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Tuesday, 9 August, 2016

The little dragon quest

Following the footprints of Firedrake

 

Photo: Michael Orth

 

In Cornelia's first major novel, "Dragon Rider", young dragon Firedrake, accompanied by brownie girl Sorrel flies to the world's highest mountain tops, flies to find the Rim of Heaven. Starting off from Scotland they stop over in Hamburg in order to see the one who probably would have some very important information for their travel.

And there's the problem: Where would you stay in Hamburg, where would you go if you were a brownie girl in company of a real dragon. Would you enter the first hotel asking. "Hi folks, I need two single rooms for me and my mate." You rather would not.

Illustration from "Die grosse Drachensuche"

The two of them, Sorrel and Firedrake, had landed in one of the darkest areas of a big city, says one of the first chapters of "Dragon Rider". Firedrake is swimming in some kind of dirty canals looking for a place to hide, a place which does not smell of humans too much.

 

In this passage of "Dragon Rider", Cornelia writes of grey, concrete walls and of "strange, narrow buildings of red stone, with tall windows and pointed gables". Not far from there they find a hatch in a windowless brick wall. Sounds very much like Firedrake and Sorrel must have been somewhere around Hamburg's harbour or the nearby dockland warehouses. For a serious dragon it is, we suppose, impossible to bang aroung with a mushroom-munching brownie girl without leaving traces. Thus, we set off to Hamburg to find these traces or at least to search for them. Where, in which house, behind which hatch have they been, Firedrake and Sorrel, Gilbert Greytail and Ben?


Warehouses lined both sides of the canal: strange, narrow buildings of red stone, with tall windows and pointed gables.

Photo: Michael OrthAt "Messberg Station" we get off the tube that brought us to the dockland warehouses. This is the place where we start our quest, somewhere around here, Firedrake and the others must have been hiding, somewhere close to the tall brick houses with their pointed gables, for that is how it is described in Dragon Rider. The only problem being: There are plenty of these brick buildings, warehouses, canals, dirty waters, hatches and brittle wooden doors just above the water level.
A dragon could have hidden everywhere and nowhere, nowhere and everywhere around here.

Photo: Michael OrthOur dog suddenly gets cautious where under a bridge a wooden post looms out of the greenish water, and we already mean to see the traces of dragon claws at the pole's wood, deep and broad. But shortly after we see a boat bumping against the pole and we immediately know that the signs aren't the signs of dragon claws by far. We are still annoyed when suddenly a dragon shows up. Red and green he is, stretching his claws, chops open he slenders over the cobblestones: wiggling around a construction worker's calf. A construction worker with a dragon tattooed on his leg - if anybody knows where a dragon might be swimming between the warehouses, it is a guy like him. A man, a dragon, we are so swept off our feet that we don´t manage to get out a word in spite of our mouth being wide open. So we are standing there like rooted to the spot but the man doesn't. He walks off to his collegues and in a van they disappear. Next try.


Firedrake was swimming like a silvery snake in the dirty canal, under bridges, past the grey walls of buildings.

Photo: Michael OrthClose to the tube station we had found a signboard: "destinations in the dockland warehouse district" was written on it. What had we hoped for? Well, some hints at least, the description of one or the other building maybe, a description that would fit the scenery we found in Dragon Rider, the scenery of small canals, cloddish bridges, dark corners. And, yes, it is all there, plenty of it. But: which building, which bridge, which dark corner? And on the signboard? Nothing but numbers in blue and red circles, numbers indicating museums or a tourist information.

"Do you think", Insa later asks, "that dragons lose scales just like dogs lose fur?" "You mean, we should try to look for them?" "Yes, that is exactly what I mean, for if we are lucky we discover a scale from the tail or one from the belly and that may give us some further hints." "It may, it may. But had not Firedrake been swimming around in the canals, had he not been moving around in the dark waters? I think so at least, and that will make things difficult", I tell Insa. It is completely unknown yet wether dragon scales drift upon the water surface or drown. When they sink to the ground, we would never find one of Firedrake's scales and it would not help to be staring at the water surface for hours. But even if they drift on the surface they would be impossible to spot in all that silverish glistening and sparkling.

Photo: Michael OrthIt's no use, we have to ask someone. But whom? The guy with the tattoo had gone too fast, and looking around we see but designers, lawyers, carpet dealers. And tourists. For the brick buildings of the docklands have become very posh. Companies and agencies use them as offices, or you find galleries, exhibitions and museums where years ago goods from all over the world had been stored. Do designers, lawyers and tourists believe in dragons? Are they that familiar with this old district as to know where a creature trying to avoid daylight would hide? Maybe humans aren't the right guides anyway. Maybe we should ask a dockland district  gull. Or a water rat. And if we found a silver scale we could present it to our dog and hope he would follow the dragon's spoor. But this spoor we would have to track first.

