Care and Feeding, By Ed Ahern
Editor's note: Charm is hard to define, but I know it when i see it. This story has plenty of charm, and while it is quite modern in style, has the pace and details of a classic fairy tale: A magical creature, an underdog to root for, and, of course, riches.
erry ran crying into the reeds behind his house. He hopped from tussock to tussock, staying dry until he reached his secret place. The patch of ground was circled by tall reeds, making him invisible. Deer bedded there at night, but during the day the little island was Terry’s alone.
No one else would want to come. Terry peeked eastward through the reeds at a brackish pond, and across the pond, at the town land fill. The town’s garbage and broken toys and worn out clothes and grass clippings had been dumped there for over 50 years. The slope facing Terry was ash-tinged dirt decorated with patches of weeds and scrub brush.
He dropped down onto a bed of broken reeds warmed by the sun. The dried reeds crackled and puffed out smells of plant dust. Terry stared at the land fill without really seeing it. He'd stopped crying, but was pretty sure he'd cry again tomorrow.
Bruce had hit him three times, then pushed Terry down. Before that, Bruce had sat behind Terry on the bus ride home, whispering to Terry what would happen to him once the bus let them off and before Terry could run home. And he'd done it.
The sinking sunlight behind him robbed the land fill of colors except for red. And as Terry stared without focusing, wallowing in his thoughts, something moved out onto the slope across the water. He squinted. It was a person, no, maybe an animal, something bigger than Terry. And then it spread its wings.
Terry turned to run back home but before he could jump onto the first tussock he heard a leathery whooshing and was picked up and dropped back into the islet.
“Now there’s a bother.” It wasn't words, but the sense of the words, uttered without sound right into Terry’s thinking.
“I am sorry, but I'm going to have to kill and dispose of you.”
Terry opened his eyes. A greenish-red something was staring at him, slowly beating its wings and flexing the talons where its feet and hands should be. Terry screamed.
“Only thing that'll do is scare away the deer.”
Terry screamed again anyway. Then he stood up, getting ready to run when a front limb talon grabbed his arm. “Please, please,” he sobbed, “Let me go. I won't tell anyone.”
“First rule: Never trust a human, they even lie to themselves. No, I'm sorry. If you have any last thoughts, think them now.”
Despite his fear, Terry began to stare at the thing clutching him. Its thorax was lit from within by greenish and yellowish lights that slowly swirled from one spot to another, vanished, and rekindled. It didn't really have a face, it had a snout- with flaring nostrils and large pointed teeth. Its black wings were skin and not feathers, with pronounced veins and tendons. Smoke roiled from its mouth, and something was waving behind its back.
“I didn't do anything to you.”
“Doesn't matter. You know that I exist--you die. But I’m not a wild beast. If you prefer I can drown you. And although it makes perfect sense to eat you, I can leave you to rot in the ground or the pond if you wish.”
“You, you can't do that, you'll be arrested.”
The skin around its mouth curled up, exposing more pointy teeth. “We've been able to hide from you for two millennia; I doubt the police would know where to look.”
“But I know, you just came out of the landfill. Do you live there?””
“Look, Terry is it? I wish you'd quit asking questions so we can just get on with this. One bite and it’s pretty well over. But, since you asked, you'd almost exterminated us when we discovered the garbage dumps you humans were piling up next to your cities and towns. You've been providing us with food and hiding places ever since.”
“And you can eat garbage?”
“We swallow all kinds of plants and animal material whole and cook it into energy--grass, wood, rats, mixed garbage, doesn't matter, we're better omnivores than you are. The digestion generates as much heat and light as one of your furnaces.”
“But what are you?”
“Ah. You used to call us dragons, and spend considerable time hunting us down and killing us. Once we'd been hiding in the trash heaps for a century or two you switched to killing other things.”
The dragon tightened his hold on Terry’s shoulder, talon points pushing through his skin. “I can just bite your head off if you wish. It’s messy, but quick.”
Terry’s thoughts had been churning, but it was like trying to stir cold oatmeal. “Wait, ah, what should I call you?’
“Hrraushtu. The sound is like clearing spit from the back of your throat.”
“Hrraushtu, there must be things that you want but can't always get living in a garbage pile.”
Hrraushtu threw Terry back down onto the reed bed and stared at him. “Of course. Fresh fruit, we so rarely get fresh fruit. And chocolates. We almost never find chocolates that aren't all dried out and rocky.” He flapped his wings, talons curling in the process. “But no point wanting what you can't have. Sit still little one, while I open you up.”
“No, no you don't understand, I can bring you these things--chocolates and fresh fruit and meat…”
The dragon paused, and slithered a narrow, split ended tongue over the points of its teeth. “Apples and pears and maybe even a pineapple… How could you do this?”
“I can buy these things and leave them here for you. You could come out after dark and pick them up, but don't let the deer get to the fruit, they like it too.”
“And of course you would want to stay alive to do this.”
“Yes, please. And I could bring you even more things if you could bring me something in return.”
“What would I have that you want?”
Terry reached in his pocket and pulled out a quarter. “We use these round bits of metal to buy things. Do you find them as you burrow through the garbage?”
“All the time. They're not digestible, so we just spit them out or excrete them”
“Bring some to me- I can use them to buy you even more things.”
And so, despite his better instincts, Hrraushtu let Terry jump back from tussock to tussock until he reached his yard. Terry wanted to tell his mother and father about the dragon, but felt he'd made a deal, and anyway, who would believe him?
The next day Terry emptied out his piggy bank. Bruce wasn't on the bus so Terry was able to make it home unpunched and walk to the corner store. He bought two bags of apples and mangoes and oranges and carried the bags of fruit out to his little island. The dragon waited until dusk had overshadowed the land fill and flew over.
