Oh, I remember my mam. She’s been gone nigh on forty years, but I still think of the mornings when I were little and she’d show me the demons. She’d be up at the crack of dawn, kneeling down afore the stove to shove kindling in the firebox with one hand because she were cradling my baby brother in the other. And then I’d come along and pick a bit of coal out of the scuttle and ask: is there a demon in this one? And she’d say no, and I’d put it back and pick up another and ask: is there a demon in this one? And she’d say no again and I’d take another and like as not she’d clip me round the ear before I said owt else. “It’s not demons, Elsie,” she’d say. “The coal remembers what it was, that’s all. But it’s still only a lump of coal and I need to get the fire lit for your dad’s bath so get away with you and stop bothering me with your nonsense!”
Dad were on the night shift, you see. I hardly ever saw him with the hours he worked. He’d get home in the morning so covered in coal dust I thought he were a piece of coal himself. And then he’d have his bath and go straight to bed, and he were out again before I were back from school. People are always asking me about him. I get sick of all the questions. They’re only asking because he died in the disaster, but that were seventy years ago and it’s not like I were down there in the mine with him when it happened. I were back home, with Mam. Course I was. I were only little. I were up early to look at the demons.
Mam knew how much I liked to see them, so she’d call me back in once she’d got the kindling lit. She’d throw a few coals on top and have me stare into the firebox until they were glowing bright red. And then, if you were lucky, one of them would come to life. It’d crack, like there were a chick inside breaking out of an egg. Only it were never a chick–it were always something else, like a scorpion or a millipede, or a little newt sometimes. It were coal through and through, but it looked just like the real thing. I liked the beetles best. They’d be shining bright orange with blue flames across their backs, crawling through the fire to the edge of the grate where Mam had closed the door so they couldn’t get out and burn the house down. They’d flutter their wings, but they’d be too heavy to take off and go up the flue. Poor things.
Mam would throw the rest of the scuttle in, then she’d put the kettle on and braid my hair while she waited for the water to boil. And she’d say: “It’s not demons, Elsie. People used to think that, but the coal remembers, that’s all. Set it alight and the coal remembers what it used to be when the world was young.” She were right. I’ve heard all those clever folk try and explain it with their long words, but they don’t know any more than she did. ‘Pyrozoic’, that’s what they call them. Pyrozoic fossils from the Carboniferous Period, millions of years ago when it were only insects and salamanders and the like. Well, Mam knew that much but she didn’t care. Far as she were concerned, seeing beetles and all else come out of the coal just meant the fire were hot enough to put the rest of the scuttle in.
She taught me this one thing about them, though. If you looked close, if you looked right into their eyes, you could see what they remembered. All of a sudden you’d be chasing centipedes in leaf litter, or laying a hundred sticky eggs on a fern leaf, or standing stock still on a dead branch and hoping a horrible great salamander wouldn’t gobble you up. That’s what she’d show me, those mornings when she were getting the bath ready. I suppose it kept me quiet. Didn’t have telly then, you see. Nothing else to watch, like the little ones have nowadays. I showed my granddaughter a bit of burning coal once and she were bored of it after five minutes. No one’s interested in coal these days.
No one’s interested in my mam, neither. But I get questions about my dad all the bloody time. That silly woman from the mining museum were on the phone again last week, going “Ooh, Elsie, tell us about how your father died down the pit, all them years ago in the Heatherley disaster, let me come over and we’ll do an interview for the new memorial.” But it were a lifetime ago. I don’t remember my dad at all. She only wants to know because he were in the union and spoke up about the conditions down the mine, the long hours and shoddy gear—he said there’d be an accident one day, and he were right. But he didn’t talk to me about it. Why would he? I were only a little girl. I never saw him, except those mornings when he came home from the pit. He were never there to say good night, never there when I came home from school, and then on his days off he were at a meeting or down the pub most times. I don’t have any memories, not of him I don’t.
No, wait, there’s one thing. I asked Mam once if he were a piece of coal, because he always came home so filthy from the pit. And then if he’d crack open like the coal did if he were set on fire, and what he’d remember if he did. She gave me such a look! And then she laughed. She told me he’d never go like coal, I mean remembering what he was. He were too busy with the union to remember anything. Never remembered to wipe his feet, or to bring back milk from the dairy, or anything she ever told him. And that’s all I know about him, really. Why should I bother trying to remember him? That’s all they ask about. That and the disaster. But they never ask about Mam, and what she did.