Photo: Michael OrthFiredrake hauled himself out of the water, shook his scaly body and forced it through the hatch. He looked curiously around him at this structure, the work of human hands.


Rather clueless we walk about between the big brick buildings until Velos, our dog, suddenly drops his nose, or no, he doesn't drop it, he literally sticks it to the ground like glued. He pulls us over to a door where he starts sniffing nervously. Here? Has he found something? Does he smell something? Yes, he does. But unfortunately it is nothing but the mark of one of his canine colleagues beside the door of the dockland warehouse district's museum.

Photo: Michael Orth

At first we are a little disappointed, but who knows if we don't find someone helping us right there in the museum? They should know the area like noone else does. On worn-out steps the staircase is leading to the museum's entry on the first floor. Where shortly after we are standing in front of a heap of jute sacks - excited. Sacks full of coffee or cocoa or some resin nuggets. However, it is not the sacks' content which is getting us this excited, it is the holes and tears and scratches which look as if sharp claws had cut them into the coarse cloth. And indeed, claws cut these holes, but not dragons' claws. Dockworkers would have used metal claws, so called "Griepen", to drive them into the heavy and plump sacks. With their hands only they would not have managed to get a hold of the sacks. Like we do not get a hold of Firedrake and Ben and Sorrel.

Peter of the museum's staff (Photo: Michael Orth)"Your sister should have given a better description in her novel", I mumble, for slowly our hope is fainting and we show the first signs of impatience.
"A dragon, eh? A factory, blown up a while ago, hm?" Peter, a guy from the museum, ponders. "There has never been a factory in this area, not really. Nothing but warehouses which looked like this museum still looks like."
We tell him we are looking for a hideout where through an old wooden hatch a dragon would be able to slip into an abandoned stack. We tell him that this hideout should be found in the dockland warehouse district or within a ten minutes walk.

Peter shows us where our next destination is situated (Photo: Michael Orth)"The only thing that comes to my mind is the old power house.
This looks different to the other buildings because it was no warehouse. Yes, come to think of it, it was kind of a factory.
There they produced the steem driving the cranes of the surrounding warehouses." Peter tells us the way. Just a five minutes walk.


"Maybe", Insa says, "the men did not blow up the factory  after having met Firedrake in the cellar. Maybe they did not dare coming back after Firedrake had spit his blue fire at them.

Noone saw Firedrake as he made his escape along the canal. Twice, boats came towards him, but they were chugging through the water so noisily that Firedrake could hear them a long way off and was able to dive in good time - deep down to the bottom of the canal, whre rubbish got stuck in the mud.

Photo: Michael Orth

Behind the old powerhouse Peter has told us of - it really looks very different with its highrising smokestacks - we come across Ernesto. First he is sleepy and quite crabby.

 "Do you seriously think", he replies to our dragon question, "I would be fast asleep here if I knew that such huge a beast like a dragon swam along the canals? I am already fed up with all the tourists' boats" And Greytail? Gilbert Greytail, the rat? "I am a duck, see, a duck and as such I have nothing to do with rats. Anyway. If you are trying to find rats in the dockland warehouses you are a lil´ late (A lil' instead of a little is close to what Ernesto said, pronouncing the German "ein bisschen" like "ein büschen" in his very Hamburgish way of speaking). Long gone, the rats, all long gone." Then, Ernesto shortly cleans his beak pulling it through the water, takes some steps as a run up and flies away towards the river Elbe.

Photo: Michael OrthOur dog Velos longingly watches  the feathered animal disappear. We do get the impression that he is not really concentrated, he is much more after ducks or pigeons or gulls than after the dragon we are after. When all of a sudden the water splashes against the mossy brick wall at the other side of the canal. Waves. Huge waves. Wouldn't there be such waves when a young silverdragon was swimming along the canal? Jags? Scales? A horn, a glistening eye?

Photo: Michael OrthNope. The glistening eye is just the red lantern of a tourist's boat vanishing under the next bridge. With the help of the bridges we had hoped to be able to trace Firedrake's way through the canals.

In Dragon Rider you find a passage mentioning a willow with its arms hanging down and floating on the water, mentioning a nearby bridge, broad and somewhat massive the bridge spanned the river. None of the bridges, however, looks that massive to us, none of them looks clumsy or broad, and what's still more disappointing: We do not even find some brushwood under the bridges, leave alone tall willows.

"Rat said it's the last warehouse before the river", Sorrel whispered. "And her cousin lives in the cellar."

