The Opal Child
Excerpt from The Opal Child, a work-in-progress by A.L.B., first place winner of the 2012 5th Grade Story Contest.
The Coal Factory was swarming with human activity seconds after the alarm rang. Meanwhile, intricate mechanisms ceased their endless rotating, pistons their furious pumping, black and silver gears their whirring. The Factory thronged with agitated Workers, a storm of footfalls rattling the crude iron staircases as they sought the one who disturbed their work. They sought not only him, but also secretly yearned to glimpse the reason for this pause, this interruption—above all, they wished for a difference—in the methodical, mind-numbingly simple life they lead. The single thought that traversed their racing minds was this: change.
Theodemus Spark was the man who sounded the alarm. He was the one who saw the shape perched, weightless and motionless, on the unfurling graphite banks of smoke rising from the crooked, soot-smudged pipes mounted on the Roof. The one who struggled through the cluttered Rooftop Workshop, calling for the Factory Brigade as perspiration on his brow belied his attempt at calm, even speech. The mass of Workers about him broke out in frenzy, shouting curses and insults randomly in the confusion.
All the noise was cut short when the heavy-coated constables filed in, up from the stairwell, armed with rifles, each polished stark black and wickedly so. The Workers and the Constables were silent. The leader of the Brigade nodded to Theodemus, his obsidian eyes dark and forbidding. Theodemus suppressed a shudder before gesturing vaguely to the smoke, his casual manner a mask to obscure his fear. All eyes turned. They saw a girl, rail-thin, floating in a seated position in the midst of the heather grey smoke.
The Master Constable turned abruptly to the men lined behind him. He hissed an inaudible order to them, a thin cloud of vapor emanating from his lips. The men of the Brigade stiffly backed down the stairs, scowling. As their footsteps dwindled away, the Workers watched the girl intently, still as chiseled marble. Only Theodemus saw the details. She was clothed in a tattered, emerald frock and her hair was a blaze of crimson flame, her eyes a piercing sea-green rimmed in red from recent tears. Her feet were worn and calloused. He felt that a strong power lay in her depths, a secret locked deep in her heart. She seemed almost godly– and yet a shackled, bound god, in need of a savior.
Suddenly a rumble of footfalls interrupted Theodemus’ thoughts. A boisterous crowd of Ground Workers entered, shouting as they poured from the stairwell and scattered across the bricks. A man in a charcoal bowler stepped forward. He signaled to a Worker behind him who lugged a monstrous three-legged contraption with a cyclopean eye. The man wearily set it down on the roof. The man in the bowler bared his teeth, then gestured contemptuously for the soot-streaked Worker to step back. He stooped, throwing a dark cloth around himself and the gleaming Camera, sparing only the shutter and lens. Theodemus watched in a daze. The man adjusted the shutter. A sharp, bright flicker startled Theodemus into full attention. He felt suddenly that the goddess aloft in the smoke was endangered by the image now in the Camera, that this was the beginning of something complicated and terrible.
It cannot be undone, whispered voice deep within Theodemus’ consciousness. It is the way of destiny, and destiny is an untouchable power. It cannot be undone.
Brilliant light streamed across the floor as the door swung open, whining on its rusted hinges. A dark shadow was thrown across the light as a deep, sonorous voice said, “Hello, Thorne.” Hawthorne Spark, a girl of 11 winters and violet eyes, rose from her trim, polished worktable and smiled. “Good day, Grandfather Theo,” she called, her voice ringing in the musty workshop. “What a day I’ve had,” came the response. Hawthorne grimaced, wringing her polishing rag in her hands. Theodemus sounded anxious and this worried her. The man entered the room, closing the door. He strode to the shuttered window, unlatching it and heaving it wide. Pale light washed over the room. Hawthorne looked into her grandfather’s careworn face with concern.
“Hawthorne Spark, I have a gift for you. I should warn you, though, that it is a burden as much as it is a gift. Do you accept?” He stood, looking her squarely in the face. “Yes sir,” responded Hawthorne warily. “Ah, Hawthorne, you are a brave ‘un. Here, child, take this.” Theodemus opened his fist. In it was a torn fragment of Newspaper, grime-speckled and smudged with soot. It was a black and white photograph, bordered with text that paled as she focused on the image. Hawthorne’s head swirled and her heart pounded in her ears. She stared. The photo was no longer black and white. Hawthorne saw a girl in a verdant green gown that was torn and frayed at the edges. She had mysterious eyes. When Hawthorne realized that the girl was resting gracefully on a bank of smoke as if it were stone, Hawthorne’s breath caught and her eyes widened.
Hawthorne felt a brush of smoke against her face and heard loud voices calling over roaring wind. The girl’s smile vanished and her dark eyes were pleading and forlorn. Above all, Hawthorne saw that the girl looked painfully exhausted.
A voice spoke in Hawthorne’s ears—a smooth, ageless voice, like the sound of a soft wind after rain, whispering, faltering and immeasurably sad.
“See this… tempest man has created… Death… for my people, my friends, your home itself… undoing all Good. If you do not change…” The voice grew fainter. “Your kind is hewing down the last Magic Roots, the very source of Earth’s powers…”
Hawthorne’s blood tingled. The color seeped from the image and the smell of smoke and ring of voices diminished to nothing. She pressed the Newspaper scrap back in her Grandfather’s palm and closed his fingers around it. “Dear Grandfather, I have seen enough,” she muttered.