Wards

By 
Lynne M. MacLean

A gargoyle sits at the end of my garden, a plastic resin Mother’s Day present, wrapped with charms of love and my children’s perspicacity. Her name is Marthe and her job is protection. Most of all, she is to guard me and mine from the dragon. 

My family has a dragon. Or, more like, he has us. 

He followed my grandfather over from the old country. The dragon was small and hidden beneath Grandpa’s coat, twined around his body next to his heart—not a problem then, more of a companion, a source of warmth on cold northern nights.

I have felt the dragon hanging around my neighbourhood the last few days. On Monday, I walked to the community mailbox. I retrieved a wedding invitation sheathed in creamy vellum. The sidewalk trembled beneath my feet.

“Road construction,” my husband said later, chewing his muffin and looking out from behind the newspaper, “one block over. Is that from Ashleigh?” 

“What about the—” 

“—dragon? You worry too much. We’ve got the situation under control, all due to you. Thanks for teaching me about the wards.” 

He smiles, then goes back to the paper.

Tuesday, a black flick of a tail tip—which might be just a shadow—whipped around my street corner. I stood with the punishing July sun beating down on me, sweat pouring off my brow and trickling down my sides, staring at the black pool of shade beneath the tree near the crossroads, waiting, until a boy on a bike whizzed by, staring at me in turn. 

When I read my teacup on Wednesday, the leaves all came up dragons. 

Last night, he whispered in my dreams, torrid dreams of longing and pain and relentless misery, full of smoke and flame and ashes. 

Today, I sit in my garden drinking tea, the knowing a heavy, lead cape over my shoulders, with more lead in my heart. I turn to deadhead a geranium, a white variety toxic to Japanese beetles who lie, paralyzed, at its base, awaiting daily disposal. When I turn back, he is there, draped serpentine along my fence-top perimeter, the size of a two-metre long iguana. This is the aspect he takes with me. The squirrels go wild, chittering hysterically and dashing from tree to tree. The crows gather silently on the power lines—this is no cat or raccoon to be awed by their alarms. They blink at me and I blink back. 

This is not my first rodeo, as the saying goes.

He is beautiful. I have seen him coloured a benevolent azure blue, glittering like open water in the sunlight, calming as dockside cocktails. At parties, he flashes fire, scarlet and gold, fangs hidden behind effervescent laughter, eyes wide with sparkling bonhomie, with an unmatched sense of rhythm. He can be silver and seductive under the moonlight, and deepest black when hunting from the shadows. He can be the length of a baby crocodile, or longer than a full-grown anaconda. I have even seen him in dinosaur magnitude—something between a T. Rex and a Brachiosaurus, curled brooding beside small and distant hills when he thought no one was watching. He can be anything you want. But always, he is graceful and sinuous, with an elegant, silken voice full of lies. 

“So,” he says, sweet and purring, smoke tendrils drifting from his nostrils, “There’s Ashleigh’s wedding coming up. Are you attending?” He stretches his coils a bit, flexes his wings, eyes Marthe, then turns his bottomless, fiery gaze to me. 

“Yes, of course. She’s my niece after all.”

“I expect there will be dancing.” 

I shrug. “Probably. Look, what do you want here? You know you can’t come in.”

That’s the way of the dragon: at first, he seems harmless, a cute, tiny version who comes along, helping with parties, keeping the laughter going, the talk witty, the room bright, the seductions irresistible. When your muscles are stiff, or your soul is tired, he soothes, murmuring as his undulations relax you like a superior massage therapist, one you’ve come to trust. Most people meet the little dragons; most people get a dragon’s hug, or sometimes more, a full dance, waking the next day with a thundering headful of dragon-spelled wrong decisions. But, most people are a mismatch for the dragons. They dally with each other, then part, over and over and over again, with no real harm done. That’s what makes the dragon so bewitching. 

“I’m attending,” he says, “in case you’re interested.”

