The one rule Géorg and I had when it came to slaying dragons was this: Never let them see the dragon. And it was all well and good until we started throwing the money we’d made at our collective drinking problem and yammering about how we had been milking Saint Beatus near the Nidwalden Forest for the better part of five years. Word got around that the dragons weren’t real and Géorg and I ended up at home with the kids while our wives shuffled off to work every morning, hands red-chapped and bleeding, to help keep the moneyed Count Heldenbuch in clean laundry.
Géorg was a new father and I’d barely seen my daughter, Constance, in two years. We’d been so busy hauling swords and crossbows and other fake dragon weaponry all around the valley that neither of us had been home much except for the odd romp with the wives.
A few days after I’d been back, my daughter looked at me from across our one-room shack and asked if I’d ever met her daddy the Dragonslayer.
“I’m your daddy,” I told her.
“My daddy’s stronger,” she said. “And a knight.” She was playing on the floor with a sack of grain. My wife had dribbled berry juice on the front to make eyes and a mouth. Constance looked up again and asked, “Where’s my mommy?”
“At work,” I told her. “I’m here now. Quiet, Daddy’s thinking.” I went back to whatever important thing I thought I was doing, and she threw me a look that suggested my out-of-work ass was hopefully just a temporary inconvenience in her world.
We were living nine furlongs from Feldkirch, which was twenty furlongs from nowhere and it was hard to keep from wanting to rip every goddamn thing apart being cooped up like that. The rain never stopped, and the cold wind would barrel through the valley and find you no matter how thick the wool on your tunic. My wife would come home after a long day of laundering and Constance would go from the utmost nuisance to daughter-of-the-year in two seconds. “What did you and Daddy do all day?” Gerta would ask, and Constance would shrug her little shoulders and roll up on her mother, arms outstretched, offering up the hug of all hugs. It was hard for me to watch. There I was, at home with the kid all day, and you didn’t see me on the receiving end of something like that.
“Try taking an interest in her,” Gerta told me one night after we’d put Constance to bed and taken up some renewed passion in front of the cookery.
“What’s so interesting about a child?”
“How about the fact that she’s yours,” Gerta said coldly. She pulled herself off of me, re-buttoned her frock, and told me what I could expect as far as lovemaking if I didn’t get myself together and at least try.
So, for a minute, I stopped daydreaming about the fake dragons, and Géorg, and all the money and trouble we used to make for ourselves, and focused on Constance. When I’d see her talking to her sack doll I’d ask her what she was saying. If she was off in the corner playing Bury The Stone, I’d pull up next to her and see if I could join in. If she needed help doing her business I’d take her outside and help her dig the hole and stand there shielding her from the wind as she squatted over it. It took about a week, and then one day while we were outside watching the storm clouds gather, she reached up and took hold of my hand.
Géorg lived a plot of land away. We were neighbors if you consider a half-hour walk neighborly. Since I’d been back I hadn’t worked myself up to visiting him, but eventually I took Constance across the muddy field that separated our hut from Géorg’s to check on how he was faring in the fatherhood department. At his front door Constance asked if her doll could do the knocking.
“Of course,” I said, and lifted her up so she could reach high on the door. Earlier that week I’d given her doll a pair of arms by tying a rope around the middle of the sack and letting the ends hang loose. She grabbed one of the arms and knocked a ropy knock. “Great job,” I told her, and placed her down. She took my hand again and we stood there as the fog and rain rolled up from the valley and set upon Géorg’s hut like it could tear the roof off the place.
“No one’s home,” Constance said.
That’s when I heard the baby scream.
When I pushed open the door, Géorg’s hands were around little Jonah’s throat. There was water all over the floor and he was thrusting the baby’s head into a soot-stained cauldron of dirty water.
“Stop!” I yelled, and pushed Constance aside. The drink fell off Géorg so strongly I could smell it clear across the room. I jumped in, kicked him, and tired to pry his fingers from the baby’s neck. I took a fistful of his hair, yanking it so hard that he dropped the child and collapsed, sweaty and drunk and sobbing on the floor.
“I can’t do this,” he kept saying. “I can’t do this!”
Jonah was motionless on the ground, his eyes open, staring into space like he was watching the last bit of his short life slip away and didn’t want to miss a second of it. I picked up his body and held it out in front of me. They say time stops in the moments we wait for our children to breathe, and I can tell you it’s the Gods’ honest truth. I remember thinking so much in that moment. Like, what would we do if the kid kicked it? Or how long can a child go without breathing? Mostly what I was thinking was, We could really use a little more kid experience in this hut, because Jonah’s skin was a sickly shade of purple and we were about to lose him.
Then it was like some unseen force reached down and gave the boy a slap across the ass. He coughed and screamed as his tiny lungs struggled to expel the water that had been forced inside. He cried with an intensity I’d never heard from a baby before. The child was back from wherever he’d been, and either he did not want to return, or he was outraged at the brutality of this world and what he’d just come to understand of it.
“Look!” I said to Géorg, still lumped on the floor. “He’s alive!”
“So I hear,” Géorg said from behind strands of wet hair. It was the crying, he told me, that drove him to it. “Like a damn banshee,” he said. “If drinking can’t drown out the sound, then what choice do I have?”
