He sat one late evening in the darkness after a summer rain that came through the long heat, and watched the children playing. It was dark, and rain sluiced down the blind windows, tore the new green leaves, and the sound in the gutter was like a mountain stream, gurgling and pouring out of the spout. Josie stood at the window and watched a wet cock stepping slowly and miserably around in the wet leaves. She sighed and yawned and then sat down on the floor quietly in a corner. Tom played a solitary game, stepping softly back and forth in one spot, murmuring to himself. The room was cold, and their father slumped in his chair half-asleep, seeing strange and fantastic creatures swell up like smoke and dwindle away, and listened to the slow pouring of the rain.
Josie, who had been singing uneasily to herself, rattling the newspapers, jumped up suddenly. “I must be prepared,” she said. She walked quickly across the room and crawled under the sofa, dragging the fire tongs with her.
Tom stopped his rocking and stared at her, “Who must you be, Josie?”
“You are coming, you are coming, I must be prepared,” came in a chant out of the darkness.
“But I ain’t coming,” Tom said. He sounded somewhat scared.
“You are coming, you are coming, you are coming to destroy,” came the dreary chant. “There is blood, there is blood, there is blurder in your eye.” She rattled the fire tongs, and Tom got down on his fat knees and tried to peer under the waving sofa-skirts. “Blood in your eye, and a sabre in your hand—” Tom sat up and wiped his hands on his pants. “What’s a sabre, Josie?”
“It’s an instrument of death.”—Josie’s voice came out explanatory and normal. “It’s what you got against me.” Then the lugubrious mourning began again: “I am prepared, I am prepared. Come and ye shall find me waiting. Waiting, watching the saburr in your hand.”
“But Josie, you got the sabre!” Tom exploded. “I ain’t got a thing!” Silence. He waited a minute and then added obligingly: “But I could get something maybe.”
Then Josie started to emerge, red and a little breathless, her eyes shut. She pushed the tongs in front of her like giant feelers, exploring, testing. “I am prepared,” she murmured. “I am prepared. I am not afraid.”
Tom stared in fascinated awe until the cold tongs bumped against his knee. Then in sudden horror and excitement he grabbed the ends and yanked them out of her hands. “I got ‘eml I got ‘em now!” he yelled. He started to pound her defenceless fingers clutching the carpet, while she squirmed to crawl out from imder the sofa.
“Hey!” Brian called. “Quit that!”
Tom dropped the tongs and backed away, frightened.
“You shouldn’t of done that,” Josie said. “Whatja want to go do a thing like that for? You might of kilt me!”
Tom’s mouth trembled and his face screwed up with tears. “You started ut!”
Josie looked at him with sincere horror. “I did not either! I did not do anything to you!”
“You poked me,” he said. “You was coming at me.”
She picked up the tongs and put them carefully by the fireplace. “I was only coming out, and you were right in the way. So you got bumped.”
Forced to defend his act, which a few minutes before had frightened even himself, Tom got defiant and belligerent. “You looked fierce! You said you was preparing!”
“You ought to be punished for hitting me like that,” Josie said. “You ought to be whacked twice as hard!” Brian stood up above them, his face dark, bewildered. “Come here, you kids,” he said. “Quit fighting!” He sat down by the window and took Tom on his lap. “Once there was a child,” he said—
“How old?” said Tom.
Brian looked confused. “Well, I don’t know. About your age, or Josie’s there.”
“I’m four and Josie’s eight,” Tom informed him promptly. “And then what did he do?”
“It was winter and very cold, and the rabbits had white fur, and the weeds had mounds of white snow on their tops, and the owls were white. They hooted all night long hunting for food.”
Josie looked up interested. “What’d they eat? White mice?
Brian hesitated. “I suppose so,” he said reluctantly. “Or maybe they were a different kind of owl.—Yes, that’s it! they were different. They ate a kind of late winter fruit— snow apples and frozen moss roots.”
“I’d rather’ve had a hot mouse,” Josie murmured. But Brian ignored her.
“But the little boy—where’s he now?” Tom said, bumping his legs up and down.
“Oh, the little boy was right there in the snow. He had on a big warm white coat lined with wool, not fur-—”
“I got the fur muff you gave me still,” Josie said. “But it’s kind of ragged.”
