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A Door in the Floor of the Ground
By Erik Berg
It was afternoon when the boys lowered themselves from the ridge and onto the soft soil beneath the shade of the beech trees that grew over the hillside. Not many of the children had gone beyond the ridge because the trees there were very thick, and the noises were unfamiliar in the shadows, and one could get lost very easily. And exactly for these reasons, too, was it the perfect place for young boys to play.
They lowered themselves in a non-careful way from the rocks that made up the ridge, and when Jacob touched ground he took off quickly. The grass was still damp in the parts of shade, but in the patches of sunlight it was dry and very green, and Peter followed in pursuit with the stick in his hand, hitting at things they could only see.
—I think they’ve gotten away, Peter said.
—There they are! They’re getting away! Get ‘em!
The forest floor dropped many times in small divots in the hillside, and they used these divots to jump like bandits from one ground to the next, hitting at things that moved, or didn’t move, or sometimes at both. Their shouting had become far off through the trees, and the ridge was not there any more behind them. At certain places, the larks and the partridges gathered in the trees and watched in curiosity at the inaccuracy and the ruckus of the sticks. The boys were uncoordinated, and the attack turned out to be a mistake in the end, and finally when the boys figured they weren’t hitting anything but their own bare arms, they fell into a rise of the hillside to draw up new plans.
—Did you see me get one? Jacob said.
He was lying now in the leaves and the lee of a large tree that grew on the divot and was jabbing the stick into the air.
—I didn’t see nothing, Peter said.
—That’s because there was too many of ‘em to see, but if you could have you would have seen me get ‘em and I got ‘em good. Whole filthy bunch of ‘em.
—You said you only got one.
—Just one! I got the whole bunch of ‘em. Didn’t you see? No you couldn’t have seen because it was a mess until I got ‘em all.
—I guess I missed it.
Peter sat beside one of the broken beech trunks and caught his breath from all the fighting. They had been running for some time and he hadn’t once wondered where it was they were going, only that they were chasing, and one shouldn’t ask question when chasing, but just run. The forest was quiet without their shuffling and he could see the spots of yellow and alternating shade within the meadow grass, and it kept going in every way. The partridges and the larks had settled back on the ground and occasionally he could catch one crossing to another bed of the meadow grass.
—Where do you suppose we are? he asked.
Jacob sat forward on his knees and looked from side to side, but only took a deep breath and fell back into the leaves.
—We’re across the water, he said. That’s where we are.
—How did we get across the water? I don’t remember crossing water.
—You don’t remember a lot of things because the chasing was a mess and all. And how could we be in France if we didn’t cross the water anyway?
—This doesn’t look like France.
—How do you know? You ever been to France?
—No I haven’t.
—Me either, but it doesn’t it look like it?
—No, it’s too quiet.
—Oh, you’re just being crazy. A fool could see we’re in France.
Jacob used his stick to push against the ground as he stood up. Then he pitched the leaves with his foot until he found a stone, and he chucked the stone in a boy’s way through the meadow grass until it bounced somewhere in the sunlight and all the partridges and larks went in a flurry to the trees. He drew his stick in the air and shouted towards the open space and the leaves.
—You see ‘em, Pete, did you see ‘em?
—I didn’t see nothing.
—There was a whole bunch of ‘em running off that way into the trees. This whole place is full of ‘em. I bet they got us surrounded.
—I didn’t see nothing.
—You don’t see anything because you’re never looking where you’re supposed to be looking.
Jacob kicked at the leaves and he threw another stone into the meadow. This time when the larks went up high, he took his stick in front of him, and went forward very quickly down the hillside, shouting and hitting at things and a making a scene as he had done before.
Peter looked at the sky but he could not see the blue through the thickness of the trees, though he could see the sun very bright. He watched Jacob move from one tree to the next, and it looked silly now that he was not a part of it. It was very cool in the shade of the beech trees and though things were still, he could tell it was a nice place to be on a warm day, even for a boy.
—Pete! Hey Pete! came shouting from down the way. Come look what I found! It’s a door!
He could not see Jacob from where the shouting came, and he took his stick and began running in its direction down through the meadow grass. The hillside grew on both sides in a slight rise. In between the two rises the ground kept steadily downward and he followed the ruffle in the leaves to where Jacob was perched on his knees below one of the rises.
