While cleaning the cave, Gordon learned all about their history and habits, mainly from the centaurs, who wanted to practice their English.
Author’s Note: Every now and again, when the darkness of the world seeps into me, and I grow weary of writing about private and public and planetary troubles, I make up a story about a jack-of-all-trades named Gordon Mills, who works on the city maintenance crew in Limestone, Indiana. He lives with his feisty wife Mabel, their four children, at least one of whom suffers a crisis on any given day, and the three surviving grandparents, all crammed into an old house that falls apart as fast as Gordon can fix it. You won’t find their hometown on a map, but you might have visited the place in dreams, for peculiar things happen there, although no one in the Mills household, least of all Gordon, ever notices the strangeness.
In Limestone, Indiana, a city tucked away among forested hills, peculiar things happen, often in the vicinity of a jack-of-all-trades named Gordon Mills. Centaurs and nymphs shelter in a local cave, alligators lurk in the sewers, warm snow falls on the Fourth of July, cornstalks rise higher than chimneys, and the northern lights shine down on the municipal dump.
Part folktale, part tall tale, part comic romance, Small Marvels revels in the wonders of everyday life.
Limestone, Indiana, a city the mapmakers blithely ignore, is named for the bedrock on which it was built, a rock that formed on the bottom of an ancient sea as a hardened pudding of crushed shells. Just as water gives birth to limestone, so the rain and snowmelt that seep down from the surface slowly dissolve it, carving out sinkholes, tunnels, and chambers bristling with stalactites. The caves riddling the limestone under Limestone are not famous, like Mammoth or Carlsbad or Altamira, but what they lack in reputation they make up for in abundance, for they are as numerous as the air pockets in a loaf of sourdough bread. One of those caves deserves to be better known, maybe should even get written up in the road atlas, because for a while not long ago it was home to a herd of rare beasts.
There were bats, of course, and blind crayfish, eyeless salamanders, albino crickets, and shy spiders, the sorts of animals you might expect to find in any dark, dank grotto. But in addition, this cave provided refuge for a great many less common creatures, such as unicorns, griffins, dragons, and centaurs. Except for the phoenix, which was solitary, they all hung out in pairs—each satyr with a nymph, for example, and each harpy with a hippogriff. What they did in the dark was anyone’s guess.
The mayor and city council planned to make the cave a tourist attraction as soon as the budget allowed them to pave a road to the entrance and build a gift shop. In the meantime, they kept the location a secret, so gawkers wouldn’t go barging in and disturb the beasts. Aside from the mayor and council members, one of the few people who knew about the place was Gordon Mills, who, as part of his duties on the city maintenance crew, was ordered to install a gate of steel bars at the mouth of the cave and to clean the interior twice a year, in spring and fall. The bars allowed bats to fly in and out on their nightly errands, and a spare key, hanging from a hook just inside the gate, allowed the larger inhabitants to come and go as they pleased.
The cave was filthier in the spring, after the creatures had been cooped up inside all winter. Despite their horny scales and thick fur, they could not bear the cold, having evolved in warmer climes, so they ventured out mostly between April and October. Even in the warmer months, they didn’t wander far, wishing to avoid encounters with dog walkers or mushroom hunters or wandering lovers who might sound the alarm and have them banished. The beasts had already fled from one country after another, scorned by skeptics or driven away by mobs. The cave harbored smells from the many places they had left—olive groves, peach orchards, marble quarries, mossy riverbanks, candlelit cathedrals, trash-strewn alleys, dusty libraries, and battlefields. Desperate to find a safe haven, they wound up in the backwoods of Indiana, where they hoped eventually to blend in with the local wildlife.
While cleaning the cave, Gordon learned all about their history and habits, mainly from the centaurs, who wanted to practice their English. They spoke with an accent, of course, being foreigners, but he could understand them well enough. They knew geography backward and forward, from all their wandering. Gordon had never heard of half the places they’d been kicked out of. From what the centaurs let slip about their escapades with women, he could see why folks might not welcome them in the neighborhood. He certainly wouldn’t want them anywhere near his daughters.
