by Casey Cromwell
I remember Hannah’s grin when I agreed, but how she convinced me to climb into the tuft of grass that separated the beach from the sewer pipes behind our North Carolina house is foggy. Knowing my little sister, only nine at the time, she probably struck when I had a full belly and empty brain after one of our family dinners.
“It’s a magical cave.” Hannah sighed, pushing away her empty plate. “Dragons live in it.”
“And ticks and spiders, I’m sure.” Mom gathered the plates and left the table. “I’m just glad you’re enjoying winter break.”
“I’m serious, Mom,” Hannah said. “It’s like a different world in there. A natural mansion. It has separate rooms, even.”
Mom’s voice wafted in from the kitchen, over the rushing water from the sink. “Just be careful.”
My head shot up at the combination of Hannah and danger. “How ‘bout I go with you next time?”
She smiled – huge. The biggest smile I’d seen since Dad left shortly before my eleventh birthday, not as our father but as Marine ordered to Iraq for “Project: Iraqi Freedom.”
“Really? You will?”
“Yep. I’ll even go in these –” I waved my fingers, “cavern things with you.”
Hannah jumped up from the table, pulling me with her. “Come on, then! We need to get sea glass to sacrifice first!”
And so we did.
“Find any, Casey? I got some!” Hannah’s voice soared over the gentle purring of waves. November river water rushed up to tease our toes before scrambling back to the depths.
Fisting the treasures in my hand, I savored the bite of glass into flesh. Hard. Solid. Everything our life was not.
“Come on. Cough ‘em up!”
Hannah held out her hand, her fuzzy red sweater brushing my shoulders, and our palms bloomed in unison. The butt of a brown bottle, a green sliver with half a logo (Coo?) on the side, and dozens of small glass pebbles, smoothed in the tug-of-war between water and sand, sparkled against the gray backdrop of the Neuse River.
The smoothed glass pieces cuddled against one another like chicks in our sweaty hands, except we couldn’t keep them. I almost asked, imagining an indigo shard sitting on my bedside table. But I didn’t. According to Hannah, it wasn’t mine to take.
Skipping away from me, Hannah’s feet filled the air with white powder. “The dragons will be so happy! Come on!”
You know they don’t exist. I bit my lip, teeth digging into flesh like the glass sleeping in my palm. Dragons, fairy tales, dreams coming true? They’re all pretend. Made-up. Phony.
“Voila!” My thoughts scrambled at my sister’s screech.
“You ready? Here it is!?”
Staring beyond her finger, I nearly laughed. A tumbleweed. Really, that’s all it was – a huge tumbleweed of long grass, overgrown foliage, and damp sticks.
“This is it?” I stepped closer, nose crinkling. “This is what you’ve been talking about?” Sure, up-close, the sticks gave it some sense of architecture, grass curving around the rounded entrance with leftover sand serving as a welcome mat. Except, it didn’t look welcoming. Dark. Messy. Two of the many reasons I’d kept my sandals in the sand since we moved here three months ago.
Peeking into the darkness, I pulled my jacket tighter. “You sure I’m the one who needs glasses?”
“Don’t be a chicken!” She chuckled. “You haven’t even stepped inside!”
The glass sacrifices in her pockets clanged like a battle cry as she ducked inside. I paused, staring at the spare twigs and grass leaves threatening to prick my side. But when Hannah’s red sweatshirt disappeared into a green sea, I followed her anyway. This tradition she loved was my one exception. The one time, I, the older sister, would hide behind her youth and naivete. Besides, I didn’t like –
“Spiders. Watch out for spider webs!”
I barely stifled my squeal. Grass surrounded us like a wet blanket, tickling toes and scraping cheeks while cracks of sunlight painted shadows across the walls.
“Hannah, are you sure there’s a way to even get in here?”
“Of course!” The sound of a stick – a walking stick picked up at the shore? – slicing through tangled vegetation echoed in the tunnel. “Now, we need to crawl a bit here…”
“You can’t be serious.” I flapped my hands at the floor as she stared back at me. “It’s wet.”
Her jean-covered butt, wiggling as she kneeled and started to crawl, screamed her response. Sighing, I followed her. The smell of grass clogged my nostrils until – suddenly – fresh air attacked my face. Blinking upwards, I stood, mouth open.
“I call it The Dome,” Hannah said. “You know, ‘cause of the ceiling?”
I couldn’t resist looking up. Just like she said – a perfectly rounded ceiling weaved entirely of leaves, sticks, and grass. Rather than perfect weaves, they looked glued together, years of humidity, rain, and wind acting as an iron.
She grinned. “Didn’t I tell ya’?”
“You did. And there’s more?”
“Dining room, living room, sitting room, bedrooms…fills a dragon’s every need. In fact, I once…”
Her voice trailed in my mind as I walked to the opposite end of the cavern, peeking past the exit and into a makeshift hallway. Brushing away spare leaves and twigs, I chuckled in disbelief as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Green grass and bright red blooms filled my gaze, decorating the pathway that extended for a few feet before disappearing in a leftward curve. Peering through the cracks in the wall, I could barely make out other rooms further down the path. Damp oaks guarded their borders and the blues of the Neuse River flashed through the woven walls. A mansion. It really was a mansion.
“Come on, Casey! You’ll have time to look later.” Hannah’s hand pulled me back towards the dome’s entrance. “The other rooms are cool, but this one’s the best. It has the nest.”
And it did. A small nest, maybe a foot in diameter. Posies framed the edges.
A bird’s? My brain whirled. Maybe a snake’s? I locked the logic inside my lips, covering my doubt by asking, “What next?”
“We sacrifice. Thank the dragons for their cave and magic.” Hannah poured the glass shards into my hand, folding my fingers over the top. “You do it this time!”
“No, really, I couldn’t,” I stammered. “You–”
“No.” She said. “You.”
Silence filled the cave as our eyes locked. One second. Two. Three –
Biting my lip, I breathed deeply before starting. “So, dragons. Um. Thank you. For your cave. For the wishes you grant.” The glass dripped from my fingertips, shooting miniature rainbows of light across the walls before hitting straw. Quicker, faster, they fell, my voice speeding to match every clink as my eyes scanned the cave.
Leaves swayed in the wind; spots of sun tickled our skin.
“Thank you for your magic. Your beauty.”
My sister’s cheek swelled in a smile; for the first time in months, my shoulders divorced my ears.
“Thank you for the escape.”
Raising my head after the last piece of glass fell into bed, I finally understood. I felt Mother Nature’s arms wrapped around us, blocking any wind or rain. I saw the purity of life in a world free of humanity’s complications.
Finally, I turned to face Hannah.
Maybe a little magic isn’t so bad after all.
Casey Cromwell has published poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction in PLNU’s Literary Magazine, winning first place for creative nonfiction during her freshman and junior years. She also writes a successful blog and has written for Further Food, Beyond Celiac and San Diego Writers, Ink. She is currently a senior writing major at Point Loma Nazarene University.