Digging The Earth
by Joel Caris
Standing with still breath, I placed three fingers on the glass. My light reflection—dark blond hair and dark brown eyes and darkened face—met the touch with three fingers of his own. The outside chill crept through the glass door, webbing outward into my palm. I breathed and stared into the back yard, across the concrete porch and the makeshift wire fence with the bowed gate that opened into mud. Sweeping my gaze across the dirt waiting for spring, I focused on my brother. Allen sat and clawed at the ground, lifting handfuls of dirt and dropping them next to him in uneven piles. He took each load with deliberate movements, as if working to an ambitious beat.
I thought about his jeans. I wondered how easily the dirt would come out of them, later in the washing machine. At twenty-three, I now worried about laundry.
The house lost its sound. Allen filled my sight, displacing his dirt to fuel my concern. The glass door slid open and the cold air slapped me. Hesitating, I thought of my coat waiting in the closet off the main hall. But I did not want to go back; only forward. I wanted to understand Allen's actions. I stepped onto the concrete porch and went right, treading quiet and deliberate. I felt like a hunter, and I felt ashamed.
The gate waited open. I entered the square garden, devoid of fruits and vegetables. Spring had not yet arrived and the dead garden lingered, content for the moment to be dirt. My steps sunk an inch into the loose soil, as if the earth tried to claim me. A strange thought, I thought, and dismissed it in favor of my brother. He sat in front of me now. He scooped dirt and piled it next to him, next to other piles of dirt. In front of him lay a hole, about a foot deep and round, and maybe a foot and a half across.
Allen reached into the hole and took dirt from the bottom. Lifting the dirt, he stayed his hand so it hung in front of his face, palm toward the sky, soil heaped precariously. A clump of earth slipped from the pile and fell back into the hole. Allen did not acknowledge the escape.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
Allen dropped the dirt back into the hole and turned his face, looking up at me with his twelve-year-old blue eyes. A breeze chose then to slip past us, and Allen's hair rustled brown in the moving air. He reached up his digging hand to stay the strands, as if unnerved at their movement.
"Digging a hole," he said with hand on hair.
"And why are you digging a hole?"
Allen hesitated. Keeping his hand set, he shook his head. He continued to say nothing and I blinked and resisted the urge to step back. I instead examined his clothing, to make sure of proper dress. Aside from the dirty jeans, he wore a white shirt and bright orange jacket. I frowned at the jacket, at its terrible ugliness.
"Because I want to," Allen said, and it took me a moment to remember my question.
"What kind of answer is that?"
This time he did not hesitate. "It's my answer."
I almost said oh but stopped. Allen could not leave me speechless. Yet silence slipped around us. "Have you eaten?" I finally asked.
Allen dropped his hand, resting it on his jeans for a moment before slipping it further down, back into the dirt. A smear remained on his jeans where his hand had been and I could not help but stare at the earthen stain.
"I ate at school."
"It's getting dark." I looked at the sky to make sure he understood. "It's time for dinner."
Allen shook his head—a favorite activity. "No, it's not even five."
"Yes," I said. Parental certainty filled me. "It's time for food. Come inside. Leave your dirt out here and clean yourself in the house."
We held each other's eyes for a moment. He stood and I turned and he followed me into the house. On the way to the back door, one of my footsteps faltered and seemed to go on too long, as if I stepped into a hole masked as concrete. I almost stumbled and maybe almost fell, but then we were in the house and the hole disappeared. Sometimes the world turned surreal. It usually happened when I realized our parents were dead.
While Allen cleaned himself in the main bathroom, I made grilled cheese sandwiches. I cooked three—two for him and one for me—and added half a cucumber, sliced, to each of our plates. I put them on the table, along with two glasses of milk, and frowned at my culinary work. Allen entered the kitchen and we picked up our plates and went into the living room.
We sat on the couch, each on one side with space in between. A basketball game flickered on the television set. At one point, Allen yelled at the screen and looked at me expectantly. I caught the look but said nothing. I did not know if the referee was blind, or if that had been an offensive foul, because my thoughts dwelt on the hole, out in the plantless garden.
Allen waited for me a moment too long, then turned his attention back to the game. He stopped yelling at the television.
* * *
The next day, after Allen came home from school, I went to the store. He stayed at home, as he always did. I came back an hour later and walked from the front door through the living room and into the kitchen, carrying two bags of groceries. Allen sat on the couch in the living room, playing a video game. He glanced at me, but did not offer to help. I made two trips between the kitchen and car, then stood at the table and removed the food from the bags.
While working, I glanced up and out the window above the sink. The window overlooked the backyard, including the fenced garden. I froze, holding a plastic bag of three red apples. The hole in the garden had grown.
"Allen," I called.
He did not answer.
"Why is the hole bigger, Allen?"
He answered this time, but only after a minute of silence. I imagined him pausing his game and considering a proper response.
"I felt like digging," he said, and I dropped the apples on the table. I bruised them.
