The Last Dragonride

Barrie had to ride, she just had to.

Sweaty and exhausted, she stood outside the dragon-hire paddock. She’d spent all afternoon in the New Zealand humidity, waiting in line to experience her first dragonflight. She’d worked all summer, doing odd chores, saving up for this. And if she didn’t go today, she’d never get to at all; the pen closed at six and the next ride would be the last for the day before the carnival closed for the season.

Even worse, tomorrow was her birthday. She’d be thirteen. A teenager. Too old to ride the dragons. The other kids at school would tease her, saying she was mutton dressed up like a lamb.

In the distance, sapphire Lake Te Anau glimmered, cool and smooth as a gem. Around the shore, the trees’ leaves rustled with early autumn colour. Barrie breathed deeply. The evening air smelled of the late summer carnival: caramelized sugar, hay, dung, and sweat. The sour stench of diesel fumes wafted through the midway. Rickety rides clattered and creaked. The merry-go-round trilled its calliope melody.

 “Last call. One more ‘fore closing time,” the short carnie man cried. He had moist fat lips, greying stubble, and a nose red from drink. A belly draped over his beltline. His scowl and waddling walk reminded Barrie of a dwarf. “Who’ll it be?”

Scrawny and pale, Barrie smiled at the man hopefully, braces shining on her crooked teeth. At school, they’d earned her the cruel nickname “Railroad McLeod.” She prayed the worker would have pity and choose her out of all the other kids clamouring for the season’s last dragonride.

Through the sudden forest of frantic waving hands, Barrie met the man’s eyes. However, as his gaze flicked over her, the world tilted sideways and Barrie fell hard. Air rushed from her lungs. Pain exploded through her right side.

She lay on the dusty ground, wheezing.

“Outta the way, kid,” a cracking pubescent voice said. “You’re too short, eh. Those big lizards will eat you up.”

Gasping for breath, Barrie found two enormous teen boys towering above her, reeking of body odour. Both had bodies built like Stonehenge Aotearoa, with tattoos circling their biceps. They chortled, eyes glittering as they savoured their power over Barrie.

“Hey! That’ll do. Stop it, boys,” the carnie man wheezed as he hustled over.

The bigger kid faced the man and flexed his rounded biceps, hanging from his sleeveless tee. His tattoos rippled. “Or what? You gonna do something, eh?”

The carnie man’s hand twitched to his belt, from which hung a large sheathed knife. “Don’t much like smart mouths,” he muttered.

There was an electric pause like the instant before a lightning strike.

The bigger boy clapped his friend on the back. “C’mon, mate. This place is lame. Let’s go suss out the troll wrestling booth, eh?”

“Wicked, bro,” the other grunted. The two swaggered off, shoving each other, laughing.

The man released his knife and hauled Barrie to standing. The nametag on his filthy corduroy coveralls read Raul. 

“You’ll be alright, kid,” he grunted. “Stood up to those thugs. Good on ye.”

Standing up, Barrie checked her Footrot Flats wristwatch. Her mother had given it to her for her tenth birthday. Worried that it had broken, her heart filled her throat. But when she saw the second-hand tick, her chest relaxed.

Dark smudges ringed Raul’s deep hooded eyes. “Let’s get ye on a dragon, eh,” he said. “Hurry up now, lass.”

Upon hearing that, something inside Barrie took flight, swooping and soaring with sudden wild glee. She grinned. “That’s why I’m here. Been waiting all afternoon. Been saving for ages, you kn—”

“Yeah yeah.” Raul waved away her chatter. “Get ye saddled. Sooner ye’re on yer way, the sooner I can go home, have my pint of Speight’s and relax. Follow me.”

The wooden gate into the paddock creaked as the dwarf led Barrie across the straw covered ground, soft with mounds of dragon dung that stuck to their shoes.