The power house (Photo: Michael Orth)
Now, what about the power house? Well, we find the nicely designed information center of a building company there. Dark and shining tiles and much glass. In the middle of a big room is standing a model of the dockyard district and the harbour showing how the area is to be covered with expensive apartment buildings.

Photo: Michael Orth
The model is made of cardboard and wood and on a scale of one to 500.

So we can see all the canals branching between the tall brick warehouses, see every single bridge and see the last warehouse before the river where rat's cousin is supposed to live in the cellar. But exactly this last warehouse is being transformed into a concert hall right now. Certainly not a cosy place for a rat's apartment, not even for Gilbert Greytail. And certainly as well the old power house does not a tithe remind of a factory anymore. We are looking for a staircase leading down to the cellar. In vain We are looking for dark corners, rotten hatches on the outside - in vain.  And when trying to find a way through the building we only scare an old lady who just steps out of the lavatory. After her initial fright she finds Velos "so extraordinarily charming" that we pluck up courage and pose our question. "A dragon?" She does not say more than that. The expression on her face is enough to see that she deems us mad in the head.  Shaking her head she is off. Maybe she is right in the end, maybe dragons are only hissing and growling, flying and swimming in our imagination, maybe they are only part of our fantasy and this whole quest has been a stupid idea from the beginning. But how  could Cornelia have told Firedrake's story if they all didn´t exist, he and Sorrel and Ben? Is this meant to be the end of our search?

"Humans are coming!... Theyve roused their machines and fed them and sent them on their way... they'll get here some time or other - because it's this valley of yours they're making for."

Photo: Michael Orth

In a lousy mood we leave the powerhouse, cross the street and look for a place to take a break, to consider about how to go on or rather whether or not to go on with our quest. Not far from us we see two men sitting in front of the harbourmaster's office. The harbourmasters of the Stadttorhafen - while smoking and chatting they do keep an eye on the water all the time, don't they? Wouldn't it be possible that, among all these boats and smaller ships, they have seen a dragon's nose at the water surface? "No", says Detlef, one of them, "no dragon noses I could report of." What he can report of is some historical stuff about the dockland warehouse district. Along narrow lanes old timber-framed houses were standing, and 20 000 people had their home their, but they were being resettled in order to make room for the warehouses and the Hamburg free-port to be built there around the end of the 19th century. Quite a close reminder, we think, of the dragons driven off their valley. "If I were you", says Detlef blowing the smoke of his cigarette in the wind and pointing to the river Elbe, "I'd go over there to the 'Landungsbrücken' and ask one of the tourist barge captains.

Pit (Photo: Michael Orth)Off we go. We meet our captain shortly after having crossed the 'Niederbaumbrücke'. The guy is wearing a shining white shirt and a likewise white cap on his head, a captain's cap, no question. His name is Pit, says our captain and that he is not a captain at all. Nor is he familiar with the warehouse district, but "a dragon swimming along the canals, yeah, that´s  a really nice idea, I like that." We like it as well but still we don't want to accept it being an idea only. It starts to drizzle and through the grey curtain of light rain we see industrial plants on the opposite side of the river Elbe.

Jan Weitendorf, one of Cornelia's friends, had already told us to go through the old tunnel under the river Elbe to find a factory building fitting the description in Dragon Rider. Halfway through the tunnel, 23 metres under ground, above us the river Elbe's waters, twelve metres high, Insa looks at her watch and slowly shakes her head.

Photo: Michael OrthCan't be. Another 200 metres to reach the end of the tunnel and from the warehoses we have been walking for much longer than ten minutes already. But that is exactly what Ben told Firedrake and Sorrel: "Less than ten minutes' walk from here." Either he has got it really wrong with the distance. But then, why would he?
He knows the area, he does not even hesitate when he tells the two about the distance to the dockland warehouse they are looking for.
Or, this being a suspicion growing stronger and stronger, it was Cornelia willingly leading us astray, willingly laying false trails, setting us on the wrong track to ensure that anyone would look for Firedrake's hideout only in the wrong places. Hamburg is full of canals and there are plenty of bridges, more than in Amsterdam and Venice together. Moreover: A hideout only makes sense as long as it it undiscoverd and as long as details are kept confidential. And humans have discovered all too many hiding places already.

Seen that way it is not too disappointing to break off our quest without having found Firedrake's and Sorrel's traces. Seen that way it is comforting and nice to believe that the dragons in Hamburg still have a safe place to hide and rest when they are on their way to the Rim of Heaven.

 

Illustration from "Die grosse Drachensuche"

 

Text and Photos: Michael Orth

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