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The Hole
No one could remember when the hole appeared. Some thought it had opened overnight—spontaneously, like a weather event or an idea—while everyone was sleeping. Others claimed the hole had always been there, but small and shallow enough that no one noticed it. Only as it widened and deepened over time had it taken shape in the village consciousness. Whatever the case, since the hole emerged at the center of town, where everyone went and everything happened, it became impossible to ignore.
        Cautious by nature and suspicious of change, the villagers avoided coming too close to the hole. Perhaps, they reasoned, it would close overnight, as spontaneously as it had opened, or gradually fill up and disappear. However, the hole did not close; it seemed, in fact, to have settled in, and soon a few people started standing, toes at the edge, and peering down, down, into this dark gash in the earth. Larger than a horse, smaller than a house, was how they described its dimensions. Children threw rocks into the hole. They held their breath, listening for a plash or a plonk, but heard nothing. In an attempt to determine its depth, the town woodworker unspooled a massive length of rope into the hole, but the rope ran out before it hit bottom. When the woodworker tried to reel in the rope, it went taut, as if resisting. And then—the woodworker insisted this was true—the rope started to pull at the woodworker, who tugged and tugged and eventually let go.
        By twilight, the tale of the rope had traveled even to neighboring farms, and the following evening, more and more people gathered around the hole, children flinging in anything they could find—stones, bricks, cracked crockery—and listening for the nothing that followed. As night lowered over the village, a shopkeeper passed around jars of moonshine. A metalworker started strumming a mandolin, and the singers in the crowd let loose with the region’s famous melancholy ballads. In time, the urge to move flared up in them like blown-over coals, and they danced. A full moon lifted through the darkening sky, up and up and up, like a paper lantern, and they danced. They drank and strummed and sang and went on dancing around the hole until the innkeepers’ toddler, wearing an older sibling’s shoes, wobbled too close to the edge. Had the school teacher not acted with such quick reflexes, the child would have fallen in. The villagers backed away from the hole and returned to their houses, sobered and shaken.
        As was the custom whenever anything of note happened in the village, the mayor called a meeting. These gatherings always took place after dinner, when the villagers filed into the town hall with full bellies to discuss any business at hand. The meeting about the hole proceeded in the orderly fashion of all such meetings, with the council at a slight elevation on the dais, the mayor presiding at a worn wooden podium as old as the town itself, the village elders lined along tables on either side of the mayor, like a pair of silvering wings, and the town scribe at a small table, just below the mayor. Next to the scribe was the village gong, with its enormous mallet upright beside it like a sentry. This ancient instrument had last been used, or so said the elders, during a war waged in a prior century.
        After banging the village gavel, the mayor called the meeting to order and took attendance, an age-old formality, since all villagers, save the ill and infirm, attended every town meeting. The mayor made the usual soothing, official welcome and then called on the woodworker, who read a statement documenting in scrupulous detail the appearance of the hole and the disappearance of the rope. This account stuck to the facts—the what, where, and when—except for the statement’s concluding remark, delivered almost as an aside. “The hole is telling us something,” the woodworker muttered. “We should listen.”
        As soon as the scribe duly noted this directive in the minutes, the rest of the village forgot it, since the woodworker had in the past issued similar warnings that never amounted to anything. Industrious, serious, exceptional at joinery, this woodworker nonetheless was known to harbor ideas, strange beliefs in an unseen force, a force the woodworker was convinced had sway over the area. The Pull, was how the woodworker referred to it. The Bull, was how most everyone in the village mocked it.
        When the mayor opened the floor for comments, the innkeepers, their toddler asleep between them, cited the child’s near fall. “The hole is a danger to the community,” they concluded. “We should fill it.”
        Everyone murmured in assent: the hole was a danger and filling it the only sensible course of action. After further discussion, a consultation with the council as to the availability of funds, and the requisite divvying out of tasks, the meeting adjourned with a plan to fill the hole. This plan satisfactory to all but the woodworker, who protested in a resigned half mumble, knowing his objection would be ignored, that they should listen to the hole before trying to fill it.
