The Digging Hole

By Nancy Humphrey Case
Issue 126, September/October 2004

The ground gives way easily to their efforts with tablespoons, plastic shovels, and long-handled hoes. The soil is sand, really—reclaimed Connecticut River bottom—and when they shiver it with broad spades or bare hands, they prospect through layer upon layer of time. I can almost hear them loose the thunder of long-gone dinosaurs, see their heads cock to the sound of the leather-shod steps of Pocumtuck warriors.

The hole is laced with more tangible treasures, too. Animal bones, chips of Blue Willow china, a skein of rusted wire. Chunks and shards of deep-red brick surface, manufactured on our land when a brickyard stood where our home does now. They find railroad spikes from when the tracks across the road were laid, and sometimes large squares of age-opaqued glass whose once-sharp edges are now smoothed memory. From the kitchen window over the sink, I hear them put into that hole as much as they take out.

When Dominic, my anxious younger son, was about to begin preschool, he and his older brother, Jason, who’d already been through the same school, dug the hole big. When it could sit both of them comfortably shoulder to shoulder inside, Jason took a crooked twig and scratched in one dirt wall a map of the preschool. He drew its horseshoe drive, sticky screen door, and entrance wall of cubbies. He drew the snack area, listening space, and sinks. When Dom’s first day came, he was able to calmly claim the space his brother had laid out for him.

When Jason was being bullied in the third grade and came home with bruised shins, Dom offered him a dose of raw power. He filled the hole with leaves and they swung dangerously high on a nearby rope swing, flying off at peak swing and jumping cleanly into the leaf-softened pit.

Now eight and ten, Dominic and Jason are as engaged as ever by this hole, and in ever more interesting and complex ways. After Jason’s sexual education curriculum began this spring, I heard them howl with laughter, and saw them fall and roll beside the hole as they threw deep into it all the wild names they could think of for men’s private parts. They laughed till they couldn’t breathe; at the window, I was laughing too.

When our friends swear the hole is a liability, that my husband or I will fall in and break our necks while walking our dog at dark, I just smile. I know that in a very short while, when my kids are grown and gone, I will go to that hole and lean in toward its center, where the memory of my boys’ growing is stored.

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