lakeside cottage
Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash

The Copper Dragon by Marco de Meijer

There is a little cottage near the banks of a lake. I don’t know who lives in that cottage these days. But I do know something about the dragon that now lives on the front lawn of that cottage, looking out over the lake. How do I know this story? Because the dragon told me!

Not long ago I walked along that lake with my fiancée. I suddenly heard a hoarse, whispering voice behind me. I couldn’t quite work out where it came from at first till I spotted a sculpture of a copper dragon in one of the gardens by the lakefront. I came closer and again heard the voice: “Hey, hey, come here…listen to me…” There was no other explanation. The voice came from that copper dragon! I waited and listened. It was silent. Then I spotted a little bench, and I guessed the dragon waited for us to sit down there, which we did. While we looked out over the lake, we listened to the dragon’s story….

It happened in those old days that are not recorded in our history books. This lake was then huge, almost as big as a sea, and when you stood on one bank, you couldn’t see the other bank—that’s how big it was. And this lake was surrounded by forests with huge trees. Further away were the Dark Rocks, a group of barren mountains, where no plant would grow. There lived the black dragons. They were messy, smelly, fiery, sulphuric dragons, always in a bad mood, but very, very clever—like most dragons. They lived in dark caves and crags, where they fed mainly off the eggs and young of birds. They particularly liked one special bird that now no longer exists, called the Phoenix.

The Phoenix was a beautiful, multi-coloured bird, and when the sun reflected on its feathers it was as if the whole sky was ablaze. It lay one egg a year, after the first full moon after the start of Spring. It took seven weeks for the young chick to hatch and then another seven weeks before it started to fly by itself, although they could walk around their nest already on the first day.

The Phoenix was no ordinary bird. It was gifted with all the wisdom of the origins of the universe, including our own planet Earth. You could ask it anything (if you could speak its language) and it would answer you truly—because the Phoenix could never lie! I think the late Stephen Hawking would have loved to have had a conversation with one of these beautiful creatures. “Are there black holes in the universe?”—and the Phoenix would have told him the answer!

Dragons are also very wise creatures, but that’s mainly because they can live for very long periods of time, like a thousand years for instance. The thing is though, they always wanted to know more and more. And they believed that by eating the Phoenix eggs and young they would gain that same knowledge. So you will understand that these birds were not impressed with this eating business of the dark dragons.

So it happened that there were less and less of the precious Phoenix birds, till, one day, there was only one female bird left. It stayed far away from the Dark Rocks and lived in the Golden Forest on the opposite side of the lake. And then the time came when she laid her egg. A beautiful, white, shiny egg, laid carefully in a nest under a huge palm tree. And after seven weeks, it broke open, and a wonderfully coloured young chick peeped out. It had feathers already, red, golden, silver, green…and it immediately started to make the call noises that bring the mother back to the chick. But nothing happened, no one came. The chick was hungry and got rid of its egg shells and bravely stepped around the nest—but nothing happened, no one came. What was going on? Well, mother Phoenix had been flying across the lake, when suddenly a big Dark Dragon swept her up and took her away…and she was never seen again.

The little chick made its noises louder and louder. Suddenly there was a rustle of leaves, and a little creature appeared that looked like the small version of a dragon. And it was, because it was Rusty, a young (less than ten years old) dragon. Wait! Rusty was not one of the Dark Dragons. He belonged to a different race of dragons called the Lake Dragons. These creatures lived in palaces on the bottom of the big lake and only sometimes came out of the water.

But Rusty was adventurous and he had made friends in the forest. His friends were Bogo the bear, Snouty the rat, and Luke the deer. And together they went on many adventures like hunting for bee’s honey, swimming in the creeks, palm leaf gliding, and the best game: climbing and diving (climbing up a tree and diving down with the help of a vine or branches).