“I doubt you were invited.”

He laughs an engaging, throaty chuckle. “I won’t be turned away. Everybody likes a dragon at a party. We’re so delightful.” He shrinks to small iguana proportions and waves his tail alluringly, gold flashing in the sunlight.

Dragons stalk parties. There, they are as ubiquitous as peanuts—unremarkable, benign, few people realizing the danger, because so few are in obvious danger. The dragons are welcome, sought after. Indeed, what’s a soirée without a few dragons? 

“Can’t you just stay away for once?”

He raises the muscles of his brow and grins. 

“You don’t fool me,” I say. “I’ve seen it all before. Too many times.”

He explodes into a four-metre scarlet and gold python along my fence.

“Careful,” I say, keeping the panic from my voice, “the neighbours.”

“Oh, yes, always the neighbours. As if they’ve never seen a dragon before.” His colour shifts to match the brown cedar fence.

“Thank you.”

“Anyway, you and I, we just dance.” He shrinks again, iguana-sized once more. “Remember?”

I do, more than I care to, and with some longing still, whirling and giddy but in perfect step with the music, with each other, with the night. 

He smiles a grin of razor-edged fangs. “We’ll see the family there—so many happy members gathered at one event.”

A dragon family—ah, we are different. For too many of us, the dance becomes a macabre lurch as the dragon hooks his claws into us, growing larger, consuming his host bit by bit, invisibly at first, though the staggers and haunting yellow eyes give it away. Usually, the dragon has multiple hosts, to keep pace with its voracious appetite. Dragons can’t live without a host, even though that host eventually dies. No problem. The dragon just moves on. 

 “Really,” he continues, “there’ll be so many dragons that no one will notice us. Weddings are like that.”

“You’ll be too busy with the others. You’ll have your teeth so deep in Robert’s brain and your claws in Janet’s liver that you—”

Suddenly, three dragons of different dimensions adorn my fence, still discreetly cedar-coloured. Be grateful for small mercies, I tell myself.

“I’m never too busy for you.” They speak with one voice, then morph back into a single dragon. “Besides,” he says, “I’ve just about bled them both dry. They’re not long for this world. Not very satisfying partners anymore.” 

A chill runs through me and joins the despair in my stomach, where it sinks and dissolves.

A dragon’s venom soaks his victim’s brain. Money for food, for clothing, for shelter, for children, goes toward feeding the dragon. Violence pleases him, as does despair. Families break and bleed. Escape is possible, but torturous, and I’ve been told the dragon sings siren whispers in your ears for many years, just waiting for a weak moment for you to summon him back.

The dragon made my mother’s childhood a living hell as she watched her father fall. With no mother to catch her, she fell, too. My mother met my father, from another dragon family of course. Their dragons merged into our single one, doubly powerful. 

“Someday, we’ll destroy you all,” I say. “People will figure out how, and that will be the end of you.”

There have been many attempts. My paternal grandmother banished the dragon with wards of religious fervor and fierce determination, or so she thought. She did not see the dragon wrapped around almost half of her children until it was too late. The dragon took them all. One died in a seedy hotel, a bible in one hand, the dragon tucked tenderly beneath the other arm. 

Whole communities, rife with dragon families, have attempted to ban dragons. They employ legislative sorcerers and high walls formed of oaths of strong will and blood. These practices work, until some resident leaves and finds a dragon, or a dragon creeps in through a sewer. As long as a dragon family line continues, there is a risk a dragon will scent them out. Dragons take the long view. 

If there is a cure, I need to know about it.

He throws his beautiful head back and laughs. “I have always been and will continue to be. Always.” His fangs flash in the sunlight and his gaze burns into me. For an instant, he is T. Rex-enormous. The sunlight vanishes. The air grows cold and a wind whips up.

