Sometimes the best friendships are the unconventional ones.
Something is different in this part of the forest. Even the ground beneath Kit’s feet feels unsubstantial to her sneakers. Like the solid earth might crumble away at any moment, and she would plunge into nothing.
Everything in her world feels like that right now—a slow and steady crumbling—all her plans, the heart that beats in her chest, even the lease on her studio apartment. Worst of all, her one bit of solace, the forest, spins around her, nothing solid and sure.
Except when she stumbles upon an old log. She’s been here before, in this part of the forest, but how is it she’s never seen this particular clearing, with this particular log?
The log is huge, reaching halfway up her thigh. The surface is rough even through her jeans, the bark baked warm by the sun.
Kit pulls out a thermos. Before her trek into the forest—ostensibly to think, but really, it was running away—she brewed hot cocoa. The real kind, in a pan on her two-burner stove. She measured out the cocoa and the sugar, adding a dash of vanilla and cinnamon.
Now she uncaps the thermos, and the aroma rides the crisp autumn air, filling it with rich chocolate and a hint of wood smoke. Kit inhales, and for that single moment, everything is okay.
Then the log beneath her rumbles. It’s a rolling, tumbling, undulating motion that makes her think of a rollercoaster—and sends her plummeting backward and onto the ground.
She lands hard, breath leaving her in a whoosh, hot cocoa sloshing in the thermos. Somehow—somehow—she holds onto it, holds it steady and upright.
It’s then she finds herself staring into a pair of huge amber eyes. They are the size of Kit’s head—at least—and they glow with intensity. Beneath those eyes, she spies a snout and a pink, forked tongue.
She follows the elegant line of a neck to the large hump she earlier took for an old-growth log.
“You,” she says now, testing her voice in the still air, “are a dragon, or I’m losing my mind.”
The creature snorts, the scent of wood smoke with a hint of brimstone infusing the space around her.
“Although, I suppose there are worse ways to lose your mind.”
The dragon snorts again as if in agreement.
“I’m Kit.” She doesn’t hold out her hand. One, she’s still clutching the thermos. Two, she’s not certain dragons shake hands.
The dragon bows its head in acknowledgment. Then, like a whisper, a word lights in Kit’s mind.
“It’s nice to meet you, Taggledorf.”
The dragon thumps its tail once, and the earth shakes.
But this time, it doesn’t feel as if the ground will crumble beneath her.
* * *
Kit visits the spot often. Taggledorf doesn’t always appear. Even when she—it’s a long and complicated bit of pantomime to determine that Taggledorf is a she—doesn’t, her presence is there. The air holds that scent of wood smoke. Sometimes there’s brimstone.
But everything in that particular clearing grows a bit lusher, smells a bit richer. Hummingbirds flit and dragonflies buzz. In the winter, there is enough warmth radiating from Taggledorf’s back that Kit can spend hours in the cold.
She brings the man she wants to make her husband to this spot. She does not expect Taggledorf to appear, but yes, it’s a test. Her heart is still tender and cautious. While this man fills her with certainty, so did the other, the one that had her fleeing to the forest in the first place.
When she returns alone a week later and finds the clearing alive with forget-me-nots and wild roses, she has Taggledorf’s answer.
She weaves a crown of roses for her friend, and when Taggledorf does appear, a bit shy, Kit places the wreath on the dragon’s head.
“We will always be friends,” she says.
* * *
She brings her children to this spot, spreading a soft, flannel blanket across the clearing. In summer, they drink lemonade, in winter, hot cocoa. Taggledorf makes her scales shimmer and shine. The children spend hours slapping the scales with their chubby hands, squealing and shrieking with delight.
One time, the warm sunshine lulls Kit into a nap. She wakes, heart pounding and terrified, only to find that Taggledorf has corralled both children with her tail.
“Thank you, my friend.” Kit sighs and leans into the old-growth that is and is not Taggledorf’s midsection. “Thank you.”
* * *
Kit discovers that Taggledorf loves stories. It’s when she reads to her children that the dragon’s scales glow and hum. Picture books and Mother Goose, eventually graduating to chapter books. Her children sit on the dragon’s back and take turns reading aloud.
When they’ve moved on—to novels and textbooks and quantum mechanics—Kit takes to reading in the clearing any time she can. The heat against her back tells her which stories are her friend’s favorites.
When her eyesight dims, and her hands no longer can hold an e-reader, never mind a paperback, she plays audiobooks for them.
In the sunshine, they rest, safe in the knowledge that nothing changes as long as the story goes on.
* * *
It has been months since Kit has visited the clearing, maybe even a year, but she doesn’t want to think hard enough to count. Today is perfect for a trek—her last trek to her clearing.
The spring air is warm, but the path is still clear of summer growth, those brambles and branches that might trip her up.
Even so, the walk is long, much longer than when she pushed a double stroller along the dips and ruts. By the time she reaches the old-growth log that isn’t a log, her legs nearly give out beneath her.
“No stories today, my friend. I only want to rest, with you.” She sinks against her friend, knowing Taggledorf will cushion her fall. “I have no wish to be found until … after.”
She snuggles against the dragon with the full knowledge that stories go on, but hers ends now.
And thanks to Taggledorf, it was a good one.
* * *
The girl smells familiar. This is the first thing Taggledorf notices. The second is the salt, so strong it has chapped the girl’s cheeks and flavors the air.
Grief is something that can fill your mouth. This is something Taggledorf knows. It is something this girl is learning.
The girl settles next to her, back against Taggledorf’s midsection, the very place where she—the other she—sat for so many years. The girl’s body shakes, and Taggledorf lets the fire that always burns in her belly flare a bit—enough warmth to comfort and soothe while she ponders this girl.
She feels right.
Not everyone does, of course. That is the dragon’s bane. So many of her kind have abandoned friendship, opting to gradually become the landscape they occupy.
But Taggledorf knows that despite the grief and goodbyes, a good friend is a story unto itself.
So she opens her large amber eyes and stares at the girl.
The gasp has more delight than fear.
The fingers are gentle against Taggledorf’s snout.
“I miss her,” the girl says.
Taggledorf nods. She does too.
“I’m Carly.” The girl doesn’t hold out her hand. She already knows that dragons don’t shake hands.
Taggledorf blows a stream of smoke into the air. In it, is the sound of her name.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Carly says.
The dragon thumps her tail once, and the earth shakes.
And for now, at least, it doesn’t feel as if the ground will crumble beneath either of them.
Dragon’s Bane was written specifically for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.
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