However, this morning Rusty was all alone, because his friends were off to something new called “Forest School” and Rusty didn’t do “school”; in fact, he didn’t qualify as he lived on the bottom of the lake, remember. He was curious to know who made this noise… and when he saw the little chick, he couldn’t believe his big eyes. He was amazed by its beautiful coloured feathers that already glistered in the sunlight. He came closer, and the chick immediately opened its beak, because it thought that Rusty was its mother. Rusty got the hint and started looking for things the chick could eat.

“Mmmm, what do they eat…how about leaves?” But no, that wasn’t what the chick wanted. “Insects?” No, it didn’t want those either. The chick started to make more and more noise. “Wait here!” said Rusty, and he rushed back to the lake and dived into the water, deeper and deeper till he came into the City of Pearls where he lived. In the City of Pearls was a library. It was one of his other favourite places apart from the forest. And that’s where he went now. The library was looked after by a wise old Lake Dragon called Mrs Toitoi. She was just curled up in the corner, reading a big dragon book when Rusty came rushing in. “Mrs Toitoi, Mrs Toitoi!” And he quickly told her about the chick.

Mrs Toitoi looked at him for a long time. She had big, golden eyes that seemed to look right through you into vast and vast times and spaces that were far away and long gone. Suddenly she said: “That is a miracle!” Then she said nothing for a long time. Finally, she said, “You need to take care of this chick and let nobody know about it, you hear me. For seven weeks you feed it with drops of dew that you gather in the early hours of the day. Make sure there is always someone to guard her. After seven weeks come back to see me.”

And so it happened. In the early hours of the morning, Rusty could be seen gathering drops of dew and putting them on his tail and then bringing them to the chick. And soon the chick was always waiting for him and made welcoming noises to greet him. In the meantime his three friends would come and help him, as soon as Forest School was finished, at three pm. And each night they took turns in guarding the nest.

The first night it was Bogo’s turn. He was a friendly quiet little brown bear. He sat down by the nest, while the chick, which Rusty had named Phoenix, slept. Bogo had brought himself a pile of honey pots and started to eat out of them, one by one. (This is what he tended to do at Forest School as well, with the result that he didn’t learn much in school. With his honey pots confiscated and locked away in the Principal’s office, all he did during the day was dream about them.) Gradually, his eyelids became heavy and he fell asleep. When he suddenly awoke, the nest was empty!

Bogo jumped up—he could hear heavy rustling of shrubs in the distance—he ran (as well as he could) after the noise, just in time to see a small figure running fast ahead of him with the chick on its back. Bogo yelled “Ho there, stop!” and the Thing stopped immediately, looked around, dropped Phoenix to the ground, and ran off as fast as lighting. The Thing, the figure, looked mostly like a hooded, old little man with a long beard and wrinkles all over his face. Bogo took the chick back to the nest and remained awake and eating for the remainder of the night.

The next night it was Snouty’s turn. Snouty the rat brought his favourite game with him to keep himself occupied during the long wait: “Sniff the Whiff”. It consisted of a ball you could squeeze, which would then emit a certain scent and a book with coloured plates that had textures you could sniff with your rat whiskers and then you had to find the plate that went with the scent. If you got ten correct in a row, a magnificent scent would emerge from the bag that makes every rat happy for at least seven minutes. Rats like to work for rewards. (This they hadn’t figured out yet at Forest School, where Snouty spent most of his time in the Principal’s office, sniffing her flowers, books, etc.) Snouty sat engrossed in his game next to the nest.

After ten correct answers, the so desired magnificent, tantalising smell came out of the bag, and the rat came immediately in some sort of dream state. Everything became dizzy and foggy and purple and he felt very very happy. But after seven minutes, when he came back to his proper senses, the nest was empty!

He startled and jumped up, only to hear the rustling of shrubs in the near distance—he ran after it and smelled…smelled what? It seemed a familiar smell, a smell he often smelled in the forest, but he had never been able to find the creature that belonged to it. But now he saw it in front of him, running away with Phoenix on its back. “Sssssstop!” cried Snouty, and immediately the figure stopped, dropped the chick to the ground, and ran away fast as lightning. Snouty wanted to follow him but decided to take care of Phoenix. He carefully picked her up and put her back in the nest. Phoenix, as you should know, was a little girl bird.

