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Volume 14, Issue 1: Similitudes

The Firedrake

Douglas Wilson

The walled garden was very near the summit. A cliff face rose steeply from the back of the garden up to the top of the mountain, which was about a hundred feet higher. The wall formed a semi-circle, and was broken only by the gate in the middle, which faced the steep mountains on the other side of the valley. The mountains were all very high, but there was no snow on them. The air was still and thin, but not cold.

He had been told to stand just inside the gate, and to guard it, and not to let anyone enter, but he could not remember who had told him this, or why. Neither could he remember how long he had been there. He was vaguely hungry, and so he picked a large golden apple from a nearby branch, hanging low, almost to the ground. Though he did not know why he was there, he was nevertheless well content. He ate the apple slowly, gazing at the grass in front of the gate.
The grass was lush, but short. It did not appear to have been mown, but simply to have reached its full height. The lawn sloped away from the garden and after about fifty feet the slope dropped away into a tumbled mass of boulders and smaller rocks. The boy walked forward and stood in the gate.
Behind him the garden was filled with fruit trees around the perimeter, and inside the band of fruit trees was another circle of very rich but very ordinary vegetables. If the boy had been curious, he would have wondered at the presence of such ordinary plants in such a mysterious garden. But he was not curious at all—and the emerald beans hung over their supports like royalty. The garden was a complicated pattern of pathways through a crosshatch of flowerbeds. At the center was a carved throne on a dais, and around the base of the throne were a series of faded runes. Behind the throne was a solitary oak, ancient and yet still small.
The air was completely still, and the boy could not even hear the faint murmuring of insects. And this is why, after about a half an hour, his attention was drawn to a faint metallic sound, like silver coins stirred in a chest in a distant room. This interruption caused him to look around at his surroundings with interest for the first time since he had been left there. He soon located the direction of the sound—it was coming from a spot over the opposing mountain range, moving toward him. At first he assumed it was a large bird, but as the sound grew he could make out three pairs of wings on the creature's back. It did not occur to the boy to be afraid.
The creature came almost directly overhead, and the boy almost turned round to watch it fly over the mountain behind him. But at the last moment, the dragon (for it was a dragon) reared back, and slowly lowered himself to the ground with long, lazy beats of his six wings. His rear haunches touched the ground and his wings folded back along his sides with a scraping. His long scaled sides were both black and silver. His chest was a deep crimson, and his head was like burnished bronze. He settled down on his belly and yawned deeply. The boy could see a glow in the back of his throat. They both looked at each other for many minutes. Finally, the dragon spoke, and his voice was a mountain brook clattering down over a steep jumble of rocks. "You think yourself the master of this garden?"
"No. But I have been asked to guard it."
"What is your name, small one?"
The young boy thought for a moment, interested in the question. "Andrew," he finally said. "What is your name?"
"You could not pronounce it. But men call me Silverdrake."
Andrew nodded at this, and stood quietly. After a moment he asked, "Why have you come?"
"I have come back to my home. This is my garden. And I must ask you to let me in."
Andrew could not remember who had commanded him to guard the gate, or where he had come from, or what had brought him. And yet he could remember the feeling he now had in his throat. Some other time, in some other place, he had disobeyed. That is why he was now here. He could not remember how he had disobeyed, but he did remember the constricting of his throat before he had, and the sickness in his chest after. Whatever he did, he could not disobey again. And so he shook his head.
"So you will not allow me to pass?"
"I cannot let you pass with my favor and blessing. You can fly and the wall is low. You are large and I am small—you can walk past me, or over me. If this really were your home, I cannot see why you would even speak with me. And if it is not, I cannot see why I should disobey."
The dragon leaned his head to the side. "Disobey? You have a master, then?" Andrew nodded.
"What is his name, Andrew?" The dragon's voice was soothing, subtle, and very wise.
"I do not know."
"Then perhaps he sent me."
"No," said Andrew.
"Perhaps I am he."
"No," Andrew said again. He knew that since he knew nothing, and could give few reasons for his refusal, he needed to stop speaking. So he stepped back into the garden, and swung the long gate shut. When the brass found its latch, Andrew was comforted with a decisive clack.
Outside the firedrake lay down his head, and went to sleep.

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