As Barrie beheld the incredible animal, the gaudy carnival faded away, all the whimsical fairground sounds muted. Her ears caught only the dragon’s deep rumbling growl, its labouring breath, its claws scratching against the sticky muddy straw.

She stared wide-eyed at the creature. Comprised of teeth, spikes, and iridescent scales, it resembled its much smaller reptilian cousin, the tuatara, which Barrie had seen in Invercargill. The dragon had the same pointed jaw, clawed feet, and spines running down its back. Even its skin was the same vivid green of pounamu stone.

However, where a tuatara was a harmless lizard, the beast before Barrie was a massive wyvern. Its heavy leather muzzle attached to a thick iron collar. Cruel spikes from the collar gouged into the soft scaly snout. The choker reminded Barrie of the sort worn by unruly dogs. Heavy chains led from the collar to an iron stake pounded into the ground.

An apex predator designed to rule the skies and inspire terror below, it now sprawled on the sodden ground, majestic head drooping between its front claws. Its posture reminded Barrie of how her own father,Finbarr McLeod,would collapse in his armchair with his double scotch after a hard day. Sometimes Father wouldn’t even make it to his chair before he’d loosened his tie and finished the drink.

As Barrie approached, the dragon remained listlessly upon the soggy carpet of soiled hay.

“Is he sick?” Barrie asked.

“Naw, he’ll be right,” Raul answered, kicking the dragon hard with a steel-toed gumboot.

The beast bellowed, glaring at Raul through the cruel muzzle.

“Git up, ye lazy git! We got us a customer. Last ride ‘fore the day’s end. Last one for the season. C’mon, ye!”

The dragon blinked tiredly. When he still did not move, Raul drew the whip he carried on his hip, uncoiled it, and swung it against the dragon’s flank.

Snap!

The beast roared a protest and struggled to stand his clawed feet slipping in the slimy muck. He stumbled and fell with a muffled grunt.

Barrie looked on in horror as Raul cocked back his whip and swung again.

Crack!

“I said, git up, ye stupid brute!”

The dragon gave another muffled bellow. His scrabbling claws found purchase. He raised his belly and stood, his enormous muscles contracting beneath his scales.

Satisfied, Raul stashed his whip. He moved forward to adjust the saddle, reins, and stirrups. He undid the thick chain.

As Raul worked, yanking at the complicated knots and buckles, the dragon’s scaly neck swivelled towards Barrie. Spokes of vibrant malachite and gold radiated from the pupil—a phosphorescent sunburst. They considered Barrie for an instant before turning away. Its head drooped again, powerful shoulders sagging.

The bright intelligence in those eyes haunted her. “Why’s he wearing that muzzle? He dangerous?”

Raul chuckled as he finished overly tightening everything. “Naw, he’s safe as, kid. Just government health and safety crap. Hurry up now.”

Barrie’s knees wobbled. Nausea churned her stomach, like the time she’d bungee-jumped in Queenstown. Her sweaty toes wriggled in their damp socks.

“C’mon,” Raul growled. “Sooner ye get going, the sooner we all can go home. Grab the reins. Step there. Up ye get. Good as gold.”

Barrie stepped into the stirrup and struggled to swing her short leg over the saddle. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite long enough; her foot caught on the pommel. With her momentum interrupted, she teetered and almost fell.

Raul’s strong hands caught her around the waist and, with a grunt, pushed her into the seat.

“Careful, lass,” he snapped. “Steady. Last thing I need’s a hurt kid ’fore day’s end and heaps of paperwork, eh?”

Barrie shifted uneasily and tried not to let her bare leg touch the slimy despoiled saddle. It was worn through in places, stained black and shiny with sweat and grease in others. Decades of riders had carved initials and doodles into the surrounding dragon hide.

The shock of those mutilated scales settled heavily on Barrie’s soul. How could anyone cut their name into a dragon’s hide like that? In a flash, she felt forlorn and old, too old to be here riding a dragon like another silly child.

