My father and my father’s father were coal miners. Their father’s fathers were coal miners back to Adam, who was a dug lump of clay. Being my father’s son, digging is in my blood but I am not a dog. I would not dig a hole in a public park though I have been tempted to. I have done it only once, in a dream. And, unlike others, I am oddly patient with holes. I realize that they require moments of forethought, marks of tenderness such as the pulling of grass and the sifting of pebbles. I am exceedingly gentle.
Mostly, I plot. Perhaps the actual pleasure lies in plotting the symmetry of the holes on a larger scale. I lie in the dark imagining the pattern my holes will make if I manage to erect a lighting apparatus by which each hole can be lighted, like a star, in varying degrees of white. So far, I have strayed from this and dug holes which form only a crude pattern—a square, the scattered outline of a profile. I am trying to find a pattern that will incorporate all the holes I have dug in my life. All winter, I have lain in bed, trying to remember each spot, each hole beneath the thin snow. I have endless lists that I hold against each other, then against the light.
Half of my digging time is consumed by maintenance and surveillance. Gardeners, moles, dogs, the rambling hiker, the weather. Sometimes a miracle occurs and the holes appear deeper. But how can this be? The fate of all holes is eventual collapse. They are despised or put to mundane use. For instance, I want to heal wells. They are clogged, immensely sad.
Usually my holes cave in. Nothing remains but a small indentation. On more than one occasion, my hole has been transformed into an absurd hill. The perfidy of the earth leaves me bitter. The rain hurts me. Earthworms mutilate the carefully tamped dirt. They do not realize that they are destroying the work of years. A hole can take up to ten years to dig. And then I must find matching stones to line it.
How deep are they? That is irrelevant. They may be in the shape of a basin, several miles long, only forty feet deep at the centre. They may be precisely three feet deep and a millimeter wide. I have lined several with freshwater pearls or sheets of beaten gold. Others require foil or plastic forks. Once, I even lined one with oak leaves and orange blossoms. They may be ephemeral in effect. The only characteristic they all share is in the digging.
My hands quiver, a divining rod. I want to uncover it immediately, to lay bare the beauty. I should be honest: I want to piss upon it—to mark it as my own, to somehow possess it, to announce this ownership to the world. Often, I simply fall upon the earth and press against it. It is only when the dirt is moist beneath me that I realize what I have done. No matter. I simply brush off the dirt.
After I have discovered the hole, I return with a spoon, a spade or a needle. I begin digging, trying not to disturb the hole. I know it is waiting for me. I am expectant—joyous—exhilarated. I burst into laughter, I lift my children into airplanes above my head, joke with my wife, run circles around the dog. I fix the television: The colors become brighter, clearer. There is a large halo around all lights, refracted. My irises dilate. The moon is twice as large as it usually is. I imagine it illuminating the hole, shining through the layers of sand I have loosened about it. I forget about the maintenance and upkeep of my other holes. This one is new—it takes precedence. My mind cartwheels. I seize and kiss my hands. I can hardly speak.
After a week or several years, I will have defined the lip or opening of the hole. Its personality becomes apparent as much as our smiles reveal ourselves. The hole is so vulnerable, delicate. I listen to it. Sometimes I can hear things: the silvery scales of a piano, a child’s rhyme, roots gripping, water swelling a bulb, a beetle traversing its endless boulder, a grasshopper laying its eggs. Granules of sand fall off the edge into the dark. What can I do? I am terrified, carressed by possibilities: I begin to imagine impossible things—a hole hovering in the air, entirely transparent, filled with fireflies. An octahedron- shaped hole. A hole filled with a layer of green wax, white wax. A hole that expands and contracts and reaches up to the heaven then dips back to form an enormous U. A hole rigged with telescopes and mirrors. One looks down and sees the entire pockmarked terrain of the moon in her glory, stars swinging in the dirt. Perhaps even a hole that never surfaces but doubles up on itself, a rabbits’ warren of Gordian complexity.
But with these possibilities comes dread. The fears of the hole begin to haunt my thoughts. I imagine the disasters that may occur before its completion: my own death, a careless step, a bad forecast. Sometimes I cannot even get up. My wife pulls close the curtains and I lie in the semi-dark, rigid, eyes burning with tears. I cannot bear music, rough fabric, strong smells. I lock up my children for fear that they will go nearby. I begin to wonder if even my shadow upsets the soil. Surely it distorts the angles—the horrifying possibility that I may have hurt or disfigured the hole shifts from abstract possibility to a crude probability. It is almost likely, in fact, unavoidable, that I have damaged it.
In my dreams, I lift the hole and rock it gently but it shuts its single eye against me, trembles and shrinks when I cup its delicate dirt shell. I realize it will never love me so I dash it against the ground where it becomes an exhalation of air, a heap of sand and weed.
