The Coal Elf
By Maggie Tan (Part of The Eyesmith and Other Tales)
The coal mines below Eldastone have long been abandoned by the miners. I daresay there is still plenty of coal down there but nobody is desirous of a stroll past the woods and into the deserted mines. Miniature hills of coal scattered about and empty carts make up the horizon, the sun being a broken lantern swaying from its hook by the entrance.
There is fear in Eldastone village of a creature in the mines, a coal creature that dwells in the black depths, tumbling itself about in the dark, frolicking in the dust and grit, who used to make mischief when there were miners still there. Only the size of a child it was and black as night with eyes like burning embers, yet with muscles of movable rock and stony limbs, the torso a boulder and no hair whatsoever.
It was somewhat friendly in nature at first when the miners discovered it, the glowing eyes round in surprise as the miners dug away at the coal and placed it in their waiting carts. Surprisingly sprightly for one so stocky of stature, the men nicknamed it the Coal Elf and laughed at its antics as they worked. From time to time, it would try to persuade them to play in the darkness but they would brush it aside impatiently and continue with their work.
In stony silence, it would crouch in the corner watching them, the ember eyes gradually turning into narrow slits as the months passed and finally all could feel the hostile resentment in the darkness. The miners grew wary of their former companion who now began to upset their heavy carts and hide their pickaxes, sparks flying out of its cruelly smiling mouth and its gleeful laughter like rocks dashing against each other, echoing throughout the mine.
The fear and apprehension grew deep underground and the miners began to flee as rocks came to their faces from every direction. The Coal Elf bounced off the walls easily and all below Eldastone could hear it laughing, laughing, the sounds of grinding rock and gnashing teeth. In the confusion that ensued, swinging pickaxes madly about in vain to harm the playful menace now a seemingly dangerous fiend, the men did harm to each other and many of them succumbed to their injuries later. On their deathbeds or in the arms of grief-stricken wives or mothers, their last words were admonitions that nobody should ever go down to the mines lest the wrath of the fearsome demon be provoked.
And so it was that the children were forbidden to play by the mines, that stories were told by the fire of a devil with burning eyes and a furnace of a mouth dwelling deep in the caverns, that eventually curious descendants were to wander into that tantalising forbidden playground. And to their delight, these children found themselves a new playmate, upon miniature coal hills and enormous carts, as small and frolicsome as themselves.