by Selim Ulug
Copyright © 2015 by Selim Ulug. All rights reserved.
A children’s story in which a little girl learns the secret her family has passed down for generations.
I love the sounds of winter. I especially like the crunch your boots make when it’s very cold. I go for walks with my Daddy on the weekend, even on the coldest days. He makes sure I’m wrapped up in the warmest clothes—long underwear, thick pants, snow pants, a turtle neck, thick sweater, parka, and toque. Then he helps me put on bright red mittens and a scarf.
When we go outside, I run and grab handfuls of snow. On very cold days, the snow looks like sugar and I toss it up and let it land in my face. Daddy tells me I’m being very silly, but sometimes he does it too. Then we look at each other, laugh, and go for our walk. As we walk, I hear the crunch crunch my boots make on the snow. Daddy’s boots make that noise too.
Sometimes I stretch the sound out—c-r-u-n-c-h—by setting the heal of my boot down and slowly shifting my weight to my toes. Then I spring up and do the same with my other boot. If I do that too many times, though, Daddy stops and gives me that look which means I’d better cut it out. I guess he gets bored waiting. Sometimes Daddy gets bored faster than I do.
I’ve noticed that on these very cold winter days you can see steam coming up from the sewers. So one day I asked Daddy where the steam came from.
“It’s from the water in the sewer,” he said.
“But why does it make steam?”
“Well, its like when we boil water on the stove. When the water boils, you see the steam coming up from the pot.”
I thought about that. “So there’s a stove in the sewer?” I asked.
“No, silly,” Daddy said. “I didn’t mean that.”
“So what makes the steam?”
Daddy gave me one of his looks. The one where his eyebrows get lower, his forehead gets wrinkly, and his eyes get smaller. That’s when I know it’s time to be quiet.
“So, Alice Draco, do you want to go skating tomorrow?”
He didn’t want to talk about the steam any more.
At bedtime, Daddy reached my toothbrush from high up in the cupboard.
“One day,” he said, “You’ll be able to brush your teeth without any help.”
“First,” I thought, “you’ll have to leave my toothbrush where I can reach it.”
I can get dressed without any help. When I’m getting ready for bed, I take all my clothes off and put them in my hamper. Then I open the top drawer of my dresser and pick out the pajamas I want to wear. I like pajamas with bears. It’s easy to find pajamas I like because they almost all have bears. I put on my bottoms standing up, then I sit in my chair and put on my top.
Sometimes I come upstairs by myself to read. I sit in my chair and read The Cat in the Hat, or Curious George, or Winnie the Pooh. I know some of the words but not all of them. But you can tell the story from the pictures. Winnie the Pooh is my favourite. It doesn’t have many pictures, but the story is funny. Bump bump bump goes Edward Bear’s head down the stairs.
I finished putting on my pajamas, got into bed, and covered myself with my comforter. Then Daddy read my story. Yesterday we finished a story about another girl called Alice. There were hard words that Daddy had trouble saying. Tonight, the story was about a woman called Meribel. There weren’t very many pictures, but I could imagine her house by the forest and her long walks into the village. I used my mind’s eye, like Meribel.
Meribel had never seen a dragon.
But she had heard stories about them. Once a month, Meribel walked the half-day journey to the village for supplies. When she stopped by the village fountain to rest, men gathered around and they would talk, and the talk always turned to dragons.
And Meribel would smile. Her smile, with her full lips and prominent cheekbones, was contagious. When Meribel smiled, the village men found themselves smiling as well, and would really look at her, as if just then realizing how beautiful she was—deep brown eyes, tall, muscular, with a full figure that was pleasing to the eye, and light brown hair that fell half-way to her waist.
Thinking she must admire their bravery, her admirers felt encouraged to tell more stories. And as they did, the dragons got bigger, their hides scalier, their fire hotter, and the men braver. But in her mind’s eye, Meribel pictured how they would run if they ever really saw a dragon, and that’s what made her smile.
There was one man, Taar, who did not brag to Meribel about dragons. Taar was not a handsome man, nor was he ugly. He was over six feet tall, thin, yet muscular. Wiry. His hair, what he had left, was blond with a touch of grey. Most of the top of his head was bald. The sides and back were long, tied into a ponytail. His forehead was lined and his blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, which was rarely. But it was equally rare to see him angry. His nose was large and flat, his beard closely trimmed and flecked with grey around his chin.
A clever woodsmith, he built and sold tools, hunting weapons, and musical instruments from a shop near the centre of the village. His musical instruments, which included recorders, small drums, and stringed instruments such as mandolins and fiddles, fascinated Meribel. They would talk about many things—his shop, her father, the weather, and jokes they had heard. Taar loved the sound of her laughter. Sometimes, but not often, he talked about the times before he came to live in the village, when he was a sailor.
Taar came to know Meribel well. Well enough to know that she might drift off during a quiet moment, even during a conversation, to some place in her minds eye. Where it was he didn’t know and didn’t ask. After all, everyone has secret places inside themselves. If it happened—when it happened—he would wait, patiently carving a new instrument or cleaning the shop, until she was back, and he would continue their conversation from where they left off.
Meribel saw many places in her minds eye, but most often she was with her mother, who had died when Meribel was a child. Alecia’s face had been warm, with crinkles around her eyes and lines on her forehead to tell you if she was happy or sad. Her lips were thin, her smile forgiving, and her voice full and confident. Meribel remembered Alecia’s apron almost as well as her face. The red and white-checkered apron with the magic pockets that seemed to have just the thing to fix what was broken, or mend what was rent.
What triggered Meribel’s daydreams? Often it was a thing she was doing. While kneeling to weed the garden, Meribel might find herself sitting on the grass beside Alecia, learning how to grind herbs into medicine. While cooking dinner, staring into the boiling water, she would turn to see her mother smiling at her, adding meat and vegetables to the boiling broth. Sitting by the fire in the evening, Meribel was once again a little girl, seated on a stool by that same fire, knitting her first pair of socks while Alecia patiently explained how to hold the needles and yarn, and to twist her wrist just so.
But now Meribel and her father, Turlough lived alone, a half-day walk from the village, in the small wood-frame house Turlough had built years before. As Turlough got older, he was able to do less and less to help. But Meribel didn’t mind. When Turlough was tired, she walked with him into their house, helped him into his chair, and made him tea and stroked his hair. Meribel would speak to him about the garden, the birds she had seen, and the songs she had heard. She would ask what kind of pie to bake for their dessert; what type of bread for their breakfast the next day. Then Turlough would close his eyes and doze until it was time for their meal.
Turlough’s greatest love, other than Meribel, was his garden. Set at the back of their house, it was the home of every sort of vegetable, including potatoes, onions, cabbages, leeks, peas, lettuce, beans, and garlic. The air was scented with herbs such as basil, thyme, sage and rosemary. A well in the centre of the garden provided their fresh water. In the woods, fruit trees were plentiful and game likewise. For the few other things they needed, Meribel walked to the village once a month.
On returning from the village, Meribel would call to Turlough and he would come from the garden to greet her. Meribel would take him by the arm and lead him inside to make his favourite tea. Then she would sit by him and tell him all that she had learned that day.
One evening, Meribel returned from her daylong trip and called out to Turlough. There was no answer. Worried, Meribel set down her parcels and looked for her father. He was not in the garden, nor at the front of the house, so Meribel looked inside, calling to him.
She found Turlough lying on the floor near his chair. Hot, feverish, weak, he didn’t seem to know his own daughter. Meribel was grateful she had her mother’s strength. Lifting him onto his bed, she wrapped him in blankets, and added extra wood to the fire.
A fever could be treated with a soup of certain herbs. Alecia had taught her that. But they didn’t have the herbs she needed, and it was night. Shivering, Meribel crept to the door, took another look at her poor father, and then stepped outside, closing the door softly behind her.
