The Unexpected Guest

Mom likes to do things old-fashioned, and nothing has more traditions surrounding it than Christmas here in Poland.

It was a stormy, windy Christmas Eve in our little house at the edge of the woods that year. Jacek and I wanted to go outside and play with the neighbors down the lane, but Mom insisted that if we went out there, she'd never be able to find us in all that snow, so instead we stayed inside and helped her with Wigilia.

Wigilia, the Christmas feast—the most important meal of the year, especially if you're my mom. She prepares nearly every dish from her own mother's repertoire: beetroot soup, pierogi, cabbage rolls, and carp, carp, and more carp. The only thing she doesn't make are the marinated mushrooms, because my dad hates mushrooms. I can't say I'm too fond of them, either. And Jacek—well, he was seven that winter and had a long list of foods he refused to eat.

But Wigilia was special to all of us. It was a quiet time, a sacred time. As we decorated the Christmas tree with our homemade ornaments, I looked out the window and saw the blizzard howling outside, and I, cozy in my warm pajamas and fluffy socks, wished our family could feel like this forever. If only Dad didn't have to go back to work and Jacek and I didn't have to go back to school. I wished Mom and Dad could come play in the snow with us. Older people tended to get tired faster, I noticed. It was exasperating.

"The snow's coming down too hard!" Jacek said in the middle of decorating. "We won't be able to see the first star!" I paused in my hanging ornaments to look out the window. The sky was dark and starless, filled only with innumerable snowflakes gusting in the heavy winds. "How are we going to know when to start Wigilia?" my brother asked.

"I suppose we'll just have to start now," Dad said with a grin. "Which is good, because I'm hungry!"

Jacek climbed onto the couch to tackle him. "Hurry!" my brother said. Dad laughed and picked him up, somehow carrying an incredibly squirmy boy to the dinner table.

Our Christmases were small. Mom's parents had passed away when I was little, and Dad's parents lived far away and didn't do much traveling these days, and neither did we. My aunts and uncles lived all over. So most years it was just the four of us.

Jacek checked under the tablecloth for the customary strewn hay – to represent the manger – and then sat down. He grabbed his spoon, and then his brow furrowed as he scanned the table.

"What is it?" I asked.

"There are five chairs," he said matter-of-factly, "and only four of us."

Mom chuckled. "There have always been five chairs, my love," she said.

"Why?" Jacek asked. I thought he had probably always been more intent on the food at prior Christmases to bother to count the chairs.

"It's tradition," Mom said. "To show that we would have room for the Baby Jesus if He needed shelter this night."

"I think that's a lovely sentiment," I said, feeling very grown-up as most ten-year-olds do.

"Or in case one of our departed relatives would like to stop in and check on us," Dad said with a smile. "I'll bet your grandma and grandpa are going around visiting all you cousins."

A chill ran down my spine as I stared at the empty chair between me and Jacek. "I don't want any ghosts in the house!" I said.

Dad folded his hands under his chin. "I'm sure Grandma and Grandpa aren't scary ghosts. Although it definitely wasn't wise to get on that woman's bad side, let me tell you."

Mom whacked his arm lightly. "Dear, don't frighten them," she said. "Anyway, the other reason is just in case there's someone wandering around tonight who might need food. Christmas is a time to share what we have with the needy, and we are blessed to have such an abundance of food."

Dad frowned a little and leaned back in his chair. "That's a tradition from a different time, though," he said. "I'm not too keen on letting some vagrant into my house."

"Well, I doubt anyone would come by, anyway," Mom said. "Most travelers through these parts stay at the inn in town."

Dad grunted his agreement, and then we said the prayer and passed around the Christmas wafer. It was tradition to forgive the person passing you the wafer, so I said to Jacek, "I forgive you for drawing in my books, although I'm still mad at you for it."

"I forgive you for being a snob and a tattletale," Jacek said.

"I think you're missing the point," Mom said. "You're supposed to wish the other person happiness. You do want to see each other happy, don't you?"

Jacek frowned at me. "I guess," he said.

"Of course I do," I said, folding my arms and glaring back at him.

Dad cleared his throat. "All right," he said, "sounds like the two of you both need to get some food in you—"

There was a rather heavy knock at the door. Mom and Dad exchanged looks of confusion.

"Maybe it's carolers!" Jacek said, springing up from his chair and bolting to the door.

Dad followed him. "But that storm is much too strong for anyone to be out tonight," he said. Mom and I trailed behind, curious as to who was at the door.

