I was four years old when I first met a dragon. I never told my mother. I didn’t think she’d understand.
(I was wrong, obviously. But I was wrong about a lot of things when it came to her. This is not particularly unusual. I think, perhaps, none of us ever know our mothers, not really. Or at least, not until it’s too late.)
The day I met a dragon, was, for me, a day of loss, set in a time of instability. My mother had been gone for over two months. My father, whose face had become as empty and expressionless as a hand in a glove, gave me no explanation. My auntie Marla, who had come to stay with us to take care of me while my mother was gone, was similarly blank. Neither spoke of my mother’s status or whereabouts. They did not tell me when she would be back. I was a child, and was therefore given no information, no frame of reference, and no means by which I might ask a question. They told me to be a good girl. They hoped I would forget.
There was, back then, a little old lady who lived across our alley. She had a garden and a beautiful shed and several chickens who lived in a small coop with a faux owl perched on top. Sometimes, when I wandered into her yard to say hello, she would give me a bundle of carrots. Sometimes she would hand me an egg. Or a cookie. Or a basket full of strawberries. I loved her. She was, for me, the one sensible thing in a too-often senseless world. She spoke with a heavy accent—Polish, I learned much later—and called me her little żabko, as I was always jumping about like a frog, and then would put me to work picking ground-cherries or early tomatoes or nasturtiums or sweet peas. And then, after a bit, she would take my hand and walk me home, admonishing my mother (before her disappearance) or my aunt (during those long months of mother-missing). “You must keep your eyes on this one,” she’d scold, “or one day she’ll sprout wings and fly away.”
It was the very end of July when I met the dragon, on an oppressively hot and humid afternoon. One of those days when thunderstorms linger just at the edge of the sky, hulking in raggedy murmurs for hours, waiting to bring in their whirlwinds of opposites—making the light dark, howling at silences, and wringing all the wetness out of the air like a great, soaked sponge. At this moment, though, the storm had not yet hit, and the whole world simply waited. The air was so damp and warm that it was nearly solid. My scalp sweated into my braids, and my smocked dress had become crinkled with my grubby handprints.
I remember the staccato barking of a neighborhood dog.
I remember the far-off rumble of a revving engine. This was likely my aunt, fixing yet another neighbor’s car. My aunt was a mechanic, and people said she had magic hands. She could take any broken machine and make it live again.
I remember the strange, electric hum of cicadas calling to one another from tree to tree to tree.
I remember the floating motes of dust and pollen hanging in the air, glinting in the slant of light.
I remember a series of sounds from my neighbor’s backyard. A man’s roar. A woman’s scream. A panicked gasping. A scrabble and a thud. And then, a quiet, awestruck Oh!
Each one of these memories is clear and keen as broken glass. I had no means to understand them at the time—no way to find the link between distinct and seemingly unrelated moments and bits of information. It took years for me to learn how to piece them together. I have stored these memories the way any child stores memory—a haphazard collection of sharp, bright objects socked away on the darkest shelves in the dustiest corners of our mental filing systems. They stay there, those memories, rattling in the dark. Scratching at the walls. Disrupting our careful ordering of what we think is true. And injuring us when we forget how dangerous they are, and we grasp too hard.
I opened the back gate and walked into the old lady’s yard, as I had done a hundred times. The chickens were silent. The cicadas stopped humming and the birds stopped calling. The old lady was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there in the center of the yard, I saw a dragon sitting on its bottom, midway between the tomatoes and the shed. It had an astonished expression on its enormous face. It stared at its hands. It stared at its feet. It craned its neck behind itself to get a load of its wings. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t run away. I didn’t even move. I simply stood, rooted to the ground, and stared at the dragon.
Finally, because I had come to see the little old lady, and I was nothing if not a purposeful little girl, I cleared my throat and demanded to know where she was. The dragon looked at me, startled. It said nothing. It winked one eye. It held one finger to its lipless jaws as though to say “Shh.” And then, without waiting for anything else, it curled its legs under its great body like a spring, tilted its face upward toward the clouds overhead, unfurled its wings, and, with a grunt, pushed the earth away, leaping toward the sky. I watched it ascend higher and higher, eventually arcing westward, disappearing over the wide crowns of the elm trees.
I didn’t see the little old lady again after that. No one mentioned her. It was as though she never existed. I tried to ask, but I didn’t have enough information to even form a question. I looked to the adults in my life to provide reason or reassurance, but found none. Only silence. The little old lady was gone. I saw something that I couldn’t understand. There was no space to mention it.
Eventually, her house was boarded up and her yard grew over and her garden became a tangled mass. People walked by her house without giving it a second glance.
I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.
My mother returned to me on a Tuesday. There was, again, no explanation, no reassurance; just a silence on the matter that was cold, heavy, and immovable, like a block of ice frozen to the ground; it was one more thing that was simply unmentionable. It was, if I remember correctly, a little more than two weeks after the old lady across the alley had disappeared. And when her husband, coincidentally, also disappeared. (No one mentioned that, either.)