Brian went on: “It was white and woolly, as I said, and he carried a great mysterious bundle, very large and heavy, but he was so strong he walked straight up anyhow. His cheeks were fat and red with cold, and he wore big red mittens—”
“I got red mittens,” Tom said. “Where was he going?”
“Oh, he knew! he knew, all right. He was going—he was going to save a whole village full of people from a terrible disaster. They were poor, these people, and they were the victims of a strange winter dragon, a creature whose . eyes were like diamond clocks and whose scales glittered like frost. His claws were huge silver knives, and he breathed out a poisonous white fog. His tail was the tail of ten times ten crocodiles, and studded with burning emeralds.”
“Oh, my, ain’t that sumpinl” Tom said in awe, his voice unconsciously imitating Brian’s.
“What about his teeth?” Josie demanded.
“All, his teeth were white ivory with gold fillings and diamond points, and when he smiled you could see clear down to his burning stomach.—Only he didn’t know this, of course. He thought his smile made him look lovely. Anyway, he ravaged the countryside and the village every winter, and nobody could stop him. As a consequence children had to stay in bed instead of going to school, and the tables had only a few limp potatoes on the plates, and the fathers sat with their heads in their hands, and the babies cried in the cradles. There was no music and no dancing and no movies. No nothing at all.
“And the king of the country sat inside his great castle and ate turkey and cream and grew fat, and his ears filled up with wax so that he was pretty deaf; and along about sundown each day he would go to the castle window and look down on the black and silent village and see no smoke from the chimneys, and only a few starved dogs running in the streets. And then he would shake his head and pull it in again and mutter, ‘This is too bad, too bad, too bad indeed. Something ought to be done about this.’ And then he would pace back and forth on his crimson carpet, and by that time it would be tea-time and he would have to go downstairs and speak to the foreign ambassadors, and by the time that was over it would be dinner-time, and after dinner he was always so full he couldn’t think very clearly anyway and thought he’d better decide tomorrow because after all the problem would still be there tomorrow and there was no use rushing this thing.”
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” Josie recited pompously. “That king was a procrustationer.”
“Well, then,” Brian went on, his eyes glittering, “just before he went to bed, the king would walk along the back walls of the palace and lean over the parapet and listen for the sound of the dragon-scales coming through the woods. He could hear them rattling on the dead leaves, and smell the dragon-smoke, and he’d hunch himself tight against the wall and whistle softly. ‘Hey, Steve!’ he’d whisper.-Steve was the dragon’s name, I forgot to mention. ‘Hey, Steve!’ he’d say, ‘is that you?’
“And the dragon would whistle back. ‘Hello, Albert, old boy,’ he’d say.—’Whatcha got that’s good?’
“Then the king would drop down a couple of gold peaches or a nice little pig still hot from the roasting oven, and they’d chat awhile in loud whispers, and then finally the king would yawn and straighten up and say he had to get a good night’s sleep, and remark that something ought to be done about those poor folk down there in the village before they all passed out. And the dragon would shake his head in the darkness and pick his teeth and say it was a sorry sight indeed, Albert, a sorry sight, and to see the way their bones were beginning to stick out every place was enough to make anyone, let alone a sensitive dragon, lose his appetite. And besides, the smell was pretty disgusting.
“Then they would shake hands and claws, and the dragon would rustle off very softly, and the king would yawn and murmur ‘Uneasy-is-the-hcad-that-wears-a-crown,’ and stroll off to bed.”
“That was bad,” Tom said. “He was a bad king.” “He was a skunk,” said Josie.
Brian sighed and shook his head. “He was worse tfoan a skunk. He was a man. But he slept well, and things went on much as usual, going from bad to worse and back again, until the report of this village was spread beyond
all the mountains. And the bad odor of it drifted through the forests . . . Well, to get back to this little boy—”
“Why wasn’t it a little girl?” Josie stirred resentfully.
Brian looked confused and baffled. “Well, it might have been, only it just didn’t happen to be this time. That is to say—”
“Go ahead,” Josie said kindly. “I don’t care.”
“This child,” Brian went on, “this little boy that was walking over the white snow with a giant bag—”
“—A great mystererous bag,” Tom corrected.
“—A great mysterious bag—was on his way to the village, and passing through perilous forests full of white wolves and bitter winds and blinding snowstorms. The icy branches rattled over his head, and great soft hunks of snow slid off the fir trees and landed on his shoulders. Cold streams of snow trickled down his neck, and his hands, in spite of the red mittens, began to feel like hurting ice.”
