The Dragon Quintet
By Card, Orson Scott
Tor Fantasy Copyright © 2006 Card, Orson Scott
All right reserved.
Mix one oddly endearing family with one oddly unsettling old house and add something unspoken with wings, and you have the elements of this, our initial story, by Hugo and Nebula winner Orson Scott Card, gifted author of the award-winning novels Ender's Game
and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead
. A native of Washington State, Scott, as he prefers to be called, has written novels of fantasy, revisionist fable, and science fiction. His numerous short stories have appeared in Amazing Stories, Analog, Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction
, and Omni
. His tale "Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory" is a classic of twentieth-century horror. "In the Dragon's House," though complete unto itself, contains the germ of a story that Scott intends to expand into a novel.
In a fit of romantic excess, the builder of the house at 22 Adams gave this lovely street of grand Victorian mansions its one mark of distinction--a gothic cathedral of a house, complete with turrets, crenellated battlements, steep-pitched roofs, and even gargoyles at the downspouts.
One of the gargoyles--the one most easily visible to those who approached the front door--was a fierce dragon's head. In a thunderstorm the beast spewed great gouts of water, for it collected from the largest expanse of roofs. But this wet wyrm was no less to be avoided than its mythical fire-breathing forebears.
Inside the house,however, there was no attempt to be archaic or fey. Electricity was in the house from the beginning. In fact, it was the first house in Mayfield to be fully wired during construction, and the owner spared no expense. Knobs and wires were concealed behind the laths, and every room of any size had not just one electric outlet but four--one in each wall. A shameless extravagance. What would anyone ever need so many outlets for
As the house was going up, passersby were known to tut-tut that the house was doomed to burn, having so much fire running up and down inside the walls. But the house did not burn, while others, less well wired, sometimes did, as their owners overloaded circuits with multipliers and extension cords to make up for the electrical deficiency.
Between the gargoyle and the rumors of future fire, it was inevitable that the neighbors would call it "the dragon house." During the 1920s the moniker changed a little, becoming "The Old Dragon's House," for during that time the owner was an old widower--the son of the original builder--who valued his privacy and had no concern for what the neighbors thought. He let the small garden surrounding the house go utterly to seed, so it was soon a jungle of tall weeds that offended the eye and endlessly seeded the neighbors' gardens.
When helpful or impatient neighbors came over from time to time and mowed the garden, the old man met them with hostility. As he grew older and more isolated, he threatened violence, first with a broom, then with a rake, and finally with a cane that might have been pathetic in the hands of such an old man. But he was so fiery in his wrath that even the boldest man quailed before him, and he soon became known among the neighbors as the Old Dragon. It was from him as much as the gargoyle that the house seemed to derive its name.
Finally, the neighbors went to court and got an injunction compelling the man to control the weeds on his property. The Old Dragon responded by hiring workmen to come and pave the entire garden, front and back, with bricks and cobblestones so that the only living things in the yard were the insects that wandered across it in search of likelier foraging grounds.
The old man lived out his days and when he died the house went to a great-niece who called it, not "The Old Dragon's House," but "The Albatross," and put it on the market the moment it was certified as hers.
That was when Michael's great-grandparents bought the place and turned it into the home he grew up in.
Normal Schwarzhelm had owned a chain of vaudeville theatres and had married his favorite headliner, Lolly Poppins. Just before vaudeville's collapse, Normal sold his theatres to a developer who was turning them all into movie houses, then invested the money and retired to Mayfield, the smallest and most charming of the towns on his little circuit.
Buying the Old Dragon's House was not Normal's idea, it was Lolly's. To her, it carried all the magic and romance of the legitimate stage to which she had always aspired; her twenty years of doing slightly naughty comic songs followed by one tragic tear-jerking ballad had never been more than a stopgap until she got her "break."
Her break had turned out to be Normal, who adored her and indulged her and had a wagonload of money. Of course he hadn't the power to get her into legitimate theatre now. He was out of the business, and she was too old and too well-known for her shtick, which was looking surprised and confused at the double entendres in her own songs, followed by a whooping laugh when she finally got her own joke. Nobody in legitimate theatre would give her the roles she coveted.
But the Dragon's House had a copious cellar and, with a little excavation and remodeling and an additional dose of heavy-duty wiring for the lights, she fitted out a little underground theatre where she could mount amateur productions to her heart's content. Which she did. She became the producer, the director, and a beloved character actress in a lively community theatre company that did everything from The Trojan Women
, from The Importance of Being Earnest
to The Women
. It should not be hard to guess which parts she played.
She also brought in old friends from vaudeville to take part in her shows, putting them up in her home and feeding them generously while they were there--a way to help out those in need without it looking like charity. "You're doing me
a favor," she would insist. "These local amateurs need to see what a professional looks like!" To fit all her guests, she had workmen divide most of the bedrooms into small but cozy chambers, and as she did, she had the plumbing and wiring brought up to code, so that despite its age and ancient look, the Dragon's House had all the modern amenities.
While Lolly rehearsed and performed in the cellar, Normal climbed the stairs to the attic, where he, too, had a plethora of new wiring installed to support his passion--electric trains. The walls of the windowless room were lined with tables, and from the south wall a huge table projected into the middle, leaving only a narrow corridor. All the tables were covered with train tracks, trestles, bridges, hills, villages, and cities, with the walls expertly painted as mountains and farmland and, on one side, a river flowing into the sea.
Lolly invited all comers to the basement to watch her plays, but no one ever saw Normal's trains except the family, and then only a glimpse once in a while when calling him down to meals or to meet with his lawyer or broker. His hobby was not for display. It was a world where he alone could lie. And over the years his fantasy life in the attic became quite an eccentricity, for now and then he would come downstairs and remark, "The dragon was lively today" or "We had quite a thunderstorm in the attic," as if the train layout had its own weather and the occasional mythical beast to liven things up.
"Next thing you'll tell us," Lolly would say, "the little tiny people will start packing their little tiny clothes in little tiny suitcases and buy teensy-weensy tickets so they can ride the train."
