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It is raining on the day we visit Postojna caves. This is one of the largest cave networks in Europe, so big that there is a train to get from one end to the other. A river runs through it and in some parts the stream is dark and shallow. 

There are dragons here. The dragons are snakes since, according to folklore, a dragon is just an old snake: one that is more than a hundred years old. There are many snake-like creatures in Slovene folklore—the skok, the malvorar, the salamander—but when they get to be a hundred, they slither underground to become dragons, capable of shaking the earth, ripping apart mountains or causing the villages to flood. 

The dragons in Postojna caves are blind ones that live their lives in darkness: rare cave-dwelling salamanders called olms. They are born with eyes that their bodies soon swallow. They breed only once every seven years and use the earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves: they are a protected species. 

I stand in the last cave of our tour and watch the baby dragons under the blue light: olms that have been bred in captivity and are kept in a glass aquarium for tourists to look at. 

I am staring now, trying to make out the ghost creatures among the white streaks of mineral rich rocks, and—there! The fringed gills, the tiny suckered toes. I stand too long at the glass, staring. I have never seen anything like these creatures, pale, eyeless and so shy. 

In medieval times the caves in the Karst region, near where my grandmother’s village is, would flood sometimes, and occasionally a tiny pale blind creature would crawl out of the caves to die in the bright sunlight of a stream. Perhaps some made it all the way to Miren, where my distant relatives stopped and poked them and stared in horror at what the mountain had disgorged. 

Baby dragons, the villagers called them. They knew these creatures had come from the caves where the adult dragons huffed among their stolen jewels. 

I know better than to touch the glass but my fingers twitch. Baby dragons then; baby dragons now.