A Handful of Eggs

Belinda here, with a little introduction to my (not so new) new writing project. Happy New Year, everyone.

Thirty years ago (!), when I was a new teacher, a colleague tried to explain ‘bases’ to me – the mathematical idea that we naturally count in tens because we have ten digits, and if our normal finger count was, say, twelve, that would be the base we would use, likewise eight, and so on. Later that day I was on library duty and I wrote this:

WHEN I WAS A GIRL. . . .

The snow lay lightly, tufts of spring grass and early flowers pushing through here and there; trees quickening with fat buds despite the glimmering white lacework below.

Almost in silence, the girls worked in the library. ‘Library – Silence’ in Gothic script on the door. Perhaps had it been in ultra-modern computer print it would have seemed like an instruction for children of today, rather than for yesterday’s more disciplined youngsters:

“When I was a girl….”

Was that why only the school librarian could see the small dragon perched on the roof gable opposite?

“Discipline in a daily routine leaves a person knowing what they are supposed to be doing, where and when, no need to dwell on the minutiae of life. Leaving the mind free to seek out that which is more elusive, and of greater value,” she mused.

The dragon scratched its ear.

Calculators whirled silently, chugging noiselessly into life. Perhaps they could read Gothic script. The dragon would not have been able to achieve great mathematical success with or without a calculator: it had seven toes on each front foot and worked principally in base 14, though complications arose from time to time if it contemplated its rear appendages – it had eight toes on each back foot.

It sighed, its breath rising warm on the chill morning air.

Across the way, the librarian sighed and scratched her ear.

***

Some time later, for reasons I now cannot recall, I used the idea to write a children’s story about a creature who is puzzled by the idea that she has laid ‘a handful of eggs’, as her idea of ‘a handful’ isn’t the same as her human friend’s. Rather than a dragon, my mythical, egg-laying creature was now a salamander; instead of seven fingers, she had four.

Recently I came across this interesting fact:

Salamanders rarely have more than four toes on their front legs and five on their rear legs, but some species have fewer digits and others lack hind limbs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salamander

I actually didn’t know that, so I was rather delighted when I read it.

I named my salamander Phlox (from the Greek for flame) and placed her in an old-fashioned oven in a village in an unspecified location, but with a quaint English-Sounding place name, Newly-under-Bagwort.

So, ‘why a salamander?’ I hear you ask (or, ‘what is a salamander?’ or ‘why would a water-loving creature live in an oven?’) I suspect the simple answer was simply to be different, and I needed something smallish. I actually knew about mythological salamanders (that are associated with fire) long before I knew about ‘real’ salamanders, which are amphibians. My first exposure to these creatures, which have featured in folklore, mythology and legend for as long as dragons, unicorns, mermaids and the like, was through C.S.Lewis. In the sixth of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Silver Chair, there is a mention of them as small, wise, dragon-like creatures that live in the flames of the chasm land of Bism.

Phlox and her egg problem was supposed to be simply for my own enjoyment, until a couple of years later another conversation resulted in a second story (that’s a subject for another post). Fast forward a few more years and a need for a children’s story for a library-based holiday programme saw Phlox being brought to life by the very talented illustrator and designer Karen Nolan, who I was fortunate enough to work with at the time. Twice since then Phlox almost made it into print, and once almost to TV as part of an animated series, but it was not to be … until now.

Finally, salamanders are about to have a story of their very own. Move over dragons and unicorns! ‘A Handful of Eggs’ is being published very soon.

Another interesting fact: Asbestos used to be known as ‘Salamander wool’.

If you would like more about the (mythological) salamander, this is a fun article: https://www.wired.com/2014/08/fantastically-wrong-homicidal-salamander/

Phlox the Salamander
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