The Mare

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September 20, 2015

When her vision began to clear she found herself standing on the edge of a highway. There was no traffic. She was alone. The road was divided down the middle by a strip of freshly mowed grass. Each side of the highway had two lanes, plainly marked by painted stripes, on each side of the grassy median. The road curved ahead of her and behind her. She could not see where she had been nor where she was going. On both sides of the roadway there was a thick growth of big pine trees. She could smell their resinous crisp scent. Their large shaggy boles soared heavenward. Far above her head the wind rustled gently in their spreading crowns. There were a few fallen pine cones lying in the grass beside the road. Pine straw littered the gravel beneath her feet. It was late afternoon, but she did not know how she knew this. The sky was overcast and a fine mist was falling. She could feel it on her face, but the sensation was not disagreeable. The weather was warm. She was not thirsty or hungry or in any pain. She might have been where she was for a long time. Perhaps she had been, but about this point she was not certain. She did not have any idea where she was. There were no signs, no guideposts. She might be anywhere. There were pine forests like these from Florida to Texas.

Gradually she became aware that her shoulders were beginning to ache. She was holding her hands and arms behind her and tugging away at some heavy object. She was curious. She decided to let go, turn around, and have a look at it. She did so immediately. At first she could not make out what it was either because the light was bad or there was something the matter with her eyes, but she continued to focus on it until she could see that it was a crudely made horse trailer, battered, badly rusted, and extremely muddy. She had been hauling it along the side of the road by the hitch. She could not imagine why she was doing this.

Turning back from her examination of the trailer she looked as far as she could along the road in the direction she was traveling. For the first time she noticed a lighted area ahead of her not very far away. Inside the lighted space there was a blocky rectangular shape that appeared to be a building. She gazed at it through the mist for a few minutes and decided that it was indeed a building of some kind, a restaurant or a service station, maybe. She thought that there might be other people there and, perhaps, shelter.

Seizing the trailer hitch again as before she pulled hard. Presently the cumbersome thing began to roll slowly forward. The trailer was very heavy. She was afraid to abandon the trailer. She could not remember how she happened to have it in her possession, but it seemed, somehow, to be terribly important. She felt a sense of responsibility concerning it.

Luckily, she did not have far to go. As she slowly approached the lights she could see that they were a series of high intensity lamps set on tall poles surrounding the perimeter of a service station that was also brilliantly lit from within. The area around the service station was bathed in a pool of colorless light. There were no people. The place was immaculately clean and appeared to be brand-new. The station and its surrounding island of pavement were set apart from the pine forest by a high solid concrete block wall, painted white. The walls of the service station itself were also white, but shiny, like glazed porcelain. There were three large silvery garage doors. Two were rolled down, but one was open. She could see the hydraulic lifts set into the floors and several tool chests on wheels, with numerous drawers, neatly arranged against the inside wall. Above these were racks hung with belts and hoses. The noticed that there was a large oil drum in one corner painted white with the word “WASTE” neatly stenciled on it in big black letters. The was a water cooler to quench the thirst of the mechanics but none was in sight. The adjoining office had huge plate glass windows, a desk and swivel chair, a cash register, and several lounge chairs upholstered in red plastic. Pyramids of brightly colored cans of oil were arranged in each window. There was a vending machine for candy and another for soft drinks. Outside there new tires on display, chained and padlocked to tubular steel racks. Two metal canopies stretched out, like welcoming arms, over the platforms where the fuel pumps stood, painted orange and white, with digital displays to record the number of gallons sold and black hoses to dispense the gasoline. Next to these she could see smaller hoses that provided air and water. Running from each light pole that stood just inside the encircling wall and crisscrossing the entire area were strings of cheerful looking whirligigs and lines of small triangular plastic flags in vivid colors–pink and lime green, yellow and blue. Interspersed with these were gold and silver tinsel streamers, so thick they hid the sky. The mild breeze set all these in motion. The flags made an endless flapping sound. The whirligigs whirred and the tinsel streamers sighed. All was in readiness for the automobiles that traveled that road and for the people who rode in them, but there was not a vehicle nor a traveler visible anywhere, except for the trailer and herself.