“’Fore I let ye loose, gimme the payment, lass. Twenty quid. Pay up.”

“Oh. Right. Here.”

Gripping the leather reins loosely, Barrie dug in her pocket and retrieved a handful of change. Gold one- and two-dollar coins jingled in her small sweaty palm—her entire summer’s worth of chore money.

Raul snatched the money and stashed it into his stained coveralls. He gave Barrie a bored fifteen-second spiel on flying safety and steering. He finished with a stern reminder. “Forty-five minutes. Not a second more, eh. Questions?” he growled.

Barrie shook her head. A strange knot had swollen in her throat, cutting off her voice. She had a sudden urge to be back on firm ground. She gripped the reins tighter. Her knees trembled, hugging the dragon’s heaving sides.

“Right,” Raul said. “Get this over with.”

Without warning, he drew his whip against the dragon’s flank.

Crack!

The dragon bellowed and set off at a trotting gallop. Barrie’s stomach tightened. She suddenly needed to pee.

Too late.

Wind whistled in her ear, cooling her skin. Like an airplane, the dragon’s body angled upward. Barrie slid back in the saddle. Fearing she’d slip, she tightened her grip on the pommel, knuckles blanching; her fingernails dug crescents into the worn leather. With her legs clasped around the dragon’s sides, Barrie felt every breath of the mighty lungs, the massive scaly rib cage expanding and collapsing, panting. She sensed each beat of the powerful flapping wings, drawing them higher.

The dragon banked sideways, leaning into a tight spiral. Around and around they climbed. The air temperature dropped; the wind sharpened its bite.

Once the dragon levelled out, coasting on an updraft, Barrie opened her eyes. Adrenaline pulsed through her veins, making her giddy as if she’d eaten too much sugar. Her heart raced and her limbs trembled. A crazy whoop escaped her lips, followed by disbelieving laughter.

So, this was the magic of dragonflight! She’d had it described to her by classmates, older cousins, and her sister Elisë. But as she experienced it now, the saddle pressing underneath her, none of the descriptions had captured the sensation. It was something one had to do to understand all the fuss.

She thought of the chores she’d done, the time she’d spent, and the money saved for this. She regretted none of it. Every fifty-cent piece, every hour of work. Totally worth it. This was beyond magic. Nothing could be better.

And now here she was, twelve-years old, sitting atop an actual dragon, gliding through wispy clouds, crossing the sky. Each time they passed through one, a delicious chill swept over Barrie. She shivered pleasantly. Goosebumps puckered her skin.

“Wa-hoo!” she cried.

The golden light of early evening illuminated the land. The New Zealand South Island sprawled beneath her—a patchwork of emerald paddocks, each square a different green. Clusters of sheep, visible as tiny white dots, spattered the fields. The girl and the dragon headed north, following the jutting spine of the Southern Alps. To the east, the fiords of Milford Sound led out and away to the choppy Tasman Sea. To the west, lay the gorgeous rugged Catlins coastline. Barrie’s sharp eyes picked out the jutting peninsula upon which perched the tiny nub of Nugget Point Lighthouse; its signal winked through the gathering dusk. North of that, sprawled the gingerbread-style buildings of Dunedin.

Barrie gave another irrepressible laugh. In her euphoria, she chattered, “Wow! This is cool as. You’re so lucky to enjoy these views every day.”

The dragon didn’t reply. The leathery wings flapped in silence. Fluffy clouds scudded by. Reaching out, Barrie trailed her fingers through the wisps.

She nattered on, “Can you talk? I’m Barrie Sheöfra McLeod and I’m twelve. Can you hear me?”

Kia ora, young Barrie,” the great beast replied at last. “Peace, please.”

The voice was slow and formal, deep and powerful—not muffled at all by the cruel muzzle over his snout. It echoed through the girl, reverberating off her bones, booming within her head. With a shock, she realized the dragon was communicating via telepathy.

“Wow, so you can understand me!”  Barrie cried. “How many languages do you know?”