        In the ensuing days, a number of farmers dug up soil from their land, which they hauled in moist-smelling loads over the rutted roads to the village center, heaping the soil into a growing mound near the hole. Once the mound was large enough, a group of laborers gathered. Just as the sun crested the eastern hilltops, they thrust their shovels into the dirt. The villagers brought water and food for the laborers and watched their steady progress and cheered them on as they shoveled. When the laborers needed rest, spectators would pick up their shovels and plunge them into the mound, which got smaller as the sun crossed the sky. After school, children came with their small shovels and pitched in, and by early evening, the hole was nearly full.
        Following a break for dinner, the village reconvened at the hole. As the laborers gripped their shovels to start on what was left of the mound, a few others began grabbing handfuls of dirt and dropping them into the hole, the way one might at a funeral. Soon a few more joined in, and more after that, scooping up dirt in their bare hands and casting it into the hole, until the whole village, from the newly walking to the barely walking, was working as one, and when the tailor started singing a dirge, the whole village joined in, singing in unison, their voices both solemn and joyous as they finished filling the hole. Even the woodworker joined in, letting fistfuls of dirt fall with a rueful frown. And when the mound was gone and the hole filled, they bowed their heads in praise of the soil, whose loamy odor clung to their palms, and bid one another good night, then shuffled off satisfied to their beds.
        The next morning, the sun hoisted itself as usual over the horizon and the villagers woke full of hope. But like the smell of something dead seeping into every crevice and corner of the village, word soon spread: the hole had opened up again. And just as before, with the same craggy perimeter, the same unfathomable depth. A crowd soon formed, but at a safe distance. Only the woodworker dared approach, to peer down into that dense dark as the rest of the village whispered. How the hole had reappeared and where the dirt from the mound had gone, no one could divine. Sensing the villagers’ agitation, the mayor urged everyone to return to their homes for breakfast and gather again in the town hall after dinner.
​​​​​​​        That evening, many arrived early, as though they had rushed through dinner, and crammed into the front rows of chairs. Latecomers moved the remaining chairs closer to the dais or sat on the floor around the gong, shoulder to shoulder, children on their laps. Only the woodworker stood in back by the door, as if poised to escape. While the villagers waited in silence, the air in the hall seemed to ripple, as though everyone were speaking at once.
​​​​​​​        The mayor banged the gavel, called the meeting to order and took attendance, the elders on either side nodding along with a slight tremor, like feathers ruffled by a breeze. “The hole is back,” the mayor declared, making official what everyone already knew.
​​​​​​​        When the floor opened for comments, the innkeepers stood. “The hole is still a danger,” they said. “We must fill it again.” The rest of the village agreed, except for the woodworker, who gazed intently at the floor, as if another hole had opened up in the center of the town hall, a hole only he could see.
​​​​​​​        Just as before, the farmers heaped dirt in a mound near the hole, and the laborers shoveled this dirt into the hole. Villagers once more brought water and food to the laborers, cheered them on and pitched in when they needed rest. The children stood as close to the edge as they dared, shouting curses into the hole’s reaching shadows. As evening faded into night, the laborers finished their filling, and the villagers bowed their heads in praise of the soil. They bid one another good night, though they walked away wary, wondering what they would find in the morning.
​​​​​​​        At dawn, the village woke to unseasonal heat, as if the sun itself were bringing bad news. And indeed it was: the hole had returned, just as before, and it seemed that all the shoveling had been dreamed by the entire village. Everyone gathered behind the spot where the mound had been, absent the woodworker, who stood at the edge of the hole, gazing down, his mouth moving like a fish’s mouth after it was hooked and yanked from the water.
​​​​​​​        The mayor called another meeting, but the villagers objected. There was no need for a meeting. Instead, the laborers immediately set about refilling the hole. When they finished at dusk, they volunteered to keep watch over the spot. They set up chairs, lit fires and hung lamps, determined to discover how the hole reopened. Rather than sleep in shifts, they decided to stay up, the lot of them, and keep each other alert with songs and marching, like soldiers. They marched and sang through the night until dawn.