She had stopped at the edge of the lighted area to take stock. After a bit she thought she detected movement. She stepped forward just as a young man came around the corner of the service station. He was blonde, clean-shaven, and dressed all in spotless white, like his station. She noticed that he was very young. He had a fresh and inexperienced air, insouciant, untouched by any sorrow, such as young people sometimes have. It gave him the appearance of a being not of this world. He looked at the woman uneasily, as if he wanted to be of some use, but was uncertain what to do for a traveler on foot, without an automobile to be fueled or a windshield to be wiped.

The young man’s uncertainty made her painfully self-conscious. She became aware that her clothes were rough and dirty. Her jacket was out at the elbows. Her pants were pushed awkwardly into the tops of her boots. She was muddy from the knees down. Her gloves had holes in the fingers. Her hair needed combing. She thought that she must not much resemble his idea of a good customer. She looked anxiously back at the horse trailer and then at the service station attendant.

“Please, may I park the trailer here?” she said to the young man.

The attendant in white looked doubtful. He looked at the trailer and back again at the woman.

“It’s okay, lady, but you can’t stay here forever. Put it over at the side of the garage where it won’t be in the way.” he said at last.

The woman went back to the trailer and grabbed the hitch and hauled away. The trailer rumbled and squeaked after her. It seemed heavier than ever. She put it where the young man had directed, at the far side of the garage. She didn’t care. The whole area was as bright as a summer day. The woods leaned over the wall. Pine branches scraped the top of the trailer, which looked uglier and dirtier than ever, contrasted with everything there that was clean and new.

She went all around the trailer, studying it, and stopped at the back. The homemade makeshift nature of this trailer was obvious. It had a heavy tailgate that was hinged at the bottom rather than the usual arrangement of doors that swing open from the sides. The tailgate was held in place by steel pins on chains. With difficulty she unfastened these. The tailgate fell open and struck the pavement with a loud resounding clang. Because the trailer was built high off the ground the tailgate rested at a steep angle. The woman thought that this was not right, but she was powerless to alter it. She could not see at all into the interior of the trailer. It was pitch black inside.

“Are you all right? she said. “Can you get out of there okay?” After she had spoken she realized that it was her own voice. She did not know why she had spoken. She did not know to what or to whom she spoke. She thought, I’m losing my mind.

“Yes, I think so.” said a pleasant voice from within the trailer. “Give me a little time.”

There were snuffling and snorting noises from within the trailer, followed by a scraping sound. A moment later the mare backed out of the trailer with a rush and stood briefly with her hind feet on the pavement and her front feet in the trailer. Then she backed up slowly with her hindquarters well up under her and her front legs stiffly braced. Her forelegs came down the tailgate in an ungainly sliding motion. Her hooves made an awful rasping sound. Having landed safely with all four feet on the pavement, she shook herself all over, from head to tail.

The woman was dumbfounded. She had not known what to expect, but surely not this. What was she to do with a talking horse? She stood and stared. The horse was a large coarsely made dark chestnut mare with a broad heavy head and a Roman nose. She had a thick crested neck and a long flaxen mane and tail. She looked very strong. The mare had no halter, bridle, or saddle. She had no horseshoes.

Awed, the woman put her arms around the mare’s neck, like Alice and the fawn in that magical place without memory, and led the horse gently from the hard concrete onto the soft grass. The woman thought that the grass would be easier on the horse’s legs and hooves.

“That’s better.” said the horse. “This is very nice.” The woman jumped. She either could not believe or could not remember that the horse talked.

They stood side by side in a little clearing close to the shoulder of the highway where the perimeter wall stopped. Just outside the wall the pine woods began. They were just within the wall and within the friendly circle of light that surrounded the service station. The mist had stopped falling. Sunlight struggled fitfully through a cloud bank in the west. The mare put her head down and blew her breath out gently. She began to eat the grass.

