FRESH YARN presents:

The Dragon Slayer
By Leigh Kilton-Smith

Boomer the Chihuahua and I are having a stare down. It's 3:15 a.m. and though my mother lies dying a few feet away, right now it's just me and Boomer. He growls at me and I growl right back except I go a step further by showing off my ability to form words.
"Fuck off. You're a dog, go drink out of the dog bowl."

He retreats, under my withering gaze, and ignores the bowl. Instead he click-clacks his way back into the bedroom where my dad is sleeping

Oh, he'll be back…

I lay down on the sofa cushions that make up my bed on the floor. Try to get comfortable, cushions sliding, the blanket too heavy, I keep half an eye out for that Paris Hilton handbag wannabe Chihuahua. I don't trust him, the little fucker.

Earlier in the day, Daddy warns me that "Boomer won't drink nothin' unless it's outta his mama's cup." Then he demonstrates how Boomer will wait… Daddy pries off the top of the Circle K Day Breaker Travel Cup, and then Boomer laps thirstily, his little rat head disappearing entirely into the cup. Afterwards Boomer is smug, licking his little whiskers, sticking his hairless ass up in the air and click-clacking away. Hate that dog.

Daddy puts the cup back onto the made-up bedside table where Mama could reach it if she needed it. He senses my horror and says, "Yup they been doing this, the two of 'em fer a long time…" He takes a drag off his filter-less Pall Mall and looks me over. "You sure you can do this?" I see how exhausted he is, how he is feeling this loss, sitting beside the only wife he's ever had, day in and day out, three weeks since she's been moved here into the living room so she can die. I briefly wonder if a person dies in the living room, does it become the dying room? Hey, let's have our coffee in the dying room.

I refocus and reassure my Dad, "Yes, go, go to bed, you've been doing this for the last three weeks, I think I can handle it for one night… go to bed. I'll wake you if there's a problem, I promise."

He gives me a peck on the cheek and says, "You're the only one I'd trust to take care of her all night. I sure am glad you're here, I know she is too."

I lie, "Yeah, me too, Daddy, me too. Get some sleep."

I attempt a hug, but he's already moving away.

This hugging, this show of affection towards each other is something I have brought back with me from my travels. Like a cheap mask that gets passed around, some try it on but push it off quickly, uncomfortable with the closeness, they hand it off to someone else, who doesn't want to try it on, looks weird. We are not good at it, not yet, but after she is gone…

After she is gone, after she is gone, this is the mantra for this moment, after she is gone.

I watch Daddy disappear into the bedroom and I catch one final glimpse of Boomer glaring at me from a pillow on the bed as he shuts the door.

I am alone with her.

The dragon slayer and the dragon. I step closer and study her, not so huge and fire-breathing now, not so mighty and self-righteous now, her claws retracted into a death clutch, her breath is rattling and hesitant, but still dangerous.

Seemingly she can hurt no one now but the dragon slayer knows better, so I sleep with one eye open and both ears alert.

The night stretches on and on, and the sofa cushions become even more uncomfortable, shifting underneath me, separating like dominoes. At one point she moves and cries out a little and I am on my feet, faster than I'd like. I ask, "Are you okay? Do you need something?" She doesn't seem to hear me but she relaxes back into the morphine-induced sleep.

She dozes. And I watch her.

She is a monster, I will not be fooled by this cheap show of surrender, I can't forget this, ever, I can't. I will not buy into the, "Oh death erases all the wrongs a person committed in their lifetime, after all they're dying, blah fucking blah…" I will not. And a voice inside assures me I don't have to.

I count up her wrongs. Thirty-sixty -- the number of times I lied to explain the bruises; fourteen, my age when I ran away from home after a beating so severe, part of my scalp was missing. I stopped crying some point along the way and that pissed her off even more. Ten, the number of kids she had; four, the number of kids she gave away and six, the number of kids she kept; and five, my sister Lisa's age when Mama took to calling her a whore and accused her of seducing my father. Three, the number of times she knocked me out during a beating, and two, the number of times I passed out from hunger during school.

But, wait, hold on, put the pity party on pause. See, I was a kid. It would be years before the adult me would look back and proclaim my childhood a tragedy. I didn't know anything else, and of course she knew it all, that's what sucked. And that was why she would never be forgiven, not on my watch -- never. I just didn't like getting hit and spit on… no tragedy, just a never-ending game of, like, close-contact dodge ball… especially when you're still in the game. And man were we locked in the game, she and I, lifetimes old. But I am here to make sure it doesn't happen ever again. I might not understand the meaning of the word forgive, but I know how to say it and if that's what the gods, goddesses, the universe, or Marianne Williamson need to hear, I am here to say it.

Yesterday I whispered to her, when no one else was around, "I forgive you, I forgive you all of it." I thought she was asleep and so I also whispered, "So, we don't have to do this again, ever, I end it here and now…okay?"

She surprised me by saying in a voice deeper than my own baritone, clear as a bell, "I forgive you too."

What? I mean, what??

Forgive me? Forgive me?? For what?!?

