The Professor chose to withhold the information. He himself obliterated references to dates, children’s names and specific places.
In his files, this first letter is referred to and catalogued simply as Letter from Wales.
It is possible that the specimens mentioned were destroyed or more likely relabelled to render them untraceable.
Address and date torn away
Given all the places you have sent me, all the places I have travelled in the name of our work, you can only guess my disbelief that such a thing as I will now relate has come to light just a short way to our west, as it were, on our very doorstep.
As you read this letter you will understand how tenaciously I am having to check my emotions and write this account sensibly and scientifically. If I did not know it your habit to take correspondence in your private study, I would urge you to read this alone, where you will have full liberty to reflect on this discovery. I will put down the facts as empirically as I can.
The children that were ‘bitten’ were young; the oldest just recently turned nine. It was clear from talking with them that they have a favourite place a little down the river A_, where the otherwise quite tightly overgrown bank opens out into a clearing studded with mature beech.
To the side of the clearing the ground slopes steeply up, forming a low hill which, once it breaks the woods, rolls away as farmland. The severity of part of the slope has led to a small landslide, and part of the way up there are some shelves of exposed rock. Given the steepness of the slope, and the mature trees, there is a swing rope. This, to the children, is the chief attraction of the place.
As each child, or a parent in some cases, attested that the ‘bites’ coincided with a visit to this spot, it was there I naturally began.
The ‘bites’ themselves were uncomfortable looking and in some cases severe, but I did not take them immediately to be bites. In fact, given the raw, sore look of the injuries, my first thought was that something on the swing rope was causing damage, particularly to the younger children whose skin is that much softer. I wondered if there was perhaps some plant fibre or chemical in the rope. Comprehensive tests, however, revealed nothing.
Knowing the habit of younger children to be always playing in dirt and falling about on the ground, my next step was to undertake a thorough survey of the leaf litter at the clearing. It threw up the usual specimens: hexapods and protura, threadworms, mites and pseudoscorpions. There were also larger arthropods, and, given the favourable dampness of the spot, a commentable quantity of snail eggs. But there was nothing untoward, and nothing I could see that would make the injuries.
After four days I was none the wiser. I had extended the survey. Fly papers and insect traps brought up nothing other than the common midges, notably culicoides, associated with the waterside this time of year. Bite they do, but they would not cause the type of ‘bite’ I was seeing, which, on reflection, was in some cases more like a burn. Neither did a thorough catalogue of flora bring any suspects forth.
In the days that I was there, I watched some of the ‘bites’ worsen. In two children, Ll_, aged eight, and B _, aged seven, a spreading damage, something like necrosis, set in and, horribly, there was nothing for it but to amputate.
While I am committed to relating events step by step and sensibly, you can imagine the pressure that came on me then to ‘solve the case’ with this terrible new development.
I interviewed the children again.
It became clear that, under the encouragement of some older children who, as older children do, have taken it upon themselves to marshal the play space, a long-held ritual was afoot.
In order to have a ‘go on the rope’, the younger children were required to scale the slope, which, to a child under ten years old was no mean expedition; to pass through the crest of woodland, at that point mainly scrub oak; and bring back one of the ‘yellow flowers’ from the field above. Then, and only then, could they play on the swing.
The ‘yellow flower’ is Senecio jacobaea, common ragwort. (Not the Oxford ragwort I noticed on my journey, which has established itself here, as it does, with quick effect since the opening of the local rail line only a few years ago). My analysis of the plant showed there to be a good deal of Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, and more evidently, and as with many of the daisies, Sesquiterpene lactones. It was my conclusion that, given the delicate skin of the children affected, a rather harsh form of Compositae Dermatitis had manifested itself, perhaps aggravated by the action of trying to pull up the plants and injuring the outer layer of skin in doing so. It would account for the raw, blistered look of the injuries.
While I was still perturbed by the necrosis in some of the children, I extrapolated this to be down to some unfortunate hyper-allergic reaction in those individuals and resolved to further research this. Otherwise, it seemed the case was solved. I spoke with the local community, and instructed them to keep their children away from the plant.
It was the following day, as I packed my bags to leave, that a small child, G_ J_, was brought to me insisting, he had been bitten by a ‘red bat’.
I was convinced this was just the sensationalism that attends any such event, but examined the child nevertheless. His finger was swollen considerably, the skin tight and reddened. More notably, there was, this time, a tiny ‘bite’ mark – a slightly blunted V shape – around which bubbles of thick yellow pus had formed. Around the bitten area, the capillaries and veins were shot through with a dark shade.
My immediate thought was that, in pulling up the plant, the child had cut himself. It is possible. The internode of ragwort is tough and somewhat triangular, perhaps stubborn enough to be a sort of blade to a young child’s skin. But he insisted he had not been near the plants, and stuck with his story. The bite, he said, had happened towards dusk, when he was playing by the road bridge in the village.
I racked my brain. He was insistent on the ‘red bat’. Taking into account a childish and therefore suspect sense of scale, my first thought was a moth. Deilephila elpenor, (possibly porcellus) perhaps, drawn to the lights going on at dusk. Deilephila, of course, are really ‘pink’, but again I adjusted this, given what a child might deem red.
