I Saved The Crust For You, My Dear

I knew nothing of the dragon until my first shift down the mine.

We entered the warm embrace of the earth, escaping the mists that seeped frigid distances between our close-knit hills each morning. Weathered miners welcomed me to the club, membership paid in dusted lungs and broken backs. Dad stifled a boyish smirk. I mimicked his tight-pressed lips, mistaking it for some knack to prevent inhaling dust. A sooty tickle swelled in my nostrils as we descended through passages burrowed into the rocky crust by our forefathers.

For long hours we extracted tin ore from rocky casing with proper deference. Heavy labour dug a ferocious hunger in my belly. The lunch bell rang mercy through the mineshafts, and we congregated on rocks; each tending to our own pastry wrapped feast. With teeth and tongue, I unearthed a bounty of savoury succulent salty sauce. Filling beef, onions, and swede crammed aboard a sturdy shortcrust vessel by hands as strong as any miners, and doubly skilled. I buried folded foil in my pocket so mum could reuse it.

Miners ate with dainty poise; pinching rolled crusts between tips of grubby fingers, leaving the pasty hearts pristine for our hungry mouths. I relished my final bite, inspecting the leftover pastry curve for any edible crumb.

In unison, miners rose and filed away in procession, clasping sickle crusts with holy reverence. Confusion twisted my pasty-stuffed core as I – the unconverted – stretched my aching limbs and followed the flock.

As we passed from halogen illumination, hands sparked lanterns and guided us on through cramped, ancient aisles. The weight of the earth pressed upon timbers so long bereft of sunlight that they adopted monastic stone grey. We progressed deeper into the mine, and backwards through history. 

Our pilgrimage concluded in a cavern, so vast that our lanterns softened only the fringes of its darkness. One by one, miners stepped forward and lay crusts upon the ground. Bewildered, I gazed around the miners and their monument of leftovers. The familiar weight of dad’s hand on my shoulder rooted me steady.

Her twitching nose surfaced from the deep shadow, followed by reptile eyes. The dragon advanced with caution, though only one cursory sniff preceded her tucking into the gifted remnants. She knew this ritual. I watched her, wide-eyed with crumbling disbelief. She blinked languidly, oblivious to her awestruck assembly as she savoured each crust.

Dad sent me forward, tempering his strength with gentleness in that push. His smile did little to steady my heart, hammering like a great machine against my ribcage and resounding in my ears. In a church whisper, he ushered me to introduce myself.

 Panic harrowed my halting steps. I extended my crust to the dragon; it seemed a paltry offering in the face of a material myth. Gouts of smoke puffed from her nostrils. As her head snaked towards my hand, her widening mouth revealed gleaming dagger teeth. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned my face aside.

A twitch, a vacancy between my forefinger and thumb, then a hotness pressed over my hand.

I risked peeking. The dragon lapped at the flakes that clung to the prints of my fingers, fixated on those buttery morsels. I cannot say whether the breathy sound that escaped me was more gasp or laugh. 

Her scales mottled between the shades and textures of the tin ore that beckoned us underground. Earthen pallor and dark crystalline. Folds of frail bone and leather shifted against her sides, and I wondered whether that subterranean home allowed space to stretch her wings. She was not so terrifying after all, gentle and small in her centuries-long dotage. Sated, she graced me with her mystical gaze for a moment before retreating, her tail waving farewell to lantern light. I stared after her, drinking in that wondrous darkness. 

She was as old as the hills, as old as the tin. The deep peace of the mine was her refuge, buried away from the growing noise of the world. I joined the ranks of dedicated pilgrims. I delivered her crusts every day and swore the same silence as every miner. Not even our families knew. Secrecy was safety for her, but our reticence was not without selfish jealousy.

I worked that mine right up until the end. I married, became a father, mined tin, and for thirty-seven years I fed the dragon my leftover delicacies. Not one day off sick, just the strikes. I couldn’t bear to miss our ritual. Even on the picket line, we left clean crusts uneaten each day, then smuggled the precious cargo to our dear dragon by night. I volunteered for that sacred duty as often as I could.

When our mine was set to close, we relented and shared our secret with the women, who cooked up a plan as simple and brilliant as any pasty.

In the depth of night, we coaxed the dragon from her age-old home, tempting her out with a trail of crusts. As she entered the moonlight, her scales radiated opaline shades. A gasp rattled my lungs, and I confess I wept tears of awe. We led her to a cave set in the hills on the far side of town. Not as deep as our old mine, but cosy; an earthy shelter from prying eyes.

The whole village cares for her now; passing the torch not from father to son, but to all our children. Part of me misses the miners’ secret society, but our widened ring of conspirators and shared work has bound us closer. I now bake my own pasties, finding satisfaction in labour I know I shall never master. 

I still cherish delivering her food most of all, though cold air rakes through my chest and my weary back protests. It’s worth it for the rare nights when the dragon, full and rested, ventures from her cave. 

On those nights, she spreads her wings, glowing in marbled reciprocation with the moon.

On those nights, I watch her fly.

S W Holmes is a writer from the midlands of England. He loves the boundless possibilities of speculative fiction, as well as the deep roots of working class communities and cultures. When he isn’t writing, or scoffing pasties and pies, he enjoys playing make believe and frolicking through meadows. You can find them on Twitter @S_W_Holmes.

I Saved The Crust For You, My Dear is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine March Flash Fiction Challenge.

Photo by Daniel Burka on Unsplash

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