Owning the Dragon

Owning the Dragon by Frances Pauli as illustrated by Dario BijelacThe fires are small and out of season. Three in one week give the firefighters pause, make them shift in their heavy canvas suits and scratch their heads. No dry lightning, no kids with fireworks, and no damage except for the fences and some singed field grass.

And the missing cows.

I can see the dragon from my back porch. He’s hunkered in a crack between stones on the big hill behind our houses. The neighbors pretend they can’t see the smoke, but they all lock their doors, bring in their little dogs, and close their drapes for protection.

Another week and the fires stop. Nobody asks about the cows, and I start to wonder if I’m the only one who knows he’s there.

* * *

I discover what he wants on accident. Wednesday after work I ride my bike around the side streets, playing at fitness. I’ve been avoiding the rocks, but my curiosity gets the better of me, and I race past them with the bike chain ticking the seconds.

Maybe I’m twisting around to see the rocks, or maybe it’s just fate, but the chain of my gold locket snaps and I hear the metal tinkle to the pavement. My father gave me that locket for graduation. I don’t even consider leaving it behind, not even with a dragon smoldering at the side of the road.

When I stop pedaling, I can hear him breathing, deep gusts of hot air that smell like beef. I know he wants the locket even before I turn around and see his scaly arm sliding out of the crack. His hide is armored and gleams like a mirror, reflecting our perfect, matching houses across a hundred facets. A black claw plucks my treasure from the asphalt, and I get back on my bike and ride home empty-handed.

I close my drapes for a few days, too. But I’m pretty sure the dragon knows which house is mine. All the others have families, children’s toys in the backyard, and he’s already sniffed out my priorities.

* * *

I peek out on Thursday and catch him prowling. The gold seems to have stirred a new lust in the monster, and now he’s wandering between our homes, looking in windows. It’s me he wants, though. I never doubt that. He’s tasted my locket, my guilt.

Was it spicy? I try to imagine the flavor of unsaid goodbyes, of not making it home in time.

That night I fill a backpack with all my old jewelry. My hands shake. I throw in some silverware and a candlestick that is probably ordinary brass.

I wait until I see him vanish into the lair before pedaling out and flinging the pack toward the crack.  In the dark, the smoke seems thicker, the hiss of the dragon’s exhalations more pronounced against the sound of crickets. I race home and only find out he’s taken the stuff when I discover my shredded backpack on the porch the next morning.

On Friday I hit the thrift stores. I pack a week’s worth of duffle bags with cast-off jewelry, with cups and trays and little figurines made of glass. I drop half a paycheck on other people’s junk, on old furs and broken collectibles, on plastic gemstones and plated silver.

One by one I drop them at the crack in the stones. The monster takes my treasures, but it takes me another week to realize I own a dragon.

* * *

I don’t know where he puts it all. That gash in the stones isn’t deep enough. Maybe he eats the stuff, devours the detritus of our lives and leaves the cows aloneat least until I miss a feeding. Two months into dragon-keeping, work runs late. Some of us go for drinks after. We laugh until midnight and then flirt with impropriety for another hour at least.

I crawl home around 2 AM and find a dead cow on my lawn.

A concerned neighbor calls the police, and the next night I leave three backpacks outside the dragon’s lair. I pack better stuff, the medal I won back in High School, a watch that belonged to my grandfather. More jewelry that isn’t plastic.

The dragon follows me home anyway. I catch him peeking in the windows, and when I pull the drapes, the dragon looks straight through them. When I close the doors, he looks through me. He sees the good crystal. He sees the things I’ve been keeping for myself.

* * *

Some nights I wonder if the neighbors have their own dragons. Were they greedy too? Did they put material things above family? Did they stay away too long, come back too late? I sleep with the lights on now, and I can hear him gnawing on my Father’s locket. I can see the dragon smile, even though my drapes are closed. Guilt flavored trinkets can’t possibly satisfy him forever.

I’m running out of gold. Running.

I pile everything in the center of my living room. The furniture stacks neatly, but the rest I just toss into a heap. Jewelry, clothes, knick-knacks—it’s all junk now. Dragon food. I leave everything, and I leave the gas on. All it would take is a spark, and my dragon is made of fire and greed.

I leave the car, too, the house unlocked for him. He’s already crawling from the crack in the stones. The hiss of his breathing chases me out.

I drive away in something used and rented, flying, and owning nothing.