Gwyneth Hughes

Of Yore

As soon as Tod woke, he knew he had been transformed into a dragon. A baby dragon still inside a shell. It took him a long time to bore a hole with teeth, claws and horn in the smooth crust that imprisoned him. But finally he managed to open a crack and wriggle his cumbersome way out of the egg hollow. After stretching his large, scaly body across the ground, it took him even longer to heave his heavy weight up onto four shaky legs. Finally he was able to lumber forward to the edge of a precipice and look down at the vast fields and prairies, forests and rivers, far below his birthplace.

The only way to leave this plateau was by flight. Tod glanced over his shoulder at his folded wings, and his stomach lurched at the prospect of spreading them for the first time and plummeting into empty space. For hours, he flexed the pinions and inched back and forth until a pang of hunger gave him the full incentive to move on. He shut his eyes and lunged forward. The crag slid under his hind legs; his wings extended, stiff with apprehension, to their utmost span. Wind caressed his cheeks, and he dared open his eyes. He was gliding. He dipped and circled, descended, then flapped his way up again to float, drift and careen. Being a dragon was a marvellous thing.

But the exercise had sharpened his appetite. Eat, he must. But what? What does a dragon consume? How does it hunt? Like a bird of prey, came the answer. Like an eagle, a hawk. He spied a flock of sheep on a nearby slope and flapped in their direction. He spiralled down, as buzzards do. His mouth watered with greed while he swooped over the heads of the bleating sheep that scampered in every direction, no shepherd in sight. Trembling behind some boulder or bush, Tod thought with contempt.

The dragon plunged and sunk his claws into the back of a lamb, then flapped vigorously to lift the squirming, squealing animal. He carried it back to the flat rock of his nest and sank his long teeth into its throat. The warm raw meat that he ripped in chunks from the carcass, the thick red blood he licked and gulped, were delicious. He enjoyed his meal thoroughly until nothing was left of the lamb but bones and hide. Tod crawled to the back of his promontory and made himself comfortable for a digestive nap. He had done enough for the first day of his existence.

The next day he returned to where the sheep grazed, but this time men from the village stood guard with pitchforks and rifles. When they saw Tod swooping down on them, they dropped their weapons in terror and ran into whatever refuge they could find, leaving the sheep exposed to his plunder. Tod again carried home a shrieking victim. He slaughtered it, ate, and slept.

The next day, no sheep were in sight. He perused the fields on every side of town. A few cows grazed in a pasture; several horses meandered in a corral. Tod was about to test his strength on one of these larger animals when a cat ran out of a barn to stalk sparrows in a vegetable patch. A cat, thought Tod with disgust. Surely no one expects a dragon to eat a cat for supper! It was then that a little girl appeared from the barn and crossed the yard to fetch her cat. Tod harpooned her plump torso and lifted her into the air just as her mother arrived in the doorway and screamed despair.

Tod carried the child to his granite perch. His mouth was watering in anticipation of the sublime meal he was about to enjoy. A human baby. Exquisitely sweet and tender. He set the child down on the slate of his ledge and opened his jaw over her chubby throat. The child looked up at him with eyes he recognised so well. Then she burst into tears.

"Shut up!" Tod croaked. "Shut up or you'll wake Mother!"

But Mother was awake.

And so was Tod. He sat up in bed, his heart hammering with panic while he listened to her hurry down the hall and lift his sobbing baby sister from her crib. Thank God she had heard the infant cry! Thank God Mother had saved her! Thank God his sister was too small to ever tell anyone what had happened! Thank God he was the only one to know he had been transformed into a dragon!

Tod had stifled his tears of anxiety and shame and risen to hang his wet pyjama pants on a doorknob. Of course it was a dream, but a dream that so impressed him at the age of seven that he never told another living soul about it.

The dream would come back to him every decade or so, rarely attaining a violence that awakened him. He'd remember it in the following hours, or simply realise it had again haunted his sleep from the peculiar mood of strength and iniquity that hung over him during the day. But it gained startling vivacity on a second occasion when he was forty-nine. In this episode, a lovely young woman ran out into the yard to save her infant from the dragon's clutch. Tod had seized and carried the young woman to his cliff refuge and recognised his wife, still young, still slim, still so desirable, just as he was on the point of slaying her. He had sprung back in emotion and fallen over the edge of the precipice. No problem for a dragon, he huffed, spreading his wings in the black void. Above him from the ledge he could hear the young woman screaming. Then her screams turned into a middle-aged cackle as she switched on the bed lamp, and Tod woke up. A fat, bland face peered over the side of the mattress at him, sprawled on the floor.

