ANDRA THE DONKEY LOVED THE ROAD. When Steven and Selah awoke in the morning, the little donkey was already standing between the shaves of the cart waiting to be harnessed. Steven and Selah looked at each other, both blushing slightly. Steven dared a quick look into her eyes and was almost lost in their emerald green depths.
They busied themselves with breakfast, hitched the impatient donkey to the cart and began the journey again. Walking with Selah, Steven forgot that he was lost. Had the wisewoman not told him that all roads led to his dragon. He might not know where he had been anymore, Steven reasoned, but he still knew where he was going. As the merchant had correctly reminded him, in his stories the hero never returns home.
Selah was pleasant company and was delightful to hold as they slept. Steven suddenly found himself thinking more about his companion than about his journey. It was a surprise to him when Selah said, “Now that we are on the road again, you owe me a story, Steven George. What will you tell me?”
Steven thought about the stories he had told over his journey and they all seemed to pale against Selah’s tale of the endless road.
“Would you have a tale of knights and maidens?” he asked. “Kings and thieves or fools and ghouls?”
“No,” said Selah. “As you have had the story of Xandra, I ask for the story of your hat.”
“My hat?” Steven asked, genuinely surprised. He had almost forgotten about the monstrosity on his head. “You can’t be serious!”
“Come now,” said Selah. “You wear a peaked hat decorated with feathers and snakeskin. It has a bone whistle that you play “charmingly.” It has a king’s service emblem and a pilgrim’s talisman intertwined. Surely such a remarkable hat carries a remarkable story. I would have it.”
Finally Steven looked squarely into her eyes. They did not sap him as the thief’s had, but gave him courage and drew him to her. “I cannot deny you, my lady,” he said.
The Implausible Hat
NCE UPON A TIME, at least a million steps ago, there lived a man who would slay a dragon. He did not know for sure if he had volunteered for the task or if he had been chosen. He did not know when he would be called upon to slay the dragon. He did not even really know what a dragon was, aside from the fact that it was fierce and to be feared and it breathed fire. But he knew from his earliest memories that he was the one who would one day be sent to slay the dragon. And he thought he knew enough to succeed.
How wrong he was. This is how it came to be.
Long before the dragonslayer was born, an itinerant missionary came to the village of Firsthope preaching of a strange god who demanded the worship of the people. The people had never heard of such a thing and it seemed silly to them. They tended the fields and their flocks and lived lives of peace and contentment. The idea of a being who required sacrifice and obedience when they had always lived in freedom and generosity was ridiculous.
They treated the missionary courteously, but told him quite frankly that his god was not welcome to rule Firsthope, but that he could come to visit if he so desired and the people would gladly give him a feast. While this should have satisfied the missionary, he took offense at the people of Firsthope and stood at the edge of the village shouting back at it.
“I shake the dust of your village off my sandals. You who will not hear will suffer. Pain and torment will be the lot of those who live here and the judgment of the dragon shall be visited on you. In the day that you least expect it, the dragon will swoop down on this village. The dragon will be your doom. The dragon will eat your flocks and burn your fields. There will be great pain and suffering in Firsthope and it will be held up to the world as an example of what happens to those who will not hear the words of the dragon.” And with those words he turned his back on Firsthope and walked away.
The people of Firsthope laughed at the foolishness of the missionary. “Who had ever heard of a dragon?” they asked. “This, surely, is the product of one man’s imagination.” And the people went about their happy lives, sowing their crops and tending their flocks.
But the words of the missionary were like seeds scattered on the ground, and while most fell on the path and were trampled underfoot, some found fertile soil and began to grow. The fruit of this seed was vague uneasiness. Neighbors began to fear each other’s prosperity instead of rejoicing in it. A child who disobeyed his parents was said to “have the dragon in him.” Children were told “if you aren’t good, the dragon will get you.” And when a person died, he was said to have “gone to the dragon.”
After many years, the dragon that the people of Firsthope had never seen, ruled over the village. Where they had ranged far and wide over the fields and hills, they now kept close to the village for fear that they would encounter the dragon. The village drew in upon itself for fear of the dragon.
One day, many years after the missionary had planted his seeds in the village, a young maiden became pregnant. This was not an uncommon occurrence, and was typically celebrated with the woman and her mate. Each new child was an occasion for celebration in the village of Firsthope.
But the maiden refused to say who the father of her child was and no young man of the village came forward to claim it. This created great confusion among the people and people spoke in hushed tones that she was carrying the dragon’s child.
Now the village elder came forth to the people. He was a clever man and had always judged the people fairly. But he could see that talk of the dragon’s child was causing fear among the people. He knew that he must capture the passion of the people or that they would tear the village apart under threat of the dragon’s child, and that the child would not be safe in the village.
The elder, the shaman, and the wisewoman of the village met together secretly and devised a plan. On the day of the child’s birth, they came before the people and called for a great feast. When people gathered together, the elder rose to speak.
