Fixing a Hole
And make sure that you mark it down.
When God spoke out, “Let there be light,”
He put the first of us in the ground.
And we’ll keep on diggin’ till the coming of the Lord
And Gabriel’s trumpet sounds,
‘Cause if you ain’t mining for the company, boy,
There ain’t much in this town.
—Tyler Childers, “Coal”
Don’t look up. Keep digging.
Don’t look up. Keep digging.
I gaze across the sea of Earth and see workers, like me, digging, digging, digging. They do not stop, nor do their legions. Man has stepped in between two mirrors. They go on so far as the eye can see in every direction, shoulder to shoulder, an endless mirage of sweat and mud. Ever digging, ever deeper.
They grunt with idiosyncratic exertion, but their many tunes take up a homogenous tone. They heave the packed earth over their shoulder and plunge the shovel back into the divot before the load can even fall to the ground. But I feel no dirt on my face.
The earth from the man directly in front should cover me, bury me head to toe if I cannot dig myself out fast enough. But there is no shower of dirt from any direction, and my labor, our labor, only takes us further down. It is possible the load simply hangs in the air or even that it floats to the surface. Or perhaps this earth we hack away at has some properties unrestricted by the rules of nature. But we have no way of knowing. We do not look up. We keep digging.
At one moment, whether by instinct or accident, I turn to the man on my left and ask his thoughts on this phenomenon.
Why does the dirt not cover our face?
The man on my left looks over at me, and we both keep on digging as we are supposed to. His face is as clean as mine, though sweat pours from his brow at twice the rate of my own. His mouth does not move as he speaks.
Why should it? is his reply.
I try as best I can to describe to him my own reservations on the apparent magic, but he continually waves me off--Too philosophical. What does it matter where the dirt goes so long as we keep on digging? It is not the dirt that matters but the digging itself.
He has a point. Whether the dirt disappears or exists at all is of no concern to me so long as I am not being buried by it. But his response only incites me to further, more concrete questioning. Questioning that I, admittedly, never knew I could ask.
Where are we digging to?
What a question. It is akin to a much larger question, but one that, again, concerns a philosophy of the earth itself and not our tangible relation to it.
The man to my left slows his labor and turns his head toward me again. For a moment I am afraid that I have offended him, that he will scorn me and tell me to leave him alone and get back to digging. But, slowly, deliberately, a smile spreads across his face.
I don’t know, he answers.
Is this true?
Do you? he asks.
Do I what?
Know where we’re digging to?
Then how should I?
We both keep digging.
It’s an important question to ask, though, he says just as I start to turn my attention back to my labor.
It never occurred to me until just now, I reply.
It never does.
We’ve been digging for a long time.
Yes, we have.
And it’s hard.
Yes, it is.
But we haven’t really gotten anywhere.
The man’s smile turns to a frown and he wipes some of the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm.
Says who? he asks.
Well, it just doesn’t seem like we have.
Just because it doesn’t seem like it doesn’t mean we haven’t, though. It’s hard to see progress through constant struggle, but it’s there. You just have to keep digging.
But where are we digging to? I pose my question again.
Somewhere, is the answer this time.
We both continue digging, and I start in on questioning again. The man is beginning to get annoyed.
Are you sure? I ask.
Am I sure of what?
That we’re digging somewhere.
Where else would we be digging?
That’s somewhere, isn’t it?
Yes. But, it’s just, we’ve been digging down for so long and nothing’s really changed. I mean, nothing has gotten any better. Not really. We’re still digging and it’s still hard.
Well where else are we supposed to go? The man gestures with his hand at all the workers around us while he drives his shovel into the dirt with his other.
We could go up.
The words come out of my mouth before I even know what they are, and indeed, they don’t seem to have come from me. The man on my left slows his digging to the point that he’s barely even doing it, and gives me a look.
We can’t, he says. We’re too far down.
The man returns to his labor and I return to mine. There is nothing else to ask him. He has set the record straight. The only progress is down, to keep digging. Don’t look up.
But still, the question ails me--where are we digging to? It cuts at me like my shovel cuts the soft packed earth below my feet until I am an empty crater, desperate to be filled with something more than dirt.
I turn to the man on my right and ask him the same question.
Where are we digging to?