The third night it was Luke’s turn to stay awake. Luke, a young deer, was playful and friendly, and he always liked to move and jump around. He brought his favourite toy along, a skateboard that could also skate over grassy areas, jump over fallen trees, and even (when Luke used it) could glide up and down the stems of trees. (This toy was forbidden at Forest School and got confiscated and locked away in the Principal’s office, together with Bogo’s pots of honey and Snouty the rat, with the result that, from sheer movement deprivation, Luke would be unable to sit still and would be having to move his legs constantly and was therefore unable to decipher the letters and words in his books.)

While he was engrossed in his skate game, he got further and further away from the nest till he realised that he couldn’t see it anymore. He jumped and skated back to the nest, only to find it—empty! He startled, but, using his strong sense of smell, he could smell something had been at the nest and moved away in a certain direction. Immediately he jumped and skated through the forest, between the trees, till he saw something running ahead of him. He jumped and skated further…till suddenly the It that he was following had disappeared. But then he saw a little door, carefully hidden at the bottom of a large oak tree. He pulled the door handle, but the door was locked. He knocked, yelled, screamed, but nothing could be heard. Sadly, he went back to the empty nest.

When Rusty came back early the next morning, ready to collect morning dew, he found Luke crying and beside himself. Bogo and Snouty also arrived early, as they were on their way to Forest School. After they had calmed Luke down, they heard Luke’s story. “So this must be that same dwarf that Bogo and Snouty saw. Let’s go and find him!” And together they went, following Snouty’s strong sense of smell, and very soon they arrived at the oak tree. Bogo knocked, but nothing could be heard inside. Snouty yelled and then pressed his ears to the door. “Ssssst, I can hear Phoenix and she hears us!” Luke shouted and jumped up and down. He tried to find windows or other openings, but nothing could be found.

Finally, Rusty said calmly, “Stand back, you all. I mean, right back!” They all did, because they knew what he was planning to do. Rusty took a deep breath, and then flames came out of his mouth, scorching and burning the door away! Smoke was everywhere. As soon as the smoke cleared, they saw that the door had disappeared.

Rusty rushed inside, followed by the others. They came into a tunnel that spiralled downwards till they suddenly ended up in a small, well-lit room. There were some chairs, a table, and a fireplace. By the fire sat the old dwarf in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe. As soon as the four friends tumbled into the room, he jumped up and let his pipe fall. He wanted to run, but he was immediately surrounded, and Rusty threatened to scorch his beard. “Where is the chick, mister…” he demanded.

“….Master Gok, if you please,” said the dwarf.

In the meantime, Snouty was sniffing around and had already found a hidden door leading to another hallway, where they could clearly hear Phoenix’ distressed noises. Rusty grabbed Master Gok the dwarf, and together they all went into the hall where they found Phoenix in a cage. “Open the cage, Master Gok.” After a lot of muttering and apologising, the dwarf opened the cage for them, and Phoenix was put on Luke’s back.

“What is going on, Master Gok?” asked Rusty in an unfriendly tone of voice. After a lot of prompting, the dwarf finally told them that Phoenix was the Last Phoenix on Earth and that the Dark dragons would pay lots and lots of money for her. Besides, if the dwarf didn’t hide her under the ground, the Dark Dragons would soon find her and eat her anyway. This last remark made them anxious. What now? They decided to make a deal with the dwarf. “You keep Phoenix here, but you can’t sell her to anyone. I will be back,” Rusty said. Bogo, Snouty and Luke didn’t care about going to school that day and stayed with Master Gok and Phoenix.

Rusty went back to the City of Pearls and told his story to Mrs Toitoi. She looked into the distance for a long time. Then she said: “There is only one thing you can do, my dear boy. But it requires a lot of courage. You need to take Phoenix to the Diamond Hill, on the top of which there burns a sacred fire—one clear flame that always burns. You then need to throw her into the fire. She will then burn and arise again after seven days, but this time as a Queen Phoenix, a super bird that the Dragons can’t touch.