It was a clear night and the moon was full. For that, at least, Meribel was grateful. But there were many dangers in the woods, and Meribel faced a long walk.
Most of what happened this day and night was etched in Meribel’s memory for the rest of her life. Yet she was never able to remember clearly what happened during that one fateful hour. She had been walking for some time and had managed to keep to the path.
Then there was noise, pain, shouts, and she was lying on the ground, aware only of the full moon above, unable to move. There were voices, but she was aware only of the moon, and the bulky shape that passed high above between it and her. Then the shape passed in the opposite direction, bigger now. Then it passed again, and was bigger still. Then more screams, confusion, and she felt herself lifted by large, clumsy hands. Finally, she slept.
Meribel woke on a bed of dry leaves in a dark place she didn’t know. There was an odd, wet smell in the air. Drifting up from the darkness before her was a column of smoke. Following the smoke with her eyes, Meribel saw that she must be in an underground cave, for the smoke rose, curling and dancing, up a wide shaft into the night sky.
“Awake, are you?” said a deep, raspy voice in the darkness.
Daddy put the book away and bent over to give me a kiss. When he tried to get back up, I hugged him and wouldn’t let him go. Not until he tickled me. Then he put out my light, closed the door, and I heard him go down the stairs.
That’s when I got out of bed. My bedroom window looks out over the street. Sometimes I like to get out of bed, climb on my chair, and put my head under the pull-down blind. When it’s cold, I can blow on the window and make steam. Just like the sewer, I thought. Then I looked down at the sewer in the dark.
The streetlights were on and there was light from the windows of the houses. I could see little bits of steam coming from the sewer, curling and dancing, climbing into the sky. Then a car drove past, over the sewer. I looked at the car from behind. The red lights looked like the eyes of someone behind Alice’s mirror. Not my mirror, but Alice who goes through a mirror to a place that’s all mixed up.
The car reached the end of the street and turned right. Bye-bye car. Then I looked at the sewer again.
Was more steam coming up than before? Maybe, but I couldn’t pay attention to the sewer. My nose was cold from pressing against the window so long. I went back to bed and buried my head in my comforter to warm up my nose.
In the morning I was all warm, but my head wasn’t under the comforter any more. That happens sometimes—my sheets and comforter change sometimes after I go to sleep. Once, after Mommy put me to bed, I took my comforter and threw it on the floor. I was too hot. When I woke up in the morning it was back on my bed. I think that I might ask Daddy how that happens, but sometimes he doesn’t like questions. Mommy likes questions but doesn’t answer sometimes. Like yesterday, when I asked Mommy about the steam from the sewers after we got home. She didn’t answer. She just smiled.
It was Saturday and on Saturdays I go downstairs by myself while Mommy and Daddy sleep. They need more sleep than I do. I sit on the living room floor just in front of the TV, closer than Mommy & Daddy like, but they aren’t awake yet. When I hear them, I move back and lean against the sofa and say good morning when they come downstairs. Daddy sits on the sofa and then I get up and sit on his lap while I watch TV and he tries to read the newspaper.
“You don’t want to read that newspaper,” I say during the commercial. “You want to spend some quality time with your sweet daughter.” Then I show Daddy my sweet face. He just looks up at the ceiling and reads his newspaper some more.
But soon Mommy calls and my blueberry pancakes are ready. They’re my favourite, with lots of maple syrup. I have two big ones and Mommy wonders how I can eat so much. Daddy eats only one, she says. I can’t answer because my mouth is full and it’s not polite, so I shrug my shoulders. Then I remember it’s not polite to shrug your shoulders. Oh well.
