I used to live on an island that had a village in the middle, and a high rocky bluff on one side. You could never tell, from one day to the next, whether the wind was going to blow against the bluff or with it, and since it was always a strong wind we tended to avoid the cliffs altogether. There were woods, too, all around the village and blocking the beaches. I liked to go exploring those alone.
One morning while I was out looking for firewood, I came across the most badass-looking creature I’d ever seen. He was covered all over with scales and spikes, and his long, twisting body sported a pair of blood-red wings. His whole body, from the horn of his nose to the tip of his tale, shone where the light speckled down like a ruby. He choked on the little fireball he’d been working on, then tried to swallow the smoke. A little leaked out of his nose anyway.
“Ohh!” I cooed. “A baby dragon!”
He made a purry noise at me and the base of his throat started glowing like he’d swallowed lava. The light went out when he coughed again, sounding like a car engine trying to turn over.
“Hey, that’s ok,” I said, flopping down in the soft moss next to him. “My mother always said, nothing great comes easy. Of course, she’s always been ordinary, so who knows, right?” My parents were the sort who were happy just sitting on the front porch, staring out to sea. I sighed. “My name’s Candace. Want some fish?”
I sat with the dragon until the sun went down, and when I started walking home he followed me like a puppy. My parents didn’t want him inside, so he stood guard outside my window all night. When I left for work he followed me again, snarling at the pigeons who stepped too close to me.
“That’s my dragon,” I told everyone.
“Good for you,” most people said. The legends say there’s one dragon for every human in the world, and magic flows through both the instant that they meet.
The one person who didn’t say, “Good for you,” was my best friend Leilani.
“Eww,” she whispered to me the first time she caught sight of him in my yard. “Why is that dirty lizard staring at you?”
“He’s NOT a lizard!” I gasped. “That’s my dragon! He’s going to be beautiful and enchanting when he’s grown. He’s just a baby, but he’s pretty close to mastering fire-breathing already. He can make sparks come out of his nose.”
She just made a face.
He was pretty dirty, to be fair – after all the fire-breathing practice his scales were caked in ash, and were more the color of rust than rubies. After Leilani was gone, I invited him inside for a bath, and that night I managed to sneak him into bed with me. He laid on my chest and purred until his body was glowing warm, his tail wrapped protectively around me. My ribs were bruised in the morning, but I laughed it off.
“You sure were holding on tight – what, were you afraid I’d sneak away?”
He made a happy sound and I fed him some fish.
After that he always came inside my house at night. I usually woke up with scratches or a bruise where my skin brushed his scales, but I felt so lucky to have a dragon live with me I didn’t mind. I invested in some turtle-necks with long sleeves and wore them all the time.
At least once every day, he flew into the woods and came back with jewels in his mouth, or gold and silk draped over his claws as presents for me. He made me so rich I quit my stuffy office job and moved out of my parents’ house. We bought the island’s oldest stone cathedral and used it as our castle. We needed the space, anyway – as the weeks went on he grew too big to go through ordinary doors. He was looking more and more like a real dragon, and I was prouder than ever, even though he struggled still with flight and fire-breathing. He’d roar in fury at himself if he smacked his head on the ceiling or stubbed his tail on the walls, and all night the runaway ashes from his snoring rained down on both of us. I’d wake, choking, from nightmares of volcanoes to find my sheets ruined and my hair a dirty mess.
“Do you have to smoke inside?” I snapped one day, after spending three hours scouring soot from every surface to find by the time I’d finished that the portion of the room I’d started with was dirty all over again. His tail lashed the ground angrily, and the great walls shook so hard, the last of my good dinner plates shuddered out of their cupboard and smashed against the floor. I just sighed, and started sweeping. I never had friends over anymore; I was too embarrassed of how dirty the castle was and full of broken things.
You could see it in his eyes that he felt bad whenever he wrecked something, but it seemed like he just couldn’t help it – if he lost his temper long enough to stomp a foot, that was the end of another dish, if not a piece of furniture. On days when he was really, really, mad, he’d roar like thunder till the stonework shook, stained glass windows cracked, and the bell in its tower would shudder out one roiling rejoinder after another. I was never afraid. I knew just what to do to calm him down – I would wait until his echoes in the walls were waning – that lilting moment just before there isn’t any sound – and I would sing to him soft ballads of glory and love.
I knew what it was to care for a dragon, but no one else seemed to understand. When I went into town, I started to get the feeling people were feeling sorry for me, or like they thought I needed help. Leilani one day pulled me aside when she saw me in the market. “If things are getting difficult for you, don’t ask about staying with me – you know my door’s always open.”
“What are you talking about?” I laughed as hard as I could, willing her to stop looking so damned afraid for me.