* * *
The living room creaked despite my immobility. I turned my head from my book, surveying the room. No one else invaded the space, and I attempted to return to my reading, but could not concentrate. I closed the book and set it on the floor next to the dirty blue recliner. The chair rested at an angle, facing half toward the couch and half toward the living room window, which oversaw the front yard. Outside, the bare trees shook in the wind, silhouetted against the gray sky. No cars passed on the street and my own car looked lonely, waiting broken and beaten in the driveway.
I wanted to rise from the chair and stand at the sliding glass door, behind me, to look at Allen digging his damn hole. But I did not, worried he would resent me.
Tomorrow we would go to the therapist. It would play like every Wednesday, with me sitting in the waiting room reading my book while Allen's therapist tried to help him come to terms with his dead parents. An hour would pass and Allen would emerge from the office, not okay with death. We would go home and that night I would lie awake and try to come to terms with my dead parents. The day would end with neither one of us healed.
Wednesday nights I would often dream. In the nightmare, my parents drove in the dark on a country road and a drunk driver swerved into them, head on. The car buckled and metal screeched forward, tore into their bodies while they screamed or choked and I woke up with my throat on fire.
I stood and went to the sliding glass door to stare at Allen. He scooped dirt, creating his hole for unknown purposes. Six months had not dissolved the horror of losing his parents. Often he came home from school and went directly to his room, while I sat in the living room and worried about him. At dinner he sometimes ate in complete silence, ignoring my prods. I did not know how to make him be happy. I was supposed to be his father now, but only knew how to be his brother.
My breath fogged the glass. The last six months I felt as if I was suffocating, or drowning, or choking on my own incompetence. I held my hand in front of me and studied the appendage—first the back, then the palm with a slow turn, then up and over each finger, a turn of the hand and again with the back, my eyes stalling on the small scar in the corner below my pinkie, caught between two veins. I did not know if I expected to find an answer in the flesh or only wanted something to stare at.
The day's wind engulfed me as I stepped onto the back porch. The clouds suggested an oncoming storm. To my left, the row of small trees that marked the edge of the yard swayed in unison. Even the grass leaned in rhythm to the wind. I crossed my arms over my chest and walked across the porch, through the wire fence into the desolate garden. The multiple, small piles of dirt next to Allen had grown into one large, haphazard heap. I stared at the heap, stared at the growing hole, and stared at Allen. My apprehension grew with each sight. After a few moments, Allen turned and met my eyes. "Hi, Tyler," he said, as if the greeting were appropriate.
"What are you doing?"
His eyes flickered—the fight against sarcasm. "I'm digging," he said.
"I see you're digging."
Allen nodded. "Yeah. That's what I'm doing."
"I don't understand this digging."
Allen glanced at the hole. He wore the orange jacket again, and I wished it would disappear. I hated the jacket, so bright in dark circumstances.
"I don't, either."
"I want it to stop. I don't like you digging out here, in the wind."
Allen continued to look into the hole, his back to me. The earth smelled like musk, like degradation. I waited for his answer, unwilling to back down from this demand, even if I did feel like nothing more than his brother.
"Okay," Allen said. He stood. In the last six months, I could not recall an instance of him disobeying me.
We entered the house. Allen went silent to his room and I returned to the dirty blue recliner, lifting my book from the floor.
* * *
I awoke that night with the room pressed in black around me. Kicking off the sheets, I sat on the edge of the bed, staring ahead until my eyes adjusted to the dark. Wind battered the house, creaking and groaning the wood and bringing a slight rattle from the window. I frowned, listened, and put my feet on the cold carpet.
Outside in the hall, I found myself standing next to Allen's door, again listening. No sound came forth—a reasonable result of sleep. I opened the door anyway.
The bed lay empty.
I blinked and squinted and the bed remained empty. I closed the door, went to the bathroom. No light shone under the door. Knocking, listening, I opened the door and no one stood inside. I squeezed my hands together—tried to calm my mind. My steps fell soft and quick as I traveled down the hall toward the living room. The sliding glass door waited as a silver silhouette. Walking to it made a terrible, irrational sense.
The moon hung full in the sky, shedding silver light upon the backyard, the dead garden, and the orange jacket hunched over the hole. I stopped breathing for a moment. Flushed with anger and fear, I opened the sliding glass door with controlled fury, stepping barefoot into the winter night. I wore sweat pants and a thin white shirt. The night's cold should have encased me but I felt nothing.
"Allen!" I half-ran until I stood behind him. A shovel lay next to the hole, which had grown considerably. Allen did not use the shovel at the moment, once again preferring the intimacy of his own hands.
He stopped digging, staying hunched over the hole. I spoke to his back. "Get in the goddamn house," I said. The hole had transformed from circular to rectangular and had grown considerably, stretching at least five feet in length and half that in width. The shovel made sense. The shovel had been necessary.
I began to feel the cold. It engulfed me. I shivered as I waited for Allen to turn around.
He would not face me. After a moment, he shifted out of his crouch and sat down, dropping his legs into the hole. My shivers became more violent. I looked from Allen to the hole and back to Allen. I thought about him lying in bed, warm in the night. I thought about him cold in the night.
"I'm sorry," Allen whispered.
