Fire, Cheese, and Conversation
by Nick Hoins
Uani looked at the coals in the belly of the silver-black stove. He thought about the isolated, miniature world of that fire; an embryo of heat unaware that it existed in a passenger car that moved along a train track at sixty miles per hour. Then he turned back to his paper. The newspaper was always a comfortable place. For him it was a portal, conveying information at whatever pace he desired. It was also a shield and even though it was dirty, it had a satisfying quality to his fingertips. It could be serious and yet round out the hard edges of life with dashes of trivial fun.
‘Strange pattern of blackouts noted on an easterly course through Illinois’ read the first line of a small story. It was mid-page near the back, above the puzzles. Uani’s father, Tim, came back to their booth with a pastry on a napkin and a steaming mug. Uani noticed that his father glanced out the window occasionally, taking in the speeding scenery. They were going to Montana, to begin a new life in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Uani still stared over the edge of the newspaper.
“I don’t want to live in Montana,” he stated flatly, as Tim burnt his tongue in the tea. His father made a curious face, which Uani knew happened because Tim wanted to scowl but knew that he shouldn’t. Tim exchanged glances with Uani’s mother, Gloria. He hated when they did this. Then his dad looked at him. He ducked back behind his newspaper.
“I’m sorry son, but that’s where we’re going to live,” said his father’s voice from across the table. “You’re going to like it, I promise.” Uani thought how ridiculous it sounded to make such a ‘promise’. His father continued talking. “There are beautiful mountains and plenty of things to do. We could go canoeing on the rivers. Would you like that?” Uani’s eyes appeared above the paper again.
“I don’t know,” Uani responded, thinking that it was a perfectly logical answer, seeing as how he had never been in a boat. Shooting a sideways glance at his wife, Tim leaned forward across the old, wooden table. He gently took the crinkly paper from his son.
“Why don’t you say more than that?” asked his father. Uani looked out the window and thought about how he would answer that question if his father hadn’t taken away his shield. He heard his dad sigh exasperatedly and heard the paper being balled up and tossed into a trash can. His mother came over and put an arm around him but Uani still stared out at the fleeting vistas. There was a green and grey field, spotted here and there with spotted cows. Away over the grass was a big building with corrugated, tin roofing. Painted across it were the words, ‘Sedum Dairy’. He knew his parents thought he was messed up. He wished that he could tell them that he wasn’t. Even when he had a newspaper, he couldn’t tell them that. He was thinking that just because he couldn’t talk like other people it didn’t mean he was blind or stupid, when a large fireball exploded behind Sedum Dairy.
It evaporated just as quickly. Uani blinked and pressed his nose and fingers to the glass. He glanced quickly at his parents and then around the wooden train car in anxious curiosity. He wondered if he had really seen a fireball, since no else had seemed to. That night, he woke from fitful sleep because the train was slowing down and he could hear the hissing of the great machine as it came to a stop. Something was odd. The platform was completely dark, except for a few flashlights bobbing around in the night outside.
“What’s going on?” Gloria asked.
“It must be those blackouts,” Tim answered. The door in the front of the car slid open. It was a man in a conductor hat.
“Fifteen minute break, folks. Be careful on the platform. All the power in this town’s out right now, so if you got a flashlight, now’s a good time to use it.” Uani’s dad dug around in his backpack and found his powerful headlamp.
“You want to stretch your legs, Uani?” When Uani just stared at him, his father grabbed his hand and pulled him off the seat. Uani cried out as if he were in pain, but all he wanted to say was that he was hungry and his right leg was asleep. His father led him through the car, down the steps, and onto the shadowy platform. Tim switched the headlamp on and as always, the bright light issuing from it was dazzling. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” he asked. Uani didn’t say anything. “Well I have to,” Tim said, leading him over to the restroom. There was an emergency light on in the bathroom, so Tim handed the headlamp to Uani. “Now wait right here for me, okaaay?” Tim walked into the bathroom. The way he intoned the last word suddenly filled Uani with a hot surge of irrepressible anger. He hated the way his father talked to him and he was tired of being misunderstood. He didn’t have the serenity to decide not to be mad and he wanted to make a decision on his own. He turned the headlamp off and put it in his pocket. He ran from the platform into the tall grass of the field behind the train depot. He veered away from the buildings of the town, silhouetted in the light of a gibbous moon. After a few minutes, he could hear his name being shouted from a distance. He thought about stopping and turning. He thought about shouting back but he also thought about not having the voice to do it. So he ran on.