When we are all dressed, Daddy and I walk to the bus stop and take the bus to go skating. We drive past the river, which is all frozen, and the hills on the other side are covered in snow. When we get there, we take the stairs down to the ice and enter the wooden shack. Here, Daddy helps me tie my skates then ties his own. We go back out the door and onto the ice. It’s slippery but Daddy holds my hand and this time I don’t fall too many times. Daddy falls down once where the snow has covered a hole in the ice and I laugh as he is lying on his back. I pull on his arm to help him up but he’s too heavy. Then he jumps up and lifts me up and gives me a bear hug for laughing at him.
We reach the end of the ice in front of the Castle and we eat Beaver Tails. I thought it was a funny name for something to eat, but they taste good, even better than blueberry pancakes. Maybe that’s because we get to eat them outside, and you can see the steam rising from them in the cold air.
“Who lives in the castle?” I ask. “The Queen?”
“No, that’s not the Queen’s castle,” Daddy says as he swallows his Beaver Tail. That’s where visitors stay when they come to the city. They stay for a while then leave again, then more visitors come. It’s a hotel, not a castle.”
I look at the Castle. “It looks like a Castle,” I say.
“Yes it does, doesn’t it? But it’s really a hotel.”
“Can we stay in the Castle?”
Daddy smiles. “We live here, we’re not visitors, so we can’t stay there. It’s just for visitors.”
So we finish our Beaver Tails and skate back to the shack where we left our boots. I’m cold by the time we get back, but it was fun to skate. I still wish we could stay in the Castle.
Mommy gives us fresh bread and baked beans for lunch, then she takes me to the library. They have a circle group in the afternoon on Saturday, and today they talk about animals that hibernate. They sleep all winter says the storyteller lady. Their bodies get colder and they live off the fat they have from all the food they eat during the summer. Reptiles hibernate too. Reptiles are things like lizards and snakes. But their bodies don’t get as cold and they wake up more easily.
At bedtime I brush my teeth, put on my Pooh pajamas, and Daddy reaches for my book.
“Let’s read your Mommy’s book some more. I bet we finish tonight.”
“It’s not Mommy’s book, its mine.”
“Is it?” Daddy replies, looking like he knows better.
“Of course,” I say, taking the book. I open it to one of the front pages. “Look here, near the start. It says, ‘To Alice’.” I close the book and hand it back to Daddy. “See?”
In the village, a man walked unsteadily down the main street and entered the tavern where a hot fire crackled and sparked in a large stone fireplace. Small, round tables were set with tankards of ale and bottles of wine. Men crowded the tables, talking, laughing, drinking, and spitting. Some who were seated near the door turned and sniffed as the man entered, for he was followed closely by a strong, unpleasant smell.
“Phew, spare us would you, and go back where you came from!”
“Oh, its Verdallin,” said another customer who turned in the direction of the smell. “Well, done, Verdallin, you’ve outdone even your regular stench.”
“Very funny,” said the man sullenly, his face, hands and clothes nearly black with soot. “Wine!” he called to the owner as he sat at a table in the corner by himself. His neighbours glared at him and tried to shift their tables away, but could not move far in the crowded room.
As the tavern owner set the wine bottle and glass on the table, he suggested quietly that perhaps he should go clean up a bit then return to his wine. He was, after all, disturbing the other customers.
“Disturbing!” shouted Verdallin, thumping the small table with his fist. “Well I was a little disturbed myself when I had to fight off the dragon!”
The tavern didn’t become quiet all at once. The quiet spread like the ripples of water when you throw a stone in a pond. Finally, someone broke the silence, calling out, “Meribel’s not here, dimwit. Your empty bragging won’t get you anywhere tonight.”
Someone else followed up with, “It doesn’t get him anywhere even when she is!” And this was greeted with laughter all around, as people laughed, perhaps, more with relief than at the joke.
Then Verdallin said something that made everyone silent again. Taking a draught of his wine, he wiped his lips with his sleeve and said in a rough, loud voice, “No Meribel’s not here, and won’t be coming back either. Now that the dragon’s got her.”