She were the one got us out of Heatherley, me and my little brother Bill. Got us on the road to the next village. Pouring with rain, it was. We stopped at the church hall with all the others what made it. We’d lost everything except the clothes on our backs. Then we went on to Leeds and stayed with my aunt. Them was hard times. Mam never said owt about what happened back at Heatherley. She was like one of them soldiers come back from the war with all the stuffing knocked out of them. She carried on, though. Had to. Compensation didn’t come for years and it were a pittance when it did. She couldn’t wait for that. She had two little ones to look after, so she went to work in a mill, and then I did the same once I were old enough to get out of school.
And now they want to put up a memorial for the ones what died, that’s what the woman from the museum keeps saying. Some bloody great block of stone with their names on it. Supposed to last forever. They had one of them back in Heatherley for the Great War, what they call the First World War these days. Well, that’s one block of stone didn’t last forever. It were lost with the village. Don’t suppose the others will last, neither. Bill’s on the one in Leeds, the one with the angel on top. He were in the navy, got torpedoed out in the Atlantic, so they put him on the side of the stone with all the others what died in the second war. You know, the part they weren’t supposed to use because there weren’t supposed to be another war. Not that anyone cares. There were spray paint all over it, last I looked, and the council haven’t bothered cleaning it off, not for two years they haven’t.
And anyway, they’d never put my mam’s name on the bloody memorial, would they? She didn’t die in Heatherley. She lived. And after that she worked like a dog to keep me and my brother out of the orphanage, and when she did die, it were cancer what took her. They don’t carve your name in stone for that, do they? No, they bloody don’t. Nobody remembers my mother, except me. They don’t even ask her name. It was Maureen. Maureen Machin. Put that on your block of stone, go on. But you won’t, and you know why? Because she knew when to run. She got us out of Heatherley and then she told me to get out of Leeds before the blitz started in the war and I should have listened—I were almost killed when the house two doors down were hit. Then she told Bill not to join the navy, and he didn’t listen so now he’s at the bottom of the ocean. Told Dad he should get out of the pit as well and do you think he listened? Did he heck! We could have gone to Leeds, but he wanted to stay and fight. It were only a year after the big strike, the General Strike, and the bosses were punishing us for it. They were cutting everything back, wages and safety and everything. All the folk in Heatherley knew there was going to be an accident sooner or later, but Dad wouldn’t go. So Mam kept her eye out. Kept plates on the dresser right close to each other, so they’d go clink if the ground shook. Old trick, that were.
Clink, they went. Just a little noise. I was still yawning and I hardly noticed. And then they went clink again. And that time I did notice because Mam jumped back from the stove! I asked her if she’d burned her hand on a hot coal, but she told me to shush and listen. I couldn’t hear a thing. Except then the plates went clink again, and that were enough for Mam. She bundled up my brother in one arm, grabbed my hand with the other and pulled me out the front door and into the middle of the road. We were the only ones out there. I expect she were wondering if she’d gone mad.
And then the ground really shook.
It were like hearing a noise with your feet to begin with, and then the cobbles were shaking and slates were coming down off the roof. That got people out their front doors. All of them coming out in their nightshirts and dressing gowns. Some went down the hill toward the mine to see what were happening. Our neighbour did that. She were worried about her son what was down there and ran off to get him. Never saw her again. It were already too late.
The ground shook harder then, and a shower of slate came down off the tops of all the houses. I saw one poor man hit on the shoulder, right in front of me. Everyone ran for the middle of the road.
But it were worse down the pit. We was halfway up the hill with the colliery below us and we could see the pit-head winding gear and it were falling down, great big wheels crashing into the offices and flames coming up from the mine itself.
Then there were this bloody great groaning noise, like the earth were waking up and stretching, until this massive crack broke open across the village. I never saw the like, not even in the war when they were bombing Leeds. A dozen houses fell into the crack and billows of smoke and fire came back up. Then a leg—this huge great insect leg—came reaching up out of the hole, feeling around, smashing more houses as it went. It were thirty yards long or more, that leg. And it were on fire.