He would look at her like she was crazy and say, "They're not real
, Lolly." And she would roll her eyes heavenward as if to ask God to judge which of them was mad.
Lolly's first three children, fathered by her first three husbands, had been born during her vaudeville days and therefore loathed the theatre, absolutely refusing to take part in her plays. But her two children by Normal, their son, Herrick, and their daughter, Bernhardt--Herry and Harty--had no bad memories of backstage life, and so they happily threw themselves into every play. They were the princes murdered in the tower, they were Hansel and Gretel, they were young Ebenezer Scrooge and his beloved sister. When they weren't in rehearsal they were romping among the costumes and props and old set pieces stored on the north side of the cellar.
When Normal and Lolly died no one minded that they left the house and all its contents to Herry and Harty. After all, they were Normal's only children, and it was generous of him to leave a bit over one hundred thousand dollars to each of Lolly's other three children--a lot of money in those days. Most of the money, though, went to Herry and Harty, who kept up the tradition of theatricals in the basement until the city inspectors told them that the public-safety laws had changed and there was no way to bring the cellar theatre up to code without demolishing the building.
It was a sad day in the Old Dragon's House when the public performances ended, and while they still had guests over and put on shows once in a while, the regular community theater company moved to the local high school auditorium and Herry and Harty were no longer the heart and soul of it as they had been. They still contributed financially from time to time, but by the 1970s they had turned inward--not recluses, but focused on the life of their house.
With all those bedrooms, no more retired vaudevillians to sleep in them, and few plays to occupy their time, Herry and Harty cast about for something useful to do. The idea they hit upon was to take in strays.
Stray children, that is. Runaways. Abused children. Orphans. They didn't take all--no, by no means, they were quite selective. For they knew that only a few children would respond to what they had to offer, and why waste time and effort with those they could not help? So they'd take a child in for a day or two, and if things weren't working, they'd pass him or her along--bathed, fed, with new clothes on their backs--to the social workers who would find them the ordinary sort of foster care.
There were always a few children, however, whose eyes lit up when they were given costumes to wear and lines to say, and now the occasional theatricals in the basement of the Old Dragon's House were performed mostly by children and teenagers playing all the parts, with local kids joining in and an audience consisting of parents and friends. The lost children thrived in that company. Most of them did well in school; all of them went on to do well enough in life. For when you've been in good plays, you know how to work together with others, do your own part as well as you can and trust others to do theirs, and that's all you need to know in order to do fine in a job or a marriage.
Harty had never married but stayed on in the house with Herry and his wife, Cecilia. And when Cecilia died of breast cancer, Aunt Harty became surrogate mother to the four children and soon thought of them as her own. They were already teenagers before the transformation of the house to theatrical orphanage but they loved what their home had become and didn't mind that when they came home for a visit there was rarely any place for them in the bedrooms. They might have slept in the big old bed in the front of the attic but Harty didn't like to have people traipsing through her papa's train room to get to it, and so they'd end up sleeping on couches here and there--and, eventually, as their own families grew, in the nearby Holiday Inn.
But Michael was not one of the grandchildren, who always had homes of their own in faraway cities and came to Mayfield only to visit. Michael did call Herry and Harty "Gramps" and "Granny" but it wasn't true. They were actually his great-uncle and great-aunt.
Michael's real grandmother was Portia Ringgold, Lolly's daughter by her third husband, a soldier who died of the flu after World War I. Portia was killed by alcohol in her fifties, though technically the cause of death was listed as "falling in front of a subway train." Michael's mother, Donna, was beaten to death by one of the "uncles" who came and went in her short, drug-addicted life.
Michael wasn't there for that sad day, however, for Herry and Harty had got wind of what was happening in their niece's life and had offered to take care of Michael "for a while" so Donna could "recuperate." That was why Michael had no memory of calling anyone Mother. He knew only Gramps and Granny, and his only home was the little room at the back of the attic. They put him there because, as Gramps said, "The kids on the second floor come and go, but you're with us forever."
And that was why Michael Ringgold grew up in the Old Dragon's House.
* * *
At first, of course, he didn't know that was what the house was called. To him, it was simply "home." That's what Gramps and Granny called it. "I'm home!" "In our home we have certain rules." "We try to help these boys and girls feel at home." "This is a home, not a gymnasium!"
He wasn't aware yet that other people's homes didn't have theatres in the basement, or sad and angry children coming and going from time to time on the second floor, or locked doors in the attic from which strange sounds emerged at odd hours of the day or night, or a warm place on the back stairs where, when he sat very still, he could feel the throb, throb
of a beating heart.
He did know, however, that Granny didn't like him to sit there in the warm place. Every time she saw him there, from earliest childhood, she would say, "What are you doing, boy? Why aren't you playing
?" She would assign him some errand or, once he learned to read, make him get a book and read something aloud to her, which was nice; he was proud of being a reader, he didn't mind that.
What he minded was the interruption. So when he heard someone coming down the narrow hall toward the back stairs that led to his attic room, he would scamper up to his bed and pretend to be sleeping. It never seemed to fool them. He tried pretending to be just waking up, but it was no good. "You were sitting there again, you dreamy dreamy boy," said Granny. Or, "He was in that place
again," one of the visiting kids would call out.
Finally, when he was four, one of the visitors took pity on him and told him how they knew. "It's a wooden staircase, you moron," he said. "They can hear your feet when you run up to your room."
Michael learned then to take off his shoes before he went to sit in the warm place. Then when he heard someone coming he walked up the stairs very slowly, stepping only at the outside edges of the steps so there were no creaks. It worked. Now the only time he was ever caught in the warm place was when he fell asleep there, and that hardly ever happened.
Because even though it was, as Granny assumed, a place for dreaming, it wasn't sleeping dreams he went for. And it wasn't because sleeping dreams were scarier--no, he had no nightmares as frightening as some of the dreams he had in the warm place. It's that the dreams in the warm place always seemed to make sense. They didn't just go from one thing to another in the silly way dreams did.