The silence seemed to last a long time, until a tall figure pushed a chair away from one of the tables, stood, and walked slowly to Verdallin. Grabbing him by the shirt and yanking him rudely to his feet, Taar asked him in a calm but deadly voice, “Tell me exactly what happened to Meribel.”
In the cave, Meribel felt that the voice, while deep and rough, was not unfriendly. Startled only for an instant, she replied, “Who are you, and where am I? Why can’t I see you?”
“It is not my wish to frighten you, and that is why I have placed myself out of your sight. For now.”
“I am not frightened,” said Meribel, and she realized that she was not. “I don’t believe you intend to harm me. But why have you brought me here? My father is sick and I must attend him.”
“What do you last remember?” the voice asked.
Meribel paused. She wasn’t sure. Then she became aware of the soreness of her face and arms. “I don’t know. I was in the woods. Searching for herbs to heal my father. Then something happened. Noise, hurt. I’m not sure what…” And at this Meribel sat again on the leaves, trying to clear her head.
“Your father is sick?” the voice asked gently.
Meribel stood again. “Yes. I need to find the herbs and return to him immediately.”
“You haven’t far to look for what you need. Ten paces behind you will do.”
Meribel turned and found a sack. Picking it up, she saw that it contained all that she needed for her father.
“How did you…?” she started to ask, as she attached the sack to her belt.
“You spoke in your sleep. You were asleep for some time. You must return to your father now. You will be safe. The villains who hurt you have been scattered away.”
“Will you let me see you?”
“No. It is better that you don’t. Go now, you can climb up the vine to the outside.”
“I cannot thank you enough. Now I must return home.”
However, just as Meribel had started to climb up, the voice called out, “Wait!”
Meribel froze, puzzled. But then she heard it – the sound of men’s voices in the distance.
From the darkness ahead of her, Meribel detected a new smell, sharper then the dull wet scent, more distinct.
“They have returned, and have found us, ” the voice rumbled.
“What will we do?” asked Meribel as she dropped to the floor.
A large shadow emerged from the gloom. “I will take you away myself.”
Outside, a mob emerged from the forest, running and yelling, brandishing their weapons.
“There it is,” one of them called out. “The lair!”
The steam from the entrance was almost invisible now that the sun had risen, just peaking just over the hills in the distance. On they ran, bearing down on the opening in the ground.
“Where’s Taar?” one of them asked.
“Dragon must have got him too,” another puffed.
“We’ll teach it a lesson!” a third one exclaimed, with no thought as to how they might actually do that.
Then they all stopped, half from shock, half from the rush of air as the dragon vaulted from its lair, spread its wings to their full length, and soared over their heads. The villagers pointed, for they saw Meribel held firmly in the dragon’s claws.
But then the dragon came to a sudden halt, its bellow of surprise blending with the sound of straining wood. For a noose had been laid around the opening of the lair and was now attached to the dragon’s neck at one end, and around a thick oak at the other.
And in his surprise, the dragon dropped Meribel, and she fell several feet to the ground. Then, stepping from the wood, came Taar, his giant bow held at arms’ length, an arrow held taut against the string. And he released the arrow, sending it straight and true into the neck of the dragon.
The dragon roared, sent flames hither and thither, and scorched the rope that held it, so that it was free. But, limping and hobbling, it could barely sustain its flight, and skimmed the leaves of the trees. A moment later, there was a gigantic splash, and Taar knew that the dragon had plunged into the lake.
But he thought no further of the dragon. His sole concern was Meribel.
She was stunned and bruised, but otherwise unhurt. Taar gathered her in his arms and carried her to her father’s cabin, and she slept like a child. There, he used the herbs in Meribel’s sack to restore her father’s health.
In the days that followed, Meribel told her story to Taar and he saw to it that the men who attacked her were punished. She was angry with them, and, despite his help, angry with Taar for his part in injuring the dragon. When she was strong enough, she searched the lake but could not find its body. Then her spirits lifted, for this meant that the dragon must still be alive.