I become cold against my own cruelty. It is only a hole, after all. the entire earth is simply holes overlapping and intersecting with other holes. I dig, shifting between a rapid, careless movement and remorse. As I dig deeper, the remorse lessens and I am intoxicated by the smell and the shape and the form that the hole has taken on. In the wake of my path, holes gleam. I shave my hair, brows, chest and groin hair. I am the digger, smooth and clean. My wife and children know better than to cross me. All doors in the house are left open, nothing blocks my path to the hole. At night, I patrol the vicinity and when I am sure that all is safe, I lie down and heap all the dirt I have dug out on myself. When this dirt is in my shoes, my shirt and my fingernails, the individual particles brush against me as I move and I think that I am the hole, hiding, yet waiting to be found. Closing my eyes, I push my fingers through the dirt, sniffing, playing hide and seek. I can tell what the soil is composed of simply by the smell. I can be metallic, raw, smoky. Even sand has its own salty signature. When I feel for the hole itself, it burrows deeper, turning stones, eluding me, cruel yet shy.
I shrug off my clothes and coax as much of my body as will fit into the hole. It may merely be the knuckle of my thumb or as far as my torso. I may curl like an unborn chick in its round case. I breath in deeply. I grow cold, fearful that someone will catch me. I want to sleep. I do not dare. When I am finished, I am filled with quiet. I look at the hole idly. How did I first see it? I take my flashlight and retrace the path. I consider my patterns.
After a few months, I look at the hole only occasionally, on lifeless afternoons. The idea of the hole has been replaced by the actual site. I have seen it—now I want to cover it up. I want to wash the hole, perhaps even to fill it up. I want to stamp it out. I hear the hole crying in my sleep, a round dark ring uttering wordless noise, torturous and grotesque. It sounds like a coughing, a foghorn, a kettle screaming, a soprano wafting through the vents. Each hole has a voice inexplicably different and yet heartrendingly familiar in its tone of reproach. I am in a graveyard filled with holes. From each hole issues a column of white steam. All around me swirls this noise, duplicated, dissonant, magnified and raised. The holes expand and contract like pores.
My resistance is low, very low. My throat ignites, my teeth come loose. I am covered with a black rash from my forehead to my knees. I sleep with my entire family huddled around the foot of my bed. I cannot sleep alone. My children feed me in the morning and I shake with a wild fever.
The final step is encrustation: The inside of the hole is lined with a certain type of object. The objects serve a two-fold function. First, they beautify the site—thus removing it from the realm of the quotidian. Secondly, they serve as a buttress, to prevent collapse. I am entirely alone. Having seen the hole, I wall it up. I am the last person to see it alive. After the encrustation, my fear dissipates and I visit the hole regularly, without dread. I focus my attention on the maintenance of the material. I clean it, brush it with my excavation brush. I check to see if there is any leakage or life. Once I have encrusted the hole, the crying also stops. It is like stuffing a mouth with sweets.
Having closed it, I become torpid, listless. I sleep late. I am dissatisfied. I realize that digging will always be a solitary task and yet I want someone to watch, perhaps even to acknowledge who I am. I utter the word fameand crumble like sugar beneath its weight. I lie in my bed and envision an installation that will span the globe: holes in Zanzibar that tunnel through to Beijing. So many holes within holes that the crust of the earth collapses into the hollow center. A hole as large as the sky or the absence of faith and worn as the socket of our eye. A hole dug in broad daylight in front of thousands. A stenographer takes notes.
And then they come. Unseen, I observe two visitors, a man and a boy, follow the sign, unlatch the gate and go around to the backyard. Before I can even think of why they are here, I run to the door, unlock it and call out. I wave them in. They are filling my holes, soaking the ground with gasoline.
They look up. Their eyes are coals, shaking with a fiery luminescence. They roar as if they are being whipped. Behind them, I see the entire world blazes green, glows white, and a snaking lustrous yellow lashes out at me. The fire leaps along the fence and begins to catch onto the trees. They rush to the house and light another rag.
Who are they? The man is twice as large as the boy, but it is the boy who startles me by jumping up and kicking out a window, then another and another, yelling: You have neighbors. Glass rains down on us. They are kicking down the corridors, exploding their fireworks, swinging their sawblades. Yet, on that still afternoon, no one is home. No one can hear us. I shut the gate behind me and walk on the glass towards them. I lift my arms up. All around us, there is a hush. It is a hush so deep and centered you can hear everything miles away but nothing near, a hush vaster than any applause. It is this hush that now falls on us, cold and raw as the spatter of blue flung down, the last glimpse of sky.