​​​​​​​        As soon as the villagers woke, they hurried from their houses and found the laborers standing beside hole. “What happened?” the mayor demanded. The laborers shook their heads. They’d seen nothing, heard nothing. Yet there it was. None of the laborers could account for it. They’d kept watch through the night, not a one had closed an eye or left the site, even for a moment, nor—they swore on the graves of their ancestors—had they taken even a swallow of moonshine.
​​​​​​​        “Listen,” the woodworker said, standing again at the edge of the hole, but no one heard him. Everyone was speaking at once, and not even the mayor could prevail over the commotion. Only after the elders drifted through the crowd, urging calm, did everyone fall quiet. “The hole is dangerous,” the mayor stated, as if for the first time. “We will continue to fill it.”
​​​​​​​        They filled the hole again that day, and it opened again the next morning. And the next and the next and the morning after that. The hole reappeared no matter what they poured into it—soil, sand, blocks of stone from a nearby quarry, tar mixed with gravel, thick cement—as if it were miles deep or, as some suggested, however illogically, endless. But they continued, day after day after day. Every able-bodied adult took a shift, referred to as dig duty. Those who couldn’t dig donated shovels or soil, and the children flung in their broken toys, their unmendable stockings, their ripped smocks, and shredded straw hats.
​​​​​​​        The hole began to permeate every aspect of village life. Because the farmers had to dig more and more soil to fill the hole, the rolling countryside was itself now pockmarked with other holes, which grew ever deeper. Sunset became known as full time, sunrise as hollow time. The village baker started selling doughnuts, as well as doughnut holes. If children misbehaved, their parents would threaten to put them in the hole. Some went to sleep at full time and dreamed of shoveling; they woke feeling sore. Most dreamed of holes, holes in the stars, holes in the streams, holes in their walls, their floors, their soles and their skulls, and they woke at hollow time feeling vacant.
​​​​​​​        There was ongoing speculation about the origins of the hole. Shifting tectonics, a dry season, a wet season, erosion of the surface rock, underground springs: these were just a few of the theories, though no one could find any evidence to support them. In lieu of a natural explanation, some turned toward the supernatural. Those who believed in religion thought that the gods had opened up the hole. The hole was a sign, they said, though a sign of what, no one could agree. The gods are angry, some claimed. The gods have abandoned us, declared others. The gods have gone mad, still others insisted. A small but vocal group speculated that the hole was a landing site created by aliens, possibly hostile. This group forged weapons.
​​​​​​​        A different group believed that the earth itself was waging war on the village, either as punishment for its antiquated farming methods or as a protest against newfangled farming methods. This group sacrificed a calf and a rooster. Another maintained that a person or persons had dug the hole, though there was never any sign of digging, nor of upturned dirt. Some members of this faction believed the digger came after dark from elsewhere. Others were convinced that the digger was native to the village and lived among them still. Either way, many went about their days with suspicion, looking slantwise at shopkeepers and neighbors, and some started bolting their doors.
​​​​​​​        Over time, the effort of filling began to take its toll. Two factions emerged: those who believed they should continue filling the hole and those who believed they should stop. Fillers, as they called themselves, argued that the hole threatened an otherwise safe and idyllic community and should be filled at any cost. Wallers, on the other hand, afraid that filling the hole consumed too many resources, argued they should build a high wall around the hole. Spirited debate between Fillers and Wallers could be heard at all hours in the post office, the shops, the inn. The village elders divided equally between the two factions, whereas the mayor refrained from weighing in, despite mounting pressure from all parties to choose a side.
​​​​​​​        This debate intensified at harvest time, when the village always turned its full attention to the crops ripe in the fields. After a particularly heated argument at the tavern, during which voices and fists were raised and weapons drawn, the mayor called an emergency meeting for the following evening.