Leilani’s hand tightened around mine. “Quit playing stupid, Candace! I’ve heard him roaring at you through the night – raises hairs on the back of my neck. I get that you love him, but he’s a monster, and one of these days he’s gonna want to eat you.”
“He would never do that!” I gasped. “He’s a dragon! He has feelings.”
“He’s not a real dragon,” Leilani muttered under her breath – but she saw that I heard the comment and raised her chin, speaking louder. “He’s a wild animal. If you don’t get away from him sooner or later you’re going to get hurt.” She eyed the edge of my turtleneck pointedly. I put a hand to my throat, and hurried off.
The dragon had been living with me about a month when a bunch of my friends decided to have a party on one of the beaches beyond the woods. My dragon was too busy practicing his fire-breathing to notice that I left. I wasn’t worried – if he wanted to find me I was sure he’d catch up.
I found my friends among the huge group that had gathered to dance around a bonfire. A few guys brought drums and guitars, and it looked like everyone was having fun.
“I haven’t seen you in awhile!” I greeted my old classmate, Tommy, who was a teacher now.
“I know,” he laughed. “It’s great to see you!”
He was giving me a hug when a shadow fell on us and I looked up. There was my dragon, snorting a livid-white cloud of smoke and lowering his head to roar full-blast in Tommy’s face.
“Stop it!” I cried, running out in front of Tommy. “He’s a friend!” I could tell by the light of his eyes that my dragon was afraid, and trying to protect me. Maybe the big fire made him think about other dragons. He roared a column of smoke and sparks at the sky when I stood in front of Tommy and grabbed my hair with his foreclaws. He tried to lift me off the ground, but couldn’t get high enough to stop my legs dragging through the sand as he propelled himself back to the treeline. I lost one sandal, then another as my calves scraped through the dunes, then my toes were turning sideways over stems and oak-hard roots.
I didn’t see the first tree as it hit, but the force of the blow to my shoulder made my body twist so I was staring at the ground again.
The next tree came at me from the left, bashing into my temple first, then my jaw.
SLAM! CRACK!! BOOM!!
My dragon beat his fevered way through trees and thorns and insect mounds, dragging me all the while. By the time we got to our castle, my clothes were ripped to shreds and every inch of skin was puffy with welts, or bleeding. Whole clumps of my hair were gone, ripped out at the roots, and my eyes were swollen shut. I couldn’t hide the bruises, even under five layers of makeup.
For two weeks after that I was too embarrassed to show my face in town. My dragon caught mountains of fish with his tail and smoked them for my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He made timid, sorry sounds each time our eyes met, and if I looked at him for longer than a second he’d take off into the woods and come back with nicer treasures to lay at my feet.
I was more pissed off at him for the way he’d acted at the beach than anything. When I remembered all those horrified, pitying looks my friends had cast on me as I was being dragged backward, I gave him a glare that sent him scurrying off for even bigger jewels.
Still, when I allowed myself to be completely objective, I could admit it was my fault as much as his. If I’d been more devoted, more courageous, I would have gone with him all those times he’d practiced flying, and learned a long time ago how to ride him. Then I could have glided off serenely on his back that night, instead of all this mess.
When my face had lost its puffiness and the bruises were all a faded yellow, I decided to face the village again. I was dying for a bite of anything other than fish, and when I tried on some of my new silks and jewels I felt pretty enough to hold my head high. I decided on a purple satin dress, golden slippers and a golden parasol for the excursion, and wove gemstones through my hair to hide the patches missing locks. Some of my wounds still showed through the makeup, but in the little umbrella’s shade I felt safe from judging eyes.
I headed straight to the bakery, hoping they’d have my favorite apricot jellyrolls, and nearly ran into Leilani as she came out with a rye loaf under her arm. I tried to turn before she recognized me, but wasn’t quick enough.
“Candace,” she gasped, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Oh my God! Did he do this to you? Let me call animal control!”
“Leilani,” I spoke through gritted teeth. “I do NOT need animal control. I know exactly what I’m doing. Just leave me alone.”
“Candy, we all know he’s been hurting you! All our friends saw him drag you away from that party by your hair.”
“That wasn’t what it looked like,” I protested. “He was just trying to protect me – like what mother dragons do with their young. He was looking for a neck-flap to carry me.”
“I think you’re confusing dragons with cats.”
“Look, just let me handle this,” I snapped. “I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine.” I jerked away from her when she tried to argue her point, and went home without so much as a chocolate sprinkle.
She would see. They would all see. Once he was a real dragon, they’d regret giving up on him. He’d learn how to control his fire, then, and how to fly higher than the highest trees. They’d forget they ever felt sorry for me when they saw us riding together against the stars – me, the dragon’s true heart, the only one who’d had the courage to love him while he was young and flawed. I would be his princess, and magic would forever keep us young.
