by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Lorelei Signal, July 2021
Smoke rose from Tzora’s flared nostrils. Gray and pungent and entirely lacking in flame. Not a single spark. Not enough heat to rewarm a cold dinner roll, let alone toast her doughy, unbaked wings. Tzora huffed in disappointment, hoping her frustration would translate into a glowing ember inside her scaly nose. But no luck. She was still too young to breathe fire like her older sisters. And that meant she was still too young to fly. No one else would toast her wings for her.
Too young to toast, too young to fly. That’s what every Breadragon always said.
“Ha!” Tlonga, one of Tzora’s older sisters chuffed. “Little Tzory is trying to breathe fire again!” She aimed her crimson-scaled snout at the entrance to the family cave and snuffed out a plume of fire to make even a lava goddess jealous. Hotter than the ovens in hell. Then she flapped her well-toasted wings, crunchy and perfectly browned in the middle, and flew away into the bright blue sky.
How Tzora longed to follow her. To sail through the sky like a kite. Or a frisbee. Or a piece of toast, flung like a frisbee into the air.
If Tzora couldn’t fly through the deep blue sky with her sisters, then she wanted no sight of their taunting flips and barrel rolls among the puffy clotted-cream clouds above. Tzora clambered deep into the family cave, away from the sky and away from her sisters. She crouched her way through tunnels too small for her older sisters to follow her. She spelunked her way deeper and deeper into the network of caverns, feeling sorry for herself and hating the dragging feel of her soggy, doughy wings.
Tzora passed crevasses filled with gold, cracks filled with rubies, and clefts filled with discarded magic lamps, emptied of their genies and useless. Finally she came to a chamber with a funny mound of dirt in the middle of its floor. She crept close to the mound and saw teensy-tiny six-legged creatures streaming in and out of a hole in the middle in long, orderly, single-file lines. They looked a lot like Breadragons, except no wings.
“Who are you?” Tzora whispered in a breathy, warm voice. Warm but not hot. She still didn’t have the fire she needed in her belly. But as she watched the teensy-tiny creatures, she saw that their bright red bodies glowed with heat. She could feel the waves of heat rising from them.
“We are the fire ants!” thousands of tiny voices chirped in unison.
“Fire ants!” Tzora cried out, forgetting that she was speaking to creatures smaller than the tip of her sharpest claw. The fire ants had scattered in surprise and alarm at the sound of Tzora’s bellowing, but when they’d reformed their lines, she whispered, “I’m sorry. I got excited. Can you… toast my wings for me?”
“We’d have to ask our queen,” the fire ant chorus chimed.
“You have a queen?” Tzora asked. Though, she realized, of course they did. Every civilized society had a queen. “Would you ask her, then? Where is she?”
“Our queen lives deep beneath our hill,” the ants answered. “It will take time for your question to reach her. Come back tomorrow.”
And so Tzora came back tomorrow, only to find the queen of the fire ants had a task for her: bring her colony a basketful of crumbs, shed from the toasty wings of Tzora’s fellow, older Breadragons. Tzora filled the basket gladly, scooping and scratching forgotten crumbs out of the nooks and crannies of her family’s cave. She returned, dutifully, with the basket of crumbs, only to be disappointed with another task: two baskets of crumbs.
Day after day, Tzora gathered crumbs for the fire ants, and every day she returned to find the teensy-tiny fire ants looking bigger, rounder in the thorax, and slower in their endless queues. They had less need now to seek out their own crumbs, as they had a fully fledged Breadragon bringing crumbs to them.
Tzora was being used, and she felt fury growing in her belly like a fire.
Tzora flared her nostrils and sneezed a tiny puff of candle-like flame. Small. But flame, nonetheless. Her scaly auburn muzzle twisted into a menacing smile, and she let her anger at the fire ants burn deeply in her belly. When she snorted again, fire streamed out of her nostrils and caught the wicker of the basket she’d been using to fetch crumbs. She aimed her nose at the fire ant hive and watched the teensy-tiny, lazy ants scurry away from her flame. She torched their hive, glorying in their tiny chorus of screams — she was a dragon after all, and her heart was full of chaos and destruction.
Then Tzora turned her new-found flame to her doughy wings, arching her long neck around and spreading her doughy wings wide. Her new-found flame kissed the dough, baking it into bread, and burned on until her wings crisped up properly into perfectly browned toast, just like the wings of all her sisters.
When Tzora emerged from the family cave that day, she flapped her toasty-wings and flew into the sky where the clouds melted against her fiery warmth like fresh-churned butter.
The moral: if you’re as small as a fire ant, don’t try to trick someone as large as a dragon. And if you’re a dragon whose fire hasn’t come in, maybe you’re not angry enough yet.