Grass. Petals. Vines. Stems. Branches. Leaves. Tails. Small furless animals. Things that look like torn wings. All of these whirl in a vortex just inside the hole.
We don’t know what to do or say. We are suspended.
The man with the heart is the first to move. He doesn’t look as surprised as Turner and I do. He roots in his knapsack and pulls out handfuls of more fragments, different fragments, mostly photographs torn in half or cut in tiny pieces, bits and pieces of ephemera, something that looks like a garter and newspaper clippings. He throws them into the hole with everything else.
One of the clippings blows back across to me, close enough for me to see it is a yellowed old wedding announcement. Most of it is crossed out in black marker. I guess we all have our sore spots.
“This is as good a time as any,” says the man with the heart. I wonder if he’ll start talking now. It’s not like I need it, and it’s not like this is exactly the most opportune moment in the world, but I’m curious.
Turner is still staring.
This is Day Forty.
“Turner!” I say, loudly. It’s the first time I have actually called the girl anything. It feels lopsided.
She is holding her hands in the air. There, issuing from the hole where her spoon broke, is a pure stream of sweet-scented air, the kind you find in springtime, the kind that has the occasional drift of lilac, the kind you might smell briefly on a walk on a windy day and then strain to smell again.
Turner is staring at the hole she was digging. Usually nothing surprises her, but she sure looks surprised now. She pokes her finger through the soil and widens the space. There are the remnants of rain and wind. She reaches in deeper and brings out a handful of what looks like grass and small wet petals.
Well wouldja look at that, she says. I scramble to get a closer look.
This is Day Thirty Nine.
The word of the day is DISTANCE.
I have figured something out about desperation. It’s always been galling to see people who by all sensibilities should be desperate neatly avoid being so because they don’t see it. They don’t see themselves as victims. “For goodness’ sake,” my mother used to say, albeit unkindly, of those who might have seen an unpleasanter truth than they did, “You’d think so-and-so would look in a mirror.”
She had no sense of desperation or victimhood herself. The assignations of this skipped her entirely. I admired her ease. Confidence is borne of ease. It is an elusive comfort.
The girl asks me to call her Turner, like the painter. She is digging up notes of encouragement from someone she has found in China, who thinks she is seventeen hundred miles away. Everything about distance is an estimation.
I say distance is good, if one can stand it. When I was at my most vulnerable, I couldn’t stand distance in any form. On an October evening three years past, my mother’s sharp eyes suddenly went flat and unfocused and when I stood close to her, she pushed my head away out of her line of vision, continuing her search for something that existed beyond me. At first I expected she would burst out laughing, that there was a joke to follow, but she sat expressionless. I realised she had gone into a distance that belonged to her, unfollowable. I came home and called my best friend (who also used to ask that I call him Turner, although in his case he really was an English watercolourist).
“I shouldn’t talk,” he said, in a new tight voice that had its own distance. “Things are different today.”
“What has happened?” I asked.
“For once I need to think about myself and what I want.”
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“I should go,” he said. His voice pushed mine aside and he was gone.
“This story makes me very sad,” says Turner. Then she cries “Oh!” and I see the bowl of her spoon has broken off.
This is Day Thirty-Eight.
There is a smell.
It is a scent like wind in hair, but more subterranean, more mineral, more ethereal. The smell is fleeting and evasive and when I stop digging to pay attention to it, it vanishes. It is like the sound of flute music you might hear from far away, or distant bagpipes.
The girl is making a note of the day’s digging. We have made excellent progress and she says, pointing her pencil to the paper, that we should be seeing something pivotal soon.
I have read enough books on geology to understand that the hardest work of my life is coming up. I mustn’t be daunted. In childhood I remember reading stories about sophisticated machinery that can bore miles through the earth’s crust in a few seconds. The truth is, the crust is easier to dig than I ever believed possible. I believe the girl’s notation about our progress.
The man with the heart lifts his head. Do you smell that? he asks.It’s wind in hair, and lightning too. But deeper and darker and full of pinpricks of light.
So he notices it too.
This is Day Thirty-Seven.
I am glad to be digging the tunnel again. I am happy that we are on the right course, straight as arrows through the centre of the earth via the true centre of the universe. I don’t want to overanalyse this and have it stop making sense.
I am also aware of the passage of time. If I put my ear to the ground (direction doesn’t matter), I can hear frost curling up in the early morning. I had hoped to be eating a hot breakfast of soup dumplings somewhere in China by now.
The digging is going faster now that we have switched to pie forks.
I think I will dream of those soup dumplings and be inspired. The girl is thinking the same, because she says Ooh, feather-light soup dumplings! and digs with enthusiasm.
This is Day Thirty-Six.
Of course he says The right south, and the girl chimes in: As opposed to the wrong south.
I say, in a clear voice There is only right from left on, and for some reason it makes us all laugh.
We kept the forks we used to eat pie. When we left the café, we waved them at the owner and she said What are you going to do with those – dig a tunnel through the earth to China?
I’d said When we order ice cream on our pie will you give us soup spoons? Then we pocketed the forks. From left and south on, we dig with forks.
I trust the man with the heart to tell us when we get to due south.
Once we hit the right left, he stops in front of us, consults the girl’s map/notebook, and says the window is perfect – we can begin any time in the next fifteen minutes.
Where? I ask. Here? I figured we’d have to rejoin our first tunnel and its offshoots.
Anywhere in the next fifteen minutes, he says, then pulls me close for a dance again.
After some time he says Anywhere in the next three minutes.
The girl has her fork poised and we dig in.
This is Day Thirty-Five.
For a second we are all frozen. I have forgotten that I am supposed to trust everything in the world when I am in the middle of adventure. It’s a basic rule I’ve taught myself. The only three things I have agreed not to trust are:
because they are useless.
We look around at the damage. The girl gets up and wipes her notebook in the spilled mercury, being careful not to touch any fragments of glass. She has to dab here and there along the tunnel. After a minute or two she holds the book up. The pages are shimmering. I squint. It looks like the mercury is seeping into lines and shapes on the paper, shifting its form and crystallