Doctor Professor Heinrich Hofstedter slipped out of his somewhat threadbare lab coat and sank into the easy chair near the window. After wearily climbing to the loft above his laboratory, exhausted from another grueling day of genetic research, Dr. Hofstedter tried to relax and observe his precious hummingbirds as they flitted to and fro outside the window. The Professor had placed the feeder so it was visible from his chair and he filled it with carefully prepared nectar each day. The appreciative, or so he believed, hummers performed their aerial ballet for his amusement.
"Ach, mein liddle freunds," he sighed as the memory of the failures of yet another day were washed away by the sight of the lively, graceful birds. "Zuch peezeful und elegant creatures. Wunderbar!"
But, despite the diversion, the Professor was discouraged. The formula for his Genetic Metamorphic Transmogrifier was not developing as he had expected. Results had been completely unpredictable and sometimes bizarre. The monkeys he had injected with the latest serum had seemed to regress rather than become the little sapient hominids the Professor had expected. More like lemurs than humans. He would have been satisfied with chimps. Professor Hofstedter's Genetic Metamorphic Transmogrifier seemed to be in reverse gear and the good Doctor was at a loss how to rectify the situation.
As the Professor dozed in his chair, dreaming of a parade in his honor down Fifth Avenue, the "peaceful" hummingbirds were anything but. The fiercely territorial little creatures sparred and parried with their tiny compatriot adversaries, always trying to keep others from the feeder that each viewed as his own. Ah, the Professor... he didn't see the strife. Mild and kind man that he was, he only saw the exquisite arabesques the flitting little birds described in the air as they darted around the feeder. But presently he wasn't seeing anything but the inside of his eyelids.
As he had done so many nights, Professor Hofstedter slept the night in his easy chair. His little friends abandoned the good Doctor at sundown, as it was their nature not to feed at night. Surely, the Professor's snores would have kept the hummingbirds awake in any case. The loft reverberated with the deep, resonant music of the night. Eine kleine nachtmusik.
Just after dawn, Professor Hofstedter awoke with a start. There was a pecking at the window. The hummers had learned to expect the feeder to have an ample supply of nectar, and when it did not, they knew how to register their complaint. The professor recognized the import of the sound and arose from his sleep, a little groggily perhaps, to prepare his special nectar to refill the feeder. He believed that his affection for his feathered friends was the ingredient that made his preparation "special." Impatient hummingbirds hovered near his window, occasionally diving at each other more for amusement than anything.
"Ach, mein zugar bowl is empty," muttered the Professor, running his fingers through his rumpled hair. He did remind one of Einstein. He cultivated the look, you know.
So, Professor Hofstedter trudged down to the laboratory where his attractive young lab assistant was already hard at work. "Tchudy," he greeted her, "I need the zucrose immediately. Ze hummers are hungry."
"Of course, Professor," Judy responded. Involved in a complicated titration, her mind was on her work and not on the Professor's little pesky pets. She reached absently for the canister of sucrose and poured out a beakerful. Or so she thought. Handing the beaker to the Professor, she returned her full attention to the titration at hand. What she had given Professor Hofstedter was a beaker full of the most recent formulation of concentrated Genetic Metamorphic Transmogrifier.
Well, the hummingbirds weren't particular. The GMT was sweet and satisfied their sugar cravings just fine. They lapped it up and gulped it down just as they had the Professor's more carefully prepared nectars. Despite the Professor's concerns in the preparation of their nectar, discriminating gourmands they were not. But this nectar did fill the bill in being "special." After sipping the sweet liquid, the hummers went on to satisfy their protein needs by catching and consuming the first Drosophilidae they met. Hummers are the bane of all fruit flies.
The Professor donned his lab coat for another disappointing day in the lab. Another experiment to no doubt go awry. Another lemur-like monkey, perhaps. Or worse. Regressed monkeys were rapidly crowding the lab and becoming quite a liability, financial and otherwise. But the Professor, kind soul that he was, could not "dispose" of the odd creatures just as he could not fire his lab assistant even though he could now ill afford her salary.
As the professor examined the latest batch of regressed, but oh so healthy, monkeys, he hummed "Ach du lieber, Augustin" loudly and slightly out of tune. To Judy, this was just another of the Professor's eccentricities. But she found herself humming the tune as well as she mixed the amino acids and catalysts that made up the latest variant of the GMT formula. Judy recalled the origin of the tune she was humming. The song supposedly went back to the Middle Ages and the Great Plague. Augustin, so the story goes, drunkenly trudging home from the local public house, had fallen in the street and passed out. The dead cart came along just after dawn with cries of "Bring out your dead;" the workers scooped up Augustin along with the recently demised. When he was found to be alive, startling the hirelings of the charnel out of their wits, they of course exclaimed, "Ach du lieber." Judy thought that the song and the expression were somehow appropriate to the research she and the professor were doing. And the Professor often, with widened eyes, as he inspected the latest unfortunate monkey-lemur, himself said "Ach du lieber" with deep feeling.