Tom shivered painfully and stared up at Brian. “Hurry up and get him there, Daddy!”
But Brian was enjoying his own eloquent misery. “White owls swooped down out of the branches and swept their wings in his face, and the crows cawed and sneered in the naked branches. Then he came to a stream and started to cross, but the ice quivered and cracked under his feet, so he had to back up and make himself a bridge out of the heavy branches. And that was a bitter job indeed, with fir splinters in his fingers, and snow splinters in his eyes, and night coming on pretty fast—”
“What I want to know,” Josie butted in, “is—what was in that bag?”
Brian swallowed carefully and blew his nose. Then he looked gravely and mysteriously around the room, avoiding Josfe’s eyes. “That’s a secret, Josie. You wait and you’ll find out, later on when he gets there.”
Josie subsided quietly and began to braid the fringe on the rug, but he heard her mutter, “I bet he never gets there, I bet.” “He crossed the creek,” Brian went on, “all the time scared he was going to fall off one side or the other of the slippery log, but clutching tight to the great and precious bag. And far off he could hear the faint sound of people sighing and groaning, and the rattle of great scales on an icy road.”
Tom stared in fascinated horror, and Josie stopped braiding the rug and waited with her hands clasped tight in her lap.
“Louder and louder came the rattle of the dragonscales, and through the trees he could see an icy fog beginning to roll, and huge puffs of vapor as out of an engine, and the flash of diamond eyes. And louder came the despairing cry of the village people in their homes—”
“Why didn’t they do something?” Josie shouted. “Why didn’t they stop him coming!”
“Well, they just couldn’t,” Brian said. “They didn’t know how. They were all confused and worn out, I guess. It was a terrible situation.”
“What did the little boy do?” Tom demanded.
“Oh, the little boy—he— Well, he came marching on steadily through the snow . . .”
“And then he—” Brian’s face lost its rapt and creative glow. The visible shadow of the thing invisible came moving across his eyes. Almost perceptibly an old and hesitant, querulous twang crept back into his voice: “Well, then the little boy shouted defiantly at the dragon, shouted ‘Ho there!’ or something like that, and of course the dragon turned—as naturally one would, you understand—and then —and then—he stopped and switched his great tail fiercely back and forth in the snow, and the emeralds flashed off and on like a lot of GO-signs, and his eyes had a sharp defiant glare. ‘What do you want?’ he roared,—’you with your Ho therel and your Hi, Misterl’ ” Brian stalled for time, and his face got feverish-looking.
Josie sat up, excited, “Why didn’t he open the bag, Daddy? the big bag—”
“He did,” Brian said. “He opened the bag, all right.” He hesitated a minute and looked at them out of the corner of his eye, then went on: “He opened the bag and he hurled the magic thing in the dragon’s face, and the dragon curled up like a limp autumn leaf and died right there by the village gate. And the people came pouring out of their houses, singing and shouting, and you could see the light from their faces for miles around. And they all lived happily for ever and ever and ever, Amen, and no dragons have ever arisen since!”
“Whew!” Tom breathed in relief and relaxed his stiff legs. “That’s good!”
But Josie looked disappointed. “You never said what was in that bag!”
Brian seemed irritated and sick. “I said they got saved all right, and I told you it was magic, didn’t I? What’s more to a story than that?”
Josie gave a quick glance at his hot and haggard face, almost sullen, and got up. “Nothin’. I just wondered. I just thought—”
“Well?” Brian snapped defiantly: “what’d you think? What’d you expect?”
She looked embarrassed and toed the floor. “Nothin’. It just ended kind of quick, that’s all.”
She had no words to express her feeling of emptiness, and because Brian knew what she felt and knew he could never answer her, he was sick and defiant. “That’s the way a good story ought to end,” he said. He got up quickly and slid Tom onto the floor. “Daddy’s got to go up and work now. You play with yourselves,” he said. “Be good. Don’t fight any more!”
Josie stared after him with her cold grey eyes—calm and impersonal, but not unkind. Then she sighed and walked to the window and looked at the autumn garden, the yellow and scrubby rose bushes under the pouring rain.
“It looks awful cold out there,” she said. And then added with quiet finality, as though speaking to some invisible recorder of all truths:
“He didn’t know,” she said. “He didn’t know what was in there at all.”