The heavy knocking sounded again, and then Jacek opened the door before Dad could stop him. As a blast of cold air blew into the house, Jacek froze, Dad let out a yell, Mom screamed, and I felt like someone had dumped ice on me.

Standing on the doorstep was an enormous, scaly black thing with long claws and long teeth and bright yellow eyes like a cat's. Its long tail curled around it while it watched us silently.

I knew what it was. I'd seen illustrations in books. "Th-that's a dragon," I breathed.

"How good of you to notice," it said in a deep, rumbling voice. "To be precise, I am a zmiy. Might you spare some food for a weary traveler?"

Mom and Dad looked at each other, speechless.

"Well, we do have an extra table setting," Jacek said. "So sure, come on in!"

"Thank you, young man," the zmiy said. Fluidly, it pulled its long body through the doorway and coiled inside our living room. "My, but it is nice and warm in here."

"What—I don't—" Dad sputtered. "How—"

The zmiy took a deep breath. "I usually reside up in the mountains," he said, "but I've just returned from the most wonderful gathering of my kin far away in the Alps. Unfortunately, this is a rather bad blizzard we're getting tonight, and I thought, it is Christmas Eve, so perhaps a kind family would have made room at their table for such an occurrence."

I grinned. Although the books made them sound scary, this zmiy seemed quite polite. "I'm glad we kept that tradition," I said. "Mom, can he stay for dinner? Please?"

"I—I'm worried we won't have enough to feed him," Mom said. Her face was ashy as she gripped Dad's shoulder for support.

"Oh, I won't eat too much," the zmiy said. "Whatever you don't finish is fine. Mostly I'm just glad to be out of that cold. On days like today I'd much rather be tucked away in my cozy cave."

At this, Mom frowned. "Nonsense," she said. "You'll eat a good Christmas dinner like the rest of us, not be relegated to our scraps like a dog under the table!" She had switched gears from oh-my-goodness-there's-a-dragon-in-our-house mode to mom mode. "Come on and join us at the table, Mister…"

"Slawomir," the zmiy said, bowing his head. "And with whom do I have the pleasure of dining tonight?"

"We're the Tulowiczes," I said. "My name's Ada and this is my brother Jacek. And that's Mom and Dad!"

Slawomir chuckled. "Quite charming," he said. "What a nice little family."

"I like dragons," I said as we all headed back to the dining room. Slawomir could not sit at the empty chair, obviously, but he managed to squeeze himself between Jacek and me, although his tail curled halfway around the room.

"That's good," Slawomir said as he picked up his fork and knife. "Not too many humans do. Oh, please do pass the carp, it smells divine."

As we ate our Wigilia feast, we swapped stories with one another and with our unexpected guest. For a dragon, Slawomir was strangely fascinated with our mundane human lives, as Jacek and I told him about what we'd been doing in school and the books we had been reading. He even wanted to know what Dad did for work at the auto repair shop, and loved hearing all about Mom's prized recipes and homemaking tips.

"All of these things are quite foreign to me, you see," he said as Mom brought out the poppy seed roll for dessert. "I live in a cave and make nests out of treasure. It's exciting to learn new things, such as the games they are playing in the schoolyard these days."

Jacek's eyes grew large. "Where did you get the treasure?" he asked. "Did you steal it?"

Slawomir laughed. "No, no. It was given to me to guard by the ancient kings of Poland. They have not yet returned to claim it, so for now it makes excellent bedding."

"If you say so," I said. Personally I didn't see what would be so comfortable about sleeping on coins and jewels, but perhaps it felt good if you had dragon scales.

After dinner, when we were all full and happy, we clustered around the Christmas tree to open our presents. Jacek got a few toys he'd been eyeing, while I got a box set of my favorite book series. Mom got a few new cooking utensils, and we'd all pitched in to get Dad his favorite type of chocolates.

"Sorry we don't have anything for you, Mister Slawomir," I said. "Do… do you want my books?"

The dragon smiled and shook his head. "It makes me happy to see you enjoying the things you love," he said. "That is the best gift I could ask for."

"Let's take him caroling!" Jacek said, jumping up as though we were going to head out the door on the spot.

Dad looked out the window. The snow was still coming down hard, and the wind made the pine trees sway. "I'm afraid there won't be any caroling this year," he said. "I'd rather us not all come down with colds."

"Rats," Jacek said, sitting back down.