He shrinks, then smiles, and preens the scales on his neck with his
poison-dipped talons, a delicate touch. “Enough of such gloomy talk.” The wind dies, and the sun returns. “We’ll dance, won’t we? You and I, we just dance. That’s all we’ve ever done.” He smiles and winks, his glamour shimmering in the sunlight. Though it is almost noon, the shadow he casts is long. It stops just before Marthe. 

I did not used to acknowledge how much I watch for the dragon, even in my dance-filled, fearless youth. But I was always removed—one eye watching, awake or asleep. When pregnant, halting the dance for long periods was easy, thank god, thank god, thank god. So easy. I did not acknowledge my vigilance until my favourite cousin, like a second sister to me, living in a faraway land, recently wrote she was battling the dragon for her life. Then, I felt the all too familiar weight of the dragon’s shadow on my soul. I wrapped my arms around my children, hoping to hide them away from the dragon’s shade. 

My six-year-old sticks her head out the door. “When is lunch?” My heart shudders. 

“Soon. Get back inside. Now.” My voice has a shrill edge. 

“Why?”

“There are wasps. A whole bunch. I’ll take care of it. Just go inside.” She vanishes.

Buzzzz,” he says. “Let me in. She’ll meet me eventually.”

“Not on my watch. Stay out.” 

“Let me in. I am small enough to curl up in the centre of the Siberian irises. I won’t be a bother. You’ll never even know I’m here. Please.” His voice is soft and throaty and pulls at something deep within me. I steel myself and turn away. 

And yet, I will dance with him. Away from here. Because I don’t want him to taste the tang of my fear; because maybe I am one of those who can dance with him and then dance away free; because once the dance begins I will remember that the odds are in my favour, that more of my family can simply dance than not, and they will all be there dancing; because the dance is so intoxicating with the music, the communion, the feeling young, and the enchantment of the night; and because, if truth be told, I am still in love with him a little. 

But, not here, in my place, with my beloveds. Them, he shall not touch. 

“I’ve been visiting your husband’s work shed. Your wards do not hold there.”

It’s true. I had hoped he had not noticed. I had thought I saw the dragon’s tail slip in there but told myself it was shadows playing tricks. I shrug, feigning
nonchalance. There is nothing the dragon loves so much as fear.

“He has wards of his own.”

“We shall see. But I will dance with him at the wedding, too.”

“Yes, no doubt you will.”

“Are the children coming?”

“No.” 

“Soon they will be old enough for weddings. But then, one is never too young to dance.” He chuckles. His hot breath caresses the back of my neck, even though he is in front of me. Dragon tricks. 

“I think you want me here. I’m coming in.”

“No. Go.”

“Hah!” He gathers himself to spring, reaching one foreleg over the fence—and it is slammed back, almost toppling him. He rearranges himself again, supine, blowing on his injured talon. 

“You’ve been busy.”

He doesn’t know the half of it. 

I have read the grimoire of an ancient aunt who, legend would have it, purged the dragon from her loved ones’ lives for three generations. 

I have followed the advice of crows and midnight-flying owls. Twelve days I sang to the Crow King and twelve nights to the Queen of Owls, seeking wisdom and alliance. 

I have spun spider-webbed spells with words of power.

I have burned dragon effigies made from cloth and blood and dragon-shaped mandrake roots and sown the ashes widdershins around my yard borders.

I have fashioned charms of knotted silver chains to wear day and night.

I have sewn slips of paper with anti-dragon words into the hems of my children’s garments. 

Will this work? I won’t know for years. The dragon hunts forever.

More, I have set a polished granite basin into the ground of my yard, a small pool upon whose edge birds and squirrels perch and drink. I carefully selected disc-shaped, smooth stones that nestled in my palm as if born there, as if speaking to me. On some, I carved a name in runes on one side, one for each loved one needing protection or release. On others, I inscribed a name in waterproof permanent marker in an uncial hand for each person the dragon had claimed, in memory and for guidance. 

