Four Words: A Short Story

“It’s bred to be tame from birth. It’ll breathe smoke only, never fire. And I personally guarantee it won’t get bigger than a large dog. In a few years, everyone will have a dragon as a pet. Don’t you want to be one of the first?”

Later, no one could agree on whether the dragon-egg peddler was tall or short, dark or pale, skinny or portly. But they all agreed on the essentials of his spiel and the trustworthy smile that accompanied it.

Five years later, the peddler was nowhere to be found, but my husband Stiver and I were hearing plenty of stories. Tales of pet dragons as big as houses, of entire blocks burning from a dragon’s belch.

When rumor reached us of a dragon named Prettynose snacking on a child, we knew we had to act. I left my bakery’s management in the hands of my sister, and Stiver quit his job at the sawmill. We bought an abandoned farm and started the Dragon Rehabilitation Center, a place to prepare pet dragons to live in the wild.

I’d always been able to communicate with dragons, so I entered our venture with naïve optimism. It might be harder than baking bread, but it was bound to be more fun. 

The day we opened, a farmer brought us a glorious, gray-blue dragon, eight feet tall when seated, with a wingspan twice that big. I came to a quick understanding with him. Stiver and I would help him gain independent-living skills as quickly as possible; he’d refrain from eating us or burning us. A month later, we released him into the wild. I still saw him in the distance for years after that, soaring over the forest, sleek and strong. Based on occasional wisps of thought the wind carried to me, the big fella was happy.

More people entrusted their dragons to us. Some wept as they dropped off their dear pets; others fairly danced after handing us the leash. The dragons, too, reacted in any number of different ways, from despondent to excited to wary. 

Stiver took them hunting in the little woods behind our house. I sat with them, discussing how things were going and how they might learn to be more self-sufficient.

It was, of course, more difficult than I’d expected. I’d had conversations with dragons all my life, but we never got personal. It wasn’t until I was living with them that I realized how emotional they can be. After the third time a weeping dragon nearly burned me with flaming sobs, I started a meditation class to teach them to control their emotions. I explained that I understood it was hard to be away from their owners, but I couldn’t help them if I was charbroiled.

Stiver and I released dragons back into the wild at a rate of nearly one a week, and we were both happy with that result. We only kept a dozen at a time; we didn’t have room for more. One day after I watched a sweet red female ride the wind currents to her new home on the mountain, I checked our waiting list.

“Stiver,” I said, “can you walk down to the rectory? They’re next on the list.”

His eyes darted up from the salve he was mixing. (He was forever trying to soothe reptilian necks that were chafed by collars.) “The green dragon?”

“That’s the one.”

“You, uh . . . you sure?”

I sighed. “I’m sure, Stiver. We can handle this.”

He wiped his hands clean and departed without another word.

Stiver doesn’t often get nervous, and I tried to shake off my concern at seeing such a reaction from him. Sure, the green dragon at the rectory was different. He was big, for one thing, taller than most buildings in town. More than once, he’d gotten loose and sat in front of the church, wings spread. Oddly, it was always on Meeting Day. We’d relocate our service to the street, watched over by those huge, jade eyes.

close-up of a green reptile eye next to green reptilian skin

And to top it all off, the dragon had never spoken to me, not once. I’d reached out to him, said hello, asked his name, complimented his sleek, grass-green scales. (Most dragons are notoriously susceptible to flattery.) I was sure he understood me; those eyes of his were deep vats of intelligence. But he never deigned to respond.

Well, what was done was done. Stiver was on his way over there, and soon enough, we’d both have to deal with the creature I’d taken to calling Green. I walked over to Lair One (a converted barn) to check on the residents and distract myself from my anxiety.

I heard Green arrive before I saw him. I was comforting one of our newest residents, singing her a lullaby like her owner had always done, when Green let out a massive roar that shook me to my shoelaces. After kissing my little homesick dragon on the cheek, I turned, squared my shoulders, and marched to the center’s front gate.

I nearly stumbled when I got close enough to see what awaited me there. Green was standing tall, holding Stiver against his chest with a muscular, scaly tail. From fifteen feet above the ground, my husband’s eyes and mouth were wide. But his coloring was normal, leading me to believe he was alive and breathing. Green stared at me with impassive eyes that dared me to react improperly.

Perhaps my first reaction should’ve been panic. I do love Stiver, deeply and truly. But I also love a challenge. I kept my wits and stepped right up to Green, so close that when I craned my head to gaze at his face, I looked straight up into his ashy nostrils.

Not taking my eyes off Green’s head, I crouched and placed a hand on his lower body, a foot off the ground. My fingers felt the invisible seam which I knew led to a male dragon’s most vulnerable and personal organs, kept hidden most of the time. Most people know nothing about how this great species mates. But lonely dragons tend to get talkative, and I’d learned a lot in the year our sanctuary had been open.