They felt like memories. Like he was thinking back on things he had done before. And whereas in sleeping dreams he always saw himself as if he were watching his own body from outside, in these memories he only felt
himself. His own body. Stretching, taut, exhilarating dreams of having enormous strength and yet being amazingly light and on fire inside, all the time. Dreams of flying. Dreams of falling down, hurtling toward the ground so fast that his vision went white and he came to himself gasping as if he had just woken up, only he knew at the end of one of those
dreams that he had never been asleep, for through it all he also remembered seeing the faded wallpaper and the part of the heavy-curtained window that his eyes were focused on even as he was moving through or over another world, in another body.
He knew it was another body because when he was walking around in the house, toddling on his little legs and falling down or bumping into things, it was definitely not
the body he had in those dreams. In real life he was not strong and he could not fly and he never, never felt the fire inside.
Maybe in a weaker child that might have been an irresistible drug, to have those dreams in the warm place on the back stairs. But Michael Ringgold was strong without knowing it. Not strong of arm--he was as tough as any kid, but no tougher, and no one would mistake him for a blacksmith's apprentice. His throw could get to first base and he could chin himself up into a tree, and he didn't think to try for more. But there was another kind of strength that he had in good measure without knowing it. Michael loved dreaming that he could fly with the heat throbbing inside him, but he also loved running around outside with the other kids, or lurking down in the theatre watching a play rehearsal or helping to paint the scenery. He loved trying to steal cookie dough in the kitchen when Granny's back was turned; he even loved getting rapped on the head with a spoon as he made it out the door with his mouth full, while Granny shouted after him, "You can get a disease from the eggs in that batter, you foolish boy!"
Michael had the strength to do what he chose to do, despite his own desires.
* * *
One night when he was seven he heard the sounds from behind the locked door. A humming sound, but with a bit of an edge to it. It sounded like Gramps's electric razor. Or a shower running somewhere in the house.
It wasn't quite dark yet because it was a summer night during daylight saving time, and so even though there were shadows in the room and he had never before dared to get out of his bed when the sounds were there, tonight he decided he had to know, and so--because he was strong--he simply ignored his dread and got up. He only wore shoes for school and for church, but even though his feet had calluses from running across asphalt and climbing trees and scrambling through brambles, his soles felt extremely naked and vulnerable as he crossed the little space between his bed and the locked door that led deeper into the attic.
He turned the handle.
It turned freely, but he still couldn't open the door.
The sounds did not stop, either. It was as if his little effort to pull the door open was not worth noticing.
The keyhole was the old-fashioned kind, like the one on the door to the basement. But unlike the basement keyhole, this one seemed to have been plugged with something so he couldn't see through it. Nor could he see anything under the door, which might mean that it was dark in the locked room, or it might mean that it, too, had some kind of obstruction to keep light from passing.
So all his courage was wasted. He couldn't get through, and he couldn't see in.
Only he wanted to see, and this was the time.
What did he have in his dresser drawer? Whatever he had taken from his pockets all summer, stashed in the bottom drawer inside a cigar box. He chose two items: the tarnished baby spoon he had found by the creek behind the house, and the cheap little pocketknife he had gotten by trading four fine marbles to one of the boys who hadn't stayed long at the house because he kept making fun of the kids who were serious about rehearsing the play. It was Gramps's cut-down version of Macbeth
but the boy with the cheap knife never cared about it even when he was assigned to play Banquo, which meant he got to be a ghost in the dinner scene. And then he was gone, and Michael suspected he was the only person in the house who remembered him now at the end of summer; and that was only because he had this crummy little knife and somewhere in the past few weeks it had gradually dawned on him that he had been cheated.
Well, the knife wouldn't cut and it wobbled in its handle, but maybe it could poke through whatever was blocking the keyhole.
And it did. One punch, straight through, and the blade broke and remained stuck there in the keyhole.
Great. Now when Granny came up to clean, she'd see the blade sticking out and know that he had tried to break in. Only he hadn't, he just wanted to see
Well, no, if he had been able to jimmy the lock, he would have opened the door. That was the truth and if he couldn't tell the truth to himself then he really was
a liar like that one visiting girl said he was, when Michael told her that he said his prayers every night without Gramps or Granny watching over him to make him do it.
I want to see in there. And I don't want to get caught for having tried.
So he used the handle of the baby spoon. It wasn't the best tool--needle-nose pliers were what he needed, and just imagine trying to explain to Gramps why he needed them. But the spoon handle did the job. By prying with it, he got the broken knife blade to wiggle and finally come loose.
And now there was
a hole, so tiny and narrow--thin as a blade, of course--that he couldn't actually see anything through it except for one thing: There was light in that room. Bright light. Dazzling light. And all that buzzing, whirring, rushing. What was in there? Why would Gramps and Granny leave a light on in there?
There was a big attic window in the front of the house, and Michael had wondered for a long time whether the locked room ran the whole length of the house. But that wasn't the light of dusky evening coming through the keyhole, it was like a very bright naked bulb, a hundred-watter like the one in the basement storage room that you turned on by pulling a chain that Michael could only reach by jumping. If there was always a light in the locked room, it would be visible through that front attic window and if it was visible there had been plenty of overcast and stormy days when Michael had been outside and would have seen that the attic was lit.
So the locked room didn't have any window.
It's my brother in there, thought Michael. My secret brother, who already lived here before they brought me. The crazy one who actually killed my mother and they couldn't tell me about it because it was too terrible. He's chained in that room, only they don't know he's broken the chain and he's just waiting for me to open the door so he can grab me and tear out my throat with his teeth like a wolf.
Or maybe it's my mother's body in there, like Snow White when the dwarfs laid her out in a glass coffin to lie there looking beautiful till the prince came to kiss her awake, only the prince can't get there because the door is locked.
Or maybe the attic crawl space would get him there.
There was a low door in the wall at the foot of his bed that Granny said led into the crawl space. "We don't store anything there, it's just in case we get a dead rat or a bird's nest in there and we need to clean it out. Don't you go in there because the floor isn't finished and you'll put your foot right through the ceiling in the bedroom below and then we'll have to saw off your leg just to get you out." She said it with her I'm-pretending-it's-a-joke-but-take-heed look, and so of course he tried to get in there the second her back was turned. But even though he could turn the primitive wooden latch easily enough, when he tried to push the door open it jammed against something immediately and he couldn't even see in.
