And work I did. All that long morning and even longer afternoon, I worked up a sweat, running up and down the slope from basement to car with Goodwill boxes in my arms, or to the house for trash bags. Mom looked on with worried eyes, but I paid her little heed—there was no time for it. I was beginning to realize what my rash words had wrought.
Even the one-block drive to the Goodwill was becoming increasingly difficult as the salamander slowly drew me closer and closer into his heart. If I didn’t finish soon, I realized, I might not even be able to leave the dank basement and retreat to the house above for the night.
I was haunted by the vision of the little man standing in shadows by the open doorway. He hadn’t been looking at me, had he? He’d been peering out into the green world, but had been unable to put so much as a finger in the sunlight. I shivered and worked harder.
At supper time, I could hardly hold my head up long enough to chew, and I fell into bed dreaming of the two-thirds of the basement still untouched. I woke after a scant three hours and returned to my lair, where the dim bulb now seemed a welcome beacon against the night.
I sorted for a while, but I knew I had no chance. What did the ex-leprechaun want from me?, I wondered. My sight? A year of my life? At this point, I was willing to trade either to be released from his lair.
I found that I had crept back up under the eaves and was peering down at the salamander. It was a beautiful beast, though terrible—awful in the original sense of the word, perhaps.
The mythologists had gotten it wrong, of course. Salamanders were not beasts of fire. Any naturalist could tell you that salamanders are denizens of damp earth. This one curled around itself in sleep, its glistening black hide spotted with silver and blue specks shining in the light of the overhead bulb. I guessed it to be twice as long as I in total length, and I marveled that none of us had noticed the monster before.
But I suppose we wouldn’t, I mused, unless the salamander wished it.
For a moment only, I considered slaying the beast. How thick could salamander hide be? But the monster had no need even to open an eye in its defense—I knew I wouldn’t make an attempt. After a lifetime spent protecting plants and animals, I had finally found a species new to science. For all I knew, this salamander was the only one of its kind left in the entire world. Killing the beast would be as bad as cutting down the tropical rain forests for toilet paper.
Instead, I knelt down and placed a hand on its shoulder, feeling the sluggish beat of its heart. I was helpless to fight the monster.
“I’ll never get out of this mess,” I whispered. “I wish…”
I shot up, but not so fast that I forgot to keep my head bowed away from the floorboards above. The ex-leprechaun was perched on a pile of winter clothes this time around and he looked a bit tousled as if recently roused from slumber. His words confirmed my surmise.
“I might have known I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep tonight,” he complained, and I noticed an earthworm or two dropping out of his hair as if he hadn’t quite decided what appearance he meant to wear. “Are you ready to accept my offer?”
I caught myself an instant before nodding mutely. “Maybe I will, if the price isn’t too high. I’ll ask you again—what do you want from me?”
“Well now, that’s not an easy matter,” answered the dwarf, back in his element and cheerful now. “There’s not much you have that I want, now is there? No husband, no child, no pet even. Plenty of student loans and no assets. I could take your knowledge.”
His eyes gleamed, but my glare was enough to head him off that particular topic. “Though what I’d do with it down here I have no idea. Ah, I know!” It was obvious that the idea was no epiphany but one he’d thought out days in advance. “You can give me a day in the outside world.”
“You mean take my memory?” I squirmed uncomfortably at the thought, desperate enough nonetheless that I was at least considering the idea.
But he only laughed at me. “Your memory? You read too many fantasy stories. No, all I want is your escort in the world above.”
“For a day?”
“For a day.”
I must have looked confused because he condescended to explain. “I’ve got deep-earth magics, you’ve got magic of the sunlight. I don’t dare go out there,” he pointed through the wall, “for fear of being eaten alive and spat back out. But with you around, I’d be safe, especially if you foiled the salamander for long enough to let me escape without it noticing. It’d be no skin off your teeth. Just a day of your time.”
“And for that you’d get me free of this?” I couldn’t believe my ears. There had to be a catch.
“Simple as that.”
“You clean the basement with magic and I take you outside for a day?”
“Yes, yes, and yes again!” I could tell that he was getting annoyed with my persistence. “Do you want it in writing?”
I did, but I also didn’t want to push him too far. So we shook on it instead.
“Do I get to watch?” I asked. He impatiently set me in a corner out of the way, but acceded to my request.
And then began the cleaning. The first few boxes to open raised such a cloud of dust that I didn’t see much, just heard whizzes and bangs as objects flew past me in every direction. I spared a thought for Mom, sleeping above us, and hoped that she had her deaf ear up. She must have, because when the dust cleared I was still alone with the leprechaun, now in a strangely pristine basement evironment.
The shelves were straight and full of carefully organized tools. Odds and ends were either absent or filed away in such a manner that they’d be easy to find again. Watering cans were with trowels, hammers with nails. Even the books appeared to be arranged in accordance with the Dewey decimal system.
We were ecstatic, both of us. I think my dwarf hadn’t been aware he had quite so much magic in him, and we danced a little jig there on the now-clear floor.
Our dance woke the salamander, of course. And I’ll admit it was my own fault—the wakening was inevitable, but was sped by me treading on the beast’s tail.
We stilled as the beast lifted its massive, slimy head to peer around its rearranged den. Its golden eyes lit on me at last, and I was glad that lack of experience left me incapable of reading salamander facial expressions.
“What a surprise,” it said dryly, and closed one brilliant orb. I must have cleared my throat in annoyance, though I didn’t mean to, and the salamander turned the still-open eye to face me. “You’re off the hook. You can go,” it added, dismissing me as simply as a teacher might turn her pupils out onto the playground.
I grinned at the dwarf, then we skipped to the door and out, locking the salamander into its now-clean domain. The two of us leaned against the pile of trash bags overflowing from the can, and we couldn’t resist one last, gasping giggle.
Behind us, the basement shook and I could hear the carefully-labeled boxes spilling into a jumble worse than ever before. I didn’t care. Mom hadn’t really expected me to clean the basement anyway, and as the salamander had said, I was off the hook.
Stay tuned for the grand finale, coming soon!