ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a dragonslayer. He could not remember whether he had volunteered for the task or had been chosen. He did not know when he would be called upon to slay the dragon. He did not even really know what a dragon was—aside from the fact that it was fierce, and to be feared, and it breathed fire. He knew, however, from his earliest memories that he was the one who would one day slay the dragon.
The dragonslayer’s name was Steven George. You’ve heard stories of Saint George and the Dragon, but don’t confuse Steven with the venerable saint. Saint George may or may not have met a dragon or even have believed in their existence. The stories of Steven George have been confused with Saint George because they share a last name and because in the old manuscripts Steven was abbreviated, Stn.
A sheep had been slain, its bloody carcass left partially charred near the river. The Village Elder said that the time had come. The dragon had attacked. It was time to send the dragonslayer to do his job. The villagers held a great feast in honor of the Steven. His sweetheart was especially nice to him and bathed him and groomed him for the feast. Everyone he met in the village congratulated him on his great new adventure. Steven was pleased that he would finally fulfill his destiny and that the whole village was celebrating.
The dragon—Steven knew—lived high on a mountain on the other side of a wide river. Steven had often seen plumes of smoke rise from its peak. The dragon breathed fire, even when it slept. If Steven could just figure out how to get across the wide and treacherous river, he would walk up the mountain, slay the dragon, and be home in time for dinner. But there was no way across the river. So Steven had planned his strategy carefully. He knew that 10,230 steps downstream, an equally wide and treacherous river joined the one near his village, and became even wider, more treacherous, and impossible to cross. So Steven determined to walk upstream until the river narrowed or became shallow enough to cross, and then he would come back downstream on the other side to the dragon’s mountain.
Steven was ready to shoulder his pack and step off his front stoop—the first step of his journey—when his sweetheart approached him.
“Steven, dear, I’ve packed you a lunch,” she said. She handed him a small parcel wrapped in oiled skin and looked at him lovingly. “So now you are off to slay the dragon. My hero. All my life I will pine away on our doorstep, dreaming of my brave dragonslayer. People will nod their heads when they pass and say, ‘She loved Steven George, the dragonslayer.’ Poets will write of our love and how you rode off to meet the dragon to protect your village and your love. I am so proud of you!”
Steven didn’t really know what to say, so he kissed his sweetheart and said he expected he would be gone a few days. He already had strips of dried meat and dried fruits in his pack, but he accepted the proffered lunch, looked sadly at his sweetheart and took step number one. Two, three, four, five, six. Steven always counted his steps. As long as he knew how many steps from home he was, he knew where he was. Steven counted the steps to the river, the steps to the pastures, the steps to the field. Steven had counted the steps between his home and his mother’s home. He had counted the steps around the village long-house. Steven knew how many steps it was to the confluence of the next river downstream and had walked the same number of steps upstream. Knowing the number of steps he was taking kept Steven grounded. Steven always counted his steps. 14, 15, 16, 17.
Steven walked at the steady, measured pace of 80 steps per minute. To walk more slowly would make it appear that he was reluctant to proceed on his journey or to perform his task. To walk more rapidly would make it appear that he was rushing and careless. He counted each step until he stopped before the village hunter who stood in the road blocking his path.
Over the years, the hunter had taught Steven the arts of making arrows, setting traps, and surviving in the wilderness. Now the hunter stood before Steven and offered him his second best bow and a quiver of arrows.
“You will need something with which to kill the dragon, Steven George,” said the hunter. I want you to take my bow and arrows so that you can make our village safe from the dragon again.”
Steven accepted the bow and quiver of arrows gratefully from the hunter. He hadn’t been exactly sure how he would slay the dragon, but now he felt confident that he was fully equipped. He proceeded farther through the village as people gathered silently to watch him go. Occasionally a mother would say in hushed tones to her child, “There goes the dragonslayer. Remember this day.” As he moved forward—35, 36, 37 ,38—the village wise-woman stepped out in the street to greet him. Steven had spent hours in the fields with the wise-woman learning the properties of various herbs. She was also the best cook in the village.
“Steven, you will have many adventures and may face many dangers. This packet of herbs will heal any wound. It is just like the packet that I keep with me at all times. Just smelling them will revive your spirits.” She lowered her voice until it was barely a whisper and Steven leaned in to hear her. “Just a pinch in your soup will make the poorest meal taste like a king’s feast,” she winked at him. Steven gratefully accepted the packet of herbs thinking how fortunate he was to have this healing remedy in case he was injured. He walked on through the village—51, 52, 53, 54. He came to the Shaman who stepped into the street to greet him. The Shaman had taught Steven the art of spirit journeys and storytelling. They had spent many a night sitting by the fire trading tales of things imagined.
“Steven George,” said the Shaman, “as you travel the path of time, wear this badge. It is almost like the one I wear. It will identify you as a pilgrim in this world and the spirit world, and will give you safety and warm welcome wherever you journey.” Steven proudly accepted the strangely shaped pendant and placed it around his neck. He walked a little straighter through the village—69, 70, 71. Steven was near the end of his small village when the village elder stepped out to block his path. During his life, Steven George had spent many hours with the Elder, learning about village politics and just judgment. He was like a grandfather to Steven.