Now, though, standing at the locked door, he looked over at his bed, whose foot was jammed in under the slope of the roof so he sometimes bumped the ceiling with his feet when he turned over too quickly in bed. And in that moment, perhaps because he actually wanted to know it, he understood exactly why the door hadn't opened. It was bumping into the continued downward slope of the ceiling. The door didn't open into the crawl space, it opened into the room.
Of course, that meant to open it Michael would have to move his bed. He had never tried to do that on purpose before, just accidentally before he learned just how angry Granny could get when she caught him lying on his back in the bed and shoving against the ceiling with his feet. "If I wanted footprints on the ceiling I would have moved to Australia where they walk around upside down all the time!" she said. And then she shoved the bed back into place with such vigor that the footboard of the bed made two indentations in the ceiling, so the only real damage was what she had caused her own self. She hadn't liked it when Michael pointed this out to her, and so he learned a couple of lessons that day.
How quietly could he pull the bed out from the little door? And how far would he have to pull it before he could get through?
The answers were: with only a couple of slight scraping sounds, and about a foot and a half.
He was sweating from the exertion of pulling the bed when he stuck his head through the opening and looked around.
It was very, very dark. But the longer he leaned there, his body half in, half out of the crawl space, the better he could see. There was light coming up from the outer edges of the room--faint light, because it really was full dusk outside and soon there'd be no light at all.
He could see the rafters like corduroy, row on row, with thick dust piled on them like snow on a fence rail. He thought of falling down through the ceiling. He thought of getting half there and realizing it was too dark to go on and then having it be so dark he couldn't find the door to get back into his room. And then he'd feel a hand
on his shoulder and a voice would say, "Hello, little brother..."
...and when he thought of that
there was no way he was going in, not tonight. Tomorrow when it was light. And when the noises weren't coming from the locked room.
He pulled himself back into his little room. There was one horrible moment when a belt loop on his jeans snagged against the doorframe and he thought he'd been grabbed. But then he was through the door and he slammed it shut, fortunately not making much noise because it was such a thin door and it didn't actually have a jamb to bump against. Then he scrambled to his feet, got round to the head of the bed, and shoved it hard against the wall.
Nothing could get through that door without moving the bed and that would wake him up, so it was safe. Besides, he'd slept in this room all his life and nothing had ever come out of that little crawl-space door to get him anyway, had it? So why was he lying there under his covers, constantly lifting up his head to see if the door had moved? It had! No it hadn't. But maybe it had.
And then he woke up in the morning and didn't even remember about the crawl space until he was in the front yard enjoying one of the last days of summer before second grade started. He looked up at the front of the house and saw the attic balcony and window and wondered, as he sometimes did, whether his brother ever looked out the window at him playing and hated him--and that was when he remembered the crawl space last night. Only had it really happened? Wasn't it just a dream? Well, today he'd go in there while it was daylight and settle the question for once and all.
But he forgot about it again. He forgot it over and over except when he was too far away or too busy with something to bother running upstairs to do the experiment. He kept not doing it until he was away at school every day and then he really did forget. And then one of the visiting kids told him that all houses made weird noises at night. "It's just wind coming out of the toilet drainpipes," the girl said. "That and the house settling down to rest at night." And now that he thought about it, Michael realized that toilet drainpipes probably all made sounds like that from the wind whistling over them so it wasn't coming out of the locked room at all. It was from the pipes, and that was that. Mystery solved. Of course it wasn't his brother. He had no brother. That was just a nightmare.
One night, halfway through second grade, Gramps looked at him and said, "How tall are you anyway, boy?"
"Tall enough to pee standing up," said Michael, "but not tall enough to shave."
The visiting kids at the dinner table laughed and snorted.
"I hate it that you taught him to say that," said Granny.
"I didn't," said Gramps. "It's just the simple truth."
"It is so crude to use words like that."
"You heard your Granny, Michael. We have to call it 'chin depilation,' not 'shaving.'"
"I'm this tall," said Michael, standing up beside his chair again like he did during grace.
"That's what I thought," said Gramps. "Birds' nests are in grave danger from you now, young man. You're soon going to have to duck going under bridges."
"I'll just step over them," said Michael.
"You're not that tall," said one of the kids, a serious boy with round scars on his arm.
"It's a brag," said an older girl. "They always brag."
"It's a joke," said another girl.
"Nay," said Granny, "'tis a jest, a jape."
Which was the cue for Gramps to do his gorilla act, saying "I beat on my jest because I am one of the great japes." Only when he had finished and Granny spooned him on the butt and he fled back to his chair did he finally come to the point.
"We have an empty room on the second floor," said Gramps. "I think you're too tall for that little bed in the attic now."
"I like it fine, Gramps," said Michael.
"Yeah, he lives up there with his pet chicken," said one of the older boys. Another boy immediately made a choking sound.
Gramps glared at them both and they wilted a little so Michael knew there was something bad or dirty about what they had said, though for the life of him he couldn't figure out what it was.
Gramps and Granny didn't do anything about it for a few weeks but then one day when Michael came home from school he found that his stuff had been moved down into the little bedroom right at the foot of the back stairs, directly beneath the attic room.
It broke his heart but he tried to hide it, and he must have done pretty well because it wasn't till he was crying alone in his bed that he heard Granny's voice saying, "Good heavens, Michael, why are you crying?"
But he couldn't answer, he just clung to her for a long while until he wasn't crying anymore. "I'm okay," he said.
"But whatever were you crying about?"
"It's okay," he insisted.
"It's not okay, and if you don't answer me right now I'm going to go downstairs to my
room and cry until you
come down and ask me why I'm
crying and I won't tell you either."
"I just...I just guess I'm one of the visiting kids now, that's all," said Michael. "I don't mind, really."
"Why--that's absurd, you silly frumpus. Why would you think that?"