—What a place to find a doorway!
—I don’t see a thing.
Just then Peter saw a white polish of finished wood, and the yellow glow from the sun as it reflected from the door. The rise in the hillside occurred where a beech had collected soil on its upward side from when the rains had come down hill, and after time it had built to hold the weight, and in the trunk that held the weight was the bright white door as clear a door as a door could be.
The door was no bigger than half their bodies, and Jacob was on his knees still, tapping at the wood with the stick.
—Don’t touch it! Peter said.
—Why not touch it?
—I don’t know, but don’t touch it. Things can happen.
—There’s no use being scared of a door. Maybe it’s how we got on this side of the water.
—I don’t remember any door.
—You don’t remember nothing.
Jacob pushed forward and tapped the wood three times with the point of the stick. When nothing happened, he hit it harder, and nothing further occurred.
—See! he said. Nothings going to happen.
Peter came closer to where Jacob sat and he examined the door from the base to the top but without learning a thing of it. The frame was partly in the trunk, and partly in the mud, and if anything were to open, one could go nowhere but in the hillside, and in the ground, and in the mud. It was a very strange thing to see a doorway with nowhere to go, and it was very strange, for a boy, not to wonder where, and why.
—Where do you think it goes? he asked.
—What do you mean where do I think it goes? Use your head!
—Well! Where do you think it goes then?
—Somewhere. It has to go somewhere. All doors go somewhere.
Peter, without much patience, barred his knuckles very tight and patted the door three times on the soft wood. The sound was hollow and open sounding and he imagined much like that of a knock on the jack-o-lanterns back in the town beyond the ridge.
—There’s nobody here, Jacob said. Lets open it.
—We can’t just open it.
Jacob grabbed the bronze handle and began to turn it when they heard a shuffle of the leaves from somewhere in the meadow grass. It was standing there as if it had always been there, in a very nasty way, as if it had been watching for the whole while very silent. Peter stepped away from the door, and Jacob brought his hand quickly back to his body, and the two boys watched it the way they would watch a dog with a raised lip. It was a very nasty creature, with the body and shape and face of a man, but much smaller than any man, and curled and wrinkled in the tan skin not covered by the dirty hair of its head, or the tight clothes on its body.
—Go inside, it said. There are many ------ things inside, and a good hells ---- many of every kind.
As any boy would, the two cringed at the wild words, and at the very same time, made note of them and how they could be used again.
—But do you live inside? Jacob asked.
It came forward through the meadow grass in a side bounce way of walking, and passed between the two boys to the door. Peter stepped back but he could smell it very vile and worn, very similar to sour milk, or stale milk, as he thought. When it came close to the door it stopped and looked at the two, and in a repugnant way smiled.
—Only the good things live inside, it said. The free things, and the bad things all together, and yet the fun things, and the ------- things that dreams make of them.
—How can you talk like that? Peter said. Do they let you talk like that?
—Let? it said. There’s nobody here to let, any----body do any---thing.
—There has to be somebody.
—No, no, it said. You see, this is the only place where there isn’t anybody. This is the only place where its free to be wild, and its free to be wicked, and free to be alive.
—Did you hear that? Jacob said. Nobody comes here?
Jacob had recovered his lost stick and was now reaching out with the tip at it, the way a boy does a beetle on the pathway. It only pushed the stick away and blew the hair aside from its face and made another smile, in that same vile way.
—Exactly, it said. Nobody comes here, because very little can find it. It’s very far away when you consider it. It takes a lot to get here, and a lot of time, and a lot of luck, and not many god---da---sh—people get that chance. But it makes it better, doesn’t it. Because nobody can stop you, once you’re here.
—So I could say s----, and all the s--- and the milk and the devils in ---- the places --- and all the good day, Jacob said.
—Nobody here, it said. Nobody here to hear but the leaves and the trees.
Jacob tossed the stick aside and began shouting now at the leaves and the mild wind that had begun to blow in the patches of shade in the meadow grass. Peter glanced at the hillside as it went lower and he knew no one could hear, and no one could see, and there was freedom, just as it said, in the fact that no one could do those things. Jacob was enjoying it very much, and he was running about now in the lee of the hillside rise, with the vile thing, and the scene itself looked too distraught for any boy not to enjoy, so Peter began along with them. There had never been a time of such a freedom, and the boys could feel it come from them instinctually, though they had never done such vile things, and it came very easily to forget acting like a boy, but to act like it, and to be it, and do everything in its way.
