"Daddy, is dragon's real?"
It was a question he had been asked before. Once, when tired of fielding a multitude of unanswerable questions from a little boy, he had simply said, "No, they're fictional."
"But was they real when dinosaurs were alive?"
"Maybe," he had answered. He'd give the kid that one. "I guess no one knows for sure."
"Was dragons a kind of dinosaur?"
He never ran out of questions. "No, I don't think so," he had answered. "I think they're something completely different."
So how would he answer this time? He looked around at the familiar forest that he had played in when he was a boy. A return to his old home had resurrected a lot of memories, and generated a million new questions for his son, who wanted to know about everything and wanted to fill in all the gaps about his father's childhood.
"Maybe," he told his son. "Some people think they are."
"I think they're real," his son declared.
"When I was a kid," he said, "I thought they were real, too."
No, that wasn't exactly right. He hadn't thought they were real, or even believed they were real. He had known it. As sure as he knew the sun would rise and set, as sure as he knew his own daddy would put him to bed with a Bible story every night, he had known that dragons--or one dragon, anyway--was real.
"Let's go this way," he said. His son followed him out of the clear field where bermuda grass grew, into the forest where trees grew thick and tall. He walked with the certainty of old familiarity to a tree that had grown with a hollow that curled out of the base of the trunk. Like a tiny wooden cave, the dark opening perhaps six inches across. "See that hollow there?" he pointed to it. "When I was a little boy, a dragon lived there."
"No way," his son protested. "A dragon can't live there. It's too small."
"It can if it's a magic dragon," he answered.
"Oh..." His son peered carefully at the opening, then looked through the surrounding forest. The wind sighed softly through the hundreds of oak and hickory trees that surrounded them. There was no other sound.
"Do you think he's still there?"
"I don't know...maybe. But he was a magic dragon, and he didn't come out when grown-ups were around."
"I never want to grow up." Another declaration that his son had made numerous times.
"I know how you feel," he said. "But everyone has to grow up someday. The important thing is that no matter how grown-up you get, you promise yourself that you'll never forget what it was like to be a kid."
"I never will," his son assured him.
"Can I stay out here and play now?"
"Sure. When you're ready for supper just come back to the house."
He left his son there, playing beneath the trees, and walked back toward the house. Halfway across the grassy clearing he heard a distant rumble behind him, and turned to catch a shadowy glimpse of an enormous shape moving behind the trees. In the sky was a thin wisp of quickly dissipating smoke. He paused there, listening, and heard nothing else but the sound of his young son's voice, unintelligible in the distance, a shout, and perhaps laughter.
It must have just been an airplane that made the sound, flying invisibly high overhead. Only a thin wisp of cloud in the summer sky. Nothing but shadows cast by the shifting limbs as the wind gusted through the forest. He walked on to the house. He knew that if he went back, he wouldn't see anything, anyway. Nothing but his son playing by an old hollow tree. But he remembered.