Art Pact 270 - First Dragon

From my place under the duvet, safely cocooned from the seasonal but rather rude sunlight that had pushed its way into my room, I could hear the unusual sounds of people moving around in the front room. It was not strange to hear my mother up early - she was a compulsive morning person, unwilling to sympathise with the idea that anyone might not be as chipper as her at seven o'clock in the morning. But my sisters were more like me, and my father even more so - if it wasn't a work or school day there were even odds that you might walk into our house at midday and find my mother the only person out of bed, the only sounds our snoring and the chip-chip-chip of chisel on concrete coming from her studio.

But not that morning. That morning the sounds of girls voices - one loud, one soft - took the place of the noise of my mother at work. Which in itself was strange, because my mother had been compulsively working on piece after piece for several weeks by that time, her rhythms of artistic inspiration and enthusiastic productivity clearly coming into phase with each other for once (they usually overlapped only for a period of a week, before which she was brimming with ideas but unable to muster the energy to work on them, and after which she was still pumped up to be in her workshop but her visions deserted her, leaving her chipping away aimlessly at simple representational sculptures of us - which me and my sisters were delighted by, but which my mother felt were not really art. Not her art, anyway). There was also a sound vaguely audible from outside, a sort of scratching noise and a low rumble like a heavy cart crossing cobbled streets miles and miles away.

Now, any other person might have been interested enough in the peculiar goings-on downstairs to have forced himself up out of bed and gone to investigate. But to those people I say this: you are not committed enough to sleep. I got two chances every week to stay in bed for as long as I liked (within reason, I had to be up for the evening meal or I was likely to starve), and I was not going to waste on of those opportunities just because I'd heard a bit of noise, however intriguing. Instead I grabbed the duvet closer to me and rolled towards the wall, making a Swiss roll with boy centre out of the bedclothes. I tried to reach out to bring a pillow over my ears, realised that I had swaddled my hands too tightly for that, unrolled, put the pillows in place, re-rolled, then squirmed inchworm style until I had insinuated my ears (and of course what lay between them) between the two sound-deadening white cushions. There - safe, so I thought, from any audible interruption - I tried to get back to sleep.

It was not to be. Although I could easily ignore the sounds coming from downstairs, the sound of my own bedroom door opening and closing was something altogether different. I was just preparing to roll over and give the perpetrator of this outrage against privacy and simple decency a stern shouting at when I felt the full weight of my younger sister land on the side of the bed that I had just vacated. Well, I say her full weight. What I actually mean was that approximately forty percent of her weight - the soft forty percent - landed on that side of the bed. The other sixty percent, which was all bones and iron anvils, from what I could tell, landed directly on me.

"Yelp!" I said. Well, yelped. Well, screamed really.

"Geo- I mean fatso!" she corrected herself, almost missing an opportunity to insult me in her excitement. "Mum says to get downstairs immediately!"

"It's Saturday," I said. "Tell her to look at a calendar."

"She says to come down and look at dad's dragon!"

I stopped trying to squirm my kidneys away from her tiny but powerful elbows, instead focusing on rolling all the way over so that I toppled her off the side of the bed. I regretted it instantly - it was far too forceful a roll, and she had hit the floor with a bump that under normal circumstances would have been followed by tears and an appeal to the higher justice of whichever of our parents were nearer, but this time she just shook it off, standing up and pulling at my duvet to try to unroll me. I rolled myself, but in such a way as to let her think she was doing it, then grabbed my pyjama top from the floor and followed her downstairs.

I saw my mother and my elder sister first, staring out of the front room's bay window with expressions that were difficult to gauge. Excitement? Amazement? Eagerness? Pride? Terror? It could have been any of these, and I was to discover as I took the few steps forward to see what they were looking at that it was in fact all of them. Because just as my little sister had reported, there in front of the house stood our father and a heavy goods cart, and in between the two of them a dragon.

"That's a dragon," I said, pointing out at it.

"Yes," said my mother.

"Well spotted, genius!" said my elder sister, sarcastic for a moment but by the time the sentence was half-way through already back to pure excitement. If you'd heard only the last word you would have thought that not only was she of the opinion that I actually was a genius, but she was even thrilled about the fact.

"He bought it from a man in town!" said my little sister, dancing around us. "We're going to ride in the cart!"

My father had been engaged in inspecting the beast when I first spotted him, but now he turned and saw the four of us through the window. He waved at us, first a friendly wave of greeting then a gesture to come outside.

The dragon was small, by dragon standards, but it was still big enough to be impressive. The length of two horses, and probably the weight of three, the creature was supported by six stubby legs tipped with chunky claws that were almost like hooves except for the sharp points at their ends. Its broad, muscley back was covered with heavy green scales, except for the line of its spine - there there was a fine line of downy white feathers, like those of a baby swan, that led from the back of its skull all the way down to the end of its tail. Its face was broad and pleasant, more like a cow's than a dog's, but when it opened its mouth to jaw and let out a kind of rumbling low, I could see rank upon rank of sharp conical teeth within that looked quite capable of crunching a man's arm (or - and this was of more immediate interest to me - a boy's arm) in a single bite.

"What do you think?" asked my father, obviously thinking similar thoughts, because he went to pat the dragon on its head and halfway through the gesture redirected his arm so that it went instead to the neck. "A beauty, isn't he?"

"Uh, yes," said my mother, sounding not entirely convinced. "Just out of interest, how much did it cost?"

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