It were the coal seam, what ran under the village. Sparks from the machines had set fire to it and woke the damn thing up and made it remember what it were like to walk above ground. And the fire had spread so fast it hadn’t had time to break up into little coals, so it all came up as one great big creature, the one with the strongest memory. It dragged itself out of the ground until the head came clear and I could see it were a dragonfly, huge eyes burning bright yellow with blue flame all over. Oh, those eyes. You couldn’t look into those eyes and not see it. Hot swamps and fern-trees rising up in forests full of steam. Snapping jaws of ten foot salamanders coming up at you from under the water. Dancing in the air with your love and laying eggs in a pond, and then… then a shaking, and fire in the sky, and ash drifting down from above, weighing on your wings as you tried to get clear but the ashfall went on further than anything could fly and then you fell from the sky, tumbling through fern leaves as the cinders buried you alive along with all the world you ever knew…
The whole village saw it. They couldn’t see nothing else. They were all staring up at the thing, gaping like fools when they should have run. A few walked toward it, to see better. I was one of them.
But Mam were stronger than me. Or maybe she felt me pulling on her hand, and that woke her up to it. Either way, she wouldn’t let me go. She clamped her eyes shut and stepped back past all the others while I pulled against her and made her fight for every step. So she stopped, hauled me close and tried to scoop me up, and still I squirmed against her, turning so I could see the beast. It were flapping its wings and trying to jump in the air like it did when it were alive, as though it didn’t know its wings were coal and not the gossamer they once were. I felt a hot wind blow on my face as it flapped its wings and struck the church steeple. It smashed into pieces, ringing the bell and sending it clanging to the ground. The wing broke too, shattered and fell in a shower of burning coal. There were people down there, just stick figures in the distance but I saw them crushed where they stood and some of them burst into flames among the coals…
And then I didn’t want to look any more. I stopped fighting my mam and she hefted me onto her shoulder with my face buried in her hair. She headed up the hill past all the ones that couldn’t stop staring, the ones what were caught up in all those memories, no matter that they were memories of a world that were dead and gone.
Just like they are now. All of them back in Heatherley, dead where they stood or dead where they fell. The whole village, dead.
But not us. Mam got us on the road and over the hill and out of sight of the thing and we never went back. Mam would never talk of it. But some of the other survivors did. Years later, when they thought I were old enough. Or when they were drunk. They’d say the whole village were knocked down. The mine and the church and the school as well. All gone. And the dragonfly, that died too. The rain came and doused the fires above ground and froze it where it was, until it collapsed under its own weight.
But the fire was still burning underground. Things was still moving down there. You couldn’t go back. It were hot enough that the coal kept on waking up in little bits and pieces, and things crawled up out of the earth for years after. Still do, last I heard. They’ve tried to put it out but it never worked. I expect it’ll go on as long as there’s coal left to burn.
And somewhere down there is my dad. He never had his bath so he died all covered in coal dust, like he were a piece of coal himself. And maybe Mam was wrong about him turning to coal for real. All it’ll take is a few million years under the ground. And then perhaps he’ll be dug up and burnt for someone else’s bath, and he’ll wake and remember what he was, and someone’ll look in his eyes and see us, me and my mam and my brother.
But I doubt it. He hardly ever noticed us when he were alive. I never knew him. I don’t know why people keep asking me about him. It weren’t him that saved my life that day. It weren’t him that brought me and my brother up. Mam did that. People want to remember my dad because of how he died. But I remember my mam instead, and I leave the remembering of my dad to the coal. That’s all there is to it.
© 2018 by Paul R. Hardy
Author’s Note: This tale comes out of one of those legendary Codex story contests you keep hearing about. The prompt was the following three words: “Melancholy Anthracite Arthropod”. I had to rewrite them a bit.
Paul R. Hardy lives in the UK with a coffee habit, a laptop and various health problems. He also fulfils a minor administrative function in an NHS hospital, which is handy for the health problems. In a former life, he was a penniless filmmaker who won a BBC drama award and wrote a book on how to make short films; in this current incarnation, he writes speculative fiction that has appeared (or will appear) in venues such as Unidentified Funny Objects, Escape Pod and Deep Magic.