“Mrs. Peak and the Dragon”
by Andrew Willett
The woman with the iron-gray hair smoothed her pink-striped apron and watched the boy walk back and forth before the counter. “Let me know what you want when you decide, sweetie,” she said. He nodded, his pale slender neck spotted with freckles, his hair soft and dark and cut short, like a soldier’s, by his mother. He wore a white undershirt and dungarees held up by suspenders. He looked about eight years old. She remembered the boy’s uncle looking very much like him, once upon a time. The boy never took his eyes off her rows of glass jars, though, because they were filled with penny candy of every color and flavor and variety. Peak’s Delights was among the last of the city’s little candy shops, and Mrs. Peak saw most of the schoolchildren in the neighborhood at least twice a week. Most of the children in three neighborhoods in any direction, for that matter.
She sniffed the air breezing in through the transom: Summer was winding up fast. There was rain in the wind, and cool evenings, and in the hilly pastures north of town the spring lambs were becoming sheep. She turned to the radio and switched it on. Once it warmed up, tinny dance-orchestra music played. The afternoon was drawing to an end. Almost time to close up shop, she thought. She pondered her next meal. A streetcar rumbled past, pale green with burgundy stripes. Mrs. Peak considered a trip to the country for a day or two. She would have to ask Ellison’s girl if she could come in and watch the place.
The boy made a noise. Mrs. Peak turned back from the shop’s picture window and from her reverie. She reached for a white paper bag.
“Do you know what you’d like, dear? What can I — oh, you stupid thing! Shoo!”
She wasn’t speaking to the boy, who had a look that layered surprise and delight around a crunchy nugget of alarm. He stood in front of a bowl of golden-wrapped butterscotch candies, a popular selection, piled high. Atop the shining mound was a tiny dragon, emerald-green and sinuous. Probably no more than a week old, by the size of it. It must have come in through the transom.
“Do you think I could keep it?” the boy asked. “Just for a while?”
“Certainly not,” Mrs. Peak said.
“But I could take care of it,” he said, his face shifting to an expression of profound longing. His blue eyes never left the dragonet’s golden ones. “I could teach it to talk.”
“It’ll learn to talk on its own,” Mrs. Peak replied, “but it has to survive to the speaking age first. That’s the way of dragons. And of nature. Go on, now,” she said to the dragonet, her voice softening. “You can’t set up a hoard in here.” She poked at it with a pencil. It spread its little wings and hissed, drawing itself up. It clutched a butterscotch in each claw and wrapped its tail protectively around the mound beneath it.
“Can it breathe fire?” the boy said. “Make it breathe fire.”
“Too young for that, too, and thank goodness. The last thing we need is for it to burn down the town while it’s hunting mice.”
“Oh,” the boy said. He’d probably spent the whole summer looking under porches and eaves for dragonets, and by the sound of him this was the first one he’d seen. Not many clutches of eggs laid in the city, and the littlest hatchlings got winnowed out quick. Speaking, sparking, and sneaking: Those were all tricks that came with age and experience, and few indeed were the hatchlings that lived long enough to learn all three and make eggs of their own.
Mrs. Peak pried the pencil away from the dragonet, which had embedded its sharp little teeth in the wood. She harrumphed and got the long-handled tongs she used to take jars down from high shelves.
“Are you sure I couldn’t take it home?” the boy asked.
“Dragons are not pets,” said Mrs. Peak. “They’re people. Or the grown-up ones are. Would you keep someone’s baby in a cardboard box?”
The boy pondered this, his brows knitted.
“If I could teach it to fly and breathe fire, I might.”
The old woman chuckled. In a single, fluid motion, and with unexpected swiftness, she reached out with the tongs and plucked the dragonet from the pile of candies. It managed to keep one golden prize clutched tightly in a claw as it wrestled with the tongs.
“Go on,” she said, moving from behind the counter. She opened the door to the street. “Off with you. And good luck.” She flicked the dragon into the air. It made a guttural honk like a tiny, outraged badger. A woman pushing a stroller down the sidewalk stopped to ooh joyfully as it flapped out above the passing cars. Mrs. Peak watched it go for a moment, then turned back to her customer.
“So. What can I do for you, young sir? It’s time for me to close up shop.”
The boy bought licorice drops and Swedish fish and strawberry buttons and a butterscotch or two. She put them all in a white paper bag and accepted his nickels with a broad smile. Before she handed him the bag, she made a show of dropping two French Dragons, fizzing sweets wrapped in bright red foil, into it.
“To remember the day,” she said.
“Thank you,” said the boy, who headed out the door.
“You’re welcome,” Mrs. Peak said. She locked the door behind him and drew the shades over the windows. She took a broom and dustpan and swept the shop clean, humming to the sound of the dance orchestra on the radio, swaying gently. Then she emptied the day’s receipts, all pennies and nickels and dimes, into her apron pocket. She unlocked, with a key taken from around her neck, the door leading to the back stairs, then turned out the shop lights and walked not up to her apartment but down into the basement.
When she reached the bottom, still humming, she removed her apron, and then her dress and her shoes, and set them aside neatly. She took the day’s pennies and nickels and dimes and tossed them onto the glittering pile of coins that took up most of the room, listening to the jingling clinking laughter they made as they joined their siblings. Such a lovely sound. Then she threw herself onto the pile as well with a girlish giggle, feeling the delightful coolness of the hoard upon her warm mammal’s skin, which was slowly changing already, cooling and becoming smooth and scaly and acquiring a vivid blue color as it stretched out on her shifting frame. Speaking and sparking, those were easy. But sneaking took years to learn. The transformation took only a few minutes — she was not as old as that, even after all these years, all those clutches of eggs. She wondered if she would ever meet today’s hatchling again, if she knew its parents. It was not one of hers, she was certain. Too young.
She was a little hungry, and restless. Yes, this weekend, the countryside for certain. She settled further into her hoard, listening to the radio playing upstairs, until she fell asleep, broad wings twitching faintly, dreaming of sheep.
Andrew Willett was born and raised in the improbable suburbs of San Francisco, but (much to his own amazement) he has resided in New York City for more than 20 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else. He is an editor at The New York Times; in what passes for his spare time he sings in a choir, swims in a pool, and stares into space.