Rose knew the names of many dragons before she met the one that would utterly change her life. There was Smaug and his golden hoard, five-headed Tiamat, little white Ruth and his brethren on Pern, and many others. But her first, as for so many of us, was Puff.
She first met Puff when she was three years old, as the dragon frolicked forth from the speakers of her mother's venerable record player. They had CDs and cassettes in the house, but her mother's old favorites were all on pressed vinyl, with their distinctive pops and scratches still intact. The care with which these large black discs needed to be handled told the young Rose that they contained the most special music. The one she requested more than all the others was the Peter, Paul, and Mary record with the bright red label that told of Puff's adventures with the young Jackie Paper.
From this song, Rose formed two mistaken impressions that persisted for some time.
The first was that there existed a substance called "ceiling wax." She grouped it in her mind with the floor wax that her mother used in the kitchen and the car wax that her father applied every month to her mother's sporty little Volkswagen. And since it was "fancy stuff," she reasoned that only rich people used it. To this day, Rose carries around an unexamined belief somewhere in one of the lower recesses of her subconscious that there is a special substance used to polish the ceilings in wealthy estates.
The second mistaken impression was that Jackie Paper stopped coming to see Puff because of an illness.
This idea formed because she misunderstood her mother's explanation about the end of the song, which puzzled Rose when she first heard it. Why did Jackie stop coming to see Puff? "Because he grew up," her mother had answered. But the answer didn't quite make it intact through the noise of the running dishwasher, and what little Rose heard was: "Because he threw up."
This made perfect sense. Rose had plenty of experience with throwing up in her three years of life. And so she understood that Jackie Paper ate something that made him sick, which caused him to stop visiting his magical friend. She also assumed quite naturally that, once Jackie felt better, he must have resumed his visits to the land of Honalee, and that Puff was assuredly happy to see him back healthy. With this happy explanation, the song's inherent melancholy rolled off her like water off a waxed ceiling, and she cheerfully drew pictures of Puff's further adventures with Jackie Paper (and often with a little dark-haired girl alongside them).
It was Clay who explained what really happened a year after she first met Puff.
She often played with Clay when her family visited the Ostroms. Clay's sisters were too old to care about Rose, but Clay was her age, and for the most part he made an excellent playmate. He didn't share Rose's passion for horses, which she found mystifying, but he did love dragons. He even had a stuffed dragon that he had won (or, more likely, that his father had won for him) in one of the carnival games down the Excalibur, and together they decided he should be named Puff. They even tried painting his wings, though watercolors on plush felt do not yield very inspiring results. Stuffed Puff was the centerpiece of many of their play sessions, but early on, Clay made his feelings very clear on the subject of Jackie Paper.
Jackie had left Puff. He had grown up, he had moved on to other things, more grown-up games like baseball or basketball, and he had stopped caring about Puff. The word "traitor" was not in four-year old Clay's vocabulary, but had it been, that would have been the epithet that described the execrable Jackie Paper. The only circumstance under which Clay could bear to mention the name of Jackie Paper was when they cast the fictional boy as the villain in their playtime or in their crayon-illuminated storybooks. Rose did not care for these games and stories. While she agreed that it was a rotten thing to abandon one's friends, she could not muster the equal of Clay's bitter, bitter hatred for the boy who had been Puff's friend, nor did she share his need to envision act of vengeance.
Rose stopped listening to "Puff the Magic Dragon" when she was five years old. It was not because she had outgrown the song, though that time would assuredly have come soon enough in the normal course of events. It was because the record player and all the old vinyl were her mother's, and they were all packed away when her mother died.
"We don't want them to get broken," her father said as her gently lowered the old turntable into a trunk, one that he would fill with old effects that once belonged to Rose's mother. The trunk was rarely unlocked, yet Rose felt its presence in the attic the same way that a compass needle feels the location of the North Pole.
She only heard "Puff the Magic Dragon" three times after that day.
The first time, it came on the radio on one of her father's oldie stations as they were driving down into Vegas. She saw his right hand lurch, as if it wished to dart out and change the station, but he snatched it back before it could touch the radio. Rose watched him as the song played, watched how he kept his eyes fixed on the road. She could see his jaw muscles taut under his cheek, and saw every swallow that forced its way down his clenched throat. He did not weep, as he had the day that her mother had died. Rose found her own cheeks were wet when the song was over, but did not remember crying.
The second time was at summer camp when she was eight years old, and one of the counselors played it on her guitar. They sat around their little fire under the glittering night sky, the smell of creosote and Joshua Trees mingled with the remaining scent of roasted marshmallows, and Rose sang along until her throat would not let her sing. Then she just whispered and wiped her eyes, and that night she dreamed about her mother.
The third time was when she was thirteen, and it was very different.
When "Puff the Magic Dragon" floated in over the speakers of at the tack store, Rose froze where she was, her fingers still inches away from the snaffle bit she was about to pick up. This time, the old song did not make her think of her mother. This time, she was powerfully reminded of the dragon itself who had lived so vividly in her young imagination. She thought of the dragon's shattering roar that could strike fear into the hearts of the most savage pirates, and of the creature's majesty that drove kings and princes to their knees in homage. Rose's eyes shifted to the window of the store, looking out into the desert beyond the parking lot, and for a moment she thought she could see the dragon there, rising from the heat shimmer in all of its glory, spreading painted wings into the sunlight.
The song ended, and Rose snapped out of her reverie. Then she thought of her mother, as she always did when she heard the old songs—Greensleeves or Red River Valley or Country Roads. That familiar sense of loneliness filled her mind like an autumn mist that obscured the momentary vision of the dragon, and she thought no more about Puff.
Not until three days later, when she met a dragon in the desert.
Rose Gallagher is the protagonist of my first novel (working title: Return of the Dragon).