"'Cause Gramps said when I moved in that the kids on the second floor come and go."
"No, no--oh, you poor boy--you remember that? You weren't even three; how can you remember? But don't you see? He was trying to reassure you because we thought that you might think that being up in the attic meant we didn't love you as much as the other kids. But the fact was that the bed up there is a child's bed and you're the only person who could sleep in it and it was the only space we had for you then. Gramps moved you down here because you're bigger, that's all. But you're not going to come and go, Michael. You're our very own. Our last little boy of our very own."
"I'm not your own," he said. "You're not even my Granny. You're my aunt."
"I'm your great
-aunt, don't you forget. Only we shortened that to Graunt, and then Graunty, and then Grauny; only that sounds so theatrical and phony that we changed it to Granny. So you see? I'm your Granny because
I'm your great-aunt."
"And I suppose Gramps is short for great-uncle."
"Not at all. It's because he's grumpy. We called him Grumps when he was a boy and it stuck, only somehow over the years it just changed to Gramps."
"So what is my
name going to change to? Over the years?"
"I have no idea," said Granny. "Won't it be interesting to see? Over the years? Because you are going to be here for years and years. As long as you like. Until the day comes when you
want to leave. To go off to college or to get married to some nice girl."
"I'm not supposed to say 'pee' and you
can talk about me marrying some girl?"
"Hardly seems fair, does it?"
And he didn't feel like crying anymore and after a while he liked being on the same floor as the visiting kids and some of them even became friends, because they were almost his age.
Now and then he still went halfway up the back stairs to the warm place. But after the first few weeks he didn't bother to go all the way up to his old room. It wasn't his room anymore, was it?
And down here, he never heard the sound of the wind rushing past the toilet drainpipes. He almost forgot about it. For years he almost forgot.
* * *
Seventh grade. The year that Granny and Gramps put on Our Town, As You Like It
, and Tom Sawyer
. The year that Michael Ringgold changed from clarinet to French horn because the junior-high band had fourteen clarinets and no French horn player at all. The year that everybody was Indiana Jones for Halloween, so Michael and Gramps worked for a week to put together a costume so he could go trick-or-treating as the Lost Ark.
It was the year when they had such a blizzard the day after Christmas that the whole town of Mayfield shut down. The snow was no burden at the Old Dragon's House, of course, because with a troupe of boys and girls on hand and plenty of snow shovels to go around, the front yard and sidewalk were soon clear right down to the cobbles and bricks. The kids were enthusiastic about the labor, too, because they carried the snow into the backyard in wheelbarrows and soon made such a mountain of snow that they could slide down it in all directions on sleds, inner tubes, and the seats of their pants.
It was great fun, and no one broke any bones this time, so the worst injury was probably the cut Michael got on his hand when his sled collided with another kid's snow shovel. He didn't mind--it was cold enough that his hands were too numb for the pain to be more than a dull throb--but the other kids began to complain that his blood was turning the snow all pink and it looked gross.
So he went inside and Granny almost fainted. In a few minutes she had Merthiolate poured over the wound and was stitching it up herself, a skill she had learned from her mother, who had done her share of backstage doctoring during vaudeville
days. "Hold still so I can line up the edges of the wound so the skin matches up. Otherwise you'll look rumpled for the rest of your life."
"Will I have a scar?" asked Michael.
"Yes, you will, so I hope you're not contemplating a life of crime because it will make your palm print absolutely distinctive."
"I wish it was on my face," said Michael.
"I wish it were
on my face," corrected Granny. "And why ever would you wish for such a foolish thing?"
"Scars are romantic."
"Romantic! Maybe once upon a time dueling
scars were romantic. But sledding scars are definitely not. So I hope you're not going to go out and lie down on Mt. Snowshovel and let the sleds run over you."
"I never would have thought of it if you hadn't suggested it."
She finished covering his palm with a bandage and winding it around with tape. "All packaged up so nicely we ought to put a stamp on it and mail it somewhere."
"Come on, this bandage is so thick I can't even pick my nose."
"Well if you expect me to do it for you, think again."
"So are you going to help me get on some mittens?"
"Apparently you are suffering from the delusion that you are going to go back outside and open up this wound after I went to all the trouble to stitch it closed."
my plan, Gran."
plan is for you to stay here in the kitchen till you warm up. Whose plan do you think will prevail?"
"How about if I go lie down in my room?"
"That will certainly do, though I must warn you that if I look out back and see you on Mt. Snowshovel again you will have a nice set of scars on your squattenzone and I will
stitch them all skewampus so that everyone who sees your backside will laugh at you."
"Who's ever going to see my backside?"
"Never you mind who. I can just promise you that you won't want them laughing."
"I won't go outside again," he said.
"Not even just to watch," said Granny.
"Not even just to watch." And Michael meant it, because now that he was warmer he could really feel the pain in his hand and it was nasty, a deep, hard throb that made it difficult to think about anything else.
"Well, if you're really going up to bed, let me give you some cough medicine."
"I don't have
a cough, Granny."
"This cough medicine has codeine in it," said Granny. "That's how it cures coughs--you fall asleep."
So he waited while she spooned the oversweet stuff into his mouth. He remembered that when he was little he liked it, but now it was way too sweet. It made him want to brush his teeth.
Up to his room he went, feeling just a little lightheaded by the time he got to the top of the stairs. And when he flopped down on his bed, the sudden move made his hand throb so hard that he almost fainted from the pain. He lay there wincing and panting for what seemed forever, refusing to cry. He finally worked up the gumption to get up and find a comic book to read but the light coming into the room wasn't bright enough to read well, and he didn't want the overhead light on because it would be too bright, so in the end he fell asleep with the comic book on his chest.
When he woke up he was lying on the comic book and his hand hurt even worse but differently, with the pain of deep healing rather than the pain of harsh injury. There was still light in the window but it was the dim light of a winter evening and he could hear the sounds of dinner being eaten downstairs. He must have slept for hours and he was hungry.
