Mom always loved dragons.
They were everywhere growing up. They decorated the mantelpiece in jewel-like colors that glittered in the light. They were embroidered on throw pillows, painted on wall hangings, they guarded the back porch from raccoons and goblins, and adorned most of my mom’s T-shirts. When I was born, I did not receive a teddy bear as a gift to the new world, but a stuffed dragon—teal, because dragons don’t subscribe to heteronormative gender roles. Traditionally, dragons hoarded treasure, but my mother hoarded dragons as her treasure.
Not only did she collect dragons, she told us stories of dragons. Her stories always involved finding dragon eggs in the woods or keeping a dragon as a pet, or even what it was like to fly on a dragon. Dragons featured heavily in the first stories I ever heard and they were stories about dragons were the first I ever told.
Dragons decorated the wallpaper of my life. When I learned to count, I counted the dragons in the house. When I sculpted with Play-Do, I shaped dragons, because I knew they pleased my mother. When I read picture books, I experienced confusion at the knights and heroes that wished to slay my scaly friends. For better or worse, I associated dragons with my mother. Dragons were not fierce enemies in my stories and games, they were teachers, they were friends—they were family. They were my protectors. My little teal stuffed dragon guarded my dreams and scared away the monsters under my bed.
It was a good lesson to learn. Sometimes the dragons weren’t the monsters in life.
I see much of my early life with an idyllic gaze. I don’t think this is a particularly unique experience. But the sharp divide between my childhood in Indiana and my childhood in Missouri contrast so dramatically, that it’s almost impossible not to see Indiana as the fairytale and Missouri as stumbling out of the wardrobe into a land with no magic.
My cousin would laugh at that. She grew up in Indiana. When we were teenagers and I expressed regret that we moved away, she told me in no uncertain terms that Indiana “was a shithole.” And of course, Indiana lost its nostalgic allure when I went to college there and nearly suffocated in Muncie. But still, a part of me won’t let go of Lowell, Indiana. Lowell was my fairytale. Our house with the big red door was my castle, the small scrap of forest behind our house were my grounds, and my family…my whole and perfect family were snug in our dragon-guarded security.
Castles can be breached. No matter how deep the moat, no matter how many dragons graced the parapets, no matter how thick the walls are, nothing is impenetrable. Once the castle falls, the fairytale is over.
The truth is, I liked the woman initially. Granted, it does not take much to interest a seven-year-old. Visitors to our home were always a curiosity, something to be studied and examined. The woman liked my serious nature, how I did not easily give up a smile. She played games with me, earning my trust almost immediately. She respected the dragons in my mother’s house, knew their value, and even showed me her own stuffed dragon. It wasn’t as pretty or as cuddly as mine, but I admired the little pocket in its belly.
“Look inside the pocket,” She ordered.
I obeyed and withdrew several small glass pebbles. They were lovely, pink and red, silver and gold, turquoise and purple. I gasped with delight.
“Do you know what those are?” The woman asked me.
I shrugged, lining them up neatly in a straight row. I pressed one into the grooves of the woven carpet, smiling in satisfaction.
“Those are dragon tears.”
I glanced up at her curiously. What kind of woman harvested dragon tears? I fingered the turquoise one, resisting the urge to stick it in my mouth. I loved tasting textures, particularly when they were smooth and glassy.
“I have lots of them,” The woman informed me. “I use them when I play Magic, as counters. I’ll teach you how to play.”
She would’ve been better off teaching my brothers. I didn’t care for card games. But I loved the pretty little glass stones. I wanted to play with them, use them as currency for my own magical games. Or perhaps I would pretend they were healing jewels, used to restore a unicorn’s horn or patch a griffin’s wing.
“You can have one,” She said magnanimously. “If you want one.”
I selected the turquoise tear, pleased that it matched my stuffed dragon. The tear was a contract between us, one I didn’t fully understand. But I stopped questioning her presence in my house at the very least.
For it was not the last time the woman set forth in my mother’s home. She seemed to have an opinion on everything, seemed to relish casting judgment. She sneered at the dirty dishes in the sink, the cereal boxes that cluttered up the dining room table. There was dog hair in the carpets, magazines littered the coffee table, the dragons weren’t dusted. How does anyone live this way? What kind of mother lets her kids grow up in a messy house?
My father seemed to agree with her. His joblessness bruised his ego and my mother’s return to work soured his self-esteem. If a man could not care for his castle, what kind of man was he? He came to the decision that there were no jobs to be found in the state of Indiana. The only solution was to move to Missouri. My mother could stay in Indiana. He would move in with the woman.
Thus began an odd series of transitions I still don’t fully grasp. Movements between our house and the woman’s apartment, long absences from my father, hushed discussions of movers and house prices. We would live with the woman “temporarily”, until my father bought a new house in Missouri. Sometimes my mother would be there. Other times she’d be staying with Grandpa. Her absence hurt and I began to resent the woman’s replacement in my life.
Still. I liked the dragon tears the woman supplied me with and I liked telling her my stories. I needed to tell my stories to someone, otherwise they would crowd up my imagination, take over all the free space. The stories would clutter and clatter in my head like bats in an attic—I could only release them. But I could not release them into my mother’s kind eyes if she was not there. Worse still, if she was present, she did not have time for them. My mother would stumble home into the woman’s apartment late at night, forcing down a piece of toast or something before crashing into the guest bedroom. Her feet would be swollen, she’d be suffering from a migraine—I’d often hear her crying within. Mommy had a migraine. No time for my stories.
So I told the woman. She was a willing audience and she seemed to take a smug sort of pleasure in my enjoyment. I let her create a place in my life, in my routine, my castle. Eventually the castle would be hers.
But there were moments that ripped me from my imaginings no matter what I did. I was a perceptive seven-year-old and though I could not articulate what it was, I knew there was something wrong about the situation. The wrongness churned in my stomach and tasted like acid. It was like stepping on our old house’s back porch and feeling the ozone in the air, knowing that the sky would be grumbling and flashing in a terrifying storm.
I noticed it when I saw my father give the woman a good morning kiss. I noticed it when I passed by them coupling on the couch. I noticed it when my father agreed with every single criticism the woman had towards my mother.
Every gentle touch, every soft look, every moment was like a puzzle piece that did not fit. The wrongness chased after me, stabbing me with a lance, piercing my scales, cutting me to the core. I began to refuse the woman’s attentions, her dragons’ tears, her games. I started to realize that somehow—somehow—the woman’s presence was hurting my mother. The woman’s presence added to my mother’s absence.
My father reminded us to be grateful. He was still looking for new houses. It was incredibly kind of the woman to let us stay in her apartment. She was doing us a favor. We were in need, and she was our St. George, here to save our family.
Maybe he was right. Because the woman was slaying my dragons, one by one.