Suddenly a man came running out of the woods and jumped up onto the mare’s back. The woman thought, how can he run like that? He’s crippled. The woman knew at once that he was her husband and that they had been married for many years. He was lean and dark, but from first to last she could not see him clearly.

“Come on! Let’s ride her.” he said and kicked the mare’s sides. Man and horse started off.

“Don’t!” She’s tired.” the woman said, but he did not listen. Frantic and fearful she ran after them, but she knew she could not keep up with the increasing speed of the horse. In desperation she scrambled up onto the back of the mare and clung to her husband’s waist.

The mare galloped along the bottom of a drainage ditch filled with a growth of weeds that ran parallel to the highway. There was water standing in the ditch. The woman could feel the mare’s hooves slithering in mud. For a horrible moment the horse staggered and almost went down, but she made a mighty effort and recovered her footing. Frightened, the mare turned abruptly and struggled up the bank of the ditch until she reached the shoulder of the road.

The man kicked the mare’s sides again and she bolted diagonally across the highway which was all at once, inexplicably, full of traffic. Brakes screamed and cars swerved violently to avoid the running horse. The woman caught glimpses of glossy painted fenders sliding by, inches away. She could not see the passengers or drivers, only headlights and the glint of glass and chrome.

Then they were across the road and galloping at full speed along the opposite shoulder.

“Slow down. I’m not a very good rider.” the woman said. The man never said a word. The pine trees gave way to a field. He kicked the horse again. She galloped through the field, going more slowly now because she was crossing the rows, which had been newly plowed and sown.

“We don’t belong here.” the woman said.

The horse ran very well despite the heavy going. She held her head up proudly. Her pale mane streamed like a banner.

AT the far edge of the field they entered a long narrow alley which was bordered on both sides by a dense wood. The path in front of them ran straight, like a tunnel through the pine trees, but it was studded here and there with the sawed  off trunks of saplings which were like spikes set as obstacles in their way. These grew more numerous as they went along. The path narrowed. The mare lapsed from a gallop to a slow trot and then to a walk as she was forced to pick her way carefully through the thicket of sapling spears. The path narrowed further until the branches of the trees on either side met above them. The overhanging branches came down lower and lower threatening to scrape the woman from her precarious perch on the horse’s back. She had ducked down and made herself small while feeling the prickly pine branches drag over her head and back.

Still the man urged the horse forward and she went bravely on with her strong neck proudly arched. The woman was increasingly afraid. Night was falling. The path ahead was dark. She was frightened both for herself and for the horse. It seemed to her that her own life and the mare’s were inextricably linked. She had a sense of very real and imminent peril, although from what she could not have told. The mare went ever more slowly while the woods pressed in from every side.

The next thing she knew she was sitting bolt upright in bed. Beside her, a shapeless mount under the blankets, her husband slept on. For a time she hung simultaneously in two worlds. Then she could see, by the faint radiance from the night-light in the hall outside the bedroom, his crutches leaning against the foot of the bed. She could feel her heart racing and blood surging and singing in her ears. She sat rigid, frozen with fear, motionless, a small trapped creature waiting for whatever was to come to her, for a fate not known, shadowy in its details, but nonetheless dreaded and loathed, then seeing at last the meshes which had been tenaciously, silently, cunningly forged by her own civilized, conscientious expectations.

 

 

The Devil Who Wanted to Grow Potatoes

June 23, 2015

Once upon a time there was a very small and unimportant imp who lived in an obscure corner of hell. All he had ever known was being kicked around by all the larger and meaner devils who in turn were bullied by tougher and more important devils all the way up to Satan himself. Our particular devil led a miserable life. He started each day, although day is a mere figure of speech in hell, dreading every waking moment. He was not, would never be, a success. He was too small, too weak, and he lacked the necessary meanness. He was not very good at tormenting the prisoners in his charge, not because he was good or kind, but because he thought it pointless. The prisoners were already completely without hope. Small outbursts of spite were all that this little devil could manage and these were more often directed at his fellow devils, who made his life wretched, than at the prisoners.