I just shook my head and let it go.

I look around the apartment, government housing, acquired just as she was diagnosed with lung cancer, so it doesn't yet smell of burned grease and cigarettes. The walls are fairly new, no holes. There is, however, this really odd assortment of ceramic animal plaques. There is a black panther, reminiscent of a school mascot, framed by two seemingly brave cheerful squirrels insanely scampering directly towards the panther. There is also a leopard and a cockatiel within friendly distance of each other. A propane company calendar, September seems to be the white-tailed deer month. I sneer at the hypocrisy. Deer hunting is, second to football, the most anticipated season in Texas.

There are three wooden decoupage plaques that seem thematically connected, with beautiful pink roses on each of them though each bear a different greeting. One reads, "I love you Mom," the next reads, "I love you Bro," then, "I love you Sis," and finally, "I love you Dad." The last bears a signature. I look closer, recognize my brother's name and I realize these plaques must make up the "my son that I gave away who, surprise! wound up in prison making stupid plaques" collection.

Stupid plaques. Stupid Chihuahuas. What am I doing here?

There were always Chihuahuas, always. She showered them with the affection she didn't, couldn't, show her children, giving them oh-so-subtle names like Chico and Paco and Taco. Once, after a particularly bad beating, I tried to bake Chiquita in the oven. Mama and Daddy had left to go somewhere that I am sure involved Coca-Cola, cigarettes or beer. I watched them go and then I put the stupid dog in the oven, but I didn't know how to turn it on so eventually I let it out because it kept barking and scratching and, besides, the gas smelled bad.

She wheezes and claws at her chest. The nurse earlier explained that this was normal for people whose lungs are collapsing. I ask if she needs anything, her eyes stay closed, but she just shakes her head no.

I sit at a safe distance, keeping watch.

Yesterday, when she touched her lips over and over I thought she wanted a kiss. I leaned in and she slapped me. Perfect. Seems she wanted a cigarette.

I am sleepy, I pull the blankets off the sofa cushions and make a pallet nearer so I can see her just by looking up. I lay back down.

I smile at the irony that I am, once again, on a pallet on a cold floor while she is a few feet away in a bed.

But it's not the same as before. I am grown and I am strong. My friends, when they hear a noise outside, come to me to make them feel safe; children hold onto me when they get scared. I have recognized that this is my role and I have taken comfort in this -- and have also outgrown it somewhat. See, I have these amazing friends and an amazing husband who make sure I am as good at receiving love as I am at dispensing courage; still lessons to learn, but hanging in there.

I have also outgrown the role of abused child, lived long enough to have tired of talking about it, watched as my friends grew weary of me always winning the "my childhood sucked" competition.

I wake up a while later when I hear her stirring. I open my eyes, she settles, but I, oh for fuck's sake, can't believe what I am seeing. She is lying in her bed with her arms extended upwards, bent at the elbow so her forearms rest on the top of her head.

And I am lying in the exact same position.

I jump up, breathing hard, old fears causing my heart to pound. I am not her, she is not me! No! Okay, okay, okay, it's okay, it's okay, so what? People sleep in weird… oh whatever, quit looking for meaning behind everything. Jesus.

I hear my dad in the bedroom. He cries out, still asleep, "Oh I love ya." Then I hear him shuffle, awake now. He goes to the bathroom and back to bed and never sees me. I am standing right there.

She has moved towards the rail of the county-provided hospital bed. I move her slowly, gently back towards the middle. Her skin feels like a dragon's, scaly, loose and hanging in heavy folds. She is incredibly tiny. She was never more than five feet tall but the terror that she wielded in her life was worthy of the biggest, most fearsome dragon, never without cigarettes and Coca-Colas, so she often, literally, breathed and belched fire… and yet here she was, so tiny, so weak, so….

Yeah, fuck her, I was a kid, a fucking kid, fuck her, I could kill her right now if I wanted to, I could slay this fucking dragon, I could give back to her every bruise my body ever suffered, I could, I really could… I could.

She tries to pull the covers up under her chin, she can't hold onto the blanket and I watch her struggle, but only for a moment, then I help her.

I did not raise me to be heartless.

Though I will never forget she is a monster. The monster.

I pledge again to never forget.

She is quite lucid at times, demanding a cigarette, demanding water, demanding, demanding, then other times the pain is too much and the morphine is dispensed and she goes in and out of pseudo-conscious ramblings.

I can't sleep, I am afraid to sleep; afraid I will wake up in the same position again.

I decide to check on Daddy. I half-open the door, Boomer barks like he's on cocaine. I viciously flip him off and shut the door.

She is turning her head from side to side like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, my daughter, my sister, my daughter. She smiles in her sleep and kicks the covers off. I watch, waiting for her to calm down. She touches her lips. Now, I know. I know it's a cigarette she wants and not affection, but I offer water and she kinda nods, so I lift the Circle K Day Breaker Travel Cup to her parched lips, I push the bendable straw in and she sucks greedily for ten seconds and then stops. I wonder for a moment if this is it… but she mumbles something grumpily and claws at her chest again.