He only stopped when he was panting so hard that every breath felt like a hot poker in his chest. He couldn’t hear his name being shouted anymore, and looking around, he realized he had come to a line of big trees. It was darker here than in the middle of the field or on the train platform. Then it got even darker. Then it was very dark. Looking to one side, he saw that he was in the shadow of something that was not covering the rest of the field. Slowly, he turned around, suddenly feeling very small.
Directly in front of him was a glittering mound that had not been there before. It reflected and refracted the moonlight into a thousand different shapes and glints. He heard a grumbling noise come from it. Raising his head up, his eyes traveled over what appeared to be a tree made of the same shining stuff. It would have come as a shock to him had he the wits to think about it, that he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!”
He was staring at the dark silhouette of a great head and from it, two shining green eyes stared back at him. He started to back away from it, tripped over something, and fell down. He fumbled in his pocket for the headlamp and switched it on, illuminating the whole area. Holding it in front of him, he saw that what he had tripped over was some kind of spiky tail. He thought it looked like a picture he had seen of a stegosaurus. He quickly held the light up directly to the green eyes. In a second, he understood that before him sat a creature that he and everyone he knew of had only read about in books, or watched on a screen in movies. It was a dragon, and it moved its clawed hand up to its face.
“Aagghhh,” issued forth a voice both melodic and sounding like pieces of flint rock exploding. “Shine that light somewhere else, will you?”
“Uh, sorry,” said Uani, because he couldn’t think of anything not to say to a dragon. He held the light down, in between them. The dragon’s head, on his shining tree of a neck, came down close to Uani, at his eye level.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself?” the dragon asked. Its head was the shape of a huge almond and it had four rows of teeth; two on each jaw. Now in the light, Uani could see that the dragon’s scales were colored electric blue and metallic grey. Above the green eyes were two horns, covered with what looked like some kind of plant. The dragon was all the time watching the silent boy. “It’s jade,” sang the spectacular voice, while the dragon pointed to his horns. “I’m a jade dragon. See my five fingers?” He held them close to Uani, who stared at the saw-tooth edges of the long digits. The dragon grinned when Uani still didn’t say anything. “Not a big talker, eh? That’s okay. My parents aren’t big talkers. They get annoyed at me because I talk so much. But they love romance novels, which are almost nothing but talking.” Uani grinned despite his surprise and fear. “My name is Clapolux,” said the dragon. “What’s yours?”
“Cool name,” said Clapolux. Uani pursed his lips and screwed up his eyebrows.
“My parents talk a lot,” he stammered. Then he covered his face with his hands, much as Clapolux had done when Uani shined the light on him. Clapolux talked on, as if Uani had not done anything strange.
“So where are you going?” The dragon settled into a comfortable sitting position.
“I don’t know,” answered Uani. “I’m running away. My parents don’t understand me.”
“Get outta town!”
“I’m already out of town,” Uani replied awkwardly. Clapolux laughed heartily and the ground seemed to shake under the boy’s feet.
“No, I mean,” said Clapolux, still chuckling, the scales of his body clinking together, “I’m running away too! Well, flying away, actually. My parents don’t understand me either.” Then Clapolux’s face assumed a shape that Uani thought must be a frown. “It started off okay, but I can only travel at night and I keep flying into power lines and getting electrocuted.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” asked Uani.
“No, but it itches and it’s very annoying.”
“Wait,” said Uani slowly, “you’re the one causing all the blackouts.”
“I know,” said Clapolux, shrugging, “I don’t mean to, but there you go.”