The dragon exhaled, emitting a weary puff of smoke, “You talk heaps, pākeha. With many questions. I am not accustomed to such curiosity.”

“Sorry. I’ve never met a telepathic dragon before. Not that I’ve met many dragons, that is… Err, how’d you learn to communicate?”

“One does not live three hundred years and not learn a few of the many tongues of men.”

“What? Three hundred years?!” Barrie sputtered. “You’re old as. Older than Aotearoa!”

The dragon flew on without comment, his mighty wings flapping.

“I mean— well, I didn’t mean —that was rude. I’m sorry,” Barrie said. “Mother says it isn’t polite to ask about people’s age.”

The dragon sighed, a fatigued wheeze, “Do not trouble yourself, pākeha. Men have said and done much worse in my lifetime. I took no offense. Yes, I am old. I’ve lived a long hard life.”

His voice carried a sharpened edge, something metallic, bitter and unspoken underlined the words.

“That’s terrible. I’m sorry, sir,” Barrie said. “What should I call you, sir?”

“I suppose Emberson of the Ashforth clan would do.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Emberson.”

The pair glided through the sky; endless emerald fields stretched out below. The cold wind whipped past Barrie, stinging her cheeks and ruffling her hair. She breathed deep the thin air and glanced around, taking in the majestic Southern Alps below, stretching away into the distance. She marvelled at the panoramic postcard-perfect views.

“Where are we going, Mr. Emberson?”

“You hold the reins. We have a half-hour remaining. What would you like to see?”

“I don’t know. Anything you’d like to show me I guess.”

“Again, you surprise me. Most passengers yank and jerk on the reins, eager to see this or that. They dig their spurs into my sides, wanting to go faster, faster. Never fast enough. Especially the older ones. The older they get, the more exhausting they become…”

Barrie recalled the teenage boys in line, the hideous scars carved into the saddle and hide. She frowned. “No, that’s terrible. How do you stand it? Working like this for Raul, I mean.”

The dragon did not reply immediately. At last, he said, “I owe the dwarf a great debt.”

“But why? Why do you let them be so mean to you? Why don’t you escape,” Barrie asked. “You’ve got wings. You could fly away! To Fiji, Canada. Anywhere!”

“Courage is hardly measured by how well one runs away, pākeha.”

“But, you’re fiercer than a lion! Far stronger than Raul anyway. You could eat that little man in a mouthful. And have room for seconds!”

Emberson chuckled. “I could, but I cannot.”

“But why?”

The dragon glided thoughtfully through the dusk.

At last, his deep voice rumbled through Barrie’s head. “Like anyone, I have my reasons.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

His wings flapped. “No, I would not expect you to. I would have to show you.”

“Yes, please. Show me what you will.”

Emberson swooped left, banking hard to the west. “Right then, pākeha. This next stop will take us off the usual route. You will not see the common popular sights like Larnach Castle or Mt. Aoraki.”

“Oh, those are just touristy places. I can see them anytime.”

Emberson considered this. “You may not like what I have to show.”

Barrie sat tall, choosing her next words carefully. “At first, I took this ride because it was just something all my friends had done. But now that I know you more, I’d rather see what you have to share with me.”

“Very well.” Emberson swooped lower; the ground spiralled up.

Barrie recognized the windy road cutting through the jagged mountain peaks and the lonely town of Haast beside the highway. Its scattered lights glowed in the gathering dusk like a lantern of loose stars. Nearby, Roy’s Peak and Mt. Aspiring grew larger, more distinct, rushing up to greet them.

Ahead, near one peak, a tiny dark cave loomed, a small droplet of black. As they drew nearer, the entrance spread to a narrow fissure. Nearby mountains concealed the opening. No trail led to its mouth and the cliff was far too treacherous to climb. It was accessible only by flight.

Is that where we’re going? Barrie wondered. Will we fit? It’s hardly wider than a crack. We’re going to crash!

