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Red Ninjas by Anne E. Johnson

In his room at the Home, he often considered who might live in that old steam radiator. They made a lot of noise. Clang. Bang. Clang. His mother had taken him to a Wagner opera once, before he came to live here. He hadn’t understood it, except for the Nibelungs, hammering the Rhein gold into a magic helmet. There were Nibelungs in his radiator.

Or were there? He knew Nibelungs were dwarves. But would they fit inside the radiator piping, twisting in rounded rectangles? For a while he wasn’t sure. One winter he tapped back, trying to get a conversation going in Old Norse Morse code. All he got for his trouble was a burnt index finger. That seemed like something Nibelungs would do.

His mother’s house had central heating. Its sound wasn’t as obvious as the brash metallic symphony of the Nibelungs, but there was still a living world behind the beige aluminum panels lining his mother’s floorboards. Most people thought of electric heat as a quiet alternative, but he knew better. Ticky-tickety-tick-tick. Whispering tap shoes. If people would bother to listen, they would hear it. A vaudeville show at the far end of a long corridor. Thimbled fingers dancing on a plastic cutting board. No resonance, but musical and entertaining.

On Wednesdays he was taken to see Dr. Donnelly. The doctor’s office used gas heat, which blew out through ornate white gratings screwed into the walls. This was the trickiest type to hear. But he would grit his teeth and clench his fists, focusing, focusing. The unimportant sounds would grow muted: Dr. Donnelly asking him questions, the telephone ringing at reception, the micro-ants marching their electrical atoms up the lamp cord (he heard this in every room, but long practice had taught him to block it out).

Only when he focused completely could he hear the Red Ninjas. Their footfalls were silent, but their soul-breath floated through the heating grate. Hhhaah. Hhhaah. An ancient, holy ritual of patterned exhalation. He felt blessed just to bear witness to it.

Sometimes he was so moved by the beauty of that sound, he would begin to weep. Right there on Dr. Donnelly’s special brown sofa. But he hated when that happened because it made him lose focus, lose contact with the delicate metaphysical rhythm.

Jarring blasts of sound. His own sobs. Doctor Donnelly’s agitation. The pills the orderly forced down his throat. The mundane crashed through the consecrated.

He wanted to crawl into that grating and join the Red Ninjas. He wanted to hear their breathing, see their maraschino-red silks, bathe in their insistent, warm breeze. If he could, he would have those sensations, and no others, eternally. But the time with Dr. Donnelly always ended. They would return him to his room at the Home, where the Nibelungs played their clang-bang-clang opera inside the steam-heat radiator.

One morning or night or afternoon, he woke up to see his roommate lighting a cigarette. No smoking allowed. Clear signs posted everywhere. But the bad person was smoking a cigarette anyway. Lit it with a match and threw down the match, into the trash can next to the radiator. The Nibelungs knew the rules. No smoking allowed.

They got mad. They sent dragons. Not behind the walls, but right there in the room. Dragons dancing around the room. Crackling. Growling. Popping. Slapping their massive wings together. Peeling the paint from the ceiling with their claws.

His ears burned from the sound. His skin burned from the flames. He didn’t like this new kind of heater. He wept, but it didn’t make the dragons go away. It didn’t make the orderlies come with pills. The slapping and crackling grew louder, and poison dragon tongues tore flesh off his arms.

But then the Red Ninjas came. They came to save him. This time, for the first time, he saw them before he heard them. Red silk, draping and flapping everywhere, wrapping around and around him. They made him one of them, just as he’d longed for. And he heard it, more clearly than ever. All together they breathed it, an eternal blessing for him.


Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, writes in a variety of genres for both adults and children.Her short fiction has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Shelter of Daylight, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her science fiction novel Green Light Delivery was published in June, 2012, by Candlemark & Gleam. She also writes novels for tweens. Learn more on her website,