The boy and his father lived in a big beautiful house on a soft green hill. The house and the hill made them all snuggled up. The father was rather fond of his boy, and the boy was particularly in love with his father. This was the beginning of the trouble.
When the boy was at his littlest, it was the surface of the hill and the upper floors of the house that enamoured him. The hill was soft like a blanket, the grass covering the solid earth beneath. The boy could roll down it, run up it, and roll down it again without fear. The house stood on the highest point around, so not only could the boy devour with his eyes all the creation that lay about them, but he was also always guaranteed a sunny spot in which to lay.
It was when he turned a certain age—say seven—that the boy became interested in the basement. It was a purely negative interest. It was fear. Sometimes, thought the father, it was sheer terror: the boy’s blood was positively frozen by the dark maw of the cellar stairs. The father, however, had long outlived his demons—and there had been many—so it was no trouble for him to sweep his boy into his arms, shower him with kisses and reassurance, and carry him off to bed for a bedtime story.
No matter what time of day it was, all the stories told in that house were of the bedtime variety.
Eventually the boy overcame this fear by dint of his father’s courage, and replaced the fear with curiosity. He climbed down into the basement on his own and, by the light of the bare bulbs, examined the old and crumbling masonry of the house’s foundations. Here and there dirt and sand cascaded through the cracks; elsewhere whole blocks were bulging, as if something were trying to get into the house by shoving out the stones. The floor was poured cement, but when the boy put his ear to it, he thought he could hear a heartbeat.
This curiosity led the boy to dig in the front yard with a spoon. He wanted to know, in a roundabout subconscious childish sort of way, what it was this stuff in the earth that was trying to get into the house. It couldn’t just be earth and stones. He scooped up the soft green grass with his spoon and chucked it aside, then worked on the loamy topsoil, gently brushing worms and beetles aside so they wouldn’t be harmed by his excavations.
“What’re you doing there, son?” asked the father, who had appeared at the edge of the dig site.
“Digging,” replied the boy.
“Don’t dig too deep,” his father cautioned, not without a little chuckle. “You’ll come out on the other side of the planet, and everything you know will appear upside down.”
The boy was too busy digging to harken to this warning, and finally his old man went away. Soon after he’d gone, the boy made it past the first layer of sediments and found himself at the strata of clay. His spoon bent and twisted on the harder stuff, but he persevered, crumbling away the greasy earth and chucking out the rocks. It couldn’t just be earth that was trying to get into the house; it couldn’t just be rocks. It couldn’t just be insects or moles. It couldn’t just be stuffs.
The boy dug without respite, and at the end of his first day of digging, the setting sun sparkled majestic orange across the entire world. The whole world, that is, but the back yard of the house, which sat in the shadow of the building to which it was yoked, a shadow that fell on the face of the boy and the lips of the hole that he dug in the ground.
“Come on in now, son,” his father called out to him. “Bedtime, and time for bedtime stories.”
“Just one more minute, dad,” the boy called back. He thrust his miniature spade in one more time—and came up with a note.
That’s what it was: a little flag of paper, crumpled and yellowed from ages below. The boy’s eyes bulged. This is what he’d been looking for! Well, not this; not anything in particular, really. Just something—something other than the dirt and spoor that held up the earth.
Carefully, he extracted the note. It was fragile, but the boy pulled the thing out whole, or as whole as it might be, and grasped it between his hands.
“What’ve you got there, son?”
His father had come up behind him in the swiftly falling dark. (He was always coming up behind his son—ethereally, more often than not.) The son looked at the wrinkled page. Keep digging! was scrawled across its front.
“A note,” he said, passing the flagging leaf to his father.
The father hummed, examining the artifact. “Just some garbage,” he murmured.
“Can I keep it?” the boy begged. He’d never really had something of his own, not really; and this thing had been the product of his labours.
“I don’t see why not,” said his father. “It certainly can’t hurt.”
And yet the man stared at it for three nights and two whole days as the boy sat crouched there in the dirt, until finally he relinquished the paper (still undecided about its damaging capabilities) and they went inside.
But by that point they were both exhausted and forewent the promised stories altogether.
The next morning, when he looked over the rim of his coffee cup, the father saw his boy in the backyard again. Digging again, working away at the hole with both the flesh and soul of his being. His eyes were dazzled momentarily: the sun just rising, coming up from the long flat horizon, yellow and pure, sending all its rays around his boy so the digging child was like a broad man built from black construction paper.
The boy was working with a real spade, now.
“Where’d you get the shovel, son?”