I didn’t talk aloud, just sent a thought to Green: If you have any desire for children or pleasure in the future, you’ll release my husband.

A moment later, that great belly nearly touched my head as Green bent over and placed Stiver on the ground behind me, setting him down as gently as a mother kisses her baby.

Green straightened and finally lowered his head to look at me. I removed my hand and stood, again communicating silently with him. Thank the heavens; I really didn’t want to stick my hand in there. I arched a brow and led him to Lair Three, a building custom-built for large dragons. The green behemoth followed me quietly, a small puff of acrid smoke the only indicator of his displeasure. 


Green wasn’t the slightest bit tame. And like all our residents, he could have flown off at any time.

He didn’t stay because he wanted to be a pet. He stayed because he was pragmatic enough to know that habitual churchgoer intimidation hadn’t prepared him for a life of hunting and plundering.

Green didn’t tell me any of this, of course. Even after a week, he still wouldn’t speak a word to me. But dragons, like people, communicate through far more than words. I read his wildness in the tension of his rippling muscles. I saw his determination in his hunting, after which he regularly crashed to the ground in exhaustion, having spent all day seeking prey. And every time I sneaked a look in his shimmering, green eyes, I saw his hatred of the captivity he’d been born into.

When he finally spoke, we didn’t have a conversation about the weather or his hunting. In fact, it didn’t quite qualify as a conversation at all. Rather, it was a reprimand.

Green had hunted from sunrise to twilight that day, with nary a break for food or water. Then he’d fainted, falling from above the treetops to the ground, earning himself a gash from a heavy branch on the way down. I’d been trying to get him to descend for hours by then, and I was none too patient when I ran home and returned with Stiver’s salve.

But when I tried to rub the stuff in Green’s wound, he rewarded me with a slap from his muscular tail, so hard I knew my entire hand would be bruised the next day.

Forget wooing him with silent words. I let loose on him, screaming with a voice hoarse from lack of sleep (thanks to his recent antics). “You could at least show some gratitude, you big, green oaf!” I dug my hand into the pungent ointment and flung a fistful of the stuff at him, missing the wound entirely.

That was when his voice at last pierced my mind. Four words, spoken in a tone that, while telepathic, was nonetheless full and rumbling, a sound that was surely born of the molten rock at the center of the earth.

I OWE YOU NOTHING.

I opened my mouth to argue, but I couldn’t. There I was, standing next to this carnivore who couldn’t hunt, a beast who should’ve been free to develop such skills from his first days but had instead been walked on a leash by a rector’s son. And I perceived the tragic truth of his life for the first time.

I saw that wildness without freedom is fraught with injustice. I saw that even if Green learned to live with his cousins in the mountains, he would never truly be one of them. That was humanity’s fault.

It was my fault.

How many times had I passed someone walking their dragon and shaken my head in self-righteous disapproval, doing nothing to stand up for the captive creature? How many times had I laughed when I’d heard of a pet dragon burning up some outhouse? I’d mused that the owners had gotten what was coming to them. But the justice of such little disasters didn’t provide any relief for the hapless pets who were likely treated even worse afterward.

All this filled my head in perhaps a minute. I stepped back from Green, far enough to be out of reach of his tail, but close enough that a fiery breath could incinerate me if he so desired. I opened my mind to him, letting him read my heart, my newly awakened sense of what was real.

He stared at me with unblinking, emotionless eyes, their jade irises so deep I could swim in them. Then he lifted himself to his feet and soared toward his pitiful, human-built lair.

After Green spoke those four words to me, I allowed him to be wild. I offered him space to sleep and hunt, expecting nothing in return. He mostly ignored me. When his inexperienced hunting led to inevitable hunger, he alighted atop the barn where we kept animals for just that purpose, until Stiver or I fetched a pig or a few chickens for him. He ate those meals in the woods, not a hint of emotion seeping from his closed mind.

My actions toward the other dragons changed, as well. No more lullabies, no more meditation or deep conversations. They needed to be wild, rather than coddled. 

I became aware of my error within a day, when my head virtually exploded with incoming dragon cries: WHERE ARE YOU? a newcomer screamed. PLEASE COME!

Forced wildness, I realized, could not overcome the tragedy of a dragon’s tameness. I shifted my strategy again, giving every dragon just what they needed, no more or less, never asking for anything from them.

One morning, I woke to a voice in my mind. It was the dragon who always requested lullabies. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RIDE ME? she asked.

