The Dragon Next Door

According to ancient Chinese lore, those born in the year of the dragon should avoid relationships with those born in the year of the dog. The two don't mix. It is, therefore, fortuitous that Felipe Jose Santos Hernandez and his loving wife Rosita Marie never heard of that legend. He was born in the year of the dragon and she in the year of the dog. They had been married going on thirty-one years and had three lovely children. One must admit that it does make sense that dragons and dogs wouldn't mix, in fact it's difficult to think of anything that would willingly commingle with dragons.

 
Their oldest son, Jose Pacheco Hernandez had different images of dragons and dogs. The summer vacation that spanned his fourth and fifth grade in school was a period he would remember for a very long time indeed. For one thing, that part of the Mexican high plains desert was entering its fourth year of drought. If it didn't rain this year, everything that the family farmers there had worked for would be gone; some say, forever. It was also the summer his best friend and school chum, Alberto, moved to a town very far away from El Arco and the house next door thus became vacant. Except that it wasn't vacio.
 
A scant week after Alberto said adios, strange things began to happen in that house. Even Jose's scruffy dog, Andele, noticed. It began with a scraping noise coming from inside just as the sun disappeared in the evening. To describe a scraping sound from within a supposed empty house was not easy for a boy about to enter fifth grade. He thought about how to explain it to his father, realizing that his father was a busy man that grew impatient with children that couldn't express themselves succinctly.
 
One morning, Jose's pet iguana was restless. A five year-old lizard is not a small reptile anymore, at least not this one. As the iguana criss-crossed his rather spacious cage, the noise of his portentous claws against the floor and dry tree limbs inside made a sound quite similar to the racket coming from the house next door. Now, confident he could make his father understand, he couldn't wait for him to come home from work.
 
His father listened intently, for a change, gratified that his son could put the appropriate words together to explain the unusual phenomena. That evening, as the sun went down, the two of them ventured into the backyard of the house next door to listen. They didn't have to wait long. The sound was as the boy had described it.
 
Felipe explained that, once the family living there moved out, several types of critters could have invaded the structure from the vast desert that surrounded the town. Rats, the most likely rodent in this part of the country, would be his guess, although a lizard or two may also be likely, as would snakes. With his arm around his son's shoulder, the two walked through the rapidly dimming daylight to the sanctity of their own home. Jose was still slightly skeptical, but his respect for his father's word was enormous and he soon forgot about the noise altogether. That is, until late that night when Andele went absolutely loco.
 
Jose thought the poor old dog would cave in from heart failure as he barked and growled and clawed at Jose's closed bedroom door. No amount of coddling or cajoling helped. Finally, and much to Jose's chagrin, his father opened the door and Andele escaped. Before anyone could react, the old dog was out the backdoor and down the street' in the opposite direction of the house next door. The next morning, after a fitful sleep, the family met to discuss finding old Andele.
 
Since it was the weekend, all hands could search. Felipe and mama Rosita would drive the old pickup truck up and down the streets of the small town. Jose's big sister, Lolita, would walk around the neighborhood and talk to her friends, telling them to be on the lookout for the scruffy old dog most every one knew anyway. Jose would remain home and care for his baby brother, Santos. They would reconvene at noon and drive down to their favorite restaurante for lunch.
 
By nightfall, Felipe had given up hope. He had seen old dogs do this before, even when he was a child his own dog went that way. It's like they know when it's time to die, they go loco and run into the desert never to be seen again. The problem was, how to break the news to Jose that he may never see old Andele again. Then again, it wouldn't hurt to give the dog a couple more days to show up and it would prolong the agony of having to tell Jose the bad news.
 
That night, Jose couldn't fall asleep thinking about his lost perro. Although he knew it was against his father's strict orders, Jose got out of bed, checked on Santos and tiptoed out to the back porch. Except for the chirping of crickets and an occasional whooping from an owl, the night was peaceful. Again on tiptoes, he slowly made his way to the far side of the porch. There, he saw and eerie light coming from one of the windows in the house next door. The light was not steady, however, and it seemed to flicker and fade, then grow bright again only to die out in seconds. Jose sniffed the air. There was a soupcon of smoke. The house next door was on fire!
 
In a split second, Jose was in his father's bedroom shaking the living daylights out of the old boy yelling 'fire, Papa, fuego!' Felipe, a sound sleeper by anyone's standards, was out of bed in record time. 'Where, Jose, donde?'
 
'Next door, Papa, la casa next door!'
 
Felipe ran out the backdoor clad only in his shorts. Sure enough, there was what appeared to be the light of flames dancing inside the window in what should be the kitchen area. Most of the homes in town had electricity, running water and used natural gas to fire their ovens and stoves. Perhaps a pilot light had gotten out of control. Reacting instinctively, Felipe grabbed the garden hose, turned it on full bore and started across the backyard. Suddenly, the dancing light of fire went dark, stopping Felipe in his tracks in disbelief.
 
It was as if the fire knew Felipe was on the way with the hose. Ludicrous, but there could be no other plausible explanation. At that moment, Felipe decided to investigate first thing in the morning. The house was probably open and the owner would understand his concerns. A fire could spread and burn an entire block of homes before the local, ill-equipped volunteer fire department could contain it, especially now, with the heat of spring and no rain in years.
 
