Both Isaac and Boyd had yet to pass a single examination.
Last night, the two of them sat near the floor of their bunks, deciding how to force themselves to pass the test they had been avoiding for the past four years.
The servant’s sandals scritched against the floor as he patrolled the dorm halls, giving the boys enough time to blow out their candle-light and jump into bed whenever he came near.
They eventually stayed in their beds, falling asleep without a solution. Boyd woke and told Isaac the idea that must’ve been on his mind all night.
“We just need to do it, without thinking.”
“Are you kidding? I’d rather kill myself than one of them.” Isaac kept the stance he’d had for years--every dragon deserves the right to live.
“It happens every day-”
“I don’t care,” Isaac said. “We’d be nothing without the dragons. Let’s be the ones who don’t go through with it, for once.”
“Yeah, where has that got us?” Boyd stood from his bunk. “Do you want to be made fun of for the rest of your life? To never become a pastor?”
Isaac thought of a hundred comebacks but said nothing.
Boyd paced the room. “Four times,” he said. “I’ve had to tell my father I failed four times. I’m not making it five, I’m not. Do you know the way he looks at me? We should be getting our black cloaks tomorrow, and instead, we’re thinking of ways to stay in white. Nobody’s ever failed five times in school history, case you’ve been under a rock.”
“You don’t know that,” Isaac snapped, his eyes beginning to water. He knew that people were saying nobody had failed five times in school history, but that didn’t mean it was true. Until Boyd mentioned a fifth-year white cloak, he never gave thought to being the first.
The others didn’t understand Isaac’s love for dragons, only Boyd. Together they’ve endured the humility that comes with being different, and now Boyd’s going to change his mind, for what?
“You don’t know that,” Isaac said. “How could someone prove there hasn’t been people like us, people who failed at least five times, if not more?”
“Yeah.” Boyd sighed. “Let me know how that goes for you.”
“Magnificent job Ezer,” pastor Mary said. “A perfect fern.” She pushed convex lenses up the bridge of her nose with the back of a lead pencil, marking the scroll in her hand.
Ezer went back to his friends, met by punches of admiration.
Pastor Mary removed a wet rag from a bucket next to her and wiped her desk clean. She picked the dragon’s limp body off the table and threw it into a collection bin by the door. The winged creature plopped amongst other dead relatives. She continued to prepare test items for the next student, exchanging the green fern Ezer created with a pot of fresh soil.
She went into her back office, a room mystified by a paper-mâché like curtain, her figure morphing into a moving shade of black. Her silhouette bent to a waist-high cage on the floor.
Pastor Mary exited the back room holding a peach-scaled baby dragon in her hands. She placed it onto the desk opposite the pot of soil. The dragon munched happily on earthworms and crickets laid out for distraction. Isaac identified the dragon as an Anthros--an elegant, elusive dragon.
After adjusting a piece of chalk on the table, pastor Mary spun around and examined the room. “Would you like to try next?”
Isaac’s gaze zipped to the floor, searching for ways to avoid his mentor’s choice. The tactic he used was one he’d been using his entire life--avoid eye contact.
He slowly lifted his head. Pastor Mary was still staring at him at the front of the room, as was the rest of the class.
“You’re not gonna cry again, are you?” Ezer asked. A group of kids hanging around him like vultures to a predator burst into laughter.
All Ezer had was jet black hair and a goal to ruin Isaac’s life. Apparently, this was enough to impress his peers.
Pastor Mary’s voice softened. “Isaac, I believe in you.”
We just need to do it. Boyd’s words, seeming much wiser in the midst of the decision, drummed through Isaac’s head as he swallowed his pride and walked to the front of the room. Waiting for him on the left of the teacher’s desk was the peach dragon, slurping a worm. On the right, the flowerless pot. Without thinking.
Isaac picked up the chalk and drew the church sigil. His conscious decision to go through with the sacrifice somehow made him calmer.
“Good,” pastor Mary said. On the desk, to the left of the sigil, the dragon chewed. The corner of its mouth curved in a satisfied smile.
Isaac was taught not to look the dragon in the eye.
Grabbing the creature felt like touching a dry fish. It squirmed and squealed in his hand.
Did the Anthros know what he was about to do? It has to, they’re animals. They know when to eat, sleep and run. But it certainly didn’t act as if it knew. The peach-scaled dragon ate carelessly while Isaac drew with the chalk. There’s no way it knew this chalk would soon dissolve in its spilled blood.
Shouldn’t it have been wary of a fast-acting hand? Maybe they’re not the majestic creatures Isaac thought them to be; maybe they are mindless. Nothing but an unworthy species, free to be manipulated for better purposes. This is why we’ve conquered them, Isaac thought. Because we’re smart.
He pinned the creature’s neck in the middle of the sigil. The dragon flapped its tiny wings. It squealed like any troubled, helpless animal would. Isaac leaned more weight onto the neck of the dragon and its squeals became choking gasps. He switched his gaze to the paper-mâché curtain in front of him.
He removed an unused dagger from the inside pocket of his cloak, dripping sweat onto the desk despite his shivering body.
When he leaned down to the dragon, he almost puked, but from some deep, primal part of him, he uttered this year’s transfiguring word, “crescere.”
He stood straight, held his breath, and closed his eyes. In his imagination, he envisioned a bonsai tree.
Without thinking, he forced down the dagger. There was resistance at first, then a sudden crack and give.
When he gained the courage to look, he saw blood painted across his hands and the listless eyes of the baby dragon on its little peach head, which hung halfway off its body. A few of the last streams of color disappeared into the soil-filled pot, and a peach-colored bonsai tree sprouted.
“Very good Isaac,” pastor Mary said, marking her paper. The classroom filled with murmurs of surprise.
Isaac felt lucid. He stepped backward, surveying the room with wide eyes. What came over him? The sound of the Anthros blood dripping off the table and onto the floor snapped him back into reality. Tears flooded his eyes. He brought his hands to his face, screaming one terrible cry before falling silent and breathless.
“Called it,” Ezer said.
A laugh here, there, and soon the entire class mocked Isaac’s sympathy for the creatures.
Isaac removed his hands from his face and searched the room for Boyd, who was nowhere to be found. He had bailed.
Isaac darted to the back of the room, laughter erupting behind him.
“There he goes,” Ezer said.
The classroom door slammed shut, and Isaac ran away as fast as he could.