One day he was summoned by his unit supervisor and sent on an errand to another part of hell. Even devils like an occasional change in their routines and these assignments were coveted. Usually our devil was not even considered for messenger duty, but on this particular occasion everyone was busy getting ready for a big inspection by the district chief and no one else could be spared.

So our little guy was given a message to be delivered to the next sector and a set of directions, which he committed to memory and repeated back to his unit supervisor until the latter was satisfied that he had learned the route cold. Then he started off. He did well at first. Left turn at the big fumarole, right turn at the crossroads, the path exactly matched his recollection of the directions he had been given. But after traveling a few hours he arrived at some hills and ravines that had not been mentioned at all in his directions and he quickly came to the conclusion that he was really and truly lost. That’s commonplace in hell. It’s designed that way, of course. It is a vast and convoluted place and very murky. Certainly there are no signs.

About ten hours after leaving his own duty base he found himself tramping down a little used track in very dim light. He had not seen any prisoners or another devil in hours. He was feeling more than usually downhearted and was beginning to wonder if he would ever see his own sector again. He did not feel the kind of longing for it that we feel for familiar places, but it was all he knew.

Then he saw something that would seem very ordinary to us, but which was absolutely extraordinary to our devil. He saw a small shed, a rickety fence, a gate, and someone digging with a spading fork in a muddy field beside the path. Now there are no buildings in hell and there are no tools. Skrax (that’s what our devil was called) knew that these things existed and he knew what they were. They belonged on earth, not in hell. He had never seen them before, except in pictures.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: Heaven and the Emperor are both a long way away. That is true of any large and complicated bureaucracy. Things go on at the local level of which the higher ups are completely unaware. Obviously no one was paying any attention to doings in this corner of hell.

Skrax was looking at things forbidden in hell–improvements, comforts, conveniences, tools, and work. He was too far down on the totem pole himself to feel outraged. He was simply enormously curious. The light was so bad and the creature digging in the field was so dirty that Skrax could not tell whether the wretched thing was a devil like himself or a prisoner. Skrax turned aside, walked through the gate, and went quietly up to the being with the shovel.

He expected the fellow to bolt. After all, what he was doing was not only completely illegal, it was unheard of, but, instead, the digger merely glanced at him and kept on shoveling with great energy, throwing up clods of dirt, possessed, as it were.

There was a quite wonderful smell in the air that was new to Skrax. It was the smell of, well, a muddy field. It was the smell of earth. When Skrax drew near to the farmer, for that is what he was, whether prisoner or devil, the fellow stuck out his hand, palm up. He was holding what looked to Skrax like to small dirty brown rocks.

“Potatoes!” he said to an amazed Skrax. “These are special ones, too. They are Yukon Gold potatoes.”

Skrax looked with great curiosity at the potatoes. It was the first plant life and the first earthly food that he had ever seen. It all seemed wonderful to him–the small crop, the pale leaves of the struggling potato vines, the muddy field. But it was the smells that particularly excited him. He had received all the standard indoctrination lectures on earthly matters but none of his devilish instructors had ever mentioned these overwhelming, intoxicating smells! He had spent eons as an unhappy downtrodden oppressed little imp but he had never been rebellious. Now, for the first time, an original and independent thought crossed his mind. “What else did they leave out? What else didn’t they tell me?” He had been taught that nothing from earth existed in hell except the souls of sinners that the devils called “the prisoners,” but here was a field and growing things, a tumbledown shed, a garden fork, and all these incredible smells that caused him to tremble with excitement and which aroused ecstatic visions in his mind. He did not know it but it was the smell of life in its bodily form. He stared, as if in a trance, at the two small potatoes.

“I know you won’t give me away.” said the farmer. “I see it in your face.”

Once the door of consciousness has been opened it cannot be closed again. Skrax had utterly forgotten his message and his errand. In one instant he had been completely transformed. He had thought the previously unthinkable. Now he found himself saying the unspeakable.

“How can I go there?”

“Go where?”

“Where the potatoes came from. Earth.”