The boy leaned upon the shovel’s shaft and wiped sweat from his brow. How old was the boy now? The father was surprised to find he’d forgotten. Certainly not old enough to be working so hard, not this early in the morning. How did I get here so fast? He wasn’t sure of that, either.
The father looked into the hole. It was big. Too big for such a little boy. It was near as deep as the foundations of the house, now. Huge rocks had been levered out of it. Was this even possible? Was it magic? Had someone taught the boy the secret art of levers?
“I’ve found some things,” the boy said, discarding the shovel and indicating a pile of stuff. “Can you tell me what this is?”
His old man, bewildered by this morning apparition, could only stutter out responses as the boy held up his treasures, one by one.
“Might be old jewelry. An amulet, or something. Sure, you can wear it.
“That’s… metal type. They use it… they used it? It’s for printing. It’s like a stamp. We’ll get you some ink, you’ll see.
“Some old book, son. Can you read the title? No? Some old book, then. Not worth keeping.
“That’s a sword. My God, how did that get in there? You found that in your hole? It’s a sword. Rusted, but… it’s for war.”
Before his son could show him more, the father pulled the boy back from the hole. “You can’t dig in there anymore, son. It’s dangerous for a boy to be digging so deep.”
“But I like it!” the boy protested.
“I don’t care. It’s not safe.” He looked at the pile of things his son had unearthed. “Is there anything else in there I should know about?”
“No, dad,” the boy said, downcast.
“Good. Now put away that shovel. We’ll do something fun today, you and I. I’m going to take a shower. You get changed, too—your clothes are filthy. Another good reason not to go digging holes in perfectly good earth.”
The father drained his coffee and left his son beside the backyard excavation. When he had gone inside and the boy discerned the distant pitter-patter of the shower and the drain, his son drew something from his pocket: a flagging piece of crumpled paper, that read You’re almost there.
That afternoon, father and son played ball in the yard. They played with all sorts of balls. They played catch with tennis balls, batted with baseballs, tossed the football, and kicked around the soccer ball. The activity drained them and made them whole. They laughed. The son had not forgotten his hole, or his father’s prohibition, or how that made him feel, but he had a good time nonetheless.
At long last the end of the day was upon them. They sat on the back porch, overlooking the hole and yet avoiding its mention or the acknowledgment that it had been looked upon or over, and had a barbecue featuring the flesh of many creatures moulded into patties and sausages, as well as hewn straight from their bones in solid cuts. They chewed and ate and chewed and ate, and the father had a beer while his son drank cold lemonade.
“That hole is good for one thing, son,” the father said as he tore the last strips from a steak. He snatched the T-shaped bone and hurled it through the air, and they watched as the flash of white tumbled into the dark hole. The father laughed, but his son did not, and silence soon reigned entire.
They forewent the bedtime stories that night as well, and turned in in their separate, silent ways.
The son, however, was not honest with his father about his acceptance that he ought not do any digging. In fact, he had every intention to do so. Before the father closed the house up for the night—while, in fact, the father was enthroned before the television—the son descended into the basement where he knew there to be an old lantern, and a pickaxe. The son crept discreetly back to his room and stashed these items under his bed. When his father came to kiss him goodnight, it was as if nothing was unusual, except for the intense pounding of anxiety and excitement inside the son’s brain…
He lay awake tossing and turning, forcing himself to wait. Some time after he had gone to bed—once the moon had come out and been passed over by the clouds—he heard the deep drone of his father’s snoring sleep. The boy slipped out of bed, collected the pickaxe and the lantern, crept down the stairs, and slipped out the back door.
The whole world was silvered with moonlight. Never before had the son seen the world this way, for after dark he had always been snuggled tightly into the house. The moonlight on his arms and hair seemed like a wild creature of faerie dancing in midnight ecstasy. He felt like he had come into a land where all things forbidden were possible, and truths were as bright as day.
Quickly now, the son made his way down to the hole. It was as deep and black as before, but the glimmer of nocturnal rays from the rocks in its heart was more entrancing in the night. He grabbed the spade, still lurking by the lip of the crevice, and rode down to the bottom of the pit on his bum. There he lit the lantern with a sparking hiss and set it up on a promontory of granite he had uncovered in the morning. Then, slinging the pick over his head—for he had reached the hardest, thickest part of the earth now, and needed every bit of strength to undo it—he began to work.
It was long and hard, this work. It was the kind of uncovering that requires not only physical fortitude, but a mental toughness as well: the boy had to believe that there was something beneath those bleak rocks worth revealing. And believe he did. The belief was in his arms and his legs and his head, even as all those parts of him burned. He watched stone spark and chip. He felt earth crumbling and knew he was coming nearer. The only thing he didn’t feel, the only thing he didn’t realize, was the passing of the ages around him.
