Pa hummed softly as he worked, calloused fingers brushing tenderly over the piece of wood, knife peeling layer by layer away. Peter watched with rapt attention, admiring each stroke and scrape. Slivers of wood fell to the snowy ground as a sharp puff of breath from Pa’s bearded cheeks send tiny splinters careening into the air.
“An’ they could fly?” Peter asked, wide eyed in wonder.
Pa grinned, lifting the object into the air. Peter squinted slightly as he looked up. The long, straight wings always confused Peter. Birds wings curved and bent. These stayed where they were.
“Higher ‘en birds, higher ‘en mountains too,” Pa said, a little wistfully, “And there were hundreds of ‘em, maybe thousands!”
“And people could fly ‘em?” Peter asked, wanting to hear the story again, “They could fly dragons!”
“Your grandpa could,” Pa said with a look of pride, lowering the carving and bringing a hand to his chest. The tarnished sliver badge that always lay there, pinned to his patched grey coat had straight wings too. Not like the dragon carving, but close enough. Peter had even seen a picture of Grandpa once. Folded and faded, it was too delicate now to be brought out except for the most solemn of occasions. He remembered the beardless face, smiling proudly in a crisp suit of navy blue.
Peter looked at the carving again.
“How?” he asked, not for the first time.
Pa just smiled.
“In its mouth, of course,” he explained with some mirth. “And people could ride in its belly too.”
“Ma says not to listen to your stories,” he announced boldly.
“Then I guess you don’t want this?”
He held out the dragon for a moment, just within Peter’s grasp. He reached out to grab it, but Pa snatched it away with a great guffaw of laughter. Peter felt his cheeks flush hot and he made another grab for the new toy. Pa stood, sweeping his creation upwards and making a deep, rippling sound his throat that was supposed to be the growl of the dragon.
“Give it here!” Peter cried, running and jumping at Pa, trying to get him to lower his arm.
Pa made the dragon glide, twisting its body in the fading winter light. For a split second, Peter could see this beast sliding through the air, fire thundering beneath its immovable wings and the deafening roar in his ears. He stretched up again, the dragon almost within reach.
He missed, yelping as his feet slipped in the snow.
“Woah! Easy there Pete!” Pa’s other arm shot out, grabbing his shoulder to stop him from skidding face first into the ice.
Peter let himself be caught, scrabbling to take hold of Pa’s long arm.
“You’re alright,” Pa handed him the dragon, “Here you are.”
Peter eagerly took the toy, sweeping at the carved wood with a gloved hand. Its straight wings stuck out like it was gliding and it had a three-pointed fin at the end of its tail. Pa had given it along nose, but nothing else that could make a discernible face.
“It doesn’t have a mouth,” he pointed out.
“Go play,” he directed, brushing off the remark.
Peter was about to obey, then remembered.
“Hey! What happened to them?” he asked, because that was the best part, “What happened to the dragons?”
Pa’s smiled faded a little, like it always did, but he looked Peter right in the eyes as he told the last part of the story.
“It got too cold for ‘em,” he said softly, “Their wings got covered in ice, their fires went out, so they never flew again.”
“Are they dead?”
“Maybe,” Pa said, longingly, “Or sleepin’. Maybe one day, we’ll get to fly ‘em again.”
Peter looked up curiously at the empty sky above. He liked Pa’s stories, especially the ones about the world Before. He lifted the dragon in the air, making a sweeping movement, trying to imagine the sight of one careening through the sky.
Distant shouts drew their attention. Peter grinned and waved at the approaching figures. He ran towards them, holding his new toy aloft. The smallest of the group broke off, jogging toward him in the snow. He saw her red cheeks, pale gold hair flying loose from her hood as she ran. Peter picked up speed.
“Mary!” he yelled happily, “Look what my Pa made me!”
Peter could fly.
He raced across the frozen ground, weaving amongst skeletal trees dripping with shining diamonds of ice and held his dragon aloft. He made it soar and spin and leap through the air with him. His feet echoed sharply in the still world and he made a great roar that startled some lagging birds from the trees.
For a moment he was up there. Higher than the trees, the mountains and even the clouds. So high, everything below him disappeared. Under him the great beast glided onwards, wind beat at his cheeks and the deep grumble coming from the fire in its wings the only sound.
Then Peter was falling, his boots losing their grip on the powdered earth and he gave a great yelp, crashing into a white ravine. His body hit and…
It hurt. It was hard and cold. The sound startled him more than the pain.
Breathing hard, he lifted himself up onto his arms, looking at his hands. He had held them out to break his fall and they stung from the impact. He swept one of his hands, moving away the blanched slush. Again, and again until a new colour made its appearance.