"What are you doing there?" his wife mocked.

"I dreamt I was flying," Tod replied, rising awkwardly.

"That's supposed to mean something erotic, isn't it?" Her nasty intonation implied that Tod's sexual prowess was now reduced to dreams that threw him from the sheets rather than employed in acts of endurance between them.

"God, how I hate her," Tod ruminated while he turned so she wouldn't notice the sticky spot on his pyjama pants and went into the bathroom to wash.

Now the dream was occurring again. Tod struggled from the shell and wobbled back and forth across the ledge. He would rise on muscular legs, stretch colossal wings, stride from his Olympian nest and glide over the towns, the cities, the nations below, where the world populace would tremble in fear of his attacks.

Instead, after hours spent in the air where he only caught glimpses of animals sheltered by dense thickets, he heard a whistle. A familiar whistle. The whistle he used when he was a boy to call his dog. He cruised back over the same region and inspected the ground beneath him, intrigued. He was a formidable dragon, not a falcon trained to obey orders. Whoever was purposely attracting his attention was a fool to ignore the danger of such arrogant behaviour.

Decreasing his altitude, Tod spotted a young man of about sixteen, dressed in white. White boots, white trousers, a white shirt, a white cape. As Tod approached, the young man drew a silver sword from a sheath and brandished it defiantly over his head.

Tod snorted a long spurt of fire from each nostril. Was a pretentious lad with no other means of attack but a sword provoking him? Bellowing derision at the fellow's effrontery, Tod swooped, ensnared the boy in the claws of one paw and carried him home.

Once they stood on his granite platform, Tod recognised the other's face. The Good Boy. The cherished son his mother could always be proud of. The good brother, good husband, good employee, good citizen that this self-proclaimed champion-in-white would strive to remain for seventy-seven years. Honest and hard working. Sober and faithful. Never indulging in any of the temptations offered by lascivious women or unscrupulous colleagues. All his contemptible impulses sealed under a shell of propriety. Without this censor's chivalry, Tod might have experienced some of the paroxysms of sex and power and glory he had only witnessed on movie screens and in adventure novels. Because of this would-be knight of honour his whole existence had been flat and dull.

Tod swaggered and roared. His hatred of the Good Boy rose to its acme. In furore, the beast of greed and lust brought his mighty forepaw down on the noble adolescent who lay crushed beneath the rugged blow, his white clothing soiled in blood. Tod toyed with his body, killing him slowly, very slowly, like a cat with a mouse, exerting a cruelty he had never before suspected was his. When the boy's body was mangled and torn, Tod mouthed the corpse and savoured the soft lumps of flesh like pieces of delicious candy. Finally his dreadful molars crunched the white prince's more brittle parts until nothing was left but fibres from his apparel and shards from his sword, debris that Tod spit onto the ground like olive pits or fish bones found in an appetiser.

Hardly a meal for a monster of his corpulence. So, instead of moving to the back of his ledge for a nap as he did after each satisfying meal, Tod again took flight. Over virgin territory. There were rivers but no boats. No cultivated fields. Not even the trace of a road. Nothing but wilderness. Vegetation and wild life, but no sign of a human presence. Was this Eden before the creation of mankind? Was he the last of the dinosaurs, extinct millions of years before any naked monkey stood erect?

He flapped on and on. Feeling tired now. Feeling lonesome. Why did he have to be born the only dragon in the region? Why couldn't he at least locate another member of his species, a lady dragon who would lay her eggs on a rocky plateau at the top of some high mountain where they could raise their young and lead a normal dragon family-life, until old, old as he was now, he would become the patriarch of a dragon community and die with tribute on his summit like a king? Instead it was clear he would die soon with no one to mourn him, no one to regret his passing, only the empty wilderness to cover his huge skeleton with mud and minerals so that, aeons later, a palaeontologist might claim dragons had once flown across the skies of our infant planet.

"How unusual," his sister said when his wife phoned to tell her Tod had died the night before in his sleep. "On the seventh of July, the very day of his seventy-seventh birthday."

"That's about the only unusual thing he ever did," Tod's wife curtly replied.

His sister knew this was true, but it made her mad to hear the other woman say it, so she hung up, and the two people who had known Tod best never spoke to each other again


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