruises that twin the scars on their knuckles. Nothing is too much and the night’s not worth having if it’s remembered. But who can blame them? If you lived in the land of dragons, wouldn’t you want a little liquid courage to put a fire in your belly?
Theirs is the language of myth. They speak with silt in their mouths to put forth pearls, panning for golden sounds with their teeth, sifting through the muck, coaxing out melodies with their tongues. When they tell you that you’re not special, believe them. You’re not. How could you be? Have you seen the first woman they loved, the land that spread her legs apart like a canvas hungry for painting, the dips of her hills, the way her air tastes. They’ll spend their whole lives looking for the first woman that ever loved them; not our mothers but our mother cities, mother countries, motherlands. Fields and mountains and skyscrapers and alleyways, the lines of the woman we’ll never forget. Welsh boys and Brooklyn girls, we radiate the land that bore us.
I look for Brooklyn everywhere I go. My Brooklyn. For the Brooklyn of those years, half remembered fragments of memory held together by dust coated photo albums. For the Brooklyn of before, my father’s Brooklyn, rough and biting, Darwin’s playground; if you survived it was because you earned it—what need did you have to be afraid of life? You were from Brooklyn, there was nothing—no poverty, brutality, scar, love, thrill, joy, ecstasy—no scent, no sound, no scene the world could show you that you hadn’t already found in her mean streets. Brooklyn tough, Brooklyn bound, Brooklyn born. Because when we say we’re from somewhere that means something.
I look for Brooklyn in Budapest, Marrakech, Dhaka; everywhere I look for her. I look for Brooklyn in my lovers, my partners: the way they stand in a train car, the unchangeable way they walk through any neighborhood, I search for the smell of Brooklyn in the curvature of their necks, I look for old men’s hands on young bodies. I look for her in my friends: brawling women, acid tongued and ridge backed, den mothers willing to eat their own young, fire breathers, unwilling to have quiet, pleasant voices or opinions. Women to whom people are always asking “Why are you so angry?”
Why am I so angry? Because I’m from Brooklyn. Because I carry the mantle of men loved by the neighborhood and feared by their own children, because I have a right to be angry when you mistreat me, when you belittle me, when you raze me, chipping away at my confidence, my intelligence, tactical in your barrages. Well, that’s not how we do it in Brooklyn. We don’t dance around, we don’t play games. We don’t fight a fight we don’t believe we can win without stepping out into the blazing daylight of our street, screaming your name out so everyone can hear our challenge. I’m angry because of the inherited characteristics of all those immigrant shamannesses, women who could arc and curve their bodies into leather shields, buying their army of children time to retreat, regroup, and face the next battle. I’m angry because of young girls reprimanded for being too tough, too masculine, for courting an image outside of domesticity, for not being afraid to be alone. I’m angry because of little boys who had to steal books to eat, because when there wasn’t any food there was always another story, words, brimming and delicious, ready for your insatiable consumption. It doesn’t matter how the topography changes, brownstones or boulders, the maligned places of this world pass their grit from one generation to the next. You can’t wash it off; it’s embedded in our bones. Where I come from swagger saves your life.
I come to Wales looking for magic, for dragons, for legends. I want to know where it comes from, that look, that Richard Burton-Timothy Dalton-Anthony Hopkins stare. These are Medusa’s sons, turning you to stone with a wink and a smile. I want to see her, that woman that no other woman can match; I want to know who it is they’re searching for. So I go for a walk.
One of my favorite movies as a child is the much maligned Dragonheart. Dragonheart tells the story of Draco, the last Dragon, who couldn’t cure the corruption of the boy king even after he gave him half his heart. Hunted to the last, Draco retreats into the hills of the countryside, slipping beneath the veil of a waterfall in order to avoid capture. That’s where I’ll go. If there be any dragons left to find, that’s where I’ll find them.
En route to Sgwd Yr Eira time begins to slip backward, stepping through towns frozen forever in a moment, never able to heave themselves out again. Here lie the left behind.
It’s midday as I arrive on the outskirts of Brecon Beacons National Park. It’s rained the day before and the Earth is thick with mud. I am as unprepared for this trek as Bilbo Baggins was for his own grand adventure: I see his handkerchiefs and raise him my jeans. But that’s the mark of any worthy odyssey, isn’t it? A certain level of unpreparedness, of unknowing. There’s a sign to mark the start of the path, an old posted warning of knights and heroes who came before and never came back. After that first post there are no other markers to be found. I walk for an age with no indication if the path is true, left with nothing but instinct to decide if the way is clear and the light is good.
There’s no one else here. No fellow travelers cross my path. Nothing but the booming silence of the hills and the squelching of mud and the ever present vibration of magic in the air. There are enchantments at work here. Who knows? Maybe I’ve already walked into the web, right to the heart of the spell.