“Steven George,” said the Elder. “You will journey a long road and you will become weary as the burden of this task is great. Take this staff to lean on. It is just like the one that symbolizes my position in the village. You are not only our dragonslayer, but our emissary to the world. Wield this staff with authority.” Steven accepted the staff from the village elder with awe. It made a pleasant thump as Steven stepped out with it, and for a moment he was uncertain if the proper protocol would be to count the thump of the staff as one of his steps, but he abandoned that thought rapidly and continued counting only his footsteps—91, 92, 93. He was near the last step of the village when his mother stepped into his path to embrace him.
“Steven,” she sobbed. “I’ve given you everything I can—my love, my faith, my hope. But honestly, you can’t go off to who knows where without a hat. You’ll catch your death of cold.” With that, Steven’s mother presented him with a conical hat made of sheepskin, complete with flaps over his ears. Steven had never seen a hat quite like this one. It was late summer and Steven was instantly hot, and embarrassed.
“Mo-ther,” he moaned. But she beamed at him in pride, so Steven held his tongue and wore his mother’s gift as he stepped boldly out of the village—103, 104, 105. Steven did not look back. He set his face toward the river and then walked upstream until the village was out of sight behind him—at exactly 637 steps. When no one could see him, he lengthened his stride to a far more comfortable hiking speed of 100 steps per minute.
The ground seemed to fly beneath him as he went with a light heart up the stream. Going did not continue to be easy, however. After 10,000 steps, the well-worn paths near the village faded to lesser-used trails leading to the upper pastures, the mountain people’s village, and the wilderness. Soon, even these changed to hunter’s trails, which in turn faded to game tracks. Steven was forced away from the river by swampy ground, then by a forested ridge. He continued to push back against the land that seemed set against his plan to follow the river. His progress slowed and the ground no longer seemed to fly. His pace fell from 100 steps per minute down to 80, then 60, finally forcing him to slow to less than 40 steps per minute in order to press through the overgrown paths.
It was approaching evening when Steven broke through the underbrush to see the river gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Just as he came from under the shelter of the trees, a flock of ducks noisily rose from the banks of the river, startling him. Lagging behind them, Steven watched as a writhing animal with wings on the top and a tail looped around it rose laboriously to follow the flock.
Steven was elated at his luck. Surely this must be the dragon, come to feed on the flocks by the river. He strung his bow and nocked an arrow but before he could draw the bow the creature plunged out of the sky and fell to earth. Steven ran toward the site as fast as he could through tall sand grass, not letting go of the bow and arrow. Suddenly the ground fell out from under him and he plunged down a steep dune, tumbling head over heels out of control. He landed hard on a soft object that made a muffled quack when he hit and then was very still.
Steven scrambled to his feet, raced to grab the bow and arrow that had flown from his hands in the fall and turn to face the monster. It lay still on the sand with the imprint of Steven’s buttocks pressed into the sand next to it. Steven approached cautiously. He reached out with the bow and nudged the beast but it lay still. He walked carefully around it.
It was not the dragon.
A duck, apparently snacking with its companions in the shallows or on the shore happened upon a snake. The duck saw only the tip of the snake’s tail and thought it looked like a tasty morsel. When roused abruptly from its snakely pastimes, the snake turned on the duck, unhinged its jaw and clamped down on the duck’s tail. Thus joined mouth to tail and tail to mouth, the duck attempted flight with its fellows, but was unable to stay airborne with snake in its mouth and attached to its tail. Steven had seen it plummet back to earth.
We will never know if snake or duck would have emerged victorious in this little battle. When Steven fell down the embankment he landed on the stunned pair and finished their struggle with the impact. Both duck and snake were dead. What had appeared to be the dragon, now looked like dinner. Steven built a fire, plucked and gutted the duck, skinned the snake and set both to roast with a pinch of the wise-woman’s herbs for good measure. It was his first night out and Steven was 19,254 steps from home. He feasted on roast duck and dried and packed the snake in the oilskin packet that had formerly held the lunch packed by his sweetheart. Now that he had rested, he realized his feet hurt. He had walked further in a day than ever before.
Steven tidied up his campsite, intending to get a good night’s sleep before he continued on his journey in the morning. As he prepared to burn the duck feathers and guts, he caught sight of his hat lying where it had fallen in his tumble down the slope.
He looked at the hat. He looked at the feathers. He nodded his head as a new creation suddenly took shape in his mind. Steven sat and intently began jabbing the feathers into the fur of the sheepskin hat. When the hat was fully covered with feathers, he wrapped the snakeskin twice around the headband. Holding it in one hand, he removed the pilgrims badge the shaman had given him and fastened the ends of the snakeskin together with it.
When he was finished, Steven’s hat looked nothing at all like the hat his dear mother had given him. In fact, the feathered headdress surpassed description. Steven placed it upon his head, picked up the staff of the Village Elder and chanting in a low voice began to dance around the fire. Steven had not slain the dragon this day. He did, however, have a fine new hat and he slept a peaceful sleep for the rest of the night.