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art by Melissa Mead

Looking for a Knight in Shining Armor

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was born in Germany, spent her childhood in Los Angeles, and now splits her time between Swansea and Spain. She spends her days marketing useful products and her evenings writing about the things she sees in a room that isn't there.

I appreciate your showing up. I know. Putting that ad onto OKCupid probably wasn't the best way to deal with this. I just... I didn't know where to turn for help. Maybe I should have just explained outright, but I was worried you might not come. I'll tell you everything, I will.
It started with the caterpillars. Seriously.
The spiky little crawlers were clustered in the snow-covered trees behind the cabin. They spun nests around the pine needles, sticky white balls of thread hanging from the branches.
"Infestation," grunted Ezekiel when I went in to buy some groceries. He pulled a spray can of insecticide out from under the counter, put it next to the milk.
"I don't like to use that stuff, Ezekiel. It's not good for the environment."
"Take it." When I hesitated, he shoved it into my hands. "So you've got it if you need it."
That was a speech, by Ezekiel's standards, so I took it, threw it into my backpack, and he rang up the rest. Ezekiel is about a hundred years old, runs the dusty little shop at Forest Springs for the cabins up here. Next sign of civilization is Riverside, a one-hour drive down the mountain. I try to stay on Ezekiel's good side.
Still, I didn't use the spray, not at first. But those nests kept growing bigger and I could see thorny caterpillars crawling around the edges. They were as fat as my finger now and not at all cute, not like the fuzzy tiny ones I sometimes found in my tomatoes.
By the end of the week, I was starting to worry about the pines.
"What do I do with the spray, Ezekiel? Do I spray it onto the nests directly?"
"Stand back, they sting."
"The caterpillars? Are you kidding me?"
"Worms," he said.
"No, Zeke, I'm pretty sure they are caterpillars. They're all segmented and they have feet and..."
"Wyrms, not worms. With a 'y.'" He kept his eyes on the groceries, checking each price.
My mouth opened and closed again and finally I managed to ask, "Wyrms as in dragons? In my trees?"
"Wait until they hatch." His weathered face was defiant as he handed me the bag.
"I'll spray them," I said.
"Good." He ambled into the back room, turned the radio on. I was dismissed.
I started with one that was close to the ground, standing well back with the spray can held in front of me with both hands, like a laser gun. I pressed hard until a thick cloud of mist surrounded the webbed nest. My heart was heavy at the poisonous hiss of pesticides in my precious mountain get-away, but it seemed stupid to ignore Ezekiel's advice.
When the bottle was empty, I went back to Ezekiel's for more.
"How come I've never heard about these before?"
"Cold snap. The eggs don't hatch most winters." He waved a hand at yesterday's paper: coldest winter since the blizzard of 1935.
"We tried to fight them," he said as he dumped another half-dozen cans onto the counter. "You'll never get them all."
"I'm doing my best, Ezekiel."
The caterpillars fed at night, crawling out of the nests and around the trees. Every day I sprayed and every evening I watched for signs of life, noting the active nests for extra spraying the following day. Finally it seemed like I'd succeeded.
"I got them, Zeke. Every single one."
He shook his head. "There's always one." Then he seemed to feel bad, because he patted my shoulder. "You did your best," I heard him say as he shuffled to the back room. I'll be honest, I wrote him off as a crazy mountain man at that point. But when the dragon came, I had to eat my words.
It wasn't a particularly huge dragon, maybe the size of a small pony. I found it in the back woods, lying in a sunny patch. The scrub around it was black with ash. Of course I went straight to town to tell Ezekiel what I'd seen.
"Wyrm," he said with a sigh. "Thought so."
"So what do I do? It doesn't look that bad."
"It'll burn down half the countryside if it comes out. You'll have to feed it, keep it comfortable," he said. His bleary eyes raised to meet mine. "Virgins."
"Don't be..." The look on his wrinkled face cut off my protestations. "Virgins?"
He nodded. "Virgins. You can find 'em in Smallfield. Catholic school."
I couldn't help it, I laughed. "I'm not kidnapping girls to feed to a dragon, that's ludicrous."
He smiled, showing grey chipped teeth. "Then you'll need a knight to come and kill it. Good luck with that."
He pulled down the corner of his t-shirt. His shoulder was livid with scar material, as if someone had raked the skin off the bones. "Nasty buggers, wyrms."
So, that's why I put that ad onto OKCupid. Looking for a knight in shining armor to slay my dragons. And well, you're the first one who answered who actually owned a sword. Yeah, I know it's just for re-enactments but beggars can't be choosers, you know? Ezekiel says if it gets hungry enough, it's not too fussy so if you're a virgin... well. If you win, then the problem's solved. And if you lose, hey, I am sorry, but think of it as buying time for me to find another solution.
But I'm sure you'll win. You'll be fine.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 28th, 2011

Author Comments

This story came from a challenge to write a piece of flash fiction every weekend for five weeks. I'd seen the communal silken nests of Pine Processionaries swaying from the pine trees behind our house and started thinking about bigger beasts hatching from them.

- Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
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