Perhaps hearing her thoughts, Emberson rumbled, “Lie against my back. There is enough room, but it will be close. Keep your head low.”

Barrie obeyed, pressing herself flat. The ridge of the grimy saddle dug into her chest and arms. Jagged stalactites bit down from the ceiling. Barrie tensed, expecting them to gouge racing stripes down her exposed back. But Emberson tucked in his wings and lowered his head. Swooping low, they glided safely into the crevice. Barrie’s ears popped with the pressure change. She breathed in moisture and minerals. The cavern’s rough stone scraped her exposed arms and legs. Reflexively, she drew her knees tighter around Emberson’s great middle.

They drifted through the squat narrow fissure before it widened into an enormous cavern. Emberson gently landed.

Barrie blinked in the gloom. Once her eyes had adjusted, they widened in shock. She found herself within an enormous dark hall, large as two rugby fields. The stone floor was smooth. Above, shadows claimed the vaulted ceiling. A line of melted candles flickered in sconces along the walls, extending deep into the cave. Beneath the sputtering tapers, along either side of the grotto, a file of giant beds stretched into the dark. Upon each lay a dragon, their bodies twisted into awkward tortured poses. The air reeked of sickness and rot with harsh medicinal undertones.

Terrible thundering whimpers echoed from the cavern’s depths.

Wide-eyed, Barrie dismounted. “What is this place,” she whispered.

“This,” Emberson replied solemnly, keeping his gaze ahead. “Is the Convalescence. You asked why I allow myself to work for a man like Raul. Come.”

Emberson lumbered forward on all fours, his long tail swaying. Barrie jogged to keep pace. They passed bed after bed. Every occupant sported dreadful injuries—a torn wing, a severed tail, an amputated limb. Terrible scars crisscrossed the faces, backs, and bellies. Most writhed upon their beds, bellowing in pain. All bore hideous patches of some greyish fungal infection, which reeked of spoilage. Yet, the worst patients were the silent ones, their shrunken bodies covered in the greyish mess. They lay frozen on their pallets staring like living statues.

“What is that awful stuff?” Barrie asked.

“Greyrot. It is what claims every dragon in the end.”

“That’s awful! What’s happened to them all?”

Emberson didn’t slow. “After decades of working, this is where we all end up, bodies exhausted, minds and spirits broken. Someday, I too will share this unhappy misfortune.”

He stopped before a gurney. Upon it lay a motionless figure. One of the dreadful silent ones, the body twisted with the greyrot. Emberson peered at it through his spiked muzzle.

Barrie followed his gaze. “I don’t understand. How does this connect to why you work for Raul? Why not fly far away from this awful place? This awful fate? Why do you stay nearby?”

Emberson didn’t move; his eyes remained fixed, “Have you not guessed?”

Barrie shook her head. “What?”

“This place, the final home, is where my family resides. This,” he indicated the immobile staring dragon, “is my grandmother. Dozens of my other relatives rest here as well.”

“What happened to her?”

“Long years spent working hard for her loved ones,” Emberson said softly. “Just as I do.”

Barrie shivered as his words sunk in. “B-but I thought dragons were fierce, invincible. How can this be?”

“Only popular human myths and misconceptions suggest that dragons are immortal, invincible. But we still suffer and die. Perhaps, millennia ago, we might have lived a thousand years. But then the greyrot began.”

“Oh.”

From behind her came a wretched bellow of discomfort and misery. Its echo reverberated for ages. On the next bed over lay another elderly dragon, his blue hide mottled with the hideous rot. He had no wings, only ghastly useless stumps.

“Ah. Mr. Fleetwings Flamesmith,” Emberson said. “He’s been at my grandmother’s bedside for nearly a century now.”

“Where are his wings?” Barrie whispered through lips numb with horror.