Although she wouldn't admit it even to herself, Judy more than just admired the professor. It was a May December kind of love but, of course, the Professor, the old coot, didn't notice her affectionate glances. Being involved in his genetic research was an escape for Herr Doktor. He simply was not equipped to lead a life of normal proportions. The confines of his laboratory were world enough for him and, having never married, he was oblivious to the telltale signs of female interest. Monkeys and hummingbirds consumed his waking hours and, if it were up to the Professor, the monkeys could be eliminated. They were just a necessary evil. Women simply were not factors in the equation.
But Judy, bless her heart, was the Professor's faithful assistant and, if the truth were known, would no doubt still work in the Professor's lab even without pay. That circumstance was in fact rapidly approaching. Herr Doktor used a few minutes of his lunch hour to check his bank account. The grant he had received had long ago been spent and he had been operating the lab on his savings for months. Oops! The facts were worse than he imagined; there was a total of 23 cents in the account and his credit card was almost maxed-out.
Doctor Professor Hofstedter had no heart to tell Judy that her services must be terminated. He knew he must give her the bad news soon but he put it off, as he had for days, until tomorrow. He was disheartened when he climbed the stairs to the loft where he resided. The day had gone like other days for the duration of his research; the results showed regression rather than progression. But worse, he was faced with the necessity of firing his assistant. And living failures of his research crowded his laboratory as a constant reminder of his lack of success.
At first, the Professor thought that a bat had gotten into the loft. But what a small bat. Not much larger than a hummingbird. Its wings were leathery like a bat yet it glided like a larger bird. Where it found updrafts in the loft was problematical but it was definitely soaring like a raptor. The Professor dismissed any thoughts of investigating further and grabbed a broom to shoo the creature out. He opened the huge window of the loft and tried to persuade the flyer to leave. But instead, more of the same sort of bats, birds, who knew, came in and flew around his head.
The Professor thought he heard a tiny, high-pitched voice call his name. Judy, perhaps, from the floor below. No, Judy's voice was soft and throaty. Any normal man would have called it sexy. Not Judy; who then? The Professor watched the little flyers dart around, soaring and diving. One of them caught a fly in mid-air. Were those teeth adorning its long beak?
"Shoo! Shoo!" said the Professor and brandished the broom inexpertly. All he wanted at the moment was a peaceful nap. And where were his beloved hummingbirds? Had these vile creatures frightened them away?
"Professor Hofstedter," the voice was clear but faint. Who was calling him? One of the flyers swooped close to his ear. "Please, Professor, put the broom down. You don't want us to have to protect ourselves."
"Gott im Himmel!" the Professor exclaimed. The creature was surely talking to him. Impossible as it might seem, the bat/bird, whatever it was, had spoken to him. "Mein Gott, how does this tiny flying monster shpeak?"
"You know that dragons can communicate with humans. This is an accepted fact related in every dragon treatise ever written." The voice was faint, high-pitched, but understandable.
"Ach, impozzible," said the professor, scoffing at the thought. "You are not a dragon. Dragons are huge. Dragons roar. They breathe fire. Dragons don't "
A tiny burst of flame singed the Professor's left eyebrow. " exist." finished the Professor, weakly. The odor of burned hair reached his nostrils. One of the leathery winged creatures lit on his left shoulder, just below his ear.
"Professor, we are truly beholden to you." The tiny voice did carry a sort of majesty to it even in its squeaky tonality. And the dialect seemed medieval. "We have realized through our contact with you that we have been extinct for many hundreds of years. For so long, in fact, that people have reduced us to fable and stopped believing that we ever existed."
Doctor Hofstedter was trying valiantly to understand what was happening but failing miserably.
"But Professor, one thing puzzles us. Why did you bring bring us back in this miniscule form?" The tiny voice continued pleadingly. "We were magnificent creatures, huge and imposing. Now we are scant shadows of our former selves, tiny and ineffectual. Where could we fit in your "modern" world?"
Wide-eyed, Professor Hofstedter looked down at the creature that hung precariously to the fabric of his lab coat. "Mein Gott," the Professor whispered. "Ein winzige Drache. A tiny dragon!"
"Please Herr Doktor," came the faint voice, "Help us."
"Ach, vot haf I done," lamented the Professor. "Vot can I do?"
The Professor held his hand up to his shoulder and the miniscule dragon hopped onto his palm. Holding the creature up to his eye for close inspection, the Professor could only say, "Ach du lieber" over and over. The little dragon, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious at all the scrutiny, proceeded to preen himself (herself?).
"I must show you to Tchudy," said the Professor. "Perhaps she will know what to do. She is a very shmart lady."
As the Professor descended the stairs into the laboratory, he held the little dragon this way and that, inspecting, nay admiring, his handiwork. Or his mistake, depending on how one viewed it. It was the first product of his genetic lab that the Professor actually approved of. Not watching his step, the Professor tripped and fell square on his noggin.
Herr Doktor Hofstedter woke up with a cold compress on his forehead, a splitting headache and a dragon of the peewee variety fluttering around his head.
His moans brought Judy to his side. "Oh, Professor," she cried, "You are awake. You took a nasty tumble but there seems to be no permanent damage. Your little friend has been very worried. By the way, what is your little friend? A species I am not familiar with. A small bat that talks like a parrot what could it be?"