“Wow,” Terry said, “That was something. With your wings spread out and your belly lit up you looked like a bright, flying plate.”
“Yes, well, fortunately for us your night time depth perception is terrible. What is little and close at night you see as big and far away. When you notice us you think we're flying saucers filled with aliens. Really? Aliens?”
Terry opened up his bags of fruit and Hrraushtu opened up two plastic grocery bags as well. In the dim light Terry began to sort through what the dragon had brought.
“Ah, no, Mr. Hrraushtu, see, these are metal buttons from clothes . And these here are pins from elections and conventions. And these are bottle caps. None of those will help us.
“But here, these are good for buying fruit and chocolate. See these are quarters, and these are dimes, both very good for buying. And this one-wow--if this yellow one is what I think it is I can buy you a month’s worth of fruit!”
The coins were all covered with dirt and other things Terry didn't want to think about. When he got home Terry washed the coins with dish washing soap. The little yellow coin had 1863, $1 stamped on it, and Terry was pretty sure it was gold. During his lunch hour Terry walked over to a coin shop and showed his coin to the manager. The manager offered him $50 for the coin, but Terry was suspicious and said no. Before he could walk out of the shop the manager offered Terry, first, $100 and then $300 for the coin, no questions asked. But Terry knew he had something special, put the coin in his pocket, and walked over to a grocery store.
Bruce was on the bus going home. “What’s in the bag, runt? Are you going to give it to me? Should I just take it from you? Are you ready to get hit?”
When the bus pulled away, leaving Bruce and Terry on the corner, Bruce punched Terry, knocking him down. Then he dumped all the fruit out onto the ground. “Fruit? Fruit! What kind of an idiot are you?” Bruce stomped on all the fruit, smashing it, and walked away.
Terry scooped up as much of the broken pieces and smooshed pulp as he could and put it back into the plastic bag. Then he hopped over the tussocks to his secret place.
When Hrraushtu flew over he could see that Terry had been crying. “What happened? Are you maimed? Should I kill you to stop the pain?”
“No and no,” Terry replied. “But all your fruit is ruined. A bully hit me and tromped on every piece.”
“It’s not so bad as you think,” said the dragon. “Remember that I dine at the dump. But we can't have this interference. Should I kill him?”
“Absolutely not,” Terry said, “but I don't think I can bring you fruit while he’s on the bus with me.”
Hrraushtu thought for a minute. “Shouldn't you cripple him so he is unable to take the bus? Or would you just like to intimidate him?”
Terry laughed despite his fear and sadness.
“Bruce is much bigger and heavier than I am.”
“And probably slower. Does he hit you with his right talon or his left?”
“His right, always his right. But I don't want to hurt him. Just make him stop hitting me.”
“Hmmm. Slightly more difficult. Okay I'll show you what to do.”
In a blur Hrraushtu swung his forelimb, talons closed, and knocked Terry into the reeds.
“Ow!” Terry yelled. But even though it hurt more than Bruce’s punches Terry didn't cry, for he knew the dragon had meant it to train him.
“Is Bruce that fast?”
“No, slower, much slower.”
“This will be easy for you.”
“And the dragon showed Terry how to side step, grasping the fist as it was swung toward him and twisting it hard enough to strain the wrist.
“This is great,” Terry said, “Bruce won't bother me once his wrist is strained.”
Hrraushtu sighed, belching out greasy smoke and little flamelets. “How have you survived this long? He'll be both angry and a little afraid. He’s bigger than you, so he'll try and wrestle you to the ground, and then punch you with his left talon.”
“So I shouldn't have twisted his hand?”
“No, no you pathetic biped. When he grabs you, you grab one or two of his fingers and twist them until they dislocate.”
“I'm not sure I could do that.”
The dragon sighed again, smoke swirling around his head. “Okay, just until he yells. That should stop him from hitting you. Here are more of the flat metal circles. If you could find squishy center chocolates that would be a very good thing.”
The next day during lunch hour Terry bought pears, a ripe cantaloupe and a box of chocolates. Bruce sat behind him on the bus, hissing threats. When they got off, Bruce moved in front of Terry and clenched his fist. Terry dropped the grocery bags and waited. When Bruce swung, much slower than the dragon had, Terry side-slipped the punch and grabbed the hand, pulling and twisting in the same direction the punch was swinging. Bruce howled and jumped back, grabbing his right arm.
“Now you're going to get it,” he yelled. Bruce rushed at Terry and grabbed him around the waist. Terry reached down, grabbed a finger and yanked. Bruce howled again, almost a scream, and backed off. Bruce was crying.
“Leave me alone, Bruce” Terry said. “If you try and hurt me again you'll be sorry.”
Terry picked up the grocery bags and hopped out to his little island. At dusk Hrraushtu, wings thrumming, landed on the reeds. “You didn't cry.”
“No. I almost feel sorry for Bruce. But will he try and hurt me again?”
“I don't think so. In his mind you've gone from being prey to being predator. But I'd stay alert.”
The dragon slobbered his way through the pears and cantaloupe, and gobbled the chocolates, box and all. “Ahh,” he sighed, the flames almost singing Terry’s eyebrows. “That was good.”
They sat for a moment in silence, watching the sunset. Hrraushtu stirred, and began picking his teeth with his index talon. A charred bit of green paper fluttered to the ground. Terry noticed the number 1 printed on it. “Hrraushtu,” he asked, “how often do you find these green and gray paper rectangles with numbers in the corners?”
“All the time, usually tucked inside something else we're eating, like pants or a mattress. They don't taste very good, do you have a use for them?”
“I think you're going to be eating a lot more chocolates.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after 40-odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after 46 years, they are both out of warranty.