Copyright is held by the author. This is an excerpt of a novel-in-progress.
1901 Castle Hills
When Piero turned eight he took his place, as was expected, in the coal breaking plant of the Castle Hills mine. He was one of 20 breaker boys sitting at the conveyor belts, breathing dust and tearing their hands on the ragged chunks of coal, breaking them apart to get rid of what the overseer called impurities. On Sundays, when the mines closed for a workers’ day of rest, Piero did not play football on the commons with the rest of the breaker boys. Instead, chasing blue skies and clear air, Piero would ramble in the hills.
So it was that on a beautiful Sunday in October, Piero climbed higher than he had ever done before. In the slanting light of late afternoon, he found himself in a clearing, on top of a great cliff over looking Pittown. Seeing the sun low on the horizon, he panicked for his mother had told him to be back for dinner at six.
It must be near on six now, he thought. I’ll never get back on time — in fact I might not get back before dark. He turned and sped down the trail, but running recklessly, he tripped and fell on his face. He raised his head, shook out the dust from his hair and saw in front of him, an odd assortment of rocks or were they bare pieces of dried bleached wood? They looked, he thought, like the bones of a bird’s foot — only much, much larger.
He got up from the ground, patted the dust off his clothes, and moved closer to the foot. He touched what he took to be one of the toes — it did not feel like rock or wood. Could it be, his imagination leaped forward, could it be bone? And were there more bones? He didn’t see any, but perhaps they were buried in the dirt. He longed to dig them out, but that would take time and he needed to get home. What’s a few more minutes? he told himself. A lot, he argued back, besides you have nothing to dig with.
He looked around and smiled. There was quite a bit of deadfall here and there — branches that he could fashion a shovel with. Quite a bit, he saw and thought, all in a circle — a very large circle, he reckoned at least about eight feet across. I’m in the middle of it, I’m in a . . . I’m in a . . . nest. The word just popped into his head — nest. I’m in a nest — and then he thought: WHAT KIND OF CREATURE WOULD BUILD SUCH A GIGANTIC NEST?
He retrieved a sturdy stick and began to dig. He dug and dug, but, much to his disappointment, there were no other bones. Finally, he gave up, pocketed what looked to him like three 10-inch curved claws, and buried the rest of the foot, marking the spot with his stick. He ran all the way back to Pittown.
He was late, very late home for dinner — as punishment, he got no dinner at all. But he didn’t care; his mind raced with wonder, imagining the creature that could sport such a toe and make such a nest. What was it? Was it the only one of its kind or were there many? Are they still around? And if not, what happened to them?
He asked, of course, his parents, his relations, his workmates, his neighbours and the shopkeepers in town, but all were stone-faced and silent or laughed at him for telling tall tales. He began to listen in on adult conversations in hopes that the subject would come upt, but no whisper of such a creature reached Piero — though he was quite sure now that many of them had lived in the hills at some point. Once he started looking for evidence, he found a lot of it — bones, iridescent scales and, beneath overgrown vines and layers of dead leaves, burned and scorched rune-looking marks on rocks, but he had no language, no vocabulary to describe what he found.
That is until another Sunday afternoon — this one four months later, snow-swept and blustery — when his Great Aunt Ambrosia insisted he come for a visit. Beside the coal fire, in the sitting room of her rundown cottage, admit her cats and knitting needles, he first heard about the creatures that would become his obsession.
“Now, you don’t say anythin’ to no one, no one ever or you’ll feel the back of my hand, you hear me, Piero?”
“I’m just tellin’ you so you’ll stop askin’ everybody else. Never talk about it to your Ma or Pa — you’re givin’ them palpitations as it is. You swear? On your honour, do you swear, Lad? You will stop asking questions, after today?”
Piero had no idea whether he could keep such a promise, but he swore anyway.
She dropped a wooden box on his lap.
“Sixty years ago, just after the coal vein was found, the government started the Castle Hills Mining Company here. People started floodin’ in from all over, opened up the town, includin’ your grandfather — even at the young age of 26, they made him overseer.”
“I know that already Auntie Brosie, Pa told me.”
“Yes, but what you don’t know is how they dug those mines — the crew your grandfather was in charge of. Open the box, Lad.”
Piero opened the box. Inside were bundles wrapped in felt cloth.
“These are some of the oldest photographs that ever were — they were called daguerreotypes. They printed them on copper plates. Look at that one on the top. Hold it by its edges,” Aunt Ambrosia ordered.
Piero picked up the cloth bundle. It was heavy. He unwrapped it carefully. The rectangular piece of metal had what looked like an etching on it. He brought it closer to the fire to look. It was hard to make out anything, you had to turn it this way and that. Then he tilted it to the left and the image came into focus.
“The little figure in the front is your grandfather. He was handsome then,” she said. “So young, my big brother was.”
Piero recognized his grandfather, but he was focusing more on what was behind his grandfather — what was dwarfing his grandfather — a large otherworldly creature. The girth of the belly took up most of the picture, the tail spilled out behind it and was cut off by the frame, its bulky head with its plated forehead dipped down to stare at the photographer.
Piero could not believe what he was looking at: “What . . . what . . . is it?”
“That,” said Aunt Ambrosia. “Was one of your grandfather’s workers. That, my Lad, is a Red Mole Dragon.”
Like this story? Help Support CommuterLit and its contributors by making a donation.