She's going for it, so I gently lift her nails away from her chest, so now she claws at air.

And when she drifts off, I realize I am holding my mother's hands for the first time in my life. I feel the tears and start to sink when the voice comes again, reminding me, she is a monster, she is a monster, nostalgia is not needed or welcomed right now. I hear the voice issue a massive warning, retreat, retreat behind the walls, quickly, this is not an attack we could have anticipated, the dragon is going after the dragon slayer's heart!

But I stay. And when she pulls away, I feel her pain overwhelming her. I stand and go into the tiny kitchen and get her pill, I find a spoon, wash it, and with the pill in the spoon, I add water and lift it to her mouth. She takes it and is instantly relaxed. I cover her and notice how blue her feet are becoming and her hands as well.

It's coming to an end soon, I know it, I can feel it, and I still don't know why I am here. Why I, of all her children. Why I, whose very life is one long fuck-you to her. Why am I here nursing her on what is looking to be her last night on the planet? Is it as simple as quid pro quo, she was there for my first, I am here for her last? And what did Dad mean I was the only one he could trust, what crap.

It's 4:30 in the morning when, once again, I awake to her moving about. She is half-mumbling, but moving quickly, she stretches and tugs at her nightgown, not happy with it. I try to calm her but she is not having it and I just sit, waiting for her to get tired. But then she gets her gown halfway up and then all the way up and I watch as my mother takes off her nightgown and gathers it in a wad under her chin.

I am simply stunned. Stunned. I have never seen my mother's breasts. I have never thought of her as a woman, so it stands to reason I certainly have never thought of her as having breasts, let alone a vagina. But there she is, no dragon, no monster, just a woman. Like me. Similar breasts. I look at my own and compare. Huh, I am bigger.

I had never thought of my mother as a woman. She is just a woman, yes a tortured, saddened dark woman, but at the end of the journey, just a woman.

She's a monster.

No, I argue with the voice, she's just a woman.

Look at her! She's a little, old, frail, dying woman. No dragon more powerful than me, she is just a woman.

She is a monster, the voice argues, and I am crying, trying to get to this, this voice in my head, screaming at me, telling me how stupid I am to give in to the cliché of softening in battle just because someone is dying. And then something starts to click, but then the voice, louder, more powerful. She's a monster, you idiot, don't you remember? She is a monster and you are too stupid to remember.

And then, in the silence of a breath, I recognize the voice. It is my mother's voice, just as clear as it was all those years ago when I was so small and she was so big.

How could I not have known this sooner? Through all my self-help books and my self-help friends, there were still the friendships that I had written off along the way because of this transgression, or that offense. How did I not hear it sooner? My fear of change, my inability to have any relationship with the word "forgive" other than what I found in the dictionary? How?

That is one moment.

And in the next moment I forgive, I forgive her for the obvious; I forgive him for the not-so-obvious.

And I also forgive myself, for not knowing better and being too powerless to change it. I forgive it all. This is the real deal. True forgiveness feels better than the battle of fear the voice and I have waged all those years.

And then the voice disappears. Completely.

The moment forgiveness becomes more than a word, I am released and I understand.

After a bit, I return to the room from the carnage of my internal battlefield and all I see is a woman lying on the top of her blanket.

A naked woman, exhausted from the battle as well. I ever so quietly ask, "Mama, would you like a different nightgown?" She nods. I get her one and I dress her, the way she must have once dressed me. She must have! Right?

I silently tell her what I have learned in my travels, that these hands, identical to hers, have learned a gentle touch. I demonstrate the loving way. I check a forehead for fever. I pull the covers up over her chest and I brush the hair back from her face and I sit holding her hand for the second time in my life, 'til the morning light.

I am my mother's daughter, though no child will ever know the touch of my hand delivered in anger.

I am my mother's daughter though no one will ever go hungry in my presence.

I am my mother's daughter though my anger comes and goes but I own it and I try to attend to all the bruises I may carelessly inflict.

I am my mother's daughter because I have taken the life she offered and said no to it and forged my own way.

I am my mother's daughter because her/my stubbornness almost kept me from what I would only learn here, could only learn here.

And my biggest challenge now lay in a clean gown in a hospital bed, sleeping peacefully, hours away from death.


In the morning Boomer comes slinking in, looking a little parched. I take the Circle K Day Breaker Travel Cup, pry off the top and give him some water. And when he's lapped down as far as he can without falling in, I get him some more water and hold him while he drinks.

And then I put him down, because… well, because… he is, after all, nasty… and a Chihuahua.

Hours later, as she dies, the dragon slayer watches the dragon breathe its last…

And then, as Daddy throws himself onto the bed, crying out, "No, no!" and my brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles pile into the tiny apartment and begin to wail loudly, the dragon slayer gets in her rental car and drives to a nearby lake and sits outside, underneath thick, water-heavy Texas clouds. And she sits 'til the rain comes and washes away what armor is left. Her sword disappears, her heart is laid bare, and she cries and she doesn't die.

And I am what is left.

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