On this particular day, little Natalia Mendolino was watching as the manticore and the unicorn marched by, too transfixed to follow her family beyond the archway.
“Natalia,” called her father, noticing that the child was missing. He hurried back to her and picked up her little hand in his, and marched her back up to where her mother was pushing the pram that held her baby brother, and her older sister was poring over her little zoological field guide. Natalia strained to look over her shoulder, to watch the end of the clockwork parade as the music faded and was replaced with the sound of Lucianna buzzing happily about her school assignment as they made a beeline for the Bird House to see the phoenix molting, which was a very special and rare occurrence indeed.
But of course, they didn’t only stop to see the phoenix molting. They stopped to see the selkies splash playfully in their tank, and to see the sphinx as it tried to trick the visitors with riddles. Lucianna had to translate for their parents, who had only come to this country when Lucianna was a baby, and who still felt much more comfortable speaking Campanian to more common Latin.
They stopped to see the unicorns, of course, and the hippalektryon, which was butting and kicking and generally in a foul mood. And then, as Lucianna ran on ahead to see the water show at the hippocampus tank (every half-hour, fifteen and forty-five minutes after the hour), Natalia noticed something gleaming in the corner of her eye, in the midst of an exhibit of charred earth and black rocks.
There were no visitors at this particular exhibit, although the prettily illustrated signs along the fence seemed to indicate that it was an exhibit, and that it was open. There was a double fence, set apart by several feet, and beyond that, hills and a small cave.
And something that was in the cave, glimmering.
Natalia frowned and looked at the sign. Hic Sunt Dracones, it said, in a cheerful script, and beneath that were little etchings of many different species of dragons common to the region, and an activity for children, showing them how to tell the male and female dragons apart.
There was also a very large sign warning visitors not to feed the dragons.
But there was also no one close by, so Natalia took the brass dupondius her father had given her for pocket money, and crept over to the nearest vending machine, and bought a handful of food pellets.
She crept back to the dragon exhibit. She could hear the splashes and tinny music that signified that the hippocampus show was beginning, and she hoped her family hadn’t noticed her absence.
The space separating her from the dragon’s pen was a good four cubits. She wound up as if she were throwing a bocce ball, and tossed a little bit of the food across.
Her first try fell short. Of her second try, the pellets clattered against the fence, but most of them made their way through the opening and fell into the singed grass.
There was another glimmer from inside the cave.
“Come out,” she begged, in a whisper. “I won’t hurt you.”
A boy a few years older than her let out a snort as he passed. “He won’t come out,” he said. “No one’s seen the dragon in weeks. It’s stupid, now, anyway; nobody wants to see just one dragon. The zoo in New Torino has four.”
He kept walking.
“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Natalia whispered, and she turned back to the pen.
The dragon was right there, in front of her-- well, six cubits away, in front of her, as close as she had ever been to one. She could see its muscles rippling under its gleaming iridescent scales, she could see the flutter of its folded, leathery wings, and the barbs on its tail that glowed with a red heat. She could see the tiny curls of steam that rippled the air above its nostrils, and she could see its sad, sad eyes.
She was stunned silent. First, by the proximity, and then by the fact that she had never seen such a sorrowful creature in her life.
“Hello,” she said, and she put a hand up to the fence.
Now, of course there are breeds of dragons that can mimic speech, much like their distant avian cousins, but this was a much less flamboyant species of dragon, as wildlife protection laws had curtailed the trade of the more exotic species in the past few decades. So the dragon did not speak in return. But it did reach its pearly claws up, and curl them around the fence on its side of the pen.
“You look so sad,” she said to the dragon. “Are you lonely?”
It eyed her. She remembered the food in her hand, and she tossed a little more of it. The dragon caught it in the air, on its serpentine tongue, and munched it, never taking its eyes off of her.
“The sign says there are two of you...you...” She squinted at the sign. There were a lot of big words on it that were beyond her reading ability, but she knew enough to tell the male dragon from the female, based on the barbs on his tail. “There’s supposed to be you, and your lady friend,” she said to it. “Where’s the lady dragon?”
But of course, the dragon couldn’t tell her. It only looked at her, and licked its lips.
“You still look hungry,” she said. “But I gave you all my food.”
She put her fingers under the words on the sign, to make them easier to read, and tried to make out more of the words.
“Oh,” she said. “She’s very old. You’re very old. For dragons, I mean. In capti-- in-- I don’t know this word.” She looked back at the dragon, and he seemed to nod in understanding.
She nodded back. She understood, too. “She’s gone, isn’t she? Like my Nanny. When Nanny went away, Mama was sad for days and days.”
The dragon blinked.
“It’s all right,” Natalia told him. “It’s all right to be sad. You were here together a long time.”
She frowned. “Do you think they’ll get you a new friend? Do you want a new friend? Once I lost my doll in the park, and they got me a new doll, but it wasn’t the same as the first doll. You know?”
The dragon seemed to know. He lowered his paw, and turned, and lumbered back toward his cave.
Natalia could hear the cheering and clapping from the hippocampus tank, and thought she’d better try to find her family before they noticed she was missing. She ran ahead, sparing a glance over her shoulder to see one last glimmer from the darkness of the dragon’s cave.
this is dedicated to Ida and Gus, the Central Park Zoo polar bears.