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Dragon Rising

S.E. Gilbey is a Manxwoman now living in Massachusetts, where she likes to write stories about ghosts, magic and dragons. More of her work can be found at: essygie.weebly.com.

Alex came from a good family--the kind that sits straight-backed in the front pew at church and makes it very clear that they are listening properly to the sermon. Their father was a banker, who was very fond of meetings. Their mother volunteered for a charity for disadvantaged children. Alex's siblings were much older--a daughter and son who'd left home as soon as they could and seldom returned to visit.
Alex was adopted--a disadvantaged child from their mother's charity.
"A mistake," their mother admitted to her best friend, in a moment of weakness that she soon regretted (for her best friend was a terrible gossip). "We didn't need a third child. Regibald didn't even want a third child. But no one else wanted her and I thought it was our duty."
Alex grew up obsessed with dragons. Dragon was their first word. They used to run through the fields, trying to follow the wild dragons that flew overhead. They read every book about dragons that they could find in the library and drew endless pictures of them. When they were old enough, they studied them at school.
"When I grow up, I want to be a dragon keeper," Alex declared at breakfast one morning.
"Well, they won't have you," their mother said. "They don't employ girls for that sort of thing. Far too dangerous."
"I'm not a girl," Alex pointed out. "Not today."
"Not today, no. But who knows what you'll be tomorrow?"
And that was the problem with Alex, as far as everyone was concerned. The reason why no one else would adopt them. The reason why their mother regretted taking them in.
"Velcassianism," the charity's doctor had diagnosed. "Also known as Fluctuating Gender. A most unusual condition. The child must have been exposed to a large amount of magic when in the womb."
"But what gender is it?" their mother had asked, exasperated.
"That will depend from day to day."
"But what are we to put on the birth certificate?"
"Both? Neither?"
Instead, their mother decided to put down that Alex was a girl and then tried to raise them as such. It did not go well.
"Dragons change gender too," Alex had pointed out, as soon as they were old enough to know this. "They can be boys or girls or neither, depending on how they feel about it."
"Well, you're not a dragon, are you?" their mother hissed.
It only got worse as Alex approached adolescence and it became impossible for their parents to disguise that they weren't always a girl. The local villagers grew increasingly alarmed by this strange child in their midst.
"Who knows what kind of person the birth mother was?" Harvey, the landlord of the Drunken Stoat, demanded to know one evening when his pub was full of locals letting off steam at the end of a tedious day's work.
"I don't hold with this kind of thing at all," Betty, the school nurse replied. She didn't normally drink during the week, but Alex had come to her that day with a migraine and she was quite unsettled. "It's not respectable. They should send the child away--it would be much better for everyone."
In the end, that's exactly what Alex's parents did, after the village children had grown to bullying Alex so badly that Alex ended up with a broken arm. But the boarding school they sent Alex to was no better. They were sent home by the indignant nuns, after only a couple of weeks.
"This is an all-girls school," the Mother Superior coldly informed Alex's parents. "We don't accept boys."
"But she is a girl," Alex's mother protested.
"Not all the time, madam."
"Couldn't you at least have pretended?" Alex's mother dragged Alex into the car with a bruising grip.
"No," Alex replied. They weren't paying attention to their mother, but to the flight of wild dragons flying overhead.
"Well, you'll just have to go to the local comp. No private school will have you--not now word's got out about you."
The local comprehensive school was in the nearest large town. It was hell on earth for Alex. As much as possible, they skived off and spent their time playing by themselves in the woods, where no one looked for them. They made friends with the local wild dragons, who learned to look for them and would surround Alex in a rainbow of swirling magic. Alex would read stories to them and sing songs and the dragons would try to teach Alex their magic.
Meanwhile, Alex's parents were unraveling. They were being shunned by the villagers because of Alex. Their mother was asked to not volunteer for the charity anymore. At the bank, their father found himself sidelined, excluded from important meetings.
Then there was a campaign to get Alex and their family to leave the village.
"But my family has lived here for a hundred years!" their mother was horrified.
The campaign was secretive and spiteful and no one really knew who was behind it. There were posters put up.
"Keep our children safe!" said one.
"What if it's contagious?" asked another.
No one openly approved of the campaign. Nor of the brick thrown through the family's kitchen window. Nor of the paint thrown over the father's expensive car. No one said out loud the things that the campaign was suggesting.
But no one did anything to stop the campaign, either. No one bothered to find out who had started it. (It was Miss Pettison, a sweet old, retired lady whose amiable smile hid a deep well of bitterness and spite). Besides, once the campaign got started, most of the villagers took surreptitious part. It wasn't Miss Pettison who threw the brick, nor the paint.
Alex disappeared just before their fourteenth birthday. Their parents let it be known that they'd sent their child abroad to a religious institution that didn't mind Fluctuating Gender.
"They're much more accepting of that kind of thing over there," their mother told her best friend (Miss Pettison, who had shown her loyalty by continuing to visit throughout the entire nasty business). "Alex will be happier. And doing God's work, which is so important."
Miss Pettison seriously doubted that God wanted Alex doing His work, but she kept quiet and nodded her head and sipped her tea. She knew that Harvey would express that thought for her, when she told him everything later, down at the Drunken Stoat.
As time passed, Alex's parents gradually became accepted into village life once more. Their father was invited to meetings again. Their mother rejoined the charity. They visited their two older children in the city. Their daughter gave them their first grandchild. Their son got engaged to be married. They sat straight-backed in the front pew at church on Sundays and listened intently to the sermon.
Nearly a year passed.
The fire happened on a Monday night and only Alex's parents were home. The fire burned so ferociously that the home was a blackened shell by the time the firefighters had put it out. They found two bodies in the rubble of the bedroom and a third one in what would once have been the coal cellar.
"They'd locked Alex up in there," Betty, the school nurse, told an astonished audience in the Drunken Stoat. She was dating one of the firefighters and he'd told her everything. "All that nonsense about finding some foreign place as would take them--that was all lies."
"So then, it was Alex as set the fire?" Harvey asked.
"No, it couldn't have been. There was nothing in the cellar they could have used to light a fire--not even any coal, ironically. Besides, Alex died too."
"It might be for the best," Harvey mused. "At least we can all sleep safe in our beds tonight."
The others agreed. Only Miss Pettison shed a tear--for the death of her good friend, Alex's mother.
They never did find out how the fire had started. No one had noticed the wild dragons flying high above the house that night--dragons are often drawn to fires and the firefighters were focused on trying to tame the flames. They never thought of dragon fire, nor of dragon magic.
No one noticed the new dragon hatchling that emerged from the flames--Alex, reborn. No one heard, over the roar of the fire, the joyful song with which the flight of wild dragons welcomed Alex into their midst. And no one saw them fly far away from the burning home, never to return.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 27th, 2022
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