The next morning he learned that his hunch was right. The backdoor was open and Felipe immediately entered the kitchen area. Expecting see some vestiges of fire damage, or at least the faint smell of smoke in the room, he stood in the middle of the room in a trance. Nothing out of the ordinary was apparent. Since he was in the house, he decided to have a full look around just in case. Again, nothing was out of place; the possible exception being that the trap door leading to the root cellar below had been left open. With a perfunctory nudge from his hip, the door obligingly slammed shut.
 
On his way out, Felipe did notice something that gave him cause to stop and investigate further. There were droppings all along the edge of the wall under the kitchen window. Although he didn't recognize them as being from rats, mice, birds or rabbits, they were small enough to present little reason to worry. With a shrug of his shoulders, he muttered and an almost imperceptible 'el fantasma,' and left.
 
Jose believed everything his padre said and this time was no exception. Nevertheless, at three o'clock that morning he awoke as if his internal alarm clock had exploded. As before, he checked on Santos and tiptoed out to the back porch to have a look at the kitchen window next door. Sure enough, the dancing firelight was back. 'El fantasma,' he uttered, and suddenly he felt all grown up like his father.
 
For the next month and on the average of three to four times each week, Jose followed this routine as if it were a religious mandate. The spring had only begun and the heat was already unbearable, with not a hint of moisture in the air.
 
Had Jose limited his observations of the dancing firelight to once every two weeks, for example, he may have noticed that the light had steadily grown both in intensity and in area. By the time he was aware of this fact, he felt comfortable enough with this enigma to look inside. This required dragging an old wooden box to the kitchen window so that he could peer in but the clattering the box made as it was dragged over the old wooden back porch shut the firelight off as if a wall switch had been thrown. Wisely, Jose left the box directly under the windowsill for next time.
 
Two nights later, he saw something through that window that took his young breath away. It appeared to be a lizard not unlike his iguana but much larger. About ten times bigger with a longer snout and fangs like those he had seen in the mouths of lions and tigers. The firelight oozed from the very nostrils of this basilisk reptile and it appeared to be feasting on one of the neighborhood cats. Cat' the other white meat. Jose studied this fascinating sight with the bravery and curiosity only a boy of ten could possess. It had the body and neck of a snake, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, eyes of a fish and feet of tiger. A jewel adorned its tongue.
 
His legs grew tired, shaky and his eyelids felt heavy as he slowly tiptoed back to the house and into bed. By the time his father returned from working the fields that day, Jose had pieced together a fairly decent sketch of what he had seen through the window early in the morning.
 
'It kind of looks like a bearded dragon lizard, mi hijo, though they're very rare in this part of Mexico. Why do you ask?'
 
'Just curious, are they peligroso?'
 
'Depends on how grande, doesn't it?'
 
'Si, papa, muchos gracias.' Confident that he hadn't spilled the beans, Jose did, unfortunately, have a twinge of the guilty conscience for not telling his father the whole truth, especially the part about the house next door.
 
That night Jose slept well in spite of the knowledge gained from spying on the strange creature apparently living in the vacant house. Felipe did not sleep well, the worry and fear of not being able to keep his farm going ran rampant through his thoughts. If only it would rain.
 
By the beginning of Junio, the ground was so dry the merest whiff of wind would cause a dust storm. People's tempers were raw from the incessant sun. Farm animals were too weak to move and the sky remained cloudless.
 
In the wee hours of the morning during that first week of the month a loud crash was heard from the vacant house next door. Loud enough to wake the entire Hernandez family except Santos, he was in a dreamland far away from the desert. Felipe decided to have a look. From the backyard it looked as if the entire house was in flames from the inside yet not a puff of smoke or ripple of heat could be sensed. Not an easily frightened man, Felipe was nonetheless sufficiently afraid to call the local policia. Luck was not with him that night, the telephone rang and rang but no one answered.
 
The next day Felipe reluctantly went inside the house next door once again. This time he carried his shotgun, just in case. As before, he simply walked in the backdoor and stopped. The kitchen was a shambles. Holes had been punched clear through the walls forming a series of apertures into the adjacent rooms. Staring in amazement at the damage, he proceeded with extreme caution into one of those rooms. He couldn't get very far, however, the entire floor was gone leaving a gaping crevice into the root cellar below. He had seen quite enough.
 
This time someone answered the telephone and within minutes two of El Arco's finest were there in their black and white squad car, the only one in town. They, too, were flabbergasted at the damage. After a lengthy procedure in which dozens of forms were completed and signed, they left shaking their collective heads in doubt at the story Felipe had recounted to them.
 
That night, at approximately two-thirty in the morning, it began to rain. It rained all day long and into the next night. The following four days it rained a soft, gentle spring rain that by any measure was a ground-soaking toad strangler. One week later, it rained again. This time for three days. All that spring and into the summer, it rained off and on like the days of yore. By fall, the crops were being harvested and the reservoirs had been replenished. Life was good again.
 
 
 
The Chinese dragons of myth could make themselves as large as the universe or as small as a silkworm. They rose into the sky in the spring and plunged into the waters in the autumn. They could also change color and disappear in a flash. They were also, according to legend, the divine carriers of rain, necessary for the good of the people.
 
The End