“People of Firsthope. For generations we have lived under the threat of destruction by the dragon. We gaze across the river to the distant mountain where smoke rises and run to our homes in fear. But today we have new hope. The elders of this village have passed down a secret prophecy from generation to generation, for so long that it was almost forgotten until the shaman and wisewoman guided this elder into a trance to commune with the elders of the past. In this trance, I have recovered the prophecy.” The people were amazed. The elder seemed to go into a trance again as he chanted the words of the prophecy.
“Hear, o people of Firsthope. It is not in vain that you call yourselves by that name, for this is the birthplace of hope for all people. In the day of despair I come to you. When the judgment of the dragon seems to be ready to fall, I will bring you new hope. Behold a child will be born of no man to a maiden without mate. This child will grow into wisdom and stature and as a man he will go forth to end the captivity of the people of Firsthope. Yes, he will go to the very mouth of the dragon and end its threat forever. He will master the people’s fear and tame their unrest. The dragonslayer will go forth and the people will live.”
There was a hushed silence over the people of Firsthope as the idea sank in. There was first a flicker of recognition and then a blossoming of hope within the village. The elder continued, bringing the newborn child to the dais with him.
“People of Firsthope, today is born to you a child who will free you of your fears. I present to you Steven George the Dragonslayer. And this day, in his honor, I rename this village, Newhope, for he is the newness that will overwhelm the fears of our village.” There was great cheering then and the village celebrated long into the night.
The maiden was lodged with the elder and the child was raised as if he were the elder’s own son. Everyone in the village helped in his upbringing. The shaman taught him seeing, the wisewoman taught him of herbs, the huntsman taught him to hunt, the cook taught him to prepare food. For all his life he was honored and the maidens of the village, when he was old enough, competed with each other to become his lover. His life was good.
Then came the day when the elder was very old and the dragonslayer was rich in years, that a sheep was found slaughtered in the field in the midst of a charred circle. The elder came before the people with the shaman and the wisewoman, and they called the dragonslayer to them, saying, “Steven George, dragonslayer, the time has come. The dragon has struck in our fields and it is time for you to free us forever of this threat. Go forth, therefore, to master the dragon and the great threat that has been held over us for generations.”
And so it was that the dragonslayer began his journey.
As he journeyed, he mistook a duck, a melon farmer, a tinker, a dwarf, a knight, and a thief for the dragon. He even briefly mistook a dancing gypsy for the vicious beast. In truth, even though he had seen pictures engraved, he had no idea what his dragon would look like, nor how he should meet it.
When he left his home village, he was given gifts by the elder, hunter, wisewoman, and shaman of the village that had been his entire world all his life. These he carried proudly. He was also given a ridiculous pointed sheepskin hat at the end of summer, which he wore because it was a gift from his mother and he would not be ashamed of anything he received from her hands.
Now the first day he journeyed away from his home, he thought he saw the dragon take flight, but it was a duck eating a serpent, eating the duck. He tried to get an arrow nocked in his bow in time to kill the beast, but before he could shoot, the beast plummeted to the ground. In his haste to discover the wonder, he fell on the animals and killed both with his impact. Unwilling to waste the gift he had found, even though it was not the dragon, he roasted the duck and smoked the snake meat. As he was ready to burn the offal, he noticed the duck feathers and thought he would improve his hat by adding one jauntily in the band. Then seeing that one was good, he added many. He used the snakeskin to tie them in place as a hatband and fastened it with the pilgrim’s talisman given to him by the shaman.
Deep down inside, he was ashamed of the hat and felt that if he decorated it, it would become his own and he would wear it defiantly. Whenever he met a stranger on the road, he told another story about how the hat had come to be. In one village, an herb-woman placed a bone in the hatband. When the would-be dragonslayer ran, the bone whistled.
He served a knight and the knight bound the king’s emblem to the hat to show that he had served. And each place that the dragonslayer went he told a new story. The hat was his decoy. For as long as people were focused on the hat, he could preserve his weapons, his knife, his bow, and ultimately his sword. They would be his sure defense against the dragon, even though he told people about the hat.
But one sad night, the dragonslayer came upon a thief. That night, the thief convinced him to tell the story of his knife, and having done so, the thief stole the dragonslayer’s weapons, dragon knife and sword, horse, and money. So, at last, the dragonslayer was left with no weapon but the implausible hat.
Now the dragonslayer wanders the endless road, searching for his dragon, armed only with the implausible hat you see on his head and his wit as a storyteller.
The gypsy looked at Steven for a long time as they stood for a moment in the road with the donkey impatiently wanting to move forward. He looked boldly into her eyes and saw all the possibilities of what life could be. Then she smiled, and finally she laughed.
“You lie!” she exclaimed. “No story so fantastic could be true.”
“I’m not lying,” Steven said indignantly. Of all possible responses to the story, he had not expected this. “I was telling a story.”
“And a fine story, dragonslayer. I have never heard the likes,” she laughed. “You pull at my heart-strings. I am drawn to you like a lodestone to steel. Come with me and be my companion on the endless road.”
Steven looked into her eyes and saw the warmth in their green depths, and readily agreed.