"But we can all sing carols here, around the tree!" Mom said. "Has Mister Slawomir ever heard any Christmas carols?"

Slawomir thought for a moment, scratching his scaly chin with one claw. "I believe I have," he said, "long ago."

"Oh, sing one for us!" I said. "I mean, please."

The dragon looked rather self-conscious, grinning in embarrassment. "Well, all right… I'll give it a go, although I am not sure I remember all the words." He cleared his throat, and then he began to sing.

His voice was low and deep and seemed to shake the window panes as it thrummed in his throat. The song he sang was slow, melancholy, almost mournful, and yet beautiful, like an old cathedral. I wondered if that was where he had heard it. The words weren't in Polish, and sometimes he would hum some lines where he had apparently forgotten the words.

Finally he intoned one last note and then let it fade, leaving only the howl of the wind to fill the silence.

"That was marvelous," Mom said, wiping a tear from her eye. "Thank you, sir."

"It is the least I could do," Slawomir said. "I'm sorry it wasn't the best. My Latin is a little rusty."

"I loved it," I said. "Do you know any more?"

"A few more," Slawomir said, and from there we launched into a marathon of carols, as he shared his old Latin carols with us and we taught him the new Polish ones that had sprung up over the centuries.

"If it's not too much trouble," Slawomir said once all our voices were hoarse from so much singing, "could I stay the night in your living room? It's still awfully cold out there."

"Absolutely," Mom said. "I won't have you catching cold either, sir! Let me fetch you some blankets."

With a contented sigh, Slawomir curled up on the floor. "I picked the right family this Christmas," he murmured to himself.

Mom and Dad let us stay up talking to the dragon for a while longer. Slawomir told us of deep woods where other things like him lived, tall mountains with caves running all the way through them, and of nights flying through a sky filled with stars. He told us stories about kings and queens, princes and princesses, strange witches who could be either helpful or harmful, and magical creatures that used to interact with the Poles of old.

He sounded like he had many more stories than he could tell in one evening, and Jacek and I were getting tired although we tried to deny it, so eventually Slawomir agreed with Mom and Dad that we should get some sleep.

"Will you eat Christmas breakfast with us?" Jacek asked. "Pleeeeease?"

Slawomir smiled sadly. "I should take my leave as soon as this snow dies down," he said. "Most humans do not take kindly to dragons. And I have a hoard to guard. But I will not forget your kindness."

"Well—our table will always be open for you at Christmas!" I said.

"Thank you," Slawomir said. "Always remember: it pays to be generous to a dragon. Good night, children. I will guard this house as though it was my own." With that, he flopped his long tail over his snout and closed his golden eyes—although they remained open just a sliver, I noticed, perhaps so he could watch for danger.

As I settled down in my bed, I thought I wasn't going to be able to sleep, but all of the excitement of the evening was exhausting, and before I knew it, the weak sunlight of a winter morning slipped through my blinds.

My first thought was that maybe Slawomir hadn't left yet. I rushed downstairs—and saw an empty living room.

I almost wondered if his visit had been an incredible dream, but Jacek, Mom, and Dad remembered it too. It was all we could talk about over Christmas breakfast.

"I wonder if he'll come back next year," Jacek said as he tied his scarf. It had stopped snowing, the world outside was blindingly white, and Mom had finally given us permission to go play with our friends.

"I hope so," I said, pulling on my boots. "He was such a nice dragon."

I opened the door, and nearly tripped over a brown paper package. It was heavy enough that it didn't budge at all as my boot caught it.

"What is that?" Jacek asked.

"Good question," I said, picking it up and lugging it inside. Mom and Dad were still snacking on cookies at the table. "We got a package," I said before proceeding to open it.

The first thing I pulled out was a note, written on old paper in a large, scrawling script. "To the Tulowiczes," it read, "please accept this token of gratitude from a weary traveler. Don't worry—the old Polish kings told me that I could use some of their treasure as payment for a good deed."

Something shiny below the note caught my eye, and my breath caught in my throat. Reaching further into the package, I pulled out a golden figurine of an elegant, long-necked bird with sweeping tail feathers. In its eyes gleamed two rubies.

"This is a firebird," I gasped. "Slawomir was telling us stories about them last night."

"Well, I'll be," Dad said. "He didn't have to do that."

Mom stood up to inspect it. "This should go in a place of honor on the mantel," she said. "I've never met such a well-mannered dragon."

"I think we can all agree," Jacek said, "that this was the best Christmas we've ever had."