And so it happened that Bogo, Snouty, Luke, and Rusty, with Phoenix on their backs, started their journey to the Diamond Hill. After a day, they were stopped by a giant who blocked their way. “Give me that bird,” he demanded. Rusty’s fire didn’t hurt him at all. Bogo yelled something, and suddenly lots of bears appeared from different directions and chased the giant away!

The next day, they got stuck in a maze in the middle of the woods. Whichever way they wanted to go, they kept ending up at the same spot. Snouty yelled, and suddenly thousands of rats appeared and made a nice tunnel for them to walk through!

The third day, while they walked through a field with enormous long grass, Phoenix suddenly fell off Rusty’s back. Where was she? Luke ran ahead, jumped up and down, and through his cunning stalking ways found her again!

Finally, they arrived at the Diamond Hill. As they started to climb the hill, the sky became dark. They looked up and saw a gigantic Dark Dragon fly over them, which then descended on the top of the hill, where the sacred flame could be seen. They stopped. Rusty made a roaring noise— it just came out of him; he didn’t know that he had it in him. Immediately, a golden-green dragon appeared in the sky and descended behind them at the foot of the hill. It was Mrs Toitoi!

She looked into the distance, then looked at the Dark Dragon at the top of the hill, and finally looked at Rusty. She came closer and whispered in Rusty’s ear: “If you want to save Phoenix, you need to sacrifice yourself. I will give you a spell so the Dark Dragon can’t touch you. But if you let go of Phoenix, even by throwing her in the fire, he can snatch her. All you can do is jump into the fire with her!” She then blew softly on him, and it felt as if an invisible cocoon was wrapped around him, a flaming web that no one could pierce through. But human eyes would not have seen it!

Rusty climbed up the hill while his three friends watched silently. They had no idea what Mrs Toitoi had said and done. The Dark Dragon waited, his mouth half open, his big teeth visible, and his dangerous green eyes fixating him. Rusty knew not to look into those eyes. They would hypnotise him, and his spell would be undone. When he reached the top of the hill, Rusty kept his eyes fixated on the holy flame. He looked behind and saw his three friends staring at him in silence. Mrs Toitoi had disappeared. He felt alone. Then he felt the warmth of Phoenix flowing into his body. He jumped and threw himself into the flame. The Dark Dragon flew away in anger.

After seven days a new bird arose from the ashes, more beautiful than ever a Phoenix had been. But she was not alone. She arose on the back of a copper dragon, who flew three times over the forest and then descended by the lakeside to let Phoenix dismount. And that is where Rusty the copper dragon remained, forever guarding the lake…

Bogo, Snouty and Luke were expelled from Forest School, but they didn’t care. Each night, they gathered around Rusty and played like before. Rusty had to be back at his spot before sunrise, but as long as it was night, he could move and fly however he pleased.

The magical power of the Phoenix still hasn’t left him. When he had finished his story, my fiancée and I looked into each other’s eyes, and we felt the warmth of the Phoenix surrounding us. “Will you marry me?” we both said at the same time. And we both said “Yes, I will.”

The End


Marco de Meijer writes: I was born in the Netherlands (1960), and grew up along the banks of the Wester Schelde by the Belgian border. At a young age I got captivated by fairy tales, myths and legends, along with the Lord of the Rings. I started writing stories in my early teens. This went along with a growing sense of spirituality in nature and mankind. Later I became a Psychologist and moved to New Zealand and forgot writing. But I kept gathering fairy tales from all over the world and got engaged in the use of story telling, often to help youngsters with "problem behaviour". I started writing again some years ago, initially to have some stories I could use with the children I work with. But gradually since the lockdowns, I rediscovered story writing in itself...

Author's note

The intro of this entirely true. The Copper Dragon exists and can be seen in the backyard of a house by lake Rotoroa, in Hamilton, New Zealand. And also true is that I once walked there with someone who inspired and encouraged me to start writing again. And while we walked past the Copper Dragon, ideas started to emerge between us...about stories, dragons, a Phoenix, and ourselves...and that's how this story came about!