“Flamesmith used to do hard labour in his youth, carrying impossibly heavy loads to pay for his own aged family’s care. The main cities of Aotearoa—Auckland, Wellington—wouldn’t exist without his efforts. He took on greater loads, always wanting to be the best, to land himself more jobs. But he was aging all the while. And one day, his bondsman loaded him up too heavily. Flamesmith knew it, but he took off anyway. The ropes bit too deeply into his hide.” Emberson paused. “Have you ever seen a weighted wire slice through an ice block?”

Barrie shuddered as the sombre silence of the Convalescence pressed close. She hugged herself.

“When a dragon loses his wings, he loses his mind,” Emberson continued. “It’s the most terrible experience we can endure. You can see, the greyrot set in soon after.”

The story tore at Barrie’s heart. Sobs pressed her throat, choking her voice. “But why didn’t anyone try to put them back on? Doctors sew limbs back on all the time.”

“Yes, but we have a grievous shortage of medical staff. When did you last hear of a dragon veterinarian?” Emberson’s voice was bitter. “No, the few volunteers simply stabilized the injuries and left him here.”

Flamesmith’s rheumy gemstone eyes met Barrie’s. He blinked to clear his vision. Once the ancient dragon had verified what he was seeing, his milky eyes widened and he creakily extended one yellowed claw streaked with grey.

Barrie gagged as the rotten stench filled her nose.

“Go on,” Emberson urged. “Take his claw. He will not hurt you. It will do him good to feel a gentle human touch once more.”

Barrie hesitated, blinking against the awful reek, before accepting the claw. She wrapped her arms around it, lending the sick dragon some comfort.

Flamesmith wheezed; his chalky eyes radiated gratitude before they swooped gently closed. He snuffled peacefully.

Barrie dropped the claw and turned to Emberson. Tears coursed down her cheeks.

“Let’s go,” she choked. “Take us away from this awful place. I can’t bear it. The suffering. It’s too much—” Her voice cracked. An anguished sob wracked through her.

Through his muzzle, Emberson’s wise green-gold eyes regarded her. He nodded. “As you wish, pākeha. It is time. Hop on. I will return you to the carnival. To your own family in Te Anau.”

Barrie flinched. Somehow his low solemn voice had stung more than a lashing.

Barrie swallowed and glanced at her wristwatch. Six minutes had passed since they’d flown through the narrow crevasse. Yet somehow it seemed much longer. She suddenly felt old—much older than when she’d first stepped into the paddock at the carnival. Now, as Emberson knelt and Barrie climbed into the saddle, she again noticed its soiled surface and the chiseled initials. By hiring a dragon to experience dragonflight, had she become an unintentional instrument in Emberson’s servitude—another whip-man like Raul? Sour regret churned her stomach like a bellyful of worms.

Emberson took a running start towards the cavern mouth. Faster and faster, the stone walls raced by. The pair were airborne before they reached the narrow passageway.

They exploded into the night. Stars blazed overhead, while city lights glittered below like spiderwebs after a rainstorm. Neither girl nor dragon spoke for a time. Emberson’s mighty wings creaked with each majestic beat.

Barrie held the reins slackly, reflecting on what she’d witnessed in the Convalescence, not sure what to feel. She had got what she wanted—to experience dragonflight. She should feel happy, so why didn’t she?

But it was too late now. She could never purge what she’d witnessed, nor forget what she’d learned. Gliding there at four-hundred metres, the grimy leather saddle pressing beneath her, her sense of uncleanliness deepened. All she wanted was to be home with her parents—an oblivious little kid once again.

Emberson’s deep voice filled Barrie’s head, “Copper for your thoughts, pākeha?”

Barrie hesitated. “I feel selfish saying this, but I was thinking of my family.”

“Indeed. No need to be shy. Families are the most important factor in our lives. They affect our lifespan from birth through death, helping us make our best and worst decisions.”

“How do you mean, Mr. Emberson?”

“Think far into the future. When your parents grow too old, too frail or sick to work, they will need their own Convalescence. What happens then?”