The phoenix, who looked like a cross between a golden eagle and a turkey buzzard, only way bigger, had an accent so thick it took Gordon a while to figure out that she was asking him to borrow a match. He said he didn’t have any on him because he didn’t smoke. Maybe she’d never heard a Hoosier before because she just gave him a puzzled look and repeated the question. So he tried using hand motions, like in charades, pretending he was striking a match and smoking a cigarette and then drawing a big X in the air and shaking his head. But she only frowned. Next he flapped his arms for wings and puffed out his cheeks and blew hard, by way of saying she could ask one of the dragons for a light, a suggestion that made her shudder and nestle down on her pile of sticks.
Except for the unicorns, who batted their eyelashes at him and never made a sound, the other beasts all rattled on to him in their various languages as he worked. The satyrs sniggered, the nymphs hummed, the griffins snarled, and the dragons rumbled like distant thunder. From the few words Gordon could make out, they talked mostly about sex and food. Which, now that he thought about it, was mostly what the guys at the shop talked about, aside from sports and crops and dogs.
Before too many more years, even Danny would graduate from make-believe, and then what excuse would there be for a dad to wander outdoors among the pirates, witches, and ghosts?
How the beasts paired up was a puzzle to him, but then how any two humans paired up was also a puzzle to him. Take his own marriage, for instance. Why would a woman as pretty and smart and tenderhearted as Mabel agree to marry a lug like him? And why would she stay married to him going on 25 years now? Whatever the reasons, he thanked his lucky stars.
How the beasts fed themselves was less mysterious, for he recognized in the cave litter the bones of deer, foxes, possums, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, dogs, catfish, and cats, along with gnawed roots and corncobs and hanks of hay. Out of sympathy with other endangered species, the centaur explained, they didn’t eat bats or salamanders or crayfish, nor did they dig up orchids or ginseng, but everything else was fair game, so to speak. Evidently the griffins were the best hunters, for they could fly like eagles and pounce like lions. For those who preferred their meat cooked, the dragons would roast it with their fiery breath. They all drank from the stream that flowed through the cave. Gordon drank there as well during his visits, from a spot that allowed him a closer look at the nymphs washing their long hair.
When he showed up for the semiannual cleaning, the beasts were polite, apologizing for the mess, standing aside to let him shovel and sweep, some even offering to help. He thanked them but went about his work alone, afraid one of them might strain a muscle or slip a disk and sue the city. Besides, if they were really so eager to help, they could have tidied up the place before he arrived. In spite of the heaped bones and corncobs and wisps of hay, there wasn’t much manure, a fact explained by one of the centaurs as the result of a metabolism that turned most of what the creatures ate directly into dreams. Dreaming, in fact, was their major pastime, to make up, he supposed, for not having TV or the internet.
It so happened that Gordon was cleaning the cave one October day soon after his daughter Veronica, now 12, had declared herself too old to go trick-or-treating. This left only Danny, youngest of the Mills brood, to roam the neighborhood in costume, ringing doorbells, holding out an open sack, while Gordon kept watch from the sidewalk to make sure nobody kidnapped his sweet son. Before too many more years, even Danny would graduate from make-believe, and then what excuse would there be for a dad to wander outdoors among the pirates, witches, and ghosts? The thought made Gordon glum. In order to explain his melancholy to the centaur, he first had to describe Halloween. While listening, the centaur shuffled his hooves on the stony floor of the cave and scratched the hair on his chest, as if lost in thought.
Later that week, on the night of Halloween, Gordon was returning home with Danny, whose sack was bulging with candy and whose homemade dinosaur outfit was coming apart at the seams. They were just within sight of the house when down the front walk came Veronica and the centaur, side by side, her hand resting on his back, their heads drawn together, whispering.
“Way cool!” Danny cried. “Look at that killer costume!”
Gordon looked, and kept looking, as his daughter and the centaur strolled into the pool of light under a streetlamp and on beyond into darkness, the murmur of their voices dwindling away.
Read more by Scott Russell Sanders appearing in Terrain.org: “God in the Garden”, “Five Fictions” (with photographs by Peter Forbes), “Letter to America”, “The Audubon Effect”, “Jack Haymaker’s Peace Tour”, “The Fate of Unborn Generations”, and “Buckeye”.
And read a classic interview with Scott Russell Sanders from 2009: “Our Wisest and Surest Way”.
Header image by delcarmat, courtesy Shutterstock.