On the day my mother returned, my auntie Marla was in a frenzy, cleaning the house and attacking my face with a hot washcloth, again and again, and brushing my hair obsessively, until it gleamed. I complained, loudly, and tried unsuccessfully to wriggle out of her firm grasp.
“Come now,” my aunt said tersely, “that’s enough of that. We want you to look your best, now, don’t we?”
“What for?” I asked, and I stuck out my tongue.
“For no reason at all.” Her tone was final—or she had clearly attempted it to be so. But even as a child I could hear the question mark hiding there. Auntie Marla released me and flushed a bit. She stood and looked out the window. She wrinkled her brow. And then she returned to vacuuming. She polished the chrome accents on the oven and scoured the floor. Every window shone like water. Every surface shimmered like oil. I sat in my room with my dolls (which I did not enjoy) and my blocks (which I did) and pouted.
I heard the low rumble of my father’s car arriving at our house around lunchtime. This was highly unusual because he never came home during a workday. I approached the window and pressed my nose to the glass, making a singular, round smudge. He curled out of the driver’s-side door and adjusted his hat. He patted the smooth curves of the hood as he crossed over and opened the passenger door, his hand extended. Another hand reached out. I held my breath.
A stranger stepped out of the car, wearing my mother’s clothes. A stranger with a face similar to my mother’s, but not—puffy where it should be delicate, and thin where it should be plump. She was paler than my mother, and her hair was sparse and dull—all wisps and feathers and bits of scalp peeking out. Her gait was unsteady and halting—she had none of my mother’s footsure stride. I twisted my mouth into a knot.
They began walking slowly toward the house, my father and this stranger. My father’s right arm curled around her birdlike shoulders and held her body close. His hat sat on his head at a front-leaning angle, tilted slightly to the side, hiding his face in shadow. I couldn’t see his expression. Once they crossed the midpoint of the front walkway, I tore out of my room at a run and arrived, breathless, in the entryway. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand as I watched the door, and waited.
My aunt gave a strangled cry and peeled out of the kitchen, an apron tied around her waist, its lace edge whispering against the knees of her dungarees. She threw open the front door and let them inside. I watched the way her cheeks flushed at the sight of this figure in my mother’s clothes, the way her eyes reddened and slicked with tears.
“Welcome home,” my aunt said, her voice catching. She pressed one hand to her mouth, and the other to her heart.
I looked at my aunt. I looked at the stranger. I looked at my father. I waited for an explanation, but nothing came. I stamped my foot. They didn’t react. Finally, my father cleared his throat.
“Alexandra,” he said.
“It’s Alex,” I whispered.
My father ignored this. “Alexandra, don’t stand there gawping. Kiss your mother.” He checked his watch.
The stranger looked at me. She smiled. Her smile sort of looked like my mother’s, but her body was all wrong, and her face was all wrong, and her hair was all wrong, and her smell was all wrong, and the wrongness of the situation felt insurmountable. My knees went wobbly and my head began to pound. I was a serious child in those days—sober and introspective and not particularly prone to crying or tantrums. But I remember a distinct burning sensation at the back of my eyes. I remember my breath turning into hiccups. I couldn’t take a single step.
The stranger smiled and swayed, and clutched my father’s left arm. He didn’t seem to notice. He turned his body slightly away and checked his watch again. Then he gave me a stern look. “Alexandra,” he said flatly. “Don’t make me ask again. Think of how your mother must feel.”
My face felt very hot.
My aunt was at my side in a moment, sweeping me upward and hoisting me onto her hip, as though I was a baby. “Kisses are better when we can all do them together,” she said. “Come on, Alex.” And without another word, she hooked one arm around the stranger’s waist and placed her cheek against the stranger’s cheek, forcing my face right into the notch between the stranger’s neck and shoulder.
I felt my mother’s breath on my scalp.
I heard my mother’s sigh caress my ear.
I ran my fingers along the roomy fabric of her floral dress and curled it into my fist.
“Oh,” I said, my voice more breath than sound, and I wrapped one arm around the back of the stranger’s neck. I don’t remember crying. I do remember my mother’s scarf and collar and skin becoming wet. I remember the taste of salt.
“Well, that’s my cue,” my father said. “Be a good girl, Alexandra.” He extended the sharp point of his chin. “Marla,” he nodded at my aunt. “Make sure she lies down,” he added. He didn’t say anything to the stranger. My mother, I mean. He didn’t say anything to my mother. Maybe we were all strangers now.
After that day, Auntie Marla continued to come by the house early each morning and stay long after my father came home from work, only returning to her own home after the nighttime dishes were done and the floors were swept and my mother and father were in bed. She cooked and managed and played with me during my mother’s endless afternoon lie-downs. She ran the house, and only went to her job at the mechanic’s shop on Saturdays, though this made my father cross, as he had no idea what to do with me, or my mother, for a whole day by himself.
“Rent isn’t free, after all,” she reminded him as my father sat petulantly in his favorite chair.