“We’d have to help them, of course.”

“Naturally, but who is ‘we’?”

“My sisters and I. We’d help pay the medical bills.”

“Ah, but you’d still have a choice. A difficult one, certainly, but you would not have to help. You could let them simply fend for themselves.”

Barrie shook her head. “No, I’d never do that.”

“Why ever not? You could save yourself heaps of trouble, I suspect.”

“Be-because they’re family. I wouldn’t abandon them. Just as they would never abandon me.”

Emberson’s wings flapped. He nodded, “Precisely. Now you understand why I work for Raul. Why I cannot just fly away and leave. I hire myself out and, in exchange, Raul pays for my family’s care. We all make choices. I made mine. I stay and work here to be near my family. We all forge our chains for those we love.” He shook his head, the thick links in his muzzle jingling for emphasis.

They drifted through the nippy air. Barrie shivered, rubbed her arms. She sighed. “But what’s the point if every dragon ends up overworked and broken? It hardly seems rewarding to grow up and get old when all that awaits is the misery and sickness of The Convalescence?”

“In some ways,” Emberson agreed. “Yet other choices may bring great joy and brighten one’s life. You are lucky, pākeha. You are still young and have the freedom to make your choices.” He paused before continuing, “Have you decided what you will do when you are older?”

Barrie shook her head. “No, it’s all too much. Having all these big choices, which aren’t really choices at all.” Her voice cracked. She slumped in the grimy saddle, feeling overwhelmed.

They glided on through the starlight. Sharp and cold, an autumn chill sliced the air.

Barrie considered Emerson’s words. He was right—they all made choices and lived with their consequences. That was part of growing up. She pondered her father, Finbarr McCleod, burnt out from a day at the underground Te Anau power plant, collapsing with his double scotch, exhausted and testy. She recalled the two nasty teenage boys at the fair, already unhappy and mean. Even Raul, tired, overworked, and cruel, desired only for his lonely pint of beer.

Why was everyone so down?

But then Barrie’s thoughts drifted to her mother. Laura McCleod glowed with life; it showed in her soul, her smile, her entire being. Now thinking of it, Barrie had never seen her as worn out as Father. Rather, Mother often said how much she loved her job as a primary school teacher.

Barrie sat up straight, her mind racing. Was there some way around the adult disappointment? How did Mother do it? How did she maintain her cheer? What was it about teaching that lent life to her such joy?

An idea, brilliant as a shooting star, zipped across Barrie’s mind. What if she too could make a difference, like her Mother did, but instead for the sick dragons like old Mr. Flamesmith in the Convalescence? What if she—

Emberson’s voice cut through Barrie’s thoughts, “Get ready to land, pākeha. We will be at the paddock in five minutes.”

Barrie roused herself and looked down. Beneath her, the fiords of Milford Sound had grown distinct. Placid Lake Te Anau sparkled with starlight.

“Already?” Barrie murmured. “The time passed so quickly.”

“Yes, it usually does.”

 “Uh, Mr. Emberson? I was thinking.”

“Indeed?”

“Maybe I know what I want to do when I’m grown up.”

“Ah. And what is that?”

“Well, you see, your kind deserves better than doing pony rides or working as beasts of burden. And you certainly deserve far better than the Convalescence. So,” she drew a breath, “I want to help the dragons.”

“Ah. And how do you plan to accomplish that?”

“By becoming a veterinarian. The large animal kind. You said there was a shortage for the dragons. I could do that.”

Emberson didn’t immediately reply. His leathery wings creaked.

Icy wind whistled in Barrie’s face, stinging her cheeks and nose. A billion diamond stars twinkled in the velvety sky. With the dragon’s silence, self-consciousness prickled in her mind. Nervous, she chattered on, “You see, that way, as a vet, I could reduce the hurt of all those dragons in the Convalescence.” She paused expectantly. “Well? What do you think?”