A deep green, unlike anything Peter had seen before showed up. He breathed out and shakingly knocked.
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
Metal, he thought, he found something metal!
Metal was useful. They found scraps of it sometimes and used fire to melt and bend it into all sorts of things.
Excited, Peter started to dig, revealing more of the valuable material. It was so big!
He didn’t know how long it took, but he kept going, sweeping away the snow to reveal the overall shape. It was long and big, with curved edges. The green colour was mottled with grey and he found and large painted spot in red, white and blue at one edge. Panting, he stood back up to observe his discovery.
The dragon was lying not too far from him, he’d let go of it in his fall. Now he was looking at something very similar.
The long, straight wings of his dragon looking just like the shape of the piece of metal he’d dug up.
“Peter! Peter, where are you?!”
The distant sound of Mary’s voice shook him from his shock. He quickly scooped up his toy and ran back toward her voice. It took a few minutes, but he eventually found her further in the trees, still calling his name.
“There you are!” she grabbed him, wind whipping at her blonde hair, “We gotta go!”
Ice crashed into his bones as he faced the piercing tundra of the wind. Peter held closer to Mary and they quickened their pace. He grasped the dragon to his chest and let the older girl lead him on. They barreled into the shelter together, faces burning and limbs shaking. He felt himself being jostled from Mary to Ma, who lowered his hood and started fussing.
“It’s almost dark!” she scolded, checking him over and pressing her thin lips together, “There’s a storm comin’!”
“I was playin’!” Peter protested, but was quickly hushed and wrapped up in a sleeping bag. It was patched and old like the rest of the things they had. No one knew how to make the material anymore, so Ma had done her best with fabric scraps and furs. It was still warm though.
There wasn’t a lot of room and with nine other bodies there was hardly an extra inch. Some ate, others were already asleep. The firepit glowed orange with embers, warming the small space. The light was dim and Ma was using Grandpa’s wind up torch to dig through her bag. She handed him some smoked meat to chew on and he could spy Mary being treated to much the same. Her Pa, Bill, was sitting near his Pa. His bulky form impossible to miss. They spoke in low voices. Peter put the dragon in his lap and chewed on his food.
“We have to try further on,” Bill said, “The traps aren’t pickin’ up.”
“There’s still fish,” Pa pointed out.
“It’s not enough.”
Peter kept his eyes on the dragon, listening with a keen ear, but not wanting the two men to notice him. He thought about telling them about the metal, but a strange feeling in his chest told him not to. Not now. That was for him and Pa first.
“When the storm breaks then.”
Peter didn’t hear anymore, because Ma had taken him under her arm and started reading from the Book. No one was supposed to interrupt when she read from the Book. Even Pa and Bill bent their heads to listen. He curled up against her, dragon still held to his chest and let her voice drift over him as the light started to fade away.
At some point, Peter drifted to sleep. He woke before dawn to the sound of the men gathering their tools and bags. Pa was with them and when Peter tried to scramble out of his mother’s arms to join him, Ma held him firm.
“They’re going far today,” she told him, “You stay put.”
“But Ma!” he whined.
“Tomorrow,” she said firmly, “You can go tomorrow.”
Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough. Finally allowed out, even if it was just to check some of the traps to the east, was a million times better than being cooped up with his Ma in the shelter. Peter lowered his mask and puffed out just to watch the plumes of smoke dance in the air. Mary caught his eye, lowering her own to do the same and casting him a wide grin. He felt his face heat up against the cold and smiled back shyly.
“Look there Pete!”
He whipped his head to see where Pa was pointing.
“What?” he squinted against the glare of sun on snow.
The sky was hazy, grey and much too bright. Peter’s eyes took a few moments to adjust. Peeking out over the tops of the barren trees, there were long, rectangular shadows reaching up to the sky. He frowned, narrowing his eyes to get a better look. They didn’t move and were too straight to be mountains or trees or anything else Peter could think of.
“Do you see ‘em? Can you see Pete?”
“What are they?”
“People used to live in ‘em,” Pa’s eyes shone, “Right up to the clouds! Can you imagine?”
Peter stared in burgeoning wonder.
“Can we go see, Pa?!” he asked, animatedly.
It was Bill who spoke. His corded grey beard was flecked with snow. Peter lowered his gaze and grabbed Pa’s hand.
“Aw, he was just excited, Bill,” Pa said jovially.
“You shouldn’t be fillin’ his head,” Bill cast his dark gaze to Peter, “No one goes there. Not anymore.”
Peter didn’t realise he had spoken until the word was out of his mouth. Mary looked at him wide eyed.