Pain or no pain, he had missed lunch and he wasn't going to miss dinner, too. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, stood up and then sat right back down, his head swimming. He had apparently lost a lot of blood outside in the snow. But after a few more minutes sitting on the edge of the bed, he was able to stand up and walk rather feebly toward the door, leaning on things as he went.
In the doorway, though, he heard gales of laughter from downstairs and suddenly he wasn't hungry at all, or at least not so hungry that he wanted to go walking into the bright crowded kitchen with all the kids gathered around the table. Granny would make a fuss over him but the other kids would mock him and tease him and it just made him tired. He wanted to be alone, like an injured animal that crawls off into the deepest thicket in the woods in order to either bleed to death or heal.
He might have turned back into his own room but that wasn't where he wanted to go. Without naming his goal, he walked along the narrow hall to the back of the house and then slowly climbed the stairs to the warm place.
He hadn't spent much time there this year. Perhaps none. Perhaps he hadn't sat in this place since sixth grade. Or fifth. He didn't remember. He only knew that this was the sheltered place where he needed to go when he felt like he felt right now.
He sat down on the step where he had always sat, but now he was bigger and his body didn't fit into the place as it used to. It really had
been a long time, and he was going through a growth spurt, Granny said, and his legs were so long they stuck out of the bottoms of his pants like Popsicle sticks.
He did not close his eyes because he never closed his eyes here.
Instead he let his gaze rest idly and unfocused on the wallpaper near the back stairs window and let the warmth of the place seep into him.
It came into him as it always did, in gentle increments with each throb of the heartbeat of the place. This time, though, the throbbing of the pain in his hand had its own rhythm that conflicted with the slower beat of the warm place, and it made him feel agitated at first, jumpy, restless. But then the warmth went to his hand and for a moment it actually burned, as if he had thrust his whole hand into a blazing fire and he cried out with the sharpness of it.
And then he was caught up into a dream. Not of flying this time. No, he felt himself sliding and slithering through a dark passage of cold stone, downward mostly, but he couldn't really see anything except shadows against a dull red glow that seemed to increase with each of his breaths and quickly fade. He would brush against the sides or roof of the passage and feel the chill against his crusty skin, but the chill could never get very deep because he had so much warmth inside him.
Then the cold rock opened up and he was in a large open cavern with stalactites and stalagmites and a different sort of glow, a deeper red. The air was very hot here, as hot as the pain in Michael's palm, so there was a sort of balance and it didn't bother him so much, it was just part of the place. He slipped among the stalagmites, feeling his body trail among them, bending easily around them, scraping on both sides but never injured. He had never realized how long
his body was when he was in the dreams of this place, or how tightly and smoothly his arms could press up against his sides.
The underground chamber grew larger and brighter the farther in they went, and the stalagmites soon ceased. Instead the floor under his feet, under his belly, was as bumpy and yet as smooth as the surface of boiling water, if you could harden boiling water into stone.
He came at last to a shore of an underground sea, only the sea was made of molten stone, seething and bubbling, smelling of sulphur. The blast of heat from the sea was worse than standing in front of Granny's oven when she had it really heated up to broil something. And yet instead of making him want to back away, to retreat to some cool place, it seemed to waken a fire inside him and he wanted to be inside it the way he wanted to plunge into a swimming pool on a hot August day. Not that the sea of molten stone would be cool, rather that the intense heat of it would bring this body the same kind of relief.
This body. What am I, when I dream like this? Not this boy, this weak walking boy clad in soft, easily sliced skin, not this cowering creature who slinks through the world creeping up back stairs and hiding from the laughter of his enemies.
Enemies. I have no enemies.
None who dare to show themselves, huddling little human.
Who are you?
I am the fire.
And with that thought, the body Michael wore in his dreams leapt up and spread its arms, its thin strong wings, and rose circling high above the sea of magma until he could sense, with senses he did not know he had, the roof of the great cavern, the crown of this bubble of air deep within the earth, and having reached the zenith of this dark sky he plunged down, straight down into the hot red sea and his mind turned white inside and Michael sprawled unconscious upon the stairs.
He became aware of himself again, stretched out across the steps, long and sinuous, his sleek feathery scales unperturbed by the wooden edges. His wings were folded up under him and his great jaws began to yawn.
No, that would be the other body, not this one. He stretched, and it was the arms of a boy that stretched. The hands of a boy that flexed, the eyes of a boy that opened.
It was dark, but it had been nearly dark when he had first crept to this place so that did not tell him how long he had been asleep. It couldn't have been long because Granny would have checked on him when the other boys finished dinner and, not finding him in his room, would have looked first in this place.
He rose to his feet and was surprised at how small and light he was. An hour ago he had thought himself rather tall and big; his man-height was coming on him these days, and he was taller than Granny, wasn't he, and almost as tall as Gramps?
He looked down at hands that were not wings and again he flexed his fingers and realized that the bandaged hand did not hurt at all. Not so much as a twinge. The only discomfort was the awkwardness of the thick bandage.
He brought the bandage up to his mouth to bite at the tape but then remembered that he had another hand and used those fingers to pry up the end of the tape and peel it away. Granny's thorough packaging was unwrapped in only a few moments and underneath it there was no wound at all, not even a scar. Only a few loops of black thread lying in his palm. He blew them away and there was then no way to tell which hand had been sliced.
Was this what happened when he plunged into the sea of fire? It made him whole?
You healed me?
But there was no answering thought as there had been in the dream. Just a faint buzzing, whirring, rushing sound.
Which Michael now knew with absolute certainty was not the sound of wind rushing past the standpipes and playing them like an organ. It came from inside the locked windowless room where a bright light shone though no one ever entered to change the bulb. It sounded like razors, like can openers, and he had to know, he had to see.
He was up the stairs in a moment, his eye trying to peer through the keyhole. The tiny slit he had made years ago was still there, and as before, it showed only dazzling light.
In moments he had the bed back from the crawl-space door and was through it. It was dark but he felt his way along the rafters, taking care to find the next one before taking his weight from the ones before. If there were spiderwebs or beetles he did not care; he was barely aware of the thick dust that rose from the rafters with each movement of a hand or foot. For one moment he thought he would sneeze but he held it in by holding his breath, for he did not want to set the house on fire.
