They named me George. My mother said I was named for the Saint, though I doubt any such blood flows through my veins. We lived modestly, in a bungalow on the edge of town, centered in one of those neighborhoods you see on television where everyone waves to each other and says good morning. Our house was different, though. I learned at a very young age that we had a particular problem, one that I imagine most houses didn’t have to deal with. There was a dragon living in our den.
I was five or six years old when my mother told me the fantastic truth. It was late at night and I wandered out of my room when I heard noises from the other end of the house. She came out of father’s den and met me in the hall.
“What’s that noise?” I asked.
She looked flustered and ushered me back to bed. After she smoothed the covers over me and kissed my forehead, she leaned close to my ear.
“Darling, there’s a dragon in your father’s den. You must promise me that you won’t go in there.” Her voice shook. I thought it must be very exciting to see a dragon.
“I promise,” I said.
As you can imagine, I had trouble falling back asleep that night. Visions of a great scaled beast, curled in the corner of the den, maybe laying on father’s couch, swirled in my mind. I wondered what color it was. Probably green. All dragons in my mind were green, with great yellow eyes and massive teeth, flying over mystical forests searching for prey and plunder. Perhaps, I thought, I could just sneak down the hall and crack the door. But I had promised mother I wouldn’t. I tossed and turned, fighting the urge to leave my room. Eventually, I was able to fall asleep.
The next day the dragon was gone. My mother said it had only stayed for the night and had left early in the morning. How sad, I thought. It would be wonderful to have the dragon stay. Maybe we could tame it, and I could ride it to school. It could protect me from bullies on the playground, and come to my tee ball games. A dragon would surely be better than a watchdog against prowlers.
“Do you think the dragon will come back?” I asked mother.
She shook her head and said, “I hope not, darling.”
She was probably concerned about how much a dragon eats. But it would bring home gold and jewels as it scoured the countryside. I knew enough about dragons to know that. Maybe we could train it, and the treasure would be enough to offset any increase in the grocery bill. It seemed a practical matter that could be solved if only we worked out the details. But to my dismay, the dragon was absent from the den for quite a while.
Sometime, a year or so later, I heard a commotion as I lay in bed. My heart raced, excitement written on every line of my face. I wondered, had the dragon returned? In stealth, I crept from my room and tiptoed down the hall. The door to the den opened, and as my mother slunk out, I thought I caught a glimpse of a scaly tail in the background. She shut the door and we came face to face.
“Oh, George! Back to bed, quickly now,” she said.
There were tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Is the dragon back?” I asked, barely able to contain my excitement.
She took me by the shoulders, shushing me and guiding me back to my room.
“Mother, is it the dragon?” I persisted.
“Yes. Yes, the dragon is back. It is very angry tonight, so you need to stay in your room.”
“Why is it angry?”
“Promise me, George. Promise me you’ll stay in your room.”
I promised. She kissed me on the forehead and made for the door.
“Mother,” I said, stopping her in the opening.
“Do you think we could train the dragon to be friendly.”
She choked back a tear. “I don’t think so, darling. This isn’t a dragon that can be tamed. We just have to wait for it to leave, and hope that it does and never comes back.”
“We could fight it!” I exclaimed, sitting straight up in bed. “Like a brave knight.” I had read about knights fighting dragons before. Images of myself in bright armor with a shining shield held aloft flashed in my mind.
“No!” mother cried, rushing to the bedside. “No, George! We can’t fight it. Don’t go near it. We have to leave it alone. It will leave. It always leaves. We can’t make it angry. Do you understand?”
My spirit deflated. “Okay, mother. I understand,” I said.
Over the years, the dragon returned regularly. There were nights I could hear its horrid grumble through the door of the den. Smoke and fumes would waft out from under the crack at the floor. Mother would go in sometimes to try and appease it, and as she said, get it to leave. Sometimes she came out crying. Other times she suffered welts and bruises. I knew it was a male because I could hear its gruff laughter at times and the throaty growl when it was angry.
As I grew older, my excitement and love for the dragon in our den waned. It was no longer a fascination. I didn’t like that it hurt my mother, or that we had to walk quietly around the house when it was there so as not to upset it. Thankfully, it never left my father’s den, content to smolder in its own acrid stench.
I spent my youth training. Mother might not believe that we could fight it, but I was determined to grow strong enough to try. I crafted a sword and shield from discarded lumber. My father would see me out in the yard, doing battle with one of the trees and laugh.
“What are you doing?” he’d ask.
“I’m practicing to fight the dragon,” I’d answer.
With a roar of laughter, he’d tell me in no uncertain terms that a wooden sword and shield would be of little use against a dragon. I’d try to explain they were only for practice—that when I was older, I’d have real ones. His laughter would redouble, and I’d feel ashamed.
So, I started hiding my training from my father. I’d practice in the woods, away from prying eyes. I told my mother that I was growing strong, and learning to fight so that I could make the dragon leave forever. She always smiled, but I doubt she believed me.
