‘Dragon Years’, Juliet Kemp

Illustration © 2020 Martin Hanford

 [ Dragon, © 2020 Martin Hanford ] The first time the dragon came, she was eight, out in the back garden on a warm June afternoon. She lay down on her back on the grass, feeling it prickle against her skin around the edges of her vest top. She shut her eyes and saw twisting black veins against the red of the inside of her eyeballs. The air was full of the scent of the honeysuckle that twined along the fence; then, suddenly, it was full of something else, something sharp and musky. When she sat up and opened her eyes, the dragon was curled around and through the climbing frame, staring at her with its own huge orange eyes. She stroked its deep green scaly muzzle, and it huffed spicy-smelling dragon-breath into her face.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Of course. But I have to tell Mummy where I’m going. I’ll be right back. I promise, okay?”

Indoors, her mother insisted that she had to do her homework, and have dinner, and wouldn’t listen to anything she had to say about dragons.

When she finally got back out to the garden, just before bedtime, the dragon had gone. She told herself that her mother was right; it had been her imagination, and ignored the tightness in her throat.

The second time the dragon came, she had an exam that afternoon. It loomed impossibly in through the window above her desk, its scales overlapping the brickwork, the glass no impediment to its muzzle. It nosed gently at her face, and she ducked away from it, pulling her hoodie up over her head. It snuffled over her head, asking, asking, and she shoved her fingers in her ears and furiously stared at her history notes. She needed to get an A to get her university place. Everyone kept telling her how vital A levels were for her future, and no one ever mentioned dragons. Anyway, they didn’t exist, and if this one did exist, it would have come back sooner.

When she looked up again, the dragon had gone.

She got an A, and she got her university place. She told herself that was exactly what she wanted.

The third time the dragon came, it was the middle of the night, and she’d just fed the baby to sleep. She lay on her side in bed, the baby curled into her. He smelt of milk and warmth and baby, his mouth still moving a little in his sleep though he wasn’t really feeding now. She was only barely awake, waiting until he was asleep enough to be moved. When a vast scaly nose nudged her back, she jumped, winced as the baby’s mouth dragged halfway off her nipple, then froze in place with bated breath; but the baby didn’t wake. She unlatched him with her little finger, and he sighed and snuggled down into the mattress. Then she turned to the dragon.

“I can’t,” she said. “I wish I could, but…”

She looked down at the baby, partly regretful, partly not, with no idea which part was larger and no wish to find out. She was here, now. It was what it was.

The dragon rested its warm muzzle on her shoulder, and she patted it absently. The scales were warm and soft under her hand, and the dragon still smelt sharp and musky, the way it had two decades ago. She fell asleep with its green cheek under hers and an ache that she couldn’t define tingling under her navel.

In the morning, the baby had slept a record-breaking four hours, and the dragon was… still there. Her head was on its stomach, now, instead of its head, and the whole of it fitted on the bed beside her, curled by the headboard, maybe twice the size of a small cat. It glowed, slightly, but not with light; with density, with that undefined ache. She took the baby to the kitchen, put him in the high chair, made toast and tea. When she sat down, the dragon settled heavily onto her feet, radiating warmth up into her. She flexed her toes against its scales, and smiled.

The baby became a child, and never asked about the dragon. Perhaps he couldn’t see it. Sometimes, she couldn’t either. Sometimes, of an evening, she thought the lump on the end of the sofa might just be cushions; then she flexed her toes, and felt scales soft and smooth under her feet, and let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

When she came back from driving the child—not a child any more—to university, eyes still a little red, she expected the flat to feel empty. Instead it was full, wholly full, of dragon. Its orange eyes whirled, and the sharp musky smell was stronger than ever before.

She put a hand on its muzzle and the dragon flexed its wings and extended them straight through the walls, spreading out into the September sunshine, glowing green through the window against blue sky and red brick. Her whole body ached, to her fingertips, tingling like possibility.

“Yes,” she said, and climbed onto its back. “Yes.”

Wings creaked, scales lay against her. They passed through the wall together, and out, and away.

© 2020 Juliet Kemp

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