Fire? I make no fire when I sneeze.
Who are you, who healed me? Whose body is it that I dwell in, who took me diving into fire?
There was faint light up ahead. Far ahead, the length of the house. It was a couple of lines of dim light, and when at last he got there he found that it was another crawl-space door, which was closed only by the same simple kind of latch as the door in his old attic room. He lifted the block of wood and the door opened easily at his push.
He was in the front room of the attic, the one that had the window and balcony overlooking the street. The only light in the room came from the streetlights outside--that had been enough to make the faint glow around the edges of the crawl-space door.
But he could still hear the noise from the locked room and there, opposite the window, was another door. This keyhole had not been blocked up--a bright glow shone plainly through it. And when Michael turned the handle and pulled, the door opened easily.
Four bright naked bulbs in ceiling fixtures made the dazzling light, and the razor sounds had come from five electric trains making their rounds along tracks that stretched completely around the room. The table surrounding the room even crossed in front of the doors so the only way into the room was to duck down under the table and come up the other side, in the midst of a miniature world of villages, train stations, trestles and tunnels, hills and farms and rivers and a distant sea.
Who had built this? Why didn't anyone ever see it? Why did they leave the trains running, with no one here to play with them?
In one corner of the room a mist seemed to gather. Michael watched it, fascinated. It was a cloud, he saw that now, emanating from the smokestacks of a tiny factory. No sooner had it formed than electricity began to spark from it. Michael felt his own hair standing up the way it did when you rubbed a balloon and held it near. The sparks crackled. A tiny bolt of lightning snapped from the cloud to a train track. There was a sharp cracking sound--miniature thunder. He could smell the ozone.
How was it done? He had never heard of a train layout with weather. A storm, of all things! No rain, but maybe that was coming.
The cloud kept jetting out of the smokestacks and now the whole ceiling was masked by it, so the light of the bulbs was dimmed. Lightning cracked here and there all around the room now, snapping down to the tracks. Each time the trains hesitated for a moment but then went on.
Michael caught a whir of motion out of the corner of his eye. He spun to look. A train? But the only train in that part of the room was nowhere near the motion he had seen.
He looked intently at the painted, lichened landscape and again saw movement as a dragonfly suddenly leapt upward from the ground near the mouth of a tunnel. It flew rapidly around the room, so Michael could hardly get a look at it. There was something wrong, though. It did not move like a dragonfly, really. It had the long tail but the wings were not a dragonfly's blur of translucence, they flapped like a bird's wings. Yet the skin of the tiny creature was as iridescent as a dragonfly's body, sparkling in the light, glimmering with each thread of lightning.
The creature did not shy away from the lightning, either. In fact it seemed drawn to it, darting toward each bolt as if it were drinking in the ozone that was left behind in the burnt air.
I know you, thought Michael.
"I know you," he whispered.
You don't know me, came the answer in his mind. You will never know me. You are incapable of knowing me, you poor worm.
You healed my hand. You took me flying with you and plunged me with you into the magma deep within the earth. "Thank you," Michael whispered.
In reply the tiny dragon lunged in the air just as a spark of lightning began to crackle downward and even though it happened in a mere instant, Michael thought he saw the dragon sparkle all over as if the lightning were inside it and it was the dragon that snapped downward to the electric track, leaving a trail of lightning behind it.
And it was gone.
The lights went out. The trains fell silent. Michael was in total darkness, surrounded by silence and the smell of ozone and another faint burnt smell.
You couldn't have died, thought Michael. After all these years that the trains have run in this room, and the lightning flashed, you couldn't have died on this very day when I first came here and saw you. It must be this way every time. You were reaching for the lightning. You must have reached for it, caught it like a surfer catching a wave, and ridden it down to earth. You must still be here...somewhere...
You are not really as small as the dragon I saw in this room. In all my dreams the one thing I never felt was that you were small.
But there was no answering thought. Only the gradually increasing light as Michael's eyes became accustomed to seeing in the faint spill from the streetlights outside the window of the front attic room.
Who built this room? There had been something, some mention, now that Michael thought about it, of Gramps's and Granny's father having electric trains--was it him, then? Yet how did he ever get a dragon to come here? He couldn't have made it. No man could make a living thing. The dragon was already alive, but it came here into the house and it has lived here all my life. I had the bedroom next to it. When I peered through the tiny slit in the keyhole, I was looking for the dragon.
When I sat in the warm place, I felt the beating of its huge, invisible heart. I felt its life come over me like a dream. I dwelt in its memories. It healed my hand.
What am I to this creature? A pet? A friend? A servant? A son? Its future prey?
Michael ducked under the table and left the train room, closing
the door behind him. He made his way back through the crawl space and emerged again in the bedroom of his childhood.
He went downstairs into the room he had been sleeping in and took all the sheets and blankets off his bed and carried them up the back stairs to his old room. He knew he couldn't sleep on the child's bed there, so he spread them out on the floor. He went back down and gathered all his other things--not much, really, just clothing and his schoolbooks and a few toys and games and tools. It took only three trips, and he had moved upstairs again.
Only then did he hear the noises of the kids bounding up the stairs to the second floor, the water running in the bathrooms, lots of chatter and laughter and a few complaints and whines. Now he remembered--there had been a dress rehearsal of the New Year's play, As You Like It
. They must have covered for him--he had a couple of smallish parts, being too young to compete for the leads in a grown-up play. Granny must have thought he was sleeping and didn't let anyone wake him.
But now the rehearsal was over and everyone was going to bed and Granny would come looking for him, to see if he was hungry, to check on his hand.
He went to the head of the back stairs and started down just as Granny started up.
She looked down at the remnants of the bandage lying on the steps. "Why did you take it off?" she said. "That was foolish."
"It's all better," said Michael.
"Don't be absurd," said Granny. "It takes days for the wound to fully close, even with the stitches." She held out her hand. "Let me see the damage."
So he went down a few more steps, and she came up a few, and he held out his hand to her.