One by one, in the dark of the moon on a windless night, under the watch of the pitiless stars, I placed them into the pool. First, those who had passed: my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle, my father, my mother. To these I sang “Goodnight, Irene,” my father’s maudlin favourite, with bittersweet tendrils of melody from which strength bloomed. Next, those claimed but fighting: three cousins, two cousins’ children, and two brothers, whose stones I held close before releasing to the murmured tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a fighting paean favoured by my religious grandmother. And finally, my children and husband. No songs for them, just a whispered spell of courage and protection taught to me by the relentless North Wind one glacial January night when ice bullets pelted my windows. 

On this too-bright sunny day, I gaze at the pool, where dragonflies hover and dip, glistening. 

“Good luck with that,” says the dragon, nodding in the pool’s direction. “Stone in water erodes, as does determination, given time. And time I do have.”

My black cat emerges from beneath the hostas, twines thrice around my legs, then places herself as a barrier between me and the dragon. She hisses at him, then settles at my feet. Her power rises around me.

“I am not alone in this.”

The dragon laughs. The crows on the powerline cough. He glances at the cat, the crows, and then, uncomfortably, at Marthe. 

“Evidently. Well, I won’t come in today, since I see you’re entertaining.” His tail twitches back and forth, then swirls around the cap of a fence post. 

The cat’s tail lashes in answer. 

“I just wanted to drop by and ask about the dance. See you there.” He winks again.

Then he is gone.

~

I look up from the screen as I write this and make eye contact with Marthe. She is in full sun, her crevices, her claws, and her bat wing ridges standing out in sharp relief, her hollowed eyes piercing and black. I see you, her eyes say. Don’t worry, I’m always watching. A fuchsia keeps her company, uncharmed but for the natural spell of joy it brings. Fuchsias are like that, and it’s the only real reward I can give Marthe as they sit together in the back corner of the yard, by the foxglove, the belladonna and the datura, near the mountain ash and the rosemary, and the wild-scented sage. I hope it is enough. 

~

The afternoon descends and passes. I normally track the dragon’s movements with tea leaves and tarot GPS. Motion detectors and security systems do not work—just ask my cousin the home security salesman, a semi-permanent detox resident. No need, I tell myself, since the dragon has already been here today and finished conducting his business. I head out to the work shed to fetch my husband for dinner. Salsa music rolls outward from his radio. As I round the corner, the shadows shimmy for the briefest of seconds.

My family has a dragon. Or, more like, he has us. 

Lynne M. MacLean is a Winnipeg-born Ottawa writer and community/public/mental health research consultant whose short, primarily speculative fiction and poetry have been published in Room Magazine, PodCastle, Stupefying Stories, On Spec Magazine, Tesseracts Fifteen and Horrific History, among others. She has a story upcoming in the next issue of On Spec Magazine. She has a PhD in psychology from the University of Saskatchewan. Previously, she lived and worked as a mental health practitioner in Canada’s prairies and Northwest Territories, where much of her fiction is set. Meet her at www.lynnemmaclean.com and @LynneMacLean2. 

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

Room relies on subscriptions from readers like you. Help us continue to promote and support diverse women and genderqueer authors and artists by subscribing today.

SUBSCRIBE

More from the Reading Room

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 42.2, Borderlands
    Edited by Rebecca Russell

    In this issue:

    Selina Boan, Jenna Butler, Leonarda Carranza, Carolina Corcoran, Šari Dale, Marisol Diaz, Sarah Ens, Paola Ferrante, Katie Fewster-Yan, Hannah Hackney, Lori Hahnel, Natalie Homer, Liz Iversen, Jac Jenkins, Jaslyn Marshall, Laura McGavin, Emily McKibbon, Alessandra Naccarato, Ezi Odozor, Caitlin Prince, Rebecca Salazar, Ellie Sawatzky, Alysia Sawchyn, Farihah Aliyah Shah, Josephine Sloyan, Tanya R. Ward, jiaqing wilson-yang, Elana Wolff

    .