In the lee of the beech trees and near the door in the floor of the ground, one did not have to think before he tossed a stone, and before he cursed in such a sickening way, and dreamed about dreams that couldn’t be dreamed, and felt the mud in the ground like the dryness in the air, and kicked about the leaves in a ruckus and a mess and had no worry to clean any of it. And just while one did not have to worry, they sat beside the heavy trees and thought of things they had never thought before, and thought alongside it, and Peter knew the place was no place for a boy to be, but that the freedom was something unique and something to enjoy.
Time passed very quickly in this place, and Peter caught sight, through all the commotion, a spot of sky between the green above. He noticed it was no longer afternoon, but evening, and the sky was beginning to get colorful with a soft red that said somewhere the sun was setting, and somewhere the ridge was still far away. He gave Jacob a tap on the shoulder and jumped to his feet.
—We have to go now, he said.
—What do you mean we have to go?
Peter pointed to the orange above and Jacob jumped to his feet in the same way. It did not move when they did, but sat very still beneath the same tree it always had and looked up to the sky and didn’t speak. The shadows on the hillside had become dark, and the patches of light within the grass were growing smaller.
—You shouldn’t leave, it said. It would just save you all the --- trouble in finding your way back.
And if they had stayed just a second longer, they would have heard a sick and wicked of gutter of laughter, but the boys did not hear and now they were making their way back up the hillside and trying to remember the trees they had passed and the way they had came. There was a time when all the trees looked no different and there was a sick feeling in each of their stomachs that comes with being lost, but that passed when they noticed the lashes made in the bark when they made their attack, and they began to breath easier, and to walk slower on their way back to the ridge.
Peter was feeling drained from the day, and when he looked back at the hillside he could only vaguely remember what they had found, and hardly anything of it except that it was a place to go in moderation; it was an urge from somewhere deep and instinctual that did not occur in both the boys. Before they came to the ridge, Jacob ran to the top of a rise and looked down at the pathways and the dark places between the leaves that now blew with the evening. He did not forget, and the worst of it was he did not want to leave.
—We can’t go back, Peter said. Good things are very short, and we can’t go back.
They boys climbed the ridge carefully, and walked quietly back into town. They did not have to speak anymore because they knew internally what was supposed to be, and they both had their own ways of knowing.
Peter found the streetlights yellow like the lights in the homes, and things were quiet, and in the air, he could smell cooking food in every home. He was very hungry. But he was back from the lee of the hillside, and things were normal as they had been. Before eating he got scalded for being out so late, and he had to wash himself completely of the dirt, and scrub his teeth, and comb his hair they way it should look. At the table he had to keep his elbows free of the wood, and never used the words he had been using all day, but worst of all, he could only speak of things as they should be and as they were accepted. There was no freedom anymore, but it was comforting nonetheless and Peter got used to it quickly. When he lay in bed, he fell asleep fast, and he knew he could never go back.
But it was not the same for Jacob. He was scalded just the same, and made to wash thoroughly and scrub his teeth and comb his hair the way it should look. And when he sat down at the table he was scalded for keeping his elbows clear of wood, and given a good smack across the head when he let the words slip from his tongue. But when he lay in bed, he didn’t sleep. He waited till the door was shut, and the noises had calmed outside, and when things were clear, he dressed himself quickly and shimmied out the window and down the roof.
He lowered himself from the ridge in the dark, and because the moon was bright and the sky was well lit with stars, he had no problems moving through the thick beech trees to the place of the door. And except to the partridges and the larks in the branches above, he wasn’t seen again for some time.
Peter awoke in the morning with no recollection of being outside of the ridge. He heard about Jacob’s disappearance the way everyone heard of Jacob’s disappearance, and that was through gossip. It hit the town hard because they were not used to anything but the normal days, and there were was much crying and speeches, and search parties were put together, but they never combed the trees deep enough in any direction to rule out making another search the next day. It was all very strange to Peter the way they acted. A month into it they had the funeral down at the church and everybody came with sympathy and roses. They talked as if he’d fallen dead in front of all their eyes, in some special way, but Peter didn’t feel sad. Though he didn’t know why, he had the feeling Jacob had only gone away, and he’d see him soon.