I sat down. It happened unexpectedly. My legs became incapable of supporting me, and I found myself on the ground in the dirt, no longer worried about laundry. I stared into the hole and thought terrible thoughts.
Oh, it's a grave. It's a fucking grave.
The shivers became shakes. They tore at my body. I closed my mouth on my curses, closed my eyes to the tears, and tried to not understand. If only for a few moments, I needed to not understand.
Allen spoke in my darkness. His voice trembled in the cold air. "The dirt worried me. I remember going to the beach last year and how I got sand in my hair. It bothered me the whole trip back and even after a shower I still could feel the sand in my hair. I didn't like it. And so the dirt . . . I worried it would be as bad. I worried about the dirt in my hair."
I opened my eyes to stare at my hand. If I looked at Allen, I would not be able to control myself. I would fall apart and he might do the same.
"Go into the house," I said, my voice ragged. "Go in the house and go to your room and get in bed."
He said nothing. Time passed and he walked into the house. I never looked at him, focusing instead on my hand. Once the glass door closed, I stood and lifted the shovel. I filled the hole then smoothed the dirt, doing my best to make it look as if the earth had never been disturbed. Shaking the entire time, I looked at the moon twice; at my hand too many times to count.
Inside the house, I went to Allen's bedroom. He lay in bed, on his back staring at the ceiling. He glanced at me when the door opened, then refocused on the ceiling. I stood there a full minute in silence.
"Can we go to the cemetery?" Allen asked.
I breathed. I thought about his request. "Not tonight."
"I didn't mean tonight."
"Tomorrow we'll go."
"I have school. Then I have to talk to Dr. Schumer."
I had forgotten about therapy. "You don't have school tomorrow," I decided.
I hesitated at the door. My body grew still, the last of the shivers slipping away. "Don't leave this room, okay?"
"Not until the morning. Stay in the house. Don't go in the backyard."
"I love you," I said. He did not reply. He usually did not.
* * *
I made breakfast the next morning at nine. French toast and sausage, covered in hot syrup, and a bowl of fruit. Allen inhaled the food as if ravenous and I picked at mine until the plate emptied. By then Allen had long been finished and waited for me in the living room, silently playing one of his video games. I cleared the dishes and put on my coat and we both walked out to the car.
The drive to the cemetery took ten minutes. The streets felt bare, with few passing cars. The wind from the night before no longer prowled, but the chill remained in the air. After parking the car, we walked across the crisp grass toward the corner of the cemetery that held our parents' bodies. A pine tree stood near their grave, shading death.
Allen slowed as we neared the graves and I matched his pace. We stepped off the concrete path and cut into the grass, coming to a stop twenty feet from the tree. The cemetery had no gravestones—only stone markers placed into the ground that bore final inscriptions. In front of us waited two of them: Richard Mitchell and Jean Mitchell. Allen carefully sat on the grass, directly above his mother's casket. I stood a few steps behind and to the left—between the two graves. Allen leaned forward and placed three fingers on the marker that bore his mother's name. He stayed in that position, with his head bowed.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I thought about the hole, Allen with dirt in his hair, and how I could not save him from pain.
Allen lifted his head and looked at the grave on his left. He glanced back at me long enough to catch my eye. I hesitated, but then stepped forward and settled on the ground, atop my father's body. I could hear the sounds from my nightmare: twisting metal and breaking glass and horrible screams.
I could not touch the marking. I kept my hands on my knees, as if meditating on my fucked up life.
The silence reverberated in the air. No one else occupied the cemetery. No birds sat in the trees singing and no cars passed on the nearby street. The world lay hushed around us, as if awaiting our revelations.
"How far down are they?" he asked.
I did not like the question. "Six feet, I guess. That's what I've been told."
"Oh," he said. "How far is that?"
I thought he knew how far, but humored him. "I'm six feet tall. Imagine sitting on my head," I said, then paused at the absurdity. But I continued, because the absurdity faded in the heavy air. "They would be at my feet."
Allen said nothing for a few moments, maybe trying to absorb my comparison. But he had more to say. "What do you think it's like down there?"
I closed my eyes and considered his words, even as anger flared inside. I thought about his garden grave and hissed my answer at him, regretting the words even as they emerged. "Dark and shitty. Their hair's probably full of fucking dirt."
The already-silent day died around us and the remaining minutes of our visit passed quickly with no more words. At some point we both stood and started walking back to the car. I could not remember who initiated the return. I could not remember anything after my answer. Inside, I berated myself for attacking him. I understood why I could never be his father.
* * *
I called Dr. Schumer and cancelled Allen's appointment. We ate a pizza for dinner, together in silence. Words had been sparse the entire day. After the pizza, we sat in the living room and tried to find something to watch on television. I went through all the channels once, sighed and clicked the power button. The screen died. I stared at the black.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry for not being better to you, and better for you. I'm sorry I can't make things okay."
"I know," Allen said. "I'm sorry about the hole."
"I do love you. And I just—" I shook my head and said no more. Allen imitated my silence. Outside, the winter dark began to press in against the windows.