Taar had longed for a way to make up for his part in injuring the dragon. When Meribel returned from the lake, he vowed to search for the dragon. Closing his store and arranging for Meribel to take care of his affairs in his absence, he set out.
While Taar was away, Meribel spoke often to her father about what had happened. Over time, she came to realize that Taar had acted with great courage and out of concern for her, and realized that she loved him.
After a year, Taar returned. Meribel leapt upon him and kissed him and wept, and asked that he never leave her again. Taar was unable to speak for a time, but when he could, he told Meribel about his journey.
He’d travelled north until he reached the snowy tundra, lands not favoured by dragons. Then he travelled west until he reached unending plains of wild grasses. Lacking cover, these lands would not likely suit a dragon wishing to stay hidden.
Finally he travelled to the east and came upon hilly terrain with villages of fishermen and hunters established in the valleys. In the taverns, he heard rumours of a large winged creature and knew he was close. He walked from the easternmost village through a forest, and in a plain just beyond found what he was looking for: a large hole in the ground, recently burrowed, from which he could smell a hint of sulfur.
He sat near the hole and waited. Two days passed before the dragon flew out of its lair at night when the moon was full. When it spotted Taar, it recognized him and roared. Spreading its wings fully, it soared back towards the ground, towards Taar and readied its flame. But the dragon was puzzled that Taar did not try to escape or defend himself.
Taar was deeply frightened, but did nothing until the dragon alighted upon the ground a few feet away. Then Taar rose to his feet and spoke.
“I have done you wrong, and am deeply sorry. Furthermore, you saved Meribel after she was attacked, and for that I will forever be in your debt. I bring a message from her. She begs you to return, for she would offer you the only gift she can–her friendship.”
Then Taar saw something that no one else has ever seen–tears in the eyes of a dragon.
“You have expressed gratitude and the woman has offered friendship to to me, a dragon. This has never happened all in my long life. I accept. And for your long journey and the pains you took to find me, you have my gratitude.”
Then the dragon gathered itself and took off into the air.
Mirebel’s eyes lit up. “But what does this mean?” she asked.
“Come,” said Taar. “I will show you.”
Meribel and Taar were soon married. A year later they had a daughter, and when the daughter was old enough, Meribel took her for a walk in the woods and pointed to an opening in the ground from which white smoke rose, twisting up to the sky. Then Meribel told her the story of the dragon, and obtained her promise to tell it to her own daughter one day. And she did. And so did her daughter’s daughter, and for generations the story was passed from mother to daughter, until my mother told it to me.
And now, Alice, I pass this story on to you.
Daddy closed the book and said, “And that’s the end of Where the Dragons Sleep, by Katherine M. Draco.”
Daddy kissed me and turned off the light.
“Mommy has the same middle name as me.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now have a good night’s sleep. See you in the morning.”
Daddy & I blew each other kisses, then he closed the door.
I lay in bed, thinking about Meribel and the dragon when I hear a funny sound outside. I get out of bed, climb on the chair, and look out through my window under the shade. It’s Daddy outside. There’s lots of snow falling, big thick flakes, and he’s shovelling the driveway.
I watch him for a while, then my nose starts to get cold. But before I can start to get down, I hear another noise. It’s a truck, a big one, going down the street. It sounds like it’s coughing. That’s what happens when you drive a truck in cold weather, it gets sick. After it turns the corner, I look at the sewer again. There’s more steam coming up than there was before.
The steam reminds me of something, and when I remember, I do nothing, just stare at the sewer for a long time. Then I go downstairs where Mommy is washing dishes in the kitchen. I bring along my Pooh doll, and let its head go bump, bump, bump down the stairs.
“Mommy,” I start to ask as she turns around, a plate in one hand and towel in the other.
“Does Daddy know?”
Mommy smiles. She always just smiles when I ask her a question. But this time she’s trying not to cry. She puts down the plate and towel, kneels down, and holds me, my head resting in my favourite spot, on her shoulder.