Bill was silent for a long time. No one talked, like a collective breath was being held.
“It’s a graveyard, boy,” he said finally, “And its best to leave what’s buried where it is.’
The world Before was a different place. Ma said there were so many people you could walk ten minutes in any direction and meet someone new. They didn’t treat each other right though and poisoned the very planet they lived on. Because of that they were punished. Like in Ma’s Book, when the whole earth flooded.
The world got hot in some places, so hot it was difficult to breathe or move or think. In others it got colder, cold as ice and as bare as bone. Storms tore apart the great coastal cities, the plants died and the people starved. The sun went away for a long time, wrapping everything in darkness.
“But then the light came back,” Pa pointed out when Ma was retelling the story, “Isn’t that what the good Book says? Let there be light!”
Ma looked exasperated and Peter laughed.
He hadn’t told anyone about the metal wing yet. He wanted to show Pa! But the men had been out hunting and laying traps for three days and Peter was starting to get impatient. When the men had come back the last time, Bill had announced they'd be moving on soon. There wouldn't be another chance! So, the next day while everyone started packing and dismantling camp, he sneaked away his own, back to the place he’d found it.
Fresh snow fall had buried most of it again, but he used a long stick to poke around until he felt the hard thud of the metal shudder back at him. Grinning, he started to dig.
All day he worked, clearing away the snow. He borrowed some of the digging tools they kept to make shelters and did his best. He discovered it only had one wing, the other had broken off and could be buried anywhere. More excavation revealed the body, fins and the tip of the nose. It had a glass shell on its back that was so frosted Peter couldn’t see inside.
He wondered how people rode it.
That was a question for later though, because it was real.
“Wake up!” he yelled at it, tapping it hard with a rock, “Wake up!”
But the only sound he heard was the sharp CLANG! of the metal. Peter frowned, frustrated with the stubbornness of the Beast. He knew it couldn’t fly, not with a missing wing, but he wanted to hear it roar.
He hit harder and harder, but nothing.
With a growl of annoyance, Peter kicked it.
He kicked it again.
This time, something gave. His foot sank, not into cold snow, but into the metal body of the dragon. He screamed, falling forward and pushing his leg further in. it burned!
“Let go!” he cried, trying to pull himself out. The metal edges ripped through his clothes and bit painfully into his leg.
Peter yelled louder.
He didn’t know how much time passed. He struggled for a while, but that only made the biting worse. He begged and pleaded with it, hands scrabbling to find anything that would help. The stone came into his hand after an age.
Peter struck hard, frantic to make the beast release him.
CLANG! It rang out.
CLANG! He screamed at it and pulled harder.
CLANG! CHINK! RIIIPPP! His foot came free!
Peter scrambled away, hands clawing in the slippery snow. His calf burned hot. Looking down, Peter found his pants leg ripped and blood staining the bleached ground. He stared at the thing that had bitten him.
The Beast hadn’t moved. It hadn’t stirred or tried to get up. It didn’t do anything.
“Peter!” a frantic cry drew his attention and he whipped his head to see Mary and Pa running towards him.
Strong arms scooped him up and soon his face was buried in Pa’s shoulder. He felt the cold metal of Grandpa’s sliver badge against his cheek. The older man was shaking, hugging him tight.
"There you are!"
Peter drew away.
“I found one Pa! I found one!”
“What-?” Pa started. Mary gasped.
“It’s like his toy!” she exclaimed, going to investigate the Beast.
“Stay back!” Pa shouted, freezing Mary in her tracks, “Peter! What is this?”
“I found a dragon Pa!” he insisted, “Look! It bit me!”
Pa looked from the Beast to the blood on his son’s leg and went grey. Peter had never seen Pa look like that before. He stared at the Beast and shook himself, clasping Peter closer.
“Mary,” he said sharply, “Run ahead, let them know I’ve got Pete.”
Mary nodded, already taking off in the direction of camp. Pa turned them around too, putting his back to the dragon.
“Don’t come here again,” he said.
Peter tried to shake himself out of Pa’s arms.
“But Pa!” he whined, “The dragon!”
“Leave it!” Pa looked sad, “Dragons aren’t part of us anymore. Bill’s right, leave what’s buried where it is.”
Peter quietened, confused.
Pa carried him away, jogging slightly. Peter barely felt the sting in his leg. The sunlight was low now, making the trees cast long shadows over the dragon where it lay. It didn’t stir. It didn’t move. It didn’t breathe or make a sound. It lay there, sleeping away and perhaps dreaming of a world long gone. Peter kept his eyes on it until the trees were too thick and the snow covered everything. Pa carried him home, face turned towards the fading light.