It was the first autumn that Allister could remember. And he awoke one cold morning and exhaled smoke. And, though there were certainly some precautions to be aware of (a practiced calm was needed to prevent accidental fires), the new gift brought with it a powerful swelling of self-assurance that Allister felt deep within his little soul. And he felt bigger than he was. And that was a needed change because Allister had always felt so small (you remember there was a time when Allister could fit inside a walnut shell).
In two days time, school would start. Allister's first day of school. And his parents had said, "Just look everyone in the eye and say hello. That is all you need to do to find your place in this world." But, up until he had discovered he could breathe fire, Allister could not do even that simple task. Allister would use all of his energy, all the muscle he could muster, to try to raise the weight of his head. So much energy and muscle that he would strain his neck. But, his head would not raise.
But, that day- oh, that very morning when he first breathed smoke- that all changed.
The weight of his own head suddenly seemed lighter. It all seemed lighter. Allister breathed in air and exhaled smoke and felt secure.
And the morning Allister set off for school, a morning that some find filled with apprehension and fear, his small feet left the proudest of imprints in the cold, hard ground. He could not wait to see others, to meet others. His chest swelled with wonder- wonder and fire- and his smoke came forth in white tufts.
When Allister finally saw someone, he was instantly struck by her beauty. She was much older than he was. (But, being the child that he was, "much older" was usually not as old as he thought.) Her skin was darker than his and delicately soft. And Allister remembered feeling lucky just to have had the good fortune to walk to school at that particular time on that particular day.
But, her head was bowed.
Allister, of course, knew how heavy a head could feel. (But, being the dragon that he was, "heavy" had become a word that was manageable.) And, from his low vantage point, he looked up to her bowed head and found her hazel eyes. And, because he did not want to scare her with his fierce dragon-ness, he simply nodded and let a trickle of smoke waft up from his nostrils. And, in the short time it took to pass her, Allister knew that he had gotten through the heaviness because she smiled. She even let out a trickle of smoke of her own and Allister realized that she, too, was a dragon.
And that was how it went for days and weeks on end. Allister would see her each and every morning on his way to school. And they would smile and nod at each other. And, as the time passed (winter kicked in with its snow), they both expected the other to be there. And, as they both expected each other to be there, their faces began to show more and more the marks of anticipated happiness- as if each and every morning they knew a surprise awaited. It was enough to keep both their heads from bowing, whether or not either of them believed they were dragons or not.
But, Allister (of course) did believe he was a dragon. He knew he was. And he knew she was, too. Their puffs of smoke were exhaled in billows.
And, though they never had a conversation, they left many a correspondingly parallel footprint in the snow.
Then, one day in the middle of winter, her head bowed again. And Allister, from his low vantage point, could see why. Her right eye was slightly bruised. Enough that you could tell, but not enough that you could tell if you did not look. And she smiled still. And Allister tried to smile back, but he could see that something had changed for her. It was not just the bowed head. Or even the bruise. Her smoke was barely visible as she hurried past Allister.
For two more days more, she hurried past. And, then, she wasn't there.
Two more days passed and Allister did not see her, only her footprints remained.
Then, the news trickled in. A young maid's body had been found and the picture in the paper revealed that it was her.
Allister had never known she was a maid.
Soon after, rumors trickled in. Words and phrases that Allister was too young to understand collected and wafted and billowed forth. She had denied advances made by her employer, a man whose estate was located in some secluded area far in the hills. And, one day, in a particularly angry rage, he hit her with a blunt object. The object was found. A trial was held. And, in the end, the murderer was let free. He had known the judge, had donated money to organizations, and it was decided that the death was an accident.
But, Allister knew it was not an accident. He had seen the bruised eye two days before and he saw her empty footprints in the snow. And he tried his best to protect them. But, though spring was still days away, the affects of its heated breathe could be seen melting the snow.
He should have done something, Allister thought. Allister believed. He should have saved her. But, what could he have done? The world was unfair and Allister began to feel his smallness again. So, he did what you do when you feel small. He did what you do when the world is unfair and it takes away something beautiful. Allister did what you do when the world wants to forget, but you know the importance of remembering.
Allister did what you do when you are a dragon.
He followed her footprints up into the hills and the secluded mansion of her employer. When he reached the enormous gates of the estate, he breathed in deep all the pain and hurt and confusion and unfairness of the cold air. He sucked it down into his lungs, where he felt his furnace burning. And he believed whole-heartedly, whole-lung-edly, that the power of that furnace would consume those feelings, would create a raging fire that he could draw forth and shoot from his mouth to burn down the gates, the mansion, the estate, and the man who murdered his beautiful friend.
He huffed and puffed and heaved and exhaled and, with each new inhale, he breathed in deeper. But, there was no fire. There was some other force at play preventing him from doing his dragon-ly deed. Maybe the murderer was a dragon, too. An evil dragon. And the deeper Allister would send the pain down, the more he realized how empty his furnace was. His face turned blue with hyperventilation and, still, nothing. And Allister burst into tears. There was only so much pain and hurt one person could consume. And Allister fell to his knees and sobbed, his head in his hands.
He missed his friend.
And the gates opened. Servants, butlers, and cooks poured out. Allister would later learn that they had all quit that day when they heard the news of their employer's acquittal.
An elder butler picked up Allister and held him. "I know, I know," he soothed in a smoky, deep bass voice. And Allister felt that he really did know. He could see it in his eyes and he could see the whisp of smoke come out of his mouth. "Take care, my friend. And hold your head high. We need people like you."
And Allister took that to heart. People like him were needed. Big hearts were needed. And, when spring arrived some days later, he woke to find that her footprints were gone and he could no longer exhale smoke. But, he was not disheartened. He had cried watery tears for some time. So, it only made sense that his fire would have been extinguished. But, it would return. He knew it would. Just like the snow.
And it did. His breath and the snow. In, one year's time, they both came back.
And that year, in the middle of winter, the mansion caught fire. Most people said it was an accident.
But, Allister knew a different story.
Allister had remembered exactly where each and every one of her footprints had been. And, when the snow fell, he spent his mornings before and his evenings after school, retracing and recreating her steps because....well...because he knew he had to. He had to protect her memory. He had learned over the course of the year that there were two types of dragons and what set them apart was what they protected. Some protected only the shiny and beautiful things that were theirs. Those dragons always craved more. And the other dragons protected the shiny and beautiful things that belonged to no one (or rather to everyone). These dragons, too, always craved more.
And which one you were was a choice (perhaps the most important one) to be made because it was what kept your furnace burning.
And Allister knew that she had returned. He knew that beauty did not vanish. Try as anyone might to destroy it, it would spread. It would grow.
And she had become that powerful dragon that Allister always knew she was. And, although most said the cause was a creosote buildup in the estate's many chimneys left unattended by chimney sweeps who never returned to work, Allister knew that she had followed her tracks to her murderer's home.
And she had left the old man alive, surrounded by the ashes of what he had protected, cowering and quivering, "There's nothing left. It's all gone."
And that was when Allister chose, though he could not always see his smoke, what kind of dragon he was.