"A dragon," the Professor croaked almost inaudibly.
"What was that?" Judy asked as she gently rubbed his temples. "I could have sworn you said 'dragon,' but of course that is impossible."
The little scaly flyer had lit on her shoulder. "Affectionate and very cute little guys," Judy remarked.
"Yes, dragon. Small we may be but dragons we are!" said the creature directly into Judy's right ear.
Judy pondered the statement. And then she pondered the fact that the tiny flyer seemed to be talking rather than mimicking sounds. Then she recalled the beaker of sucrose that may not have been sugar at all. Judy truly was very "shmart" and she concluded that the little flyer was indeed a regressed hummingbird. It made a certain amount of sense as it was a well-known theory among paleontologists that dinosaurs were the precursors of modern birds.
The Professor affected smoking a pipe. Made him feel more scholarly and soothed his nerves. He tamped down the cherry flavored tobacco and the little dragon provided the flame to light it. "Danke," said the Professor and sat back on the lab stool to reflect on the predicament that faced him. The little dragons numbered about 20 and were totally oriented, as dragons had always been, to existing wth humans. The dragons had told him that talking was not unusual and, as a matter of fact, hummingbirds might have talked if they had been physiologically capable. But the little dragons were not able to tell the Professor how it came to be that regressing hummingbirds produced tiny dragons.
"Who would have thought," they said. "Not us. But of course we were extinct and didn't have the opportunity to think the matter over."
Impeccable logic, thought the good Professor. But now that the dragons had appeared, what to do with them. He didn't miss his hummers, to be sure, the tiny dragons were ever so much more interesting and, yes, even much less contentious. They didn't hum so much as swoosh as they flew around the lab. They were always in the way but it really didn't matter as most of the genetic research was suspended for the time being seeing as how there was no money to buy chemicals or more monkeys.
Judy appeared every day, even though there was no research being conducted, and spent her time at the lab talking to the little flyers and taking care of the Professor. She did bring some overripe bananas, supermarket rejects, to feed the lemur-like products of their flawed research. And she and the Professor each shared a can of tuna and a slice of day-old bread for lunch. Open windows provided ample flies for the tiny dragons and an occasional feast in the form of a large moth or even a grasshopper. Some dragons preferred their insects broiled and provided the open flame barbecue to cook their food. None had yet asked for marinade or teriyaki sauce.
As the group subsisted on supermarket throw-aways and whatever flew in the window, there was much discussion on what the next step might be. It was seen that this hand-to-mouth existence was definitely not the good life and in fact was wearing on all but the dragons. The tiny flyers were happy as larks with the company of humans, especially Judy with whom they had a special empathy, and pleased with their diet of Diptera, Lepidoptera and the occasional tasty Locustidae.
It was then that Judy came up with the idea!
And what an idea it was. Given that the little dragons were actually starved for human companionship and the gentlest creatures one could imagine, it occurred to Judy that they might make ideal pets. Certainly better pets than goldfish or turtles. They did have a tendency to spew fire when startled, hurt or, although it was rare, angered. But the flame seldom did more than slightly char a tee shirt or scorch the hair on the back of a hand. And, as they had demonstrated, they could light a pipe, start a barbecue, thaw a package of frozen peas and definitely warm the cockles of one's heart.
They'll love you a heap and they're cheap to keep was the slogan Judy thought up. And it was true. And they had the extra advantage of keeping one's domicile free of flies and mosquitos and other pesky pests.
Of course, the great bureaucracy stepped in as government always does when someone has a fresh new enterprise. First they wanted to legislate against dragons as pets on the grounds that no one knew exactly what a dragon was or could predict how it might respond to an out of the ordinary situation. Or how big they might grow or well, you know the drill. When the legislators' kids clamored for the new pets, the lawmakers thought it would suffice to license the dragons, charge a small fee and let the kids have their way.
And so tiny dragons became a part of our lives. And it turned out that it was not necessary for Professor Hofstedter to continue to regress hummingbirds because the dragons bred true and soon there were even tinier tiny dragons. And it came to pass that the Professor and his lovely assistant closed the genetic research facility and opened a dragon breeding farm.
And, of course, as is true in most dragon tales, they all lived happily ever after.
Richard has long been fascinated with the exotic, from ancient mysteries to present day developments in rocket science and space exploration.
Born in the midwest, he grew up with a keen appreciaton for the powerful machinery of steam locomotives and racing automobiles. Pursuing his diverse interests, he majored in chemistry in college, then won accolades in architectural and auto racing photography, and eventualy found a niche as an insurance claims executive for property losses ranging from fine arts to satellite systems in the space industry.
Now retired, he is finally developing his talent for writing that was evident from his earliest days, but was relegated to a back burner for many years. His first novel, Seven Dreams of Inanna, written in collaboration with a Czech novelist, Jitka Saniova, was published in March. Richard lives in Sonoma County, California and is presently working on a short novel for pre-teens, again co-writing with Mrs. Saniova.
For more info, visit Richard's web site.
Published by permission of the author.