I sat up in bed fast enough to wake Stiver. I was about to send back my enthusiastic Yes!, for riding a dragon was my lifelong dream. It had been illegal for a century, since the great wars that had decimated both human and dragon populations. But surely if a dragon was offering . . .

And then I thought of the face of that sweet lullaby dragon when she’d caught a fox the day before. I pictured the fire that had filled her gentle eyes. The wild pride.

No, I sent back to her. You don’t owe me a thing. I owe you everything.

A soothing rush of reptilian relief filled my mind. Two days later, the lullaby dragon flew off, waves of confident anticipation flowing behind her, ready to join her family.

Every dragon who’d preceded Green to the Rehabilitation Center eventually left. The ones who’d come after him began finding their freedom, as well. Yet Green still struggled to catch more than a squirrel, despite long days, and occasional nights, in the skies.

Strolling through town one day, I saw a young woman walking a rust-colored dragon twice her size.

I stopped in front of them both, causing them to halt.

“Do you think she wants to be a pet?” I asked, not even trying to tamp down the fury in my voice.

To my surprise, the woman’s eyes filled with tears. “I know she doesn’t. She tells me every day.”

The next day, the woman came on staff at the Rehabilitation Center. We accepted her dragon as our thirteenth resident, then built Lairs Four and Five, expanding our capacity to eighteen.

A year later, we had more workers, more lairs, and no more waiting list.

And still, Green hunted unsuccessfully every day, watching his fellow dragons come and go, never speaking a word.

I didn’t attempt to talk to him for months, until finally one day I stood before his lair in the pre-dawn darkness and sent him my own four-word message:

I know you can.

That afternoon, he caught a deer.

The next day, a badger.

The next, a wild hog.

On the fourth day, he soared away, not looking back once. I watched as his form grew smaller, dwarfed by the looming mountains in the distance. Green was going home.


Dragons came and went. Some returned to visit, often telling us of the new names their kinfolk had given them.

A month after he’d left, Green appeared in the distant sky early one morning. Occasionally, he dove down, probably to grab prey. Then he flew up again, gliding on wind currents. When the sun was reaching for the horizon, Green returned to the mountains.

The next day, he did the same thing—and every day after that until, one afternoon, a quick-learning resident took to the skies and soared toward the mountains. Green joined the deep-gray dragon, escorting her to her new home.

I wiped tears from my cheeks and sent a message as far as I could with every bit of strength I could muster: Green, I’ll call you when we’ve got one leaving. I didn’t know if I could reach him all the way at his mountain home, but experience had taught me that even a weak dragon’s telepathic reception far surpassed mine. And Green was not weak.

I received no response. But I didn’t see Green again until a few days later, half an hour after I’d thrust a message through the sky: The white dragon is leaving today.

When the snow-colored creature took to the air, she had a quiet escort home.

Years passed. Stiver and I had children of our own. Decades escaped our grasp like water flowing through our open hands. Once again, we were alone in our little farmhouse. The Center reached a peak resident count of eighty-two dragons. Then the numbers gradually dwindled, for the public had at last learned that wild animals make poor pets.

Our staff members found other professions. The sensitive young woman I’d first brought on was the last to leave. At last, Stiver and I found ourselves caring for only one dragon, a silver female who’d always been called Spot and was anxious to get a better name from her mountain family.

Spot was small, perhaps the size of our kitchen table. She’d somehow convinced us to let her sleep before our fireplace. She worked hard, learning to hunt during winter, even taking to the air on stormy days.

When she let us know she was ready to meet her family, we all cried—Stiver and I with salty tears, Spot with a beautiful, silent song of grief.

ONE MORE NIGHT? she asked.

I made the fire extra hot for her.

The next morning, I called Green. Spot waited, watching the sky. I stood on one side of her, Stiver on the other.

I pointed at a speck in the distance, barely visible against the mountain crags.

“Don’t know how you can see anything that far away,” Stiver said, as he always did.

I chuckled, as I always did.

Green grew larger, reaching the point he never flew beyond, about half a mile away. Then he kept coming, his great wings slowly flapping, until he was over our house. He landed, huge and regal, atop the chimney.

For the first time in thirty years, I saw his jade-green eyes, their depths unfathomable, full of wild wisdom. I looked at the ridge of scar tissue on his side where he’d fallen against a tree branch so long ago.

Spot lifted into the sky, the golden sun radiant on her silver scales. She joined the great, green dragon in the air. They soared off together.

Stiver returned to the house, but I stayed, watching the sky.

Just before the creatures were out of sight, the morning wind carried four words to my mind in a deep tone, conceived within the earth, a voice I’d never forgotten:

THEY CALL ME TEMPEST.


THE END


This story was part of the March Short Story Contest sponsored by Gestalt Media, and it won! It’ll be published in their 2020 short-story anthology.