They spiralled lower, the collapsed circus tents of the carnival swooping up to meet them.

Emberson spoke at last. “It is an admirable ambition. How did you decide on that?”

 “From all of it! Seeing your grandmother and old Mr. Flamesmith with his stumps. I thought about how a doctor could have saved his wings. But no one did anything and it just wasn’t fair!” she cried.

“Mm,” Emberson’s deep voice rumbled.

Barrie drew a shaky breath and continued, “I-I want to stop that awful cycle of working until you’re too broken. That loop must end and I’m going to make it happen.”

“Well-spoken,” Emberson said. “If you wish to help my kind, do what you can and do it wholeheartedly. Eventually others will become inspired and follow. That is how you will make a difference. By showing that you care.”

They landed in the garish floodlit paddock. Raul waited for them, his long whip in hand, hairy arms crossed. A sour scowl creased his face.

“Ye’re late,” he spat, gruffly helping Barrie down.

“Apologies, Raul. The fault is mine. I rather enjoyed this one’s company.” Emberson’s malachite eyes turned to Barrie. “Farewell for now. Haere rā, tāmahine.”

Barrie smiled sadly and gave the formal leave-taking Maori reply she’d learned in school. “E noho rā.”

Raul grunted and tugged Emberson away by the spiked collar.

Barrie watched them for a moment before she sighed heavily and turned away. In the harsh flood lights, the whimsical fun of the late summer carnival had vanished. Stark, dull, monochromatic—all the colour had disappeared when the carnival had closed. Abandoned, the midway yawned—now a boulevard of disused haunted houses. A chilly wind howled through the empty avenue.

Barrie had the disorienting sense of glancing behind the scenes. Without all the gaudy paint and lights, she could now see past the gilded veneer, the flimsy illusions it sold of light-hearted escape. Exhausted employees headed home; tired clowns and mimes wiped greasepaint off their sweaty faces; dirty costumes draped over their arms like shed skins. It was just another workplace—a jaded daily task for them, Raul, and Emberson.

Barrie’s mind spun like a carousel with all she’d seen and done. She checked her Footrot Flats wristwatch. Only sixty minutes had gone by since she’d first entered the paddock. Yet how she’d changed within that hour…

“Barrie!” Her mother’s voice called. “Over here, love.”

Mrs. McCleod stood near the entrance-tent turnstile. She grinned and waved. Barrie rushed to embrace her. Mother’s familiar perfume filled her nose. Yet, despite the familiar feel of her arms and her scratchy nylon dress, the simple embrace seemed different now since Barrie knew she’d taken her last dragonride. A lump caught in her throat. Tears prickled her eyes.

“My school just got out,” Mrs. McCleod explained. “Thought I’d come pick you up, eh. Have a good time with the dragons, love? You’ve been looking forward to that.”

A lump of tears blocked Barrie’s voice. Overcome with emotions, she could only nod, her cheek scraping against Mother’s dress. Simple words couldn’t express her complex feelings about all she’d experienced, how all she’d changed.

“Glad you enjoyed it. You saved up a long time for that,” Mrs. McCleod said. “Very mature of you, love. See what you can do when you make your mind up? Anything, eh!” She chuckled. “Let’s go home, love.”

Mother led the way toward her silver Holden minivan. Barrie acknowledged Mother’s arm around her back, yet it seemed too small, like a beloved old shoe that no longer fit. As they crossed the car park, Barrie recalled her last glimpse of Emberson in his spiked collar as Raul jerked on the chain. She’d caught the dragon’s wise golden-green eyes as the noble beast nodded to her before Raul led him into the night.

What was it Emberson had said during the flight? ‘We all forge our chains for those we love?’ Well, in their time together, she’d come to love wise gentle Emberson, in her own way. And from this last dragonride, Barrie had selected her own chains, made her choice, and resolved to become the best veterinarian when she grew up to improve the lives of the dragons.

Tim O'Neal

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