My grandfather threw a log on the ebbing fire then took his place in his rocker. He motioned to me to join him. Lynn had gone to bed early. It was just the two of us. I crawled onto his knee, settling into the crook of his arm. The new log spat and flared; its flickering light danced on the walls and filled our faces with a warm, orange glow.
“Shall I tell you about the sleeping dragon?” my grandfather asked. “I think you’re old enough now.” He pushed the rocker so it settled into an easy rhythm.
And so the story began...
“The legend goes that even before the discovery of fire, the hole was there. No one could remember a time when it wasn’t there. It is there now,” he said. I looked up at him. “True.” He crossed his heart. “It’s in the north meadow. You’ll find it some day when you go exploring. No one knows how deep it is. It breathes a warm mist, keeping the cold air away. It even melts the snow and warms the ground. Ancient men believed it was a living thing--a sleeping dragon confined to the depths of the earth with no means of escape. And so, it sleeps.”
“Don’t it ever wake up?” I asked, a little scared. I’d only heard about dragons in fairy tales.
“No, no. It just sleeps and breathes,” he said. “Sometimes though, it burps.”
“Burps?” I sat up.
“Sometimes near the hole, it smells like rotten eggs.” As we rocked back and forth, he looked me in the eye. “But I figure the dragon just suffers sometimes from indigestion. Some of the ancient peoples believed the hole had magic powers, so they threw dead animals into the hole, hoping to appease the sleeping dragon. Whether that kind of thing works or not, no one knows. Seems people down through the ages have always been a little crazy. What do you think?”
“Sounds crazy to me. No wonder the dragon burps,” I answered. He laughed.
“Yes. Would give anybody heartburn. But still the dragon sleeps and breathes to this day.”
I stared into the lick of flames that curled around the sizzling log as long as I could. My eyes closed to the hissing of the log’s boiling sap trapped inside it. I dreamt of a hole in the ground and the warm, fetid breath of a sleeping dragon.
When I was twelve, my grandfather sold the farm. When the town built right up to its northern border, he’d felt the pressure to sell. He figured he was too old to stand in the way of progress. Neither my father nor his brother were interested in farming. They’d left the farm to pursue their own careers. For the sins of the parents, it was the grandchildren who felt the loss.
The farm was our home, our adventureland. We scouted the creek, meadows and woods that made up the the farm’s one-hundred sixty acres. We used to climb in through the shattered windows of an old, rusty Model A Ford that sat down by the creek and pretend we were gangsters running from the law. Lynn was five years younger than me, so I had to watch out for him. It was my parent’s mandate. But no matter what we did, my brother and I always ended up at the hole.
My brother knelt on the warm ground by the hole and stretched his back and neck as far as he could over the edge to look down into its dark throat. I crouched down beside him. The hole breathed in and out. On exhale, a sour puff of mist rose out of hole. We felt it on our faces and leaned back away from its edge.
“What do you suppose it is?” Lynn asked.
“Don’t know. Grandpa says it’s a sleeping dragon.” Lynn looked at me wide-eyed; then looked back at the hole.
“I heard those Nevitt boys, next farm over, tossed their dead dog in there. How long you think it’s been here?”
“Forever, Grandpa says. Don’t matter. It’ll be someone else’s soon. Come on, let’s go.”
We walked across the meadow and through a stand of giant oaks to catch the path back down to the farm. We came to the fence that bordered the meadow and stepped out into a clearing. I put my hand on my brother’s chest to stop him.
We both stared at a dead deer. I advanced cautiously. My brother trailed behind. It was a full grown doe. It had tried to jump across the fence but had misjudged. Its leg had gone through the top hole in the fencing, and the top and bottom wires had twisted around its ankle, trapping its leg forever--to the end. The ankle was worn down to the bone. Though the doe had struggled and yanked and pulled, the wire held firm. It had starved and died, held by fear, the desire to escape, and two thin pieces of twisted metal.
“It must have been scared,” Lynn said.
“It just wanted to get away, but progress held on tight,” I answered. “Let’s give it a proper burial.”
Together we freed the doe’s leg from the wire mesh and dragged it back across the meadow to the hole.
“Think it’s deep enough?”
“We’ll find out. It’s like a sacrifice to the sleeping dragon,” I answered.
We pushed the deer carcass over the edge and watched it disappear into the darkness; then we headed back home in silence. We never spoke of it again, each placing the day’s memory in a special, hidden place only brothers shared.
In the years that followed, the town paved its way across the farmland and became a city. I got a job with the city highway department. I was supervisor on the night crew. One night, we were called out on an electrical fault.
I stood around the hole with my colleagues, hard hats in place, heads bowed, watching the progress of the John Deere backhoe. As soon as the backhoe hit a limestone crevice and the sour smell of rotten eggs hit my nostrils, I knew where I was and what was about to happen. If legend could be believed, one metal dragon was about to awaken a sleeping one.
Written by: James Shaffer
Photograph by: Matthew Wiebe