But things began to settle once more, and he didn’t see him soon. After a while, nobody talked of it anymore, and occasionally things began to drift into lighter talk, about the larks and the partridges, and the sun across the ridge, and things became very easy to laugh once again.
It was afternoon now, and all the boys were playing games upon the rocks of the ridge, and letting their voices carry like thieves and bandits. Peter had found the time to slip away from the mess of the game. He led Allison by the hand, in the way a boy does with a girl, in a careful manner down the rocks and onto the soft soil beneath the shade of the beech trees. It was very calm and cool in the shade, and Allison was glad to be away from the shouting of the boys above, as with any girl. She looked into the rows of the green meadow grass, and at the lights of the alternating sunspots, and caught sight of the birds taking flight into the trees.
—It’s very beautiful this way, she said. Why is it we never come this far? I don’t like it on the ridge. It’s too hot, and they’re always so loud.
Peter glanced down the hillside and he thought very hard, but couldn’t recall why he had such a feeling as he had.
—I’m not sure, he said. But it is nice. Will you walk with me?
—I don’t know. Can we go far?
—Why couldn’t we?
—I don’t know, but it does go far. Don’t you think it goes far?
—We’ll stop before we get too far, Peter said. And then we’ll come back, and we’ll mark our way.
Peter took a stone from the leaves of the ground and scoured a white mark in the bark of a nearby tree. It suited Allison well enough and she took his hand, and the two began down the hillside. Unlike the ridge, it was very quiet and peaceful, and the breeze only came to cool the air and shake the occasional leaf from the tree. At intervals, Peter would stop to gather a stone and gauge a wedge from the bark, and each time he would smile, and she would smile back, knowing that one couldn’t get lost knowing the way, and that it wouldn’t be too bad even being lost in such a peaceful place.
Then they could hear something faint coming through with the wind, and though they couldn’t see where it came, they could make out easily that it was something very wicked and vile. Peter felt the same in his stomach as he had when he first lowered down from the ridge, but he was very curious all the same. Down the hillside, they could see where the pathway and the dirt beneath the leaves went downward through the slope of two rises in the hillside. The noises was growing loud now, and coming from beneath the rises. Peter took Allison close, and the two crept quietly through the leaves until they could peek over the rise.
Below were two sickly looking men, bouncing back and forth through the leaves in a wild way. It was from these that the noises came, and now they came as shouting and grunts of dirty laughter. At first glance, Allison could see that the men were too small to be considered men, but too frightening in appearance to be labeled as animals. She noted their wrinkles, and the flaps of dirt and mud beneath the hair of their eyes, and the savage way the one cried into the air as he fell back into the leaves out of laughter. And the way they spoke made her wince and look for someone to slap them silly, but nobody ever came, and she realized they were all alone.
—Would you look at that! she whispered in Peter’s ear. It’s a little door.
But Peter was busy watching. He watched them roll about in the leaves and shout like animals with no care, and he wanted very much to run down the hillside and join them. The freedom was inviting, but the feeling came to his stomach again and he pulled gently back into the place.
Allison was up over the edge now, glaring at the tiny white door at the floor of the ground.
—Where does it go? she asked. It goes into the ground.
Peter pulled her back to his side. There was something unnerving about the two in the lee of the hillside, and it wasn’t the nastiness in the way they moved, or the way they spoke, but something else. The two were very similar and sick in every way, but the one in the ground had a familiar look to it, only Peter couldn’t place it. It laughed often, and took a stone from the ground and threw it without care into the meadow grass, and Peter could have sworn he had seen that before, but he just couldn’t place it.
—We have to be leaving, he said.
—Because this isn’t a place to stay.
The two were walking very quickly now, and measuring a safe distance from the noise and the shouting until they could walk slowly once more. Allison noted the larks and the partridges watching from the bows among the leaves.
—Where do you suppose it went? she asked.
—The little door.
—Somewhere far away.
—I wonder where it goes.
Up ahead they could see the ridge through the line of trees and they could hear vaguely the sound of the boys playing up on the rocks. The two stopped in the meadow grass and Peter watched they way the came, but he wasn’t sure why.
—We can’t go back, he said.
—Go back where?
—To the place with the door.
—I’m not sure.