I surmised that little G_ could have sustained the injury prior to being on the bridge, but the more dramatic and memorable event of a large moth fluttering into him had taken the place in his mind as the reason for it.
Once I had convinced myself that the ‘red bat’ must be a moth, I quickly got to Tyria jacobaeae. It is significantly and brightly red, and, as you know, its larva feed on ragwort. What then, I thought, if the toxin ingested at the larval phase was present in the imago, and somehow could be transferred? How a moth could come to cut even a child’s skin I do not know, but the two things seemed feasibly linked.
When I showed pictures of the moth to the child though, he remained insistent. ‘No. It was a bat.’
This extra development meant I missed the train I had intended to take that afternoon, and, as many were still unconvinced of my conclusions, I took it upon myself to at least appear to be using my extra time here pursuing further answers. It is too early yet to decide whether that was a choice I am happy to have made, or one that will forever haunt me.
Using the excuse of ‘the bat’, I returned to the clearing towards dusk. I took with me the light and sheet, interested anyway in what night-flying insects I might collect. In reality, I admit, my chief intention was simply to be away from the constant questions of the locals.
Thinking as I was of bats, and with the light dropping, the dusk exaggerated in the shadow of the trees, I decided to investigate the rock face. I had noticed a great many crevices that could feasibly harbour bats, and I wanted to be able to say with clear conscience that there were no ‘red bats’ to be found. If there had been, I think I would have preferred it to what I soon discovered.
Taking my kite net, the handle unscrewed to use as a primitive ‘gaff’, I scaled up to the rocks, my lantern lighting up the dew-covered leaves as if a strong moon caught them.
What happened next I relate as simply as I can. Believe me – it will be impossible for you not to wonder – when I vow I am entirely sane.
Very few of the fissures in the rock had any depth at all. Other than crawling insects and a few specimens of Cochlodina laminate, I found nothing.
Next, setting up my lantern on the ground, I noticed a low rock, and under it a shallow cavity. The cavity formed what looked to be a sort of ‘entrance’ below the rock, excavated, or so it seemed, deliberately.
I poked my ‘gaff’ in a little way and retrieved, to my surprise, a bright red horde of beetle wing cases, perhaps Rhagonycha, or perhaps Cantharis l. – the specimens will confirm. As I examined them more closely, I saw that some were notched with a blunt V, a ‘bite mark’ almost identical in form to the wound on the little boy’s finger.
I thought first of wood mice. I know they make collections, particularly of brightly coloured things. However, the bite marks, if that is what they were, did not quite fit. I fished around a second time, and this time felt the stick ‘held’, as if briefly jammed, before it came free again.
My scientific curiosity was now piqued, and I was determined to know what rodent or such had collected the little pile of wings, and, I was sure, taken a grip on my unwelcome stick.
I assessed the size of the rock. It was flat and balanced over the depression, and about a foot and a half round. I concluded I could tip it up, much like I would if I was at a rock pool on the beach.
I moved the lantern to a better spot, set down my tools, and lifted it. Had I not been so frozen with shock, I am sure I would have dropped it instantly back down.
There was a creature, just bigger than a vole. It perched on its haunches like a chimpanzee might, holding the beetle it was chewing in a saurian hand.
The creature seemed to shrink itself under the light, and raised its wings in an attitude of defence. Its eyes, more the large eyes of a fish than anything, held mine. It was dark-seeming, but the mesh of its skin was reddened. As if the pigment of the beetles was within its scales.
I put the rock down gently. I am in no doubt, and can describe it no other way than to assure you that it was a tiny dragon.
I cannot describe to you what has happened in my mind in the few hours since then. Everything is changed. If there are dragons, then what of unicorns, and mermaids? Of other fabulous things? The image of the thing is burned into my wits.
What if, like the Equisetum – the ‘horsetail’ of our banks and riversides – that was in prehistoric times near a hundred foot tall and now a mere hundredth of its height, only a miniaturized remnant of this creature likewise now exists? What memory have the people of this nation of this thing that was surely once so vast an animal?
We must decide. I trust you with this, knowing no more integrity in any other man. If we reveal this to the World, the effect will be sensational. The creature will not have a chance. Particularly, perhaps here, where it is so much part of their identity. To discover that it actually lives!
I will stay for now, and wait your instructions, with the excuse of further researching the bites. Though I know how fond you are of your collections and your study, it might be, on this occasion, that you choose for once to travel. Meanwhile, I will protect the thing.
I am, as ever, your student.
Name entirely obliterated, suggested to be S.J.
Copy from a notebook presumed to belong to S.J. The sketches show Rhagonycha and Cantharis, the ‘soldier beetles’ posited as contributing to the observed red colouring. There is also detail showing scale of the ‘notched’ wing-cases.
Illustration from British Entomology Vol. 5 plate 499 (John Curtis, F.L.S. 1824-1840) of Tyria jacobaeae, the ‘cinnabar’ moth, alongside ragwort. It is likely a similar picture would have been shown to the child G.J. in an attempt to identify the ‘red bat’.
Copy of the original letter showing key descriptive paragraph.