When I stormed into our castle, I grabbed one of my dragon’s headspikes and climbed onto his back. “Let’s fly!” I said. “Fly me up to the sky, so no one can look down on us.” I wanted to go with my dragon on an adventure, to be there when he found my next treasure. He carried me into the yard and flapped his wings wildly; his plates bruised the places between my legs something awful as he lifted us foot by foot into the air. It didn’t matter – those marks wouldn’t show.
I watched intently as we struggled, foot by foot, to rise above the treeline – feeing by turns exhilarated and afraid. When a strong wind made him wobble, I got so freaked out I started screaming.
“Put me down!” I cried. “I want to go down, now!”
My dragon kept beating his wings, like he didn’t hear me – but I could tell by the way his tail was twitching that he was irritated. In a panic, I leaned sideways, and lost my balance – I rolled backwards along his iron spine and plunged head-first toward the earth, then lost my breath, “Ooph!” as his tail caught me by the abdomen. My dragon snorted, severely disappointed in my clumsiness. He tried to lift his tail high enough for me to climb back onto him, but I couldn’t reach. He roared his displeasure at me, then abruptly tilted his wings, making us glide along the top layer of trees, over the beach and towards the ocean. He lowered his tail when the saltwater was sparkling beneath us. I barely had time to notice a squishy-looking sea-monster – something like a giant squid with a colossal pair of pillow lips – before his tail plunged me into the sea.
The water was freezing as it hit, knocking the wind out of me again. And then I saw the wide-open lips of the squishy sea-monster coming at me in the dark, and I realized that my dragon was using me, to fish. The sea-monster’s lips closed over me, and a horrible sucking sensation pulled out the last of my oxygen along with the light of my consciousness.
When I came to, it was because of a painful jarring and a rush of cold air – colder than the sea had been. The dragon had banged the sea-monster against a tree until her puckered lips went slack, and now she fell from me and lay limp in the sand. The dragon was so excited to fill his mouth with her that he didn’t notice me falling from his tail, dazed and also limp. I sat there a minute, shaking, staring at the creature I had nurtured so long. Now one thing after another that people had said about him filled my mind and wouldn’t go away. He was a monster. He was an animal. He was not a dragon. He was going to eat me.
I stood, and started running – not into town, but around it, through the woods. I ran until I came to the base of the bluff, the great precipice piercing the wind. Then I kept running.
If there was a dragon out there anywhere – a great, majestic, truly real dragon with the spirit of magic within – if there was just one, surely now he would catch me if I jumped, and carry me off into the sunset. And if there wasn’t any such thing – well, then, at least I’d never have to face those pitying villagers again.
I took a great, flying leap off the point of the bluff, with my arms spread out, and looked down to watch my fate crash into me. And then screamed. My human arms had sprouted flaps – scaly wings, with a bluish fuzz like feathers on the end. I wavered my arms, knowing the wind under me as it fought to push me aside.
“But I can’t fly,” I gasped. “I’m just a girl.” The sound was lost amid the crackling of a great blue plume of flame, more glorious than any I had seen as it scorched up sea-foam into cloud.
It was a sweet and surreal moment, hanging there, reveling in fire I never knew I had. But the wind came at me and didn’t stop, pressing me back toward the bluff. I flapped against it for what felt like hours, until the wind shifted abruptly and I found myself borne three miles out to sea. I knew beyond a doubt now that nobody else could save me. That was hard to know, because I was so tired, and the shore so far. But I sighed, and struggled on – just a wingbeat at a time. What else could I do? I was a dragon, now; it was beneath my dignity to drown.
Since I’ve become strong in my dragonhood, I’ve found that though it’s always hard work, it’s also always worth it. Whether it’s rescuing stupid princesses or eating significantly more stupid princes, diving after ocean stones or plucking stars from the night for my growing treasure horde, I do what the fuck I want. Dragons – real dragons – never have to hide, or quit, or lose, or die. And if we do, it’s always in an awesome way that people write songs about. I mean, we’re hot shit.
Sometimes I go back to the island where I used to live, to visit Leilani and my old gang. Not much has changed there. The rusty lizard who used to live with me still smokes too much and can’t stay up for more than two minutes in the air. When I have to take a dump I fly low over the woods and look for his spark trails. He’s finally progressed to the point where he can get his flame to show outside his body; it’s exactly as big as a tea-light. Go figure.
My mother keeps telling me I should find a soulful king to keep me company, but I’ve figured out that castles really aren’t my thing. One of these days I’ll start looking for a good underground lair, with – you know – lakes of molten silver, diamond stalagmites – the works; but if I can’t find one of those I’ll settle for any bright-colored mountain and do what I can with filigree once I’ve hollowed it out. Then if I find a nice spelunker maybe I’ll think about having a companion.
Maybe. The truth is, I’m not so sure I want to settle down. I live in the wind, and I’m magic enough all by myself.