“I can’t help you there, but I can direct you to someone who can tell you. Go straight on the way you were traveling and you will come to a bridge across a ravine filled with boiling tar. Go across. The road forks. Bear right and you will come to a cave in a rock cliff. That’s the local unit headquarters for this sector. Ask for Gronx.”

As if in a dream Skranx followed these new directions and in a few hours he found himself in the presence of a unit supervisor of the same rank as the one who had dispatched him on his original and now neglected errand.

“Messenger, eh?” said Gronx. “Very well. What’s the word?”

“Potatoes.” said Skrax.

There were two small devils hanging about eavesdropping. Gronx sent them away.

“Well, well.” said Gronx. “That’s very interesting.” He stared at Skrax and Skrax stared back. Gronx was a very ordinary devil in appearance except that he had four eyes, two forward and two behind. Eyes in the back of one’s head are very useful for a supervisor.

“I want to go to earth.” said Skrax, although he had no idea how he found the courage to say this and was astounded at hearing these words come out of his mouth. “Not to visit–to stay.” he added. It was the kind of speech that, when uttered in hell, got one suspended by the ankles over a hellfire crevice for a few million years.

Gronx did not appear startled, shocked, or alarmed. He continued to stare at Skrax thoughtfully, with no change of expression.

“There are ways and there are probably ways that I don’t know about.” said Gronx slowly. “I know one way. Indoctrination lectures for the bigwigs are different from the ones for you and me. Actual objects from earth are sometimes used. Aversion training, it’s called. Terrified of defectors, Satan is. That is how such things occasionally come here. After the lectures the demonstration objects are supposed to be destroyed by burning with earth fire and the ashes returned to earth. That’s my job.”

“That’s an important responsibility.” said Skrax in a very small voice.

“You must not imagine that it is a matter of trust.” said Gronx sarcastically. “No one trusts anyone here.” He said this although the very fact of the conversation he was having with Skrax contradicted him. Devils, like people, frequently say things that are flatly contradicted by plain as a pikestaff evidence right in front of their faces. It’s more self-deception than lying and more common. (I can’t speak about saints or the heavenly angels because I don’t know much about them.) Gronx continued, “But it so happens that earth fire requires oxygen and this sector is the only place in hell with an oxygen vent. Therefore it is the only place that supports earthly fire. Now, at the present moment, I have an object on hand to be destroyed. You may see it.” From a small rocky ledge he drew forth a Raggedy Andy doll. “I am required to burn objects as soon as I receive them. I will burn this today and the ashes, every crumb, will be returned to earth. I can include you in this burning and ash shipment, if you are willing, and no one will be the wiser. I will handle it myself and I can arrange matters that the ashes will be scattered on a potato field, if you like. You can go to earth, but not in your present form.”

“I’ll do it.” said Skrax promptly. “I have nothing to lose.” He astonished himself again by saying that, but once the words were out of his mouth he felt an enormous relief and even, yes, for the first time in his life, joy. He did not worry, as you and I would, about the pain of being burned because he knew, as all devils know, that he was originally angelic in nature and could not feel physical pain. Angelic beings do feel mental pain, but their psychology differs considerably from ours. They are not necessarily grieved by the same things that vex us. However, in any world, Skrax’s decision was highly unusual.

Skrax knew he was angelic in his origin and he knew about God and Satan’s rebellion, but only in a vague and far-off way, as a child might know some distant history such as Washington’s winter at Valley Forge, as a story, without ever connecting it to anything personal or to the conditions of life in hell.

Gronx and Skrax went quickly and quietly to the oxygen vent. Gronx carried the doll and a box of wooden matches which was the only earthly thing authorized in hell, besides the aversion training objects, and only for this specific purpose.

Being burned was very peculiar, but not painful. Skrax did not cry out, as we would, because he was being changed, but not hurt. Gronx thought he heard a small cry at the end, but it was clearly a sound of surprise, not pain.

That’s all of the story. I know this is not a satisfactory ending, but I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened to either of them after that or to the farmer, except for one thing. Skrax was gone from hell. Escaped. Flew the coop. Got clean away. He was no longer in the power of any devil.