“What’s wrong with your parents?” asked Uani. Now the boy was getting curious. Clapolux sighed. Uani felt a sharp stinging in his nose and recoiled.
“Sorry,” said Clapolux. “I ate a lot of Rochwort cheese today. Excuse me.” A low grumbling began again and Clapolux’s belly began to glow orange and yellow. The sound grew louder as the glow traveled up the dragon’s chest, up his neck, and then suddenly exploded upwards out of his mouth in a large fireball. A sonorous belch accompanied it.
“That felt good,” said Clapolux smiling.
“That was amazing!” said Uani.
“Well, that’s also part of the problem. You see, my parents can’t understand that I can only breathe fire when I burp.”
“It was you! Behind Sedum Dairy! I saw you burp!” Uani laughed.
“Yes, I was there. They had delicious Gouda. Do you want some? I saved a little.” The dragon produced a small wedge of cheese and Uani accepted it gratefully. He bit off chunks of it hungrily. The dragon munched on his own tiny block.
“You do love cheese don’t you?” Uani said, with a mouthful of Gouda.
“Yes. And it makes me burp. I just can’t figure out how to breathe fire when I want to.”
“Have you ever burped one through ten?” asked Uani.
“Huh? No, what is it?” asked the confused dragon.
“Like this.” Uani proceeded to belch the numbers; a skill he had learned privately during basic math. Clapolux laughed hard again.
“Teach me!” said the dragon enthusiastically. Uani showed him how to suck all his air in, and how to hold his chest, and how to let his stomach do the rest. It took Clapolux a couple of tries. Uani knew he finally succeeded when he saw the glow in Clapolux’s belly. The spurt of fire shot forth, singeing the grass. “Cool!” shouted the dragon. He did it several more times, saying the numbers as he went. One, two, three, four jets of flame shot into the starry sky.
“Now, you can breathe fire whenever you want,” said Uani, smiling satisfyingly, “in your own way.”
“Thanks!” said Clapolux. “I can’t wait to show my parents!” There was a great crunching noise and a gust of air and Uani saw that Clapolux had opened a pair of enormous wings. “Wait,” said the dragon, turning to the boy, “you never said why you’re running away.” This time, Uani sighed.
“I can’t talk normal,” he said.
“What do you mean? You’re talking fine.”
“Yes, to you. But I can’t talk to anyone else unless I’m behind a newspaper and even then, I can’t do it very well. I feel vulnerable in the big world.”
“Maybe you should try cheese?” suggested Clapolux.
“I don’t think that would work.”
“Why do you like the newspaper?”
“I’m not sure. I guess I just feel safer. I like the stories in the paper too . . .”
“That’s it!” roared the dragon, making Uani jump. “That’s all talking is really. When you want to talk, just do it like you’re telling a story. All conversation is just some story or another anyway.”
“Weird,” said Uani, thinking about it. “Kind of like crunching numbers to produce a pressurized explosion.” He smiled.
“See?” said Clapolux. “You’ve already got the knack for it!”
“Thanks!” cried Uani, impulsively hugging the great beast. Clapolux smiled. “I guess I better go back to my parents too,” said the boy. Just then, they heard shouting and saw lights away over the field. Clapolux spread his wings wide again. “One more thing, Clapolux!” yelled Uani. He stretched the headlamp around the dragon’s head. “So you won’t run into any more wires and get electrocuted.”
“Thanks Uani! Did I tell you I’m good luck?” He burped the number five, shot a fireball, jumped off the ground, and flew off into the night. Uani watched the light of the headlamp twinkling away through the deep purple sky. A few minutes later, Uani’s father, Tim, ran up out of breath. He fell to the ground and hugged his son.
“Uani! Are you alright!? Why did you run off like that!?” We saw the fire and I thought—”
“I’m okay, Dad,” interrupted Uani. “I have a lot to tell you.” Tim looked surprised and confused. “Once upon a time,” began Uani, “there was a fire-breathing dragon who loved cheese . . . .”
Currently, his ambition is to keep having fun creating short stories and working on his novel. His first ambition was to be a squirrel.’