The 2018 Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition
BY KURT NEWTON
We were sitting around the dinner table when Poppa told the story of the coal mape. Momma told him right away to stop, but Poppa just smiled and said, “It’s all right, Lottie, the kids are old enough to hear.” Momma shook her head to let everyone know she disagreed, but she let Poppa speak.
“Working in the mines, there are times we see crazy things,” Poppa said. “A lot of it is just shadows on the wall, or our brains getting drunk from not enough wholesome air. But sometimes, when the same thing is seen by more than one of us—it can’t be no trick of the mind.” Poppa glanced around the table to make sure he had our attention. Momma fidgeted with her napkin, her unease brewing. Poppa continued.
“It’s been said that coal is the stone of living things. Millions of years of living things. Trees, grass, plants, animals. Even people. Now, I would imagine that sometimes in one of those stones—one of those clumps of coal we chip off and toss in the bin—there’s a spirit of something trapped for more years than any of us can count. Maybe some kind of creature that graced this fine Earth back before people first walked out of the jungle. Back before dinosaurs even. Way back, after the war in Heaven, like the Bible says, when Michael fought the serpent and the serpent was cast out along with his dark angels. A creature that fell to Earth when it was more like a living Hell with its rivers of fire. A creature that didn’t obey God’s laws, and, instead of dying held still, its body turning to dust, but its spirit still alive, waiting patient for that day when someone would come along and release it from the Earth’s grip.
“There’s a name for something like that. A coal mape we call it. It’s a name that’s been whispered for as long as men have been digging holes in the ground and disturbing what’s there. A coal mape appears like a swirl of black dust in a tunnel draft, but it moves about like no dust cloud should. It searches, drawing up close first to one man then another, until it finds what it’s looking for.”
Poppa stopped talking.
By now, Momma was crying and we didn’t know why. She looked up, her face wet with tears, and we saw it—the darkness swirling in her eyes, a midnight black like oil on water.
“It’s time, Lottie,” said Poppa, and his eyes too were black as the belly of a summer storm cloud. Momma nodded. And between the two of them the coal mape surfaced, escaping briefly before entering all of us sitting around the dinner table. It raced into our lungs, then into our veins, swirling around until it found a place deeper still, and there it settled like bones at the bottom of a grave.
“Now, who wants dessert?” Momma said, like nothing was wrong, her eyes blue again.
“I do,” said Poppa, his eyes, too, returning to their usual green.
The rest of us mimicked Poppa like a nest of magpies. “I do, I do….”
Momma brought dessert and we ate like thieves trying to feed a hunger that could never be satisfied.
Later, after the lights were out and I had drifted off to sleep in my bed, I had a dream so real it felt as if I were wide awake. In that dream I was standing motionless with my face tilted toward the sun, exulting in the sun’s rays after such a long time spent in the dark.