Good morning, one and all. Hope everyone is having a fun and productive Chipping-In Weekend. Dragons have been helping out with everything from gathering leaves (when they’re not playing in them) to cleaning the chimney flues and gutters. And, of course, our frends to the south and west have been putting in draconic efforts in the face and wake of Hurricane Patricia. We hope all are safe and well.
Now it’s time to wrap up Tell-A-Dragon-Tale Week with the epic denoument of The Dragon and His Grandmother. Enjoy.
Where we left off…
“Well, you seem a sincere man ” the old woman said, “and I am never wrong about these things. But is it enough? These brothers of yours, they couldn’t be bothered to come, I suppose? Why should I help them?”
Lev stood there, chagrinned down to his toes. “I don’t know,” he said. “But they are my brothers. I gladly do anything you ask in return. Chop wood, fix your roof, anything.”
The ancient woman cackled at his offer. “We will see,” she said.
And for ten days, Lev split wood, repaired thatch, even reset the chimney. His muscles ached, his hands, smooth after years of high living, were blistered raw. Still, when the old woman came to check his labors, he did not complain. He simply smiled, accepting the borscht and black bread she brought for his supper, and asked, “Is there anything else I can do?”
“We will see.”
The fortnight almost over, the old woman called the young man into her house. “The Dragon is coming for dinner tonight, and he expects a great bowl of oyster stew. For this I need a cask full of oysters.” She handed him a basket tall as herself and said, “Fill this with oysters and return before sunset and I shall help you. You and your absent brothers.”
A puzzled look came over Lev’s face. What was it about this family and their riddles? Oysters, in the woods? One last task and he didn’t know what to do.
The old woman grinned. “Get a move on, young man, or my grandson might just eat you instead!”
It was mid-day when, hot, tired, and lost, with his basket still empty, Lev plopped himself down on a fallen tree. “Oh, Grandma,” he sighed, staring up into the canopy, “you raised a simpleton. Oysters, really? There’s not even a lake for miles, let alone the sea.”
Just as he was feeling too pathetic for words, the thicket beside him shook with a high barking laugh, “Hee-chee! Simple-simple simpleton!” A fox emerged from the scrub, brush high, and looked him in the eye. “You’ve been in that chicken house,” she said. “I can smell the old woman on you. And that the Dragon is coming for supper.”
“A smart little fox,” Lev said with a bow. “You don’t happen to know where I can fill this basket with oysters, do you?”
“Not shelled or from the sea, that’s for sure. But walk ten minutes that way, towards the sun, and you’ll find a beech grove. Around each tree grow mushrooms, big as your hand. King oysters, we call them.”
“Oh, such a fool I am!” Lev laughed. “Of course! Good fox, what do I owe you. Ask and it’s yours.”
“A promise that got you here, no doubt,” the fox barked. “I ask nothing. But, among the oysters, should you find something else – something rare and unusual, perhaps – I will not turn tail on it as payment.”
A hour later, bent beneath his load of fungi, he returned to the fox. “You have aided me more than I can say, good fox. This, I believe is yours.” He took from his purse a firebird egg, large as a turnip, gold as the sun.
“Bless you kind sir. My kits thank you, and their kits after.” And with a yip and a yap, the fox wrapped her tail round her treasured fee and disappeared.
“You are brighter than I thought,” the old woman said, sorting through Lev’s harvest. “Yes, much brighter. These will make a fine stew, and I will help you. Come…” and she lifted up a large stone which lay over the cellar. “Hide yourself here,” she said. “You can hear all that is spoken in this room.”
“From down there?”
She grinned. “The floor may be thick but my grandson’s voice is thunder. Sit very still. When the Dragon comes, I will ask him about this riddle of his. He tells me everything, especially when he’s had a barrel or two of brandy wine. Listen carefully to what he says and you will be fine.”
At the stroke of midnight the Dragon swooped in and asked for his supper. The old woman laid the table with enough food and drink for a small village (for Dragon appetites are very large, and sharp as their teeth), and they dined together. As he tucked into his second bowl of oyster stew with a hundred-stack side of latkes, his Grandmother poured more wine and said:
“So what have you been doing with yourself all day? Any souls to add to your book?”
“It’s been a dreary day, Gran’mama. No luck at all. War rages all about us but the souls seem remarkably content. I would suspect someone working against me,” he laughed, “if I didn’t know better. But tomorrow will be better. I have three soldiers under contract and my hold on them is as tight as woodbine in August.”
“Soldiers, eh? Well, they can be slippery, very slippery. And you know the rules about the escape clause.”
“Yes, yes, I know the rules,” the Dragon scoffed. “These three will get their riddle, and they will still be mine. They will never be able to guess the answer.”