 

 

Dino’s Dragon Story

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February 24, 2015

I did not write this. It was written a number of years ago by my younger daughter Geraldine Mongold. I can guarantee that any fiction written by Dino will feature a female protagonist who Goes. Out. And. Gets. Things. Done.

Once upon a time, in a little village near the mountains, lived a girl named Calida. Calida was ten years old. She had orange-red hair and lots of freckles.

Calida had a very normal family. Her father was a clockmaker. He carved beautiful wooden clocks in his workshop on the ground floor of their house. Calida’s mother helped sometimes in the clock shop when she wasn’t cooking or chasing after Calida’s little brother Clovis. Clovis, being two years old, was always into everything he shouldn’t be, but his adorable brown curls and big blue eyes made it impossible for anyone to be mad at him for longer than a minute. Calida also had an older sister named Candace. Candace had golden hair, blue eyes, and was considered by many, including herself, to be very pretty.

It was a Monday morning in October. Calida put on her blue school dress and buttoned up her brown shoes. She brushed out her red hair and braided it in two long braids with blue ribbons tied at the ends. She didn’t feel like going to school. It was her eleventh birthday, but somehow having to go to school made it feel like an ordinary day.

Downstairs, Calida sat down at he round kitchen table to eat her usual breakfast porridge when she saw a small brown leather box next to her spoon. She forgot all about porridge and picked up the box excitedly.

“Happy Birthday, Ladybug,” her father laughed. “Go ahead, open the box!”

Calida took the lid off the little box. The inside was lined with purple velvet. Nestled in the velvet was a narrow golden ring. Etched all around the gold of the ring was the figure of a dragon, with a tiny sparkling green jewel for an eye. Calida held her breath and took the ring out of the box. She slid it onto her middle finger. It fit perfectly.

“Wow. It’s absolutely amazing.” Calida whispered at last.

Jewelry of any sort was unusual in their small village. Her mother had a gold pin that she wore on her dress for very special occasions. The mayor’s wife wore a necklace of amber beads on feast days. Most of the farmers in their town did not have extra money for such fancy things.

“It belonged to your Grandpa Rufio,” Calida’s father explained. “It’s very old. It’s sort of a family heirloom that gets passed down to each redhead.”

“But Grandpa Rufio didn’t have red hair!” exclaimed Calida.

“Do you think his hair was always gray?” laughed Calida’s father. “When I was a boy, my father’s hair was bright red. His beard too. Like a carrot. That’s what my mother called him, Carrot.”

“Hurry up and eat,” said Candace. “We’ll be late to school.”

After breakfast, the girls grabbed their school books and their lunch bucket and hurried out the door. Their teacher, Mr. Frobnitz, was rather strict, and they did not want to be late and get a scolding from him.

At school, the morning seemed to drag on and on. Calida sat at her desk and worked division problems on her slate. Now and then she looked out of the window and sighed. The weather was perfect and sunny. A few yellow leaves clung to the trees in the schoolyard. It was a wonderful day to be anywhere except school.

Suddenly, the breeze that was fluttering the maple leaves turned into a wind, and gray clouds slid across the sky. From the distant mountains thunder rumbled. One of the window shutters banged against the outside wall of the school. All of the children looked up from their work. Mr. Frobnitz tapped his wooden ruler on his desk to get their attention.

“Robert,” he directed the oldest boy, “Please go bring in some firewood for the stove. Candace, you will kindly secure the flapping shutter. The rest of you, continue with your lessons.”

Calida bent her head over her slate and tried to concentrate on math, but the storm outside was much more exciting. She glanced at the ring, which still felt strange and new on her finger, and sighed again. It would have been bad manners to show off, but she had hoped one of her friends might have mentioned it.

The rain came like a silver sheet across the red tile roofs of the village. Calida saw and smelled the rain a few seconds before it pelted down on the schoolhouse roof. Thankfully, at that moment Mr. Frobnitz rang the little brass bell on his desk. That meant morning lessons were over. It was time for lunch. The children slid their books and slates into their desks and got their lunch buckets from the shelf under the windows. Candace and Calida sat together at Calida’s desk to share their bread and butter, apples, and soft white cheese.