I hear the coursing of water, the first distinctive sound to break the thick coat of quiet. I move towards it, as naïve heroes always do, forgetting for a moment that the woods are a place where illusions flourish. Clambering down the slope, iron steps rotted a way into the side of the embankment, ruins of a ruined kingdom, I see the source of the noise—the echoing of a river, enhanced by the reverberations of the slanted stone walls watching over it. But from here I spot something and my heart skips a beat: a cave. Across the way a piece of the rock face has been scooped out, leaving a doorway open to the heart of the mountain. Light ceases at the entrance of the cave. There is only darkness and the unknown to be found beyond that threshold. No one ever said finding my dragon would be easy.
Standing inside the mouth of the cave, hovering between the thick flesh of the beast’s tongue and the steep slip side of it’s throat, the light of the outside of world is close enough to be seen but not to be felt: it no longer touches me as I face down blackness with no end. In that moment you think of it all, every evil your parents warned you against, every monster that threatened to rip for the pages of your books, the worst parts of yourself lie at the back of that cave. You feel it, the surge of impulse against your better judgment, a heightened sense, a drunken delirium, and for one moment the mud releases your feet from their shackles and you take a step forward. Then you feel it, that tiny burst of chemicals exploding in your brain, alarms of instinct, a guardian angel of cortisol compelling you to safer shores. The darkness reverberates. I’m in the sunlight before I’ve even realized I was running. The cave stares back at me, as innocuous as it is foreboding, with the sickly pleasantness of some curious neighbor that is the obsession of imaginative children and horror novelists. But I don’t stick around to find what brand we’re dealing with.
I make my way back into the hills, moving deeper and deeper into the wood, wondering what myths have yet to make their appearance. This is Uther Pendragon’s country, father to the great King Arthur, the central figure of Britain’s one native mythology; a land of illegitimate sons, once and future kings sired by magic and destiny. But what of the other half of that same said coin; who are the Welsh women? Where are Morgan’s daughters? Women who stole their magic from unwilling teachers, mist spilling from the palms of their hands, ladies of the lake spit forth from the darkest fathoms, cool sea born creatures left to contend with a breed of men for whom nothing is too much save the sheer force of their bite. You cannot subdue a race of women whose very breath is cacophonous.
Maybe that’s what Richard saw in Liz, a woman who wasn’t afraid to bellow. Not Welsh by birth but by nature, a modern day Morgana, Elizabeth Taylor, unapologetically sumptuous, her eyes of violet venom could induce a fever from which no man or woman could ever recover. Married to one another twice over, they loved each other ferociously. Married to another woman, his last letter, words, and thoughts were of Elizabeth. Speaking of him several years after Burton’s passing, Taylor said this of the romance that would define both their lives: ““Everything was too much, it was almost like we loved each other too much.” This is our inheritance, the children of unmatchable lands; the roots of this forest and cement of my front steps bear the same scars; when you come from too little, you crave too much. Just the likes of us are welcome here.
You hear it before you see it. The way it thrums against rock, carving a channel through the thick bones of the Earth, creating that precious indentation where thigh meets hip, that sacred curve that leads us home. Snake curled branches line the path as I descend. My legs are shaking. Every surface is slick with wet. Then…there it is, pouring off the cliff into the black pool below. Sgwd Yr Eira. That’s my dragon.
I slip and slide across the hidden bridge, stones that rise and dip beneath the water’s surface, vanishing isles that lead to a vanished time. Stepping through that disgorging current, halfway between this world and the next, I think of the moments in our lives, in legends, that separate the myths from the men. These are the places where some go forward and others turn back. I step behind the fall. Staring out between plump bursting plums of water, soaking in sky from the hollowed Earth, a wicked grin unfolds across my face, a glint of impish mischief blossoms in my eye as fire fills my belly. Turns out there’s one more dragon left after all.
Stood behind that vale perilous, that torrential force of nature, nature that cannot be quelled but pours forth, the most unquiet woman you’ve ever met—this is the moment of epics, of fantasies, of Captain Cat dreaming of his shipmates. This is what we think about before we fall asleep. Those final thoughts we hope to churn into the night’s dream feast.
This what they’re looking for, those lost welsh boys and golden girls, they’re looking for this. Maybe they find it swirling at the bottom of their twelfth pint, or in the look of a lover you’re just about to kiss; we go searching for it in the excesses of the world: too much drink, too much food, too much sex, too much because you’re born from that unending torrent, that beast that has no limit, and we’re just humans stumbling around trying to match the gods the bore us, spinning straw into myth, looking for legends, for dragons, for heroes, for hope, for magic, for love wherever we can find it.
Wales is: pasties, thick rain, accidental run ins with Michael Sheen, Roland Dahl, tree shaped Senates, harbors that carry currents from the Arctic, a nation subsumed by another nation, dragons coiled in the bellies of women, mercurial men, the longest unbroken literary tradition in Europe, coal miners and poets, Cymbeline, the kingdom of Camelot, stolen magic and stolen hearts. Wales is wild.
In one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV Part I, the great Owen Glendower, the last native son to hold the title of Prince of Wales, says to the great English champion, Hotspur, “And all the courses of my life do show / I am not in the roll of common men.” Because he knows what all the Welsh know: why be common, why be just a man, when you can be a dragon?