He turns. Like me, and like the man on my left, he holds the same pained expression of labor. But where the man on my left’s brow was twice as sweaty as mine, this man’s is only half as much. His lips do not move, either.
Hell if I know, he says. I notice that he is hardly digging, appearing to give as little effort as possible.
He seems to think we’re going somewhere, I say, jerking my head toward the man on my left who goes on digging, oblivious to or else uninterested in my new conversation.
Who, him? Son, don’t be listening to him. He’s full of it.
The man on my right looks back to the dirt and goes on digging with his half effort.
So you don’t think we’re going anywhere? I ask.
If we were going somewhere, don’t you think we’d have gotten there by now?
That’s exactly what I thought.
The man on my right, miraculously, slows his pace even more, but continues shoveling. He turns to me with a newfound admiration in his eye.
What’s your name? he asks.
I don’t know, I say.
Of course you don’t. Probably best that way.
With that, he turns his attention back to the dirt, but I am far from satisfied.
So if we’re not going anywhere, then why are we digging?
We got shovels, don’t we?
But that doesn’t mean we have to dig.
What the hell else you gonna’ do with a shovel?
I don’t know, but just because we have them doesn’t mean we have to use them.
Look, says the man with a sigh, slowing his labor as much as he can without stopping completely. First of all, you’re asking too many damn questions. There needs to be more digging. Whether we’re going anywhere or not, talking about it isn’t getting us any closer. Second, I don’t know about you, but I don’t so much mind digging. Really passes the time, you know? I don’t see why everyone’s whining about how hard digging is. It’s digging. Of course it’s hard. Suck it up and do it. Besides, you see any other options around here?
I just told him, I say, gesturing again toward the man on my left, that we could try and go up.
Up? says the man on my right.
There’s nothing up there for us.
Have you looked?
Again, I get the feeling that these words are not my own, but rather some incarnation of a great beast trapped deep inside me, finally uncovered with the head of my shovel.
The man on my right stares at me with an open mouth.
Are you crazy? he asks.
I don’t think so.
No, you’re wrong. You’re crazy. Talking about looking up. Ha. You know what, why don’t you go back talking to bozo over there. You two’ll get along way better than we will.
With that, he resumes his slow and steady work. I look to the man on my left again and he is digging away, his sweat drenching the dirt around him and turning it to mud. The man on my right is scraping away at dirt that is bone dry. Neither of them acknowledge me.
Then, its questions unanswered, its cravings unsatisfied, that beast inside of me tears it way through to the surface, and I drop my shovel. It lands with a heavy impact on the ground and sends up a puff of dust. A few heads turn toward me, but they quickly look back and take up their digging.
Possessed by the same force, I crane my neck skyward. I can almost hear the muscles creaking and my skull falls to my back and the pain of a lifetime of digging sears its way into my eyes.
I open them.
It takes several moments for them to adjust from the darkness, but eventually I can make out, miles and miles above me, small glints of light. They are very bright, and they are very, very far away, but they are there. I have no way of telling where they’re coming from or even what they are, but they are there, and I can see them.
I turn my face back to the surface and realize just how far down we have dug. Everyone around me is still laboring away, some with rigor, some with minimal effort, but they are all digging. Some are using garden spades and some are using bulldozers, but they are all digging. And none of them are looking up.
Everyone! I shout. This is that beast again, though perhaps I should say it is me, because I am inseparable from the beast now. It has been uncovered. I am the beast and the beast is me.
Everyone, listen to me! Put your shovels down! Look up! There is something up there. Everyone! Everyone! Look!
Again, a few heads turn toward me, but no one stops their labor. No one looks up.
Everyone! I plead. Look up! Look up! Drop your shovels! Stop digging and look up!
A few more heads turn. They keep on digging. They do not look up.
Everyone, please! Stop digging! Look up! There is some…
The world inverts, and I am staring up again at the faint, distant lights. They somehow seem even further away, and that’s when I realize that I am laying on my back, my shovel at my side, the packed earth all around me.
The man who was standing behind me pulls a bloodied shovel head from my vision and goes back to his work. No one around so much as bats an eye. They go on digging. They do not look up.
The lights are going out now, one by one. They are eons away. Everyone keeps digging, and, mercifully, my original question is answered. I see where the dirt from all of the shovels goes. Little by little, it covers my face until every spot of light above is blotted out.