Lunchtime was half over when Calida heard a shout and thumping on the school house door. Mr. Frobnitz put down his ham sandwich and opened the door in his usual unhurried way. The shoemaker, whose shop was next door to the school, stood dripping wet in the doorway. In one hand he held a large wooden pitchfork.

“The trolls are coming!” the shoemaker shouted. “They’re crossing the river at Harrison’s Ford! Get these children to the Hidden Caves! Hurry!”

Without waiting for Mr. Frobnitz to answer, the shoemaker dashed across the street to join a group of men in the church yard who were gathering with all the weapons that could be found in the village. Mr. Frobnitz turned towards his students, who had dropped their lunches and were staring at him with wide eyes.

“All right, everyone, let’s not panic,” he said in his calm way. For once the children paid no attention to his words. They began to scramble for the door, grabbing jackets and cloaks from the pegs on the wall and running as fast as they could towards their homes. When they were all gone, Mr. Frobnitz locked the school house door and joined the others in the church yard.

Candace and Calida held hands and ran silently for home. Calida’s heart was fluttering with fear and her feet were slipping on the wet cobblestones of the street. They ran past the baker’s, turned the corner, and saw their mother waiting for them in front of the house. She was holding Clovis on her hip and had a canvas bag next to her. Just seeing her made Calida feel calmer and braver.

“There’s not a minute to lose! Run!” their mother ordered.

She handed Candace the canvas bag and lifted Clovis, who was crying quietly, ont her shoulders. They jogged across the road, through the blacksmith’s yard, and straight up into the rolling green hills toward the Hidden Caves.

Calida had heard stories about the trolls, but it had been so long since they had come down from the mountains and across the river that some people said they must be extinct. In the old days, the trolls had raided villages during the winter months, taking sheep, cows, and goats. They would set fire to villages just for the fun of watching them burn, and bash anyone who tried to stop them with their enormous wooden clubs.

Even though she was used to running and playing ball at recess, Calida’s breath was burning in her chest from the uphill run. Through the rain she could see the other villagers struggling up the steep slopes, mothers and children and grandmothers and grandfathers all scrambling over rocks and tall grass toward the caves. Just then Calida jammed her toes hard against a sharp rock hidden under the grass.

Maybe it was the pain in her toes, or maybe it was the sound of her baby brother whimpering in fear, or maybe it was the thought of her father, back in the village, trying to defend their home with Grandpa Rufio’s old sword. Maybe it was just the way the cold air burned her chest as she ran. Whatever caused it, Calida’s fear began to change. It began to turn into anger. Anger is hot, and it spread through her like fire, until even her fingertips felt hot and angry.

They reached the entrance to the caves, which was a narrow opening in the rocky hillside. Only one or two people could enter at a time. A small group was gathered right outside the entrance and Calida’s family hurried into line. Old Mrs. Redhawk, who was twice as wide as anyone else in the village, squeezed in, and then Candace with her bulky canvas bag. Instead of following her sister, Calida turned and began running back down the hill.

“Calida, stop!” her mother shouted. “Get back here!”

Calida didn’t slow down. She was running into the wind and rain now. The rain slapped her face and blurred her eyes. She spread out her arms, running so fast it felt as though she were flying. She glanced down at her feet and gasped in surprise. Her feet were no longer touching the ground. She was flying! Her arms had become huge blue wings. She flapped them up and down. She swished her tail back and forth. Her tail? She glanced quickly over her right shoulder. Sure enough, a long blue tail with a little tuft of orange fur seemed to be following her. How remarkable.

She didn’t have time to wonder about it though. She could see the trolls now. There were about thirty of them and they had almost reached the houses at the edge of the village. Calida pointed her nose downwards and began to glide lower. Below her the village defenders were shouting but the storm was so loud she couldn’t understand their words.