"Don't be a goof, Michael," she said. "Show me the hand that you cut."
the hand," he said, showing her the other as well.
She held both his hands palms up in hers and looked from one to the other, then up into Michael's eyes.
"What were you doing here?"
"I moved back into my old room," he said. "I want to live in my old room again."
"The bed's too small."
"I'll sleep on the floor."
"What happened to your hand, Michael?"
"I guess it wasn't as serious as you thought," he said.
"Don't be absurd. I should know how deep it was, and even if it was only a scratch it couldn't be healed like this. What did you do?"
"I came up to the warm place on the stairs," he said, "and I slept."
She looked in his eyes and perhaps she could see that he wasn't lying or perhaps she could see something else, something that forbade her to inquire more. Maybe she could see the dragon's eyes, just a glimpse of the dragon's eyes, looking out at her.
"I never came up here," she said softly. "After I was a little girl, and Mother sent me up to fetch Father for dinner, and I knocked on the door of his train room and he didn't hear me so I opened it."
"What did you see?" said Michael.
"What did you see?" she asked him in reply.
"Trains," he said.
She shuddered. "What did Papa do in there, Michael?"
"I don't know," he said. "He must have been very talented with...electric things."
"He was just an ordinary man. Rich, of course. Theatrical. He owned a lot of playhouses back in vaudeville days. But none of that should have let him create..."
"Weather," said Michael.
"You went inside," she said.
"It would be easier," said Michael, "if you gave me a key. I won't tell the other kids. I won't let anyone in. But now that I've seen it, you can't keep me out."
"It's dangerous," she said.
"So is crossing the street."
"That's an unbelievably inept analogy, Michael."
"I won't die in that room."
"Papa was only truly alive there," she said. "There were weeks when he hardly came out, and when he did, it was as though he was living in a dream. As though we weren't real. Only the train room was real."
"I know what's real," said Michael.
"I'll talk to Herry," she said. "To Gramps."
"I love you, Granny," said Michael.
"Because you think I'll give you what you want?"
"Because you're good," he said.
"If I were really good," she said, "I would move out of this house and take you with me and never let you come here again. If I really loved you."
"I'd come back," he said. "I grew up in the dragon's heart."
Tears came to her eyes. "Papa talked about dragons. It was part of his..."
"He wasn't crazy," said Michael. "They live in the fire. The fires under the earth are like home to them. And they fly the lightning. They soar into the storm and they search for the lightning and when they catch it just right they ride it down to earth."
"Don't tell me any more," she said. "You can't have inherited his madness. None of Papa's blood is in your veins."
"It's not madness."
"The house does it. Letting you sleep in the attic, I never should have done that."
"He came to the house because he loves the lightning and there's so much electricity here. In the theatre lights in the basement. And up here, in the tracks, the trains. That's all. It's not madness, it's real. He came up out of the earth because all the electricity called to him."
"How do you know this?"
"Because I've felt how he hungers for it. I felt it, too. That's what called me into the train room. That's what drew me, I know it now. He's all through this house. It didn't matter where you had me sleep. Once I felt his heartbeat here on the back stairs I knew him, Granny."
"And when was that?" she asked softly.
"The first day I came here," he said. "When you and Gramps took me up these stairs and told me I would live here forever. I felt his heartbeat as we climbed the stairs. That's how I knew that I was truly home. Because it was warm there. And I'd never been warm like that before."
"Why didn't you tell me what was happening to you?"
"I didn't know it myself until today. Until I said it out loud to you just now." He bent down--for he was standing two steps above her--and kissed her forehead. "I love you, Granny. I'll be safe here. I'll be careful. Don't be afraid for me. Look."
He held his hands out to her.
"He healed my hand. It really happened. He's looking out for me."
But even as he said it, he knew it was not true. Dragons don't look out for human beings. Dragon's don't care.
She pressed his hands against her cheeks. "God help us, Michael."
To which he had no answer. If God helps us, he thought, he does it through other people. It was you and Gramps who took me in when I needed a home--but maybe it was God who made you my great-aunt and great-uncle. It was the dragon who healed my hand--but maybe it was God who brought me to the house where the dragon lives.
Or maybe not.
"I'm hungry," said Michael. "Is there any dinner left?"
"Yes," she said, coming to herself again. "Yes, of course. I kept some of it warm in the oven for you. Shepherd's pie."
"Nasty stuff," said Michael, sliding past her, putting his arm around her, walking with her down the stairs. "I don't know why you work so hard to poison us with stuff like that."
"I saved you half a pie because I know how you love it," she said.
"Only half? When I didn't have lunch? What were you thinking?"
"Don't get smart with me."
"You want me to get stupid? I can do that."
"No, you can't," she said. "It takes real
brains to do that."
* * *
It was an old joke between them, but it felt far more meaningful now. Almost portentous. But then, anything they said would sound that way, now that they knew each other's secrets. Some of them, anyway.
The dragon gargoyle on the house at 22 Adams pours water out of its mouth whenever it rains and it splashes on the cobbles of the garden, and in a bad storm it can soak the shoes of whoever is standing at the door. The house is so unusual--gothic amid Victorians, the garden cobbled and bricked, and the torrent of boys and girls running in and out of the house at all hours--that people drive from all over town sometimes just to see the Old Dragon's House.
None of them guess that every night in the back room of the attic the old dragon watches over the sleeping boy whose body is growing into one that someday he can use, someday he can wear, allowing him to emerge from the wiring of the house and bear a living body up into the sky, soaring once again on gossamer wings, his wyrmtail curling under him, seeking lightning in the storm so he can ride back down to earth. One ride per body, alas, for it burns up on the ride and shatters against the earth as the dragon within it plunges down into the earth.
But then, one ride on a single bolt of lightning is enough to keep a dragon going for a thousand years.
And the boy would love that moment when it came.
They always did.
"In the Dragon's House" copyright 2003 by Orson Scott Card Continues...
Excerpted from The Dragon Quintet by Card, Orson Scott Copyright © 2006 by Card, Orson Scott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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