​​​​​​​        As if by mutual agreement, the villagers congregated before dinner, many bringing their meals with them. They swarmed the town hall in a frenzy, much like ants around a hill lately trampled, chairs jammed together in a disorderly knot, food and drink and greetings exchanged in a chaos of smells and sloshes and grunts, children let loose to crawl all over the dais, much to the distress of the elders, who made shooing motions with their bony wrists. Two youngsters dared one another to carve their initials in the base of the podium, ignoring the mayor’s outraged pleas to stop. As the moonshine started circulating, Fillers chanted “Fill! Fill!” and Wallers chanted “Wall! Wall!” Seizing the drool-sodden gavel from the innkeepers’ toddler, the harried mayor pounded the podium repeatedly, to no avail. Finally, the scribe grabbed the giant mallet and, with a determined grimace, struck the gong.
​​​​​​​        The noise it made—thunderous, piercing, with an otherworldly echoing wail—swelled through the hall, and everyone felt it down to their bones, a tremendous jolt of something breaking, as if the dam holding back the past had been breached and the entire history of the village poured over the present. Stunned into respectful silence, the villagers composed themselves.
​​​​​​​        The mayor banged the gavel again, calling the meeting to order, and took attendance. The names of the woodworker, a young farmer, and a shopworker got no response. As the villagers struggled to make sense of this unprecedented turn of events, a thread of panic knitted itself through the crowd. The mayor again called the names. Again, there was no answer, the panic now weaving among them, since no one could account for the absences.
​​​​​​​        “Where could they be?” the scribe wondered aloud.
​​​​​​​        Not a soul could say. The air in the hall seemed to fold over the villagers with a smothering closeness, the panic pulling ever more taut, everyone squirming in their seats.
​​​​​​​        “The hole!” the metalworker shouted.
​​​​​​​        Though the elders called for calm in voices as frayed as old lace, and the mayor hammered away with his gavel, the village charged out of the hall in a bellowing, lumbering mass, young and old, Fillers and Wallers, with the elders and the mayor following.
​​​​​​​        When they reached the hole, they found the woodworker standing again at the edge looking down, down, palms pressed together, mouth working, as in prayer.
​​​​​​​        “Where are the others?” the mayor demanded.
​​​​​​​        “Listen,” the woodworker said, nodding at the hole. “It’s the Pull.”
​​​​​​​        “Have you thrown them in?” cried the school teacher.
​​​​​​​        Without waiting for an answer, the crowd set upon the woodworker in a fury of blows and shrieks, Fillers and Wallers hurling fists, elbows, knees and feet, the children pelting the woodworker with sticks and rocks, the elders trying to shield the woodworker and getting elbowed and kneed and pelted for their trouble, the mayor pulling at the flailing limbs of the villagers, trying to pry them apart, and the woodworker pummeled and pounded from all sides, over and over, like milk thickening in the churn, and when blood started seeping over the woodworker’s cuffs and collar, the villagers, excited at the sight of it, threw themselves with even more ferocity into their thrashing, the mayor and the elders themselves now bloodied and battered, and when somehow the woodworker managed to crawl to the edge of the hole, the villagers, exhausted by this time, crowded around, panting and groaning. “Into the hole!” the innkeepers bawled, and an obliging pair of farmers knelt beside the prostrate woodworker, the villagers subsiding into a taut, jittery silence, everyone holding their breath, and just as the farmers began to hoist the woodworker off the ground, shouts of “Stop! Stop!” tore through the silence.
​​​​​​​        The scribe, sweat soaked and red in the face, had arrived, dragging the missing farmer and shopworker through the throng. Cries of disbelief mingled with cries of joy. The villagers unclenched their fists, some weeping in relief. After a procession of tearful parents and siblings, extended kin and compatriots, who palmed the faces of the young people and kissed their hems, the mayor demanded an accounting of their absence.  
​​​​​​​        The two reported with sheepish grins that they’d asked their parents’ permission to marry and had been told to wait, as they were both barely of age. Nonetheless, they had eloped to the next village that very morning; however, the justice of the peace was sleeping off a hangover and could only perform the ceremony late in the afternoon, thus delaying the couple’s return.
​​​​​​​        Cheers and laughter bubbled forth from the crowd, along with calls of congratulations, handshakes and backslaps and embraces, affectionate scolding from the parents. Shopkeepers handed around jars of moonshine. The children picked flowers and scattered them at the feet of the newlyweds. The elders bestowed their solemn blessings. The scribe noted the requisite information to record in the village ledger. The mayor delivered an official announcement of the nuptials, followed by a brief treatise discouraging elopement, to which no one of marriageable age listened.