Calida was getting closer to the trolls. They were about twice as tall as adult humans, with green-gray skin, short hairy legs, and huge muscular arms. Long mossy hair grew on their heads, falling in tangled locks over their lumpy shoulders. They wore animal skins and carried wooden clubs and burning torches. Calida wondered how their torches could burn in such rain and decided that maybe they were magical.

Now the trolls looked up and noticed her. She was close enough to see the fear in their ugly faces. With fierce delight she opened her mouth to roar at them, and a blast of flame shot out of her mouth. She was so startled that she almost fell out of the sky! Quickly she flapped her wings and regained her balance. Swooping low over the trolls’ heads, she turned in a wide circle to pass over them again. They had stopped moving towards the village and were clustered together nervously.

Calida flew even lower, sucked in a deep breath and blew out a long stream of fire. The trolls shouted and began to run back towards the river on their stumpy legs, dropping their torches on the soggy grass. Calida circled again, flying as low as she dared, blowing another ball of fire at the shrieking trolls. They plunged into the cold river, pushing and shoving each other in their panic. Calida wrinkled her nose in disgust. Even flying overhead she could smell the awful scent of wet troll–a combination of moldy cheese and dirty goats.

The rainstorm was beginning to taper off. Calida shook the raindrops out of her eyelashes. She flapped her great wings slowly, following the trolls and shooting a few blasts of orange flames at their backs to keep them running. They were well into the mountains when she decided they weren’t going to try returning to the village. She turned and flew back towards the Hidden Caves. Her wings were tired and the fiery anger inside was fading. She glided over the river and the shining wet roofs of the village.

The village men were waving their swords and pitchforks in excitement and shouting, “Hooray for the dragon! The dragon has returned!”

Calida flapped her tail happily but she did not slow down. She kept flying into the hills. She glided to a bumpy landing on the same grassy hillside where she had leaped into the air. She was behind a pile of rocks where she couldn’t be seen by anyone in or near the Hidden Caves. She folded her giant wings and took a deep breath of damp air. It felt good to sit still for a moment and rest her trembling muscles. The sky above the valley was beginning to clear. A sun beam broke through the tattered clouds and shone on her face. She closed her eyes contentedly.

When she opened them she looked down at her feet. They were once again wearing her neat brown winter shoes. Above them was the hem of her plain blue school dress. She lifted her arms and looked at her hands. They were ordinary hands again. Ten freckled fingers with short fingernails and a golden ring. She smiled at her hands and stood up. She walked around the pile of mossy rocks toward the mouth of the cave.

Her mother ran out of the cave and grabbed her by the shoulders, hugging her and shaking her at the same time.

“Calida!” she scolded, “Don’t you ever disobey me like that again! I was worried to death! Where have you been? We thought that frightful dragon had eaten you!”

She pulled Calida into the cave without even pausing for breath. Clovis ran to Calida and grabbed a fistful of her skirt.

“We looked everywhere! I’ve never been so frightened in my life. What on earth were you thinking of?” Calida’s mother continued.

Calida couldn’t think of anything to say. She looked down at her feet and mumbled, “I’m sorry, Mother.”

She knelt down to hug her little brother. He stared at her with his bright blue eyes and grinned impishly.

“I saw,” he whispered.

“You did?” Calida whispered back.

“I was on Mother’s shoulders. I could see you. You turned into a dragon.”

Calida sat on the hard floor of the cave and pulled him onto her lap.

“I chased the trolls away. They’re all gone now.” she told him gently.

He snuggled against her chest. She put her arms around him protectively.

Just then the blacksmith trudged to the mouth of the cave and shouted, “The trolls are gone! The dragon came and chased them back to the mountains!”

Everyone began talking excitedly and hugging each other in relief.

“The dragon! No one’s seen the dragon for years!”

“I wonder if it ate the trolls.”

They all began the long walk back to the village. The young children laughed and chased each other through the grass, their fear already forgotten. Calida’s father met his family halfway up the hill. He kissed his wife on the cheek and then turned to Calida. He hugged her and ruffled her hair with his hands.

“Good job,” he told her with a wink. “Very impressive indeed.”

“Thank you Father,” Calida answered calmly.