I am walking down the stairs holding my mother’s hand. My mitts dangle from the cuffs of my coat, bound by a string that runs up one sleeve and down the other. Out of the corner of my eye, just beyond her tartan skirt and red tights, I can see shiny mint green tiles pass by as we descend, step by step. In my ears is the hiss of her woolen mitts sliding on the tubular handrail beside her. There are words on the white wall. Black words. I recognize some of the letters, but reading is still beyond me.
There are many steps – a flight down, then a turn and another flight down. Halfway down this second set of stairs a strong gust of wind pushes against me, making it hard for me to breathe. I stop there on the stairway and look up at my mother. The pale blue of her eyes reassures me, and I start walking again. A sudden screech, angry and carnivorous ricochets down the hallway. I feel her grip my hand harder, see her red mitt tighten around my fingers. My heart skips a beat, and I sit down on the floor.
I am afraid.
She pulls me and encourages me with gentle words, but I can see her getting annoyed. Beneath me the tiled floor begins to rumble. I imagine what sort of monster could make the ground rumble like that. Long and angry, full of teeth and malice and fire, sliding along its dark tunnel beneath me, waiting for me to enter its lair. Waiting to eat me.
She pulls me up to my feet and drags me down the hallway. I listen carefully, but the beast is biding its time. Waiting. It has all the time in the world, and need not worry about me escaping. My mother is dragging me willingly toward it. We reach the end of the hallway, and enter its cave.
It is a long, open space. The mint green tiles and black letters continue as we walk along a raised platform. I peer desperately at the end of the space, where the wall opens into two dark, frightening tunnels. When I turn around I see similar tunnels behind us. People walk up and down this long space oblivious to the danger that is surely hiding in one of those black holes.
We sit on a brown plastic bench, and my mother says something to me. A name. She points out the letters on the wall. Spells the words out to me. St. George, she says. I perk up, and listen attentively as she tells me about this suddenly relevant hero. Down one of the tunnels I hear a distant scream. I can feel a rustle of wind. I ignore this. Her story is more important, at least for this moment.
She finishes telling me about St. George. By now the slight rustle has become a steady breeze, and I can feel the rumble beneath my feet again. The monster is coming! I stare at the tunnel on the far wall. The rumbling becomes louder. I think I can see its blazing eyes in the dark tunnel. The floor beneath me shakes with its hunger. It’s fiery eyes grow in the darkness, and I can feel the rush of wind as it approaches. It will eat us all.
And suddenly it is in the cave with us. The ground shudders. The air is full of buffeting wind and deafening screeches. My eyes water, but I can still see its long, lean silver shape. It is a dragon. A long, sleek dragon with burning eyes and it is rushing toward us.
Its head passes the brown plastic bench we are sitting on. The air is sucked from my lungs. The angry screeching fades, and the dragon slows, then stops.
We stand and walk toward the doors that open in its flank. We take seats – orange seats rimmed with chrome, and I look out the windows in its side. We are in the belly of the dragon, and we will go where it goes.
My mother smiles at me and tousles my hair. I snuggle down against her for the long ride home. Now I know what the subway is.