The sky was lightening to grey when he heard the final crack of the stones. A whole cake of rock fell into the belly of the planet, revealing a cavern beneath his feet. The boy’s mouth formed an O of wonder.
The boy grabbed the lantern and slid down a cascade of earth into the cave.
The place was disgusting. There was slime on the floor, old bones cemented into the walls; there was the sound of scurrying from deeper channels and passages that he could not fully see. All sorts of litter were strewn about the floor: tools, pottery, artworks, food, clothing, and whole heaps and heaps and heaps of books and manuscripts. All of it slowly rotting with a black bile that did not consume the discarded items, but rather crept along them like a censorious plague. Soon these lost objects would have no colour at all, absorbing all light so they could not be seen no matter how bright they became.
“You’ve found us!”
The boy started. Long shadows appeared from the darkness around the edges of the cavern. He hefted the lantern, casting the brilliant rays to better get his bearings and reveal the interlopers. When he saw them he gasped.
They were all men that looked like his father. They were all men that looked like himself. They had legs and arms and heads and bodies. They had guts inside their bellies. They had brains inside their skulls. They limped as they walked, or else they blinked with blind eyes, or they held their stomachs and groaned, but they were all men just as clearly as anyone else the boy had ever known.
“Who are you?” the boy whispered.
“We’re your fathers, of course,” came the answer; but it was spoken not from any one father, but rather from all of them, a hoarse, throat-clogged whisper that ran around the chamber like a plague.
“What are you doing down here?”
“Dying. We’re barely alive,” came the answer. “Can’t you see? We don’t want to be down here, son. You must help us. You must bring us back to the light.”
The boy started. This was not the creaking-paper sound of the weird old men—the strange old men who bore so much uncanny resemblance to his small family. It was the voice of his father, his father, his father, who stood up above, staring down.
And his father was mad.
“I told you not to go digging,” his father said, scowling. “Look at those things! Get up here now, boy. Those things might hurt you. They’ll kill you! Only I can keep you safe.”
The other fathers were moaning. They were stretching their arms out to the light, for now morning had come and baked a bright orange tongue down into the hole.
“We’ve lived beneath this house too long!” they all cried. “We are desperate! We are unmade!”
The son had no time left to think, but found himself hauled up by the shoulder by the strength of his old man. His father was strong and whole, not like the decrepit old fathers down below. His father here. His father was not old.
“Forget these old men, son,” the boy’s father said gravely. “They don’t want you to live up here in the house with me. They want to drag you down below. They want to unmake everything, undo us with eternal returns.”
The father held a long gun out to his son. A rifle or shotgun, it mattered not. The thing shone. In its heart it was screaming. Guns never stopped screaming.
“Bury the past, son. Bury it.”
The boy took the gun in his hands and aimed its black bore into the hole he had dug in the earth. The other fathers had massed themselves below the aperture into the sky, clawing for light and clarity.
“Don’t bury us, son,” they called out in mouths already clotted with dirt. “Don’t leave us down here. Don’t leave us here to never die.”
The boy looked up at his father, his father, who nodded solemnly like a priest; but this was not what made the boy do what he did next. It was something hidden behind the solemnity: it was fear.
The boy looked back down and squeezed the trigger many, many times.
From the mouth of the gun came great clods of earth, mud, garbage, toil, sweat, excretions, and last but most importantly heavy and opaque rocks. The fusillade of trash poured over the fathers, who kept trying to speak though their tongues garbled on the missiles. The earth, mud, garbage, &c. piled up in a messy river, a rancid sludge, and finally a thickening concrete-like paste around them, so that their poses—angry, indignant, spiteful, horrified, pathetic—were frozen forever, sandwiched between ammunition and the powder smoke sinking down from the bore of the gun.
It was not long before the whole hole was unholed. It was whole.
“I’m proud of you, son,” said the father, and together they went up the hill and into the house, without looking back. The grass was soft beneath their feet, solid and hard like a ball of purity; but the son could not erase the memory that there were immense caverns in the world below him, a porousness that reduced to vacuity everything he knew and everything he would ever know, and was—far more importantly—the only thing he’d ever seen his father frightened of.
And in his pocket, the boy still carried the notes, and read and re-read them each night, in the horror of midnight when the ancient world came upon him—and wondered if there was any use to it, or if it was all the shit of the world—pure ephemera.
And when he grew up, and had a son of his own, the boy still had the gun, which his father had bequeathed to him; and he quaked, he shuddered, he felt ill and would literally vomit when he thought about which inheritance he would give to his own son: the slips of old paper, or the gun.