It was dark. It was darker than dark. It was pitch.
Then the light lit between my mother’s fingers. The match flared, reflecting off her eyes, Mother watched it, smiling. I could never know what she was thinking in these moments, in the silences that came before words. Her head seemed in an entirely different world.
In the cavern we sat, breathless, as she held the fire up, up until we could see the tips of the dripping stalagmites clinging to the cave’s ceiling far above.
And so she began, as she did every time the village was attacked, speaking in a hushed voice. Her words a song.
“Children,” she murmured, “remember the old days.”
She suspended the newly lit match in the air. It flickered minutely, perfectly balanced in the thick darkness of the cave. The rasping sound of a match being lit burned the air, and Mother held up another flame to set by the first. She repeated the action until we were surrounded by a circle of flickering fire. Warm light settled across Mother’s features, bathing them in a soft glow. It was then that the story came tumbling out of her chest like some great river. It came to life off of her tongue and from the depths of her being. We listened, awed.
“Remember when magic still ruled the earth, and dragons were the crown of heaven.” Her voice was mellow and smooth. Outside our ring of matches, the adults of the village grew closer, searching for my mother’s voice, just a whisper among silence.
“And a dragon ruled this land, for where we stand is a powerful place, laced with magic.” She smiled down at us. She was lovely, my mother, with downy hair like that of a baby raven and eyes that could pierce your soul. But this story always turned her weary, and lost. She was the only one with her gift in our village, perhaps the whole world. The rivers of magic were close to running dry.
“Our ancestors were foolish, however, and although dragons are peaceful creatures, they believed this one wanted to devour them.” Mother paused. “And so, they vowed to kill it, and rid the beast from their land.”
The girl ran, raced through the forest, leaves and branches stinging her bare arms and cheeks. Her eyes were streaked with unwanted tears. Her face was red and defiant. She put her hand to her waist every other moment, securing the knife dangling from her belt. Her breath came in short gasps, her chest heaved. She stopped, then heard again what had made her flee. A roar, a bellow, and a splitting of the air and earth came rumbling across the mountains.
“The dragon folk were quite peaceful,” Mother mourned, “that is, until provoked.” We looked at her apprehensively. “The maiden, sent out to kill the dragon with her magic, hid in a well, terrified by the fatal beast chasing her through the forest. She calmed her nerves and tried to steady her pounding heart.”
She stood very still at the bottom of the well. The stones were covered with moss and damp. There was a suffocating silence. And then again, a growl as loud as thunder. She was shaking. Water lapped calmly at her ankles, cold and unforgiving as the truth. Truth said she would have to kill the dragon, or it would kill her. The shattering roar grew closer. The girl’s heart turned and twisted sporadically. Her hand hovered above her knife, eyes flitting from place to place. She was trapped by her own fear and all she could do was wait.
“It was then that the dragon looked down the well with its terrible red eye, and spotted the maiden. The young girl knew the only thing left to do was fight. And fight she did. The dagger was sharp, fresh off the grindstone. The girl knew this. She knew many things, but she was still so blind to many things. She did not know how much she would come to regret her choice.”
The girl flung the weapon straight into the pupil of the dragon, straight into the endless depths of knowledge and power held in its gaze, and the silence was broken.. The dragon howled in tortured agony. A thick viscous mist poured from its eye. His bright scales shimmered as he bucked and bowed, driven mad in rage. The girl took her chance and scrambled up the side of the well.
“The maiden reached into her vast supply of magic and tore the beast’s heart in two,” Mother said quietly. Her eyes grew dark and misty, remembering.
The girl was shattered. Her magic was powerful, powerful enough to kill something wise, majestic, and beautiful. The dragon lay still and unmoving, its fading soul fluttering away on a breeze like a scrap of mist. It shimmered, drifting away tranquilly, almost peacefully. Its end had been anything but peaceful, and the girl fought the urge to cry. Her heart screeched. Her heart was the one being split in half. Her mind was the one driven mad by pain. The girl sobbed because life would go on without the magnificent creature now lying on the ground. She lay in a pool of the dragon’s crimson blood and screamed for the unfairness of life. She cried herself to sleep on the dying embers of its bones.
“The maiden returned the next day, sore and soaked with blood. Some say she died of grief. Some say she was reborn as a dragon the following day. We will never know.” We sat in silence. The matches flickered. Mother sighed, a long contented sigh. Then her tone grew dark. “What we do know, is that ever since this tragedy took place, we have been at war, an unjust, unneeded war that selfish men think is necessary. I want you to know that dragons were once peaceful, once our friends.”
We nodded, clinging to each other tightly.
“Now, children, sleep,” she murmured. And we did.
The next day we stumbled out of the hiding cave. There was a boat coasting out on the smooth bay, white froth churning up behind it. The clouds were bird feathers and the heavens were pale like watercolor and seemed almost transparent, stretched across the dome of the sky. We watched the sun rise higher, then slowly made our way back to the village, frightened of what we might find.
The dragon was gone, leaving behind them the remains of our village.
We slept on ash that night, looking up to the stars for comfort.
“Goodnight, dear ones,” my mother said quietly, “and hope for a better life, someday, hope for golden days and nights, hope for peace.” And as I looked over, her eyes flashed with fire. Then it was gone, as quickly as the wind.
Norah Brady lives in Boston with her family, two cats, a typewriter and many, many books. She has been published in Stone Soup, her school’s literary magazine and Write the World’s collection: Young Voices Across the Globe.