Later that evening when I told my wife what had happened, she marched across the field in only a smock and broke the news to Hildegunn, Géorg’s wife. Even over the wind that night you could hear her shouting clear across the valley. Winkelried the Elder often said his goats stopped giving milk when Hildegunn tore into it but this time he worried he might have to put a few of them down. My wife asked if I’d ever seen Géorg try anything like that before, and I lied and said I hadn’t. But I knew better. I’d seen him threaten a local mouthpiece with a lot worse when the dragon scam was falling apart, and there was the time during the Lenzburg job when a hunter caught us in the forest pumping the bellows for sound effects. What Géorg did to that man I can’t bear to think about. He had a dark resolve, Géorg, a grim sense of purpose that made anything possible. The head of a goat, the head of a hunter—these things were equal to him. He had asked more of me but the best I could do was hold the guy down.
After Jonah and the cauldron, Géorg kept himself scarce and drunk in the village for a long while. Then word got out that Hildegunn required his fix-it skills to thatch some roof that had given way to the weather, and suddenly he was home again.
“That idiot’s back?” Gerta said. She was at the hearth stirring a pot of goulash.
“He’s not so bad,” I said.
“You’d forgive him for kicking in your face,” she said without turning around.
“He’s my partner.”
“I’m your partner,” she said…
Géorg and I were a team if ever there was one. It was common knowledge among every clan in the valley that when it came to a certain brand of surliness, we were not to be messed with. We were destruction in the wake of confidence. Strength where it mattered and deception when it counted. “We’re men being men,” Géorg used to say, and that was usually good enough for me.
After Hildegunn took Géorg back, things were actually pretty good for a while. On days when it wasn’t pouring rain Géorg and I would take the kids into the middle of the field and set up a mock dragonslaying. We’d bring out the old swords and I’d do the whole bit where I pretended to hear a dragon approach and Géorg would come in with the bellows. Constance was nearly four and she loved it. “How do you make the growling sound, Daddy?” she’d ask, and I’d show her the gadget Géorg had built from two pieces of bark and a catgut string that vibrated just right. Jonah was still too young to understand. He was barely crawling, but the swordplay seemed to calm him.
Those were the days of the barley blight and rotten beetroot, so Géorg and I weren’t the only ones lacking in gainful employment. Pretty soon, other out-of-work dads from the village brought their kids around and Géorg and I would drag out the catapult, battle axe, and other heavy artillery and put on a real show.
Géorg would run around and cue me when I was to trigger a piece of equipment. The dads would cheer when something big like the catapult went off, and a thick, vigored energy would wrap itself around all of us. Lots of snorting and clapping and spitting on everything, and it felt good to be back doing our thing, even without the thrill of the con and the promise of money.
Afterwards, we’d break open a cask of ale and watch all of our kids play in the mud. We’d talk about our wives, and the kids’ teething, we’d argue about the best way to cobble solid footwear, and trade recipes for stews that required the least of our attention.
“It’s a load of shit,” Géorg said one afternoon. He stood apart from the group of us, gnawing on a twig and rolling it around in his mouth. “Listen to yourselves. You’re men for fuck’s sake.” He threw his mug on the ground and wiped the snot from his face. “You’re an embarrassment, all of you.”
He spit and walked back across the field, dragging Jonah behind him like some kind of dead animal. The rest of us watched in silence, wondering what it was exactly that Géorg had just pointed out about our sorry lives. Constance came up to me and started going on about her doll’s arms. They needed mending, but I wasn’t in the mood. So I pushed her. She fell back into the mud and the men started laughing and pointing at her. I laughed too and a few of us bumped chests like I’d just taken out something evil. Constance stood up and ran back to the house in tears. “Guess I better go take care of that,” I told them.
“Daddy’s sorry,” I said to Constance, after she’d calmed down and it was just the two of us at the hearth. Gerta wasn’t home yet and I was trying to convince her that what happened would never happen again. She softened and looked up, eyes twinkling from the light of the fire.
“Are you going away again?” she asked.
“Why would you ask that?” I said.
“I don’t know.” Her finger made little circles in the dirt floor. “Maybe because it’s funnier?”
“You mean, more fun,” I said, and scooped her up in my arms. We danced around the room as I sang her one of the funny rhymes she’d taught me. Cock a doodle doo! My dame has lost her shoe, my master’s lost his fiddlestick and knows not what to do!
Then Géorg was gone. No goodbye, no nice-swindling-the-countryside-with-you-for-the-past-five-years.
“Not even a note,” I told Gerta, once it was obvious he wasn’t coming back. She rolled her eyes and said the valley was better off without him. “Best place for a man like that is a dungeon,” she said.
“Every kid needs a father,” I told her.
“And where have you heard that one before?”
She was talking about the salad days when I’d only be home for a minute or two between jobs. Géorg and I were bringing in serious riches back then. I’d stop home to drop off what money I hadn’t blown on ale and prostitutes, pick up a spare mace or scabbard, then be back on the road again for months. The way I looked at it, I was giving Constance a fighting chance in the world. Besides, Géorg was on the cutting edge back then as far as fake dragonry went…