“What sort of a riddle is it?” the old woman asked.
The Dragon drained his wine and laughed. “A most impossible riddle, that’s its sort. I will tell you this much: In the Emerald Sea lies a dead sea-cat – that shall be their roast meat; and the rib of a whale – that shall be their silver spoon; and the hollow foot of a dead horse – that shall be their wineglass.”
“My, you are a clever Dragon,” his Grandmother flattered. “I don’t even understand it! Your soldiers would be blessed, indeed, if they guess the answer.”
Right pleased with himself, the Dragon yawned and stretched. The brandy wine had loosened his tongue and now it was making him sleepy. He curled up by the front door and was snoring in a Kiev minute.
The old woman opened the stone trap in the floor and Lev emerged from the cellar.
“Did you hear everything? Did you understand?”
“Yes,” Lev whispered in replied. “I think I know enough. Thank you, you have helped me more than I can say.”
Slipping out through the window, so as not to wake the Dragon, Lev raced back to his brothers. After two weeks, they were near bald from worry, and the youngest could not help but laugh. He told them all about his adventure with the Dragon’s Grandmother.
“Are you sure about this?” they asked.
“From the Dragon’s lips to my ears. I couldn’t be surer.”
And the brothers were so thrilled, they could have danced a jig if they knew how. Instead, they took out the little whip, and crack, swish, summoned such a plenitude of gold that it mounded round them like a Dragon’s hoard.
The sun was high overhead the next day when the Dragon flew down, book in paw. “Well, aren’t you fine gentlemen!” he said. “Seven years have treated you very well.” He opened his book and pointed to the brothers’ signatures, “It is reckoning time, my friends.”
“Not so fast, Dragon,” Osip said. “You promised us a chance to wipe our account clean. A riddle, you promised. Is a Dragon as good as his word?”
“Humph-grumph,” the Dragon chuffed. “You doubt it? I could eat you right here, but I won’t. That’s hardly good form.” He smiled, confident they were his. “Very well, then. Riddle me this: I will take you underground with me; you shall have a meal there. If you can tell me what you will get for your roast meat, you shall be free. I’ll even let you keep the little whip for good measure.”
“In the Emerald Sea,” the eldest replied, “lies a dead sea-cat; that shall be the roast meat.”
The Dragon frowned, raking his talons into the soil. A lucky guess, no more. He turned to the middle brother. “Ah, but what shall be your spoon?”
Luka looked to his brothers for courage. What if Lev heard it wrong, what if… “The – the rib of a whale. It shall be our silver spoon,” he stammered.
“Gnggggrrrrrrrrrrr!” the Dragon growled, smoke curling from his nostrils. “Cheats,” he snarled under his breath, weighing the consequences of an impulsive human snack. There were rules. Checks and balances. His Gran’mama would call him on it, for sure. He’d lost, and he knew it down to his tail. But a Dragon never admits defeat – not aloud. Leering eye-ball to eye-ball with the youngest brother, he dared, “Do youknow what your wineglass shall be?”
Lev scratched his head and stroked his beard. “Hmmm,” he said with feigned distress, “you do not make this easy, Dragon. I believe an old horse’s hoof shall be our wineglass.”
With a bellow that rattled windows from Tashkent to Minsk, the Dragon rose into the air, his power over the brothers shattered.
“I don’t know how you did it,” he roared. “Cheated, no doubt. But I am a Dragon of my word. Your lives are your own, for all the good they will do you!”
Lev tipped his hat. “I am sure we will manage, Dragon.” Then, as the great beast flew off, he called after: “There is a king to the west stuck in a 14-year-old war. I bet he’s in the mood to deal over a bowl of oyster stew.”
The Dragon raised his brows and laughed, then, tipping his wings to the west, he disappeared beyond the horizon.
Magic whip in hand, the brothers mounted their horses and rode off in the other direction. They were healthy, wealthy, and much wiser than when they first met the Dragon and planned on remaining so.
A week later, the great war ended, and the King who’d started it all mysteriously disappeared. What the Dragon had to do with all this was anyone’s guess, though it is true that, once peace broke out, the beast was never seen in that part of the world again.
The brothers were finally able to cease their travelling and return home. There, with the help of their gold-giving lash, they rebuilt what was ruined and then some. In time, the city became the gem of the whole continent, a center of art, learning, and trade that would make even a Dragon’s Grandmother proud.
Osip, Luka, and Lev lived out their lives as the honored founders of the town’s new golden age. In time, they were interred beside their Grandmother, an eternal flame burning like Dragon fire over their graves.
The Dragon’s whip was not found among their estate.