Still, the dragon returned, far more frequently than in the past. Its rage filled the house, and the stink of its breath would linger in still corners. I grew to hate the dragon in the den. By the age of thirteen, I could predict which nights it would show up. At fourteen, I would tend to mother’s welts and bruises, and tell her that I’d had enough of her trying to appease it.
“We’re going to fight him and make him leave,” I said.
Mother shook her head. “No, George. I don’t want him to hurt you.”
“He can’t hurt me.”
“You don’t know. He’s capable of more than you understand.” Mother’s face was grave.
By the time I was fifteen, I had grown big and strong. Even dragons seemed like manageable problems. I took on work, to help make money for the family. Some nights I came home late, after a closing shift. Mother was proud of what I was doing, and that was all that mattered.
One night, I came home late and I could sense the dragon had come. There were noises in the den, low rumbles like fire in deep places. I could sense the smoke and steam of the dragon’s breath as he lingered there. His anger was palpable through the entire house. Then, I heard mother yelling at him. It was the first time I’d heard her raise her voice. I couldn’t make out the words, but she would holler and the dragon would answer.
Now, a dragon is cunning. It will use crafty words to confuse and confound any who try to speak with it. That’s how one can lure a person into its den to be devoured. I had read such things in my youth. That night, I feared that my mother might be consumed. When I heard the dragon strike her and her body hit the floor, I didn’t think. I sprang to the door of the den and ripped it open.
I strode forward into the room as a man—as a knight. As a warrior. My mother lay on the floor, fresh welts on her face and blood dripping from her nose. Fury rose in my bowels, and I turned to face the great beast that had made its lair in my father’s den. There it stood, a look of anger mixed with bewilderment on its face.
“So, you’ve come,” it said, as though this were along awaited meeting. I didn’t speak, but rather just studied the hulking beast.
“George, you need to go,” my mother said.
“No, mother,” I said. “I’m not leaving. He is.” My eyes wrestled with the eyes of the dragon, red with anger.
“You think you can make me leave? This is my home,” the dragon growled.
“Not anymore.” It was clear to me then that the dragon had consumed my father. If anyone was going to stop the slaughter, it had to be me. I would have to protect my mother.
The dragon laughed, a deep throaty laugh that shook the room. He rose up to a great height and spread his massive wings to each corner of the room, looming over my mother and me, but I didn’t cower. “And what are you going to do?” he asked. “Are you going to kill me?”
I steadied myself against his presence. Mother said when I was younger that we couldn’t fight the dragon. I knew now that swords and shields would be of little use against such a monster, but fight we could, and we must.
“If it comes to that,” I said at last.
A wicked smile curled on the dragon’s face, his sweaty teeth glistening by the light of the den. “Ah,” he said, “all grown up, are we? Very well, fight me if you think you’re strong enough.”
I shook my head, defiantly. “No. You fight me. Strike me like you struck my mother and see if I fall as easily.”
He growled menacingly and smoke curled from the edges of his nostrils. As he spoke again, the words rode wisps of flames from his lips and singed the hairs of my head. “Brave, but foolish child!”
His tail lashed out and struck me across the face. The force caused me to stagger, but I did not fall. Instead, I regained my footing and stared forcefully into his eyes.
“You’ll have to do better,” I said.
I thought I saw him blanche, just slightly, at my refusal to back down. He growled in frustration and looked toward my mother. I stepped to the side, blocking her from his rage.
“Get out of my way!” he cried.
“You will never touch her again so long as I live.”
“Then I’ll have to kill you.”
This time I laughed. The effect was striking. Instead of anger, I saw confusion on the dragon’s face. He shrank, if only slightly, his towering presence lessened.
“You can’t hurt me,” I said. “Not anymore. For years we have lived in fear of you. No more. We thought having you here was just the way things had to be. It’s not true. We don’t need you here. We don’t want you here. Leave now! And never come back!”
The dragon studied me, his eyes passing over the contours of my face. As his gaze turned to my mother, I stopped him.
“Don’t look at her,” I said. “Look at me.” His eyes returned to mine, and I saw doubt in them. “You are finished here. This is no longer your home. Go.” I motioned toward the door.
Then, the dragon looked scared. He shrunk until he was no bigger than a man, and slunk from the room, defeated. I followed him to the door and watched him disappear into the night.
“If you ever come back, I will kill you,” I hollered to the darkness.
After I shut the door, I returned to where my mother lay on the floor of the den. I helped her to the couch and then tended to her wounds.
“But, your father…” she said.
“He’s gone, mother. What the dragon has consumed will never live again.”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve been stronger.”
I shushed her and wiped the blood from her face. “I understand now. When I was little you kept me safe. But I’m not little anymore, mother. It was time.”
She nodded and pulled my head down so she could kiss me on the forehead. It was true that it had been time. Boys dream of fighting dragons, but in real life, the battles aren’t as glamorous as the stories make them out to be. Still, part of becoming a man is knowing when and how to fight the dragons that trouble our lives.
Every dragon has its weakness. The dragon that lived in father’s den had its too. Its weakness was believing it was strong. It wasn’t. All it took to defeat it was a willingness for someone to stand up to it. All it took was a man of courage. I’m sorry my father wasn’t that man. The End