Call me Puff. I live in a cave by the sea, the very same sea where Ahab sailed in the Pequod. As it happens, I am a dragon, and not just any dragon, but a magic dragon. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. For many long years, I used to entertain paper children with my conjuring tricks, accompanied by my lovely assistant Winifred. Well, I say “lovely”, but in truth Winifred was a bit frumpy for a magician’s assistant. She had a pronounced stoop and a runny eye. However, she was game for anything, including being sawn in half or plunged into a cauldron of boiling tar – or appearing to be, of course – and there are very few magician’s assistants willing to live in a damp dark cave by the sea with only a dragon for company, albeit a magic one.
Winifred was also absolutely indispensible in enticing the paper children from the various seaside villages thereabouts to our magic shows. Had I lolloped into the square, snorting fire and thumping my great scaly tail upon the ground, the paper children would have run screaming and their paper parents would have bustled them indoors and bolted and shuttered their hovels. The hovels, too, were of paper, so I could simply have set them ablaze with a couple of fiery belches, but I am civic-minded as well as magical, and in any case laying waste the land has never appealed to me, on aesthetic grounds as much as anything. I much prefer to frolic in the autumn mist.
The magic shows, which we held either outside the cave or in cow-strewn fields between the villages, were always a great success. My prestidigitative skills are second to none, though I say so myself, and certainly the envy of the magic dragon community. It took long years of practice, manipulating my fearsome great talons, to shuffle a deck of cards so that it was in perfect order, both numerically and alphabetically, ace to king, clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. I killed or wounded countless doves and rabbits before I learned to handle them with utmost delicacy. That was before Winifred joined me, and I had to fight off attacks by vengeful doves and rabbits singleclawed. Later, on the very rare occasions when I was set upon by the great-great-great-grandchild of a dead or maimed dove or rabbit, Winifred smashed it on the head with her spade and shoved it in her cooking pot. This was the same pot I would chuck her into under the illusion it was brimful of boiling tar, a trick which always elicited gasps and nausea from the paper children. Ah, those were heady times!
Alas, Winifred and I eventually had a falling out. It was my fault. I felt in need of a holiday, and hired a boat with a billowing sail, planning a sight-seeing voyage to take in the crumbling coastal castles of kings and princes who had been exiled following the revolution. I knew the sea was riddled with pirates, and it was for that reason I chose as shipmate a paper child instead of Winifred. Far better, I reasoned, that in the event of a pirate attack I could sacrifice a child made of paper, and flimsy tissue paper at that, than risk my lovely, frumpy assistant coming to harm. She did not see it like that, insisting she was no shrinking violet and would give any piratical waylayer the same treatment she meted out to doves and rabbits. But I was stubborn, in that characteristic way of dragons, magical or not, and on a misty autumn morning the paper child and I set sail, leaving Winifred seething with rage on the shore, glugging from a bottle of doves’ blood. I did not expect, in the long months of our voyage, that every single pirate ship we encountered, and there were many, would lower its skull-and-crossbones flag at our approach. Even the most ruthless pirate, it seemed, became a quaking knock-kneed jelly at the sight of me, roaring my name and snorting fire.
When I grew tired of having kings and princes bowing to me from their dilapidated castle ramparts, we set sail for home. Winifred had upped sticks and gone, I knew not where. And, at the very moment we docked, a sharp gust of wind blew my shipmate paper child away, away, he was swept away and gone. I was alone. Never again would I frolic in the autumn mists along the cherry lane. I retired to my cave, where I slouch in the gloom, shuffling cards to pass the time, surrounded by the bones of doves and rabbits, and memories of happier days.