​​​​​​​        In all the confusion, everyone had forgotten the woodworker, except for the innkeepers’ toddler, who lurched with a lunatic joy toward the figure lying beside the hole. Peacefully, it seemed, as though asleep, blood drying in the sun. Prodding at the woodworker’s shoulder with the toe of a boot, the child called, “Wake up!” but the woodworker didn’t stir.
​​​​​​​        After various attempts to rouse the woodworker, the toddler began collecting the flowers strewn over the dirt. Arms overflowing, the child tottered to the rim of the hole. The schoolteacher screamed, as did the innkeepers, but no one was close enough to intervene, and the village could only watch in horror as the toddler, teetering at the edge, shouted “Into the hole!” and leaning forward with a rascally grin, tossed the flowers in.
​​​​​​​        For a moment the flowers seemed to float, hovering weightless before fading into the darkness below. And for a moment the toddler, too, seemed to float, wafting like a bit of dandelion fluff blown from its stem by the entire village, suspended in the moist warmth of their breath. The villagers gasped and stretched their arms uselessly, reaching, reaching, trying to grasp the falling child.
​​​​​​​        Who was not, suddenly, falling but rising, plucked from the air by two sleeves soaked in blood. Cradling the toddler close, the woodworker kissed the child’s damp curls, while the villagers looked on, bewildered and ashamed.
​​​​​​​        “Listen.” The woodworker’s voice was barely a whisper.
​​​​​​​        The villagers gathered around the hole, from whose depths a sound was making its way to the surface, climbing through the shadows, a dark and bottomless sound, all wring and strain and tamp, and even when the villagers stopped up their ears, they could still hear it, a jagged thrum, a honing drone rising out of the dirt, up through their flesh like a fever. Yes, the hole was telling them something, but no one could have said what, it spoke to them in its wordless language, sound of things buried, of things driven down, driven back, sound washing over them like a river overflowing its banks, and they felt themselves carried away by this sound, drenched in unbidden sensations, some in dread, some in hunger, some in envy, some in longing, some in a sorrow so great they felt it would break them. And the villagers closed their eyes, bracing themselves for that breaking, but then the sound receded, sinking back into the hole and down through the earth, and the villagers felt the draining in their bodies, and when, as floodwaters do after days of sun, the sound finally subsided, the villagers opened their eyes, unstopped their ears.
​​​​​​​        Beyond the pitted fields of the village, a harvest moon hung at the horizon, red as a burning coal. The sun’s fading light was tinted with this burning, the bruised face of the woodworker burnished by that light. He handed the toddler, now asleep, to the innkeepers, who bowed their heads in thanks. The mayor, the elders, and the scribe also bowed their heads to the woodworker, as did the rest of the village. Then, family by family, they backed away from the hole and walked hand in hand by the light of the moon, their shadows leading them home.
​​​​​​​        The following morning, on their way to the fields, the villagers found the woodworker at the hole, digging small holes around its perimeter. Into these holes, the woodworker drove notched posts, waist high. Though no villager would have dreamed of digging or building without a town meeting, a discussion or a plan, everyone passed by without a word. Even the mayor refrained from comment. By midday, posts surrounded the hole, and by dusk, the woodworker had installed rails between every post, along with a small gate with an iron pull, which faced the setting sun.
​​​​​​​        The hole remained, neither filled in nor walled off but encircled by the woodworker’s simple fence. Everyone got used to it, there in the center of the village, though they never opened the gate. Little by little, the woodworker planted a garden outside the fence, with flowers and fruit-bearing shrubs, trailing vines and feathered grasses. Every year at harvest time, the villagers assembled at the fence and bowed their heads in praise of the hole, listening for the sound, but whatever had ascended from its faraway heart, they never heard it again.

Lauren K. Watel’s debut book, a collection of prose poetry, was awarded the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, selected by Ilya Kaminsky, and will be published in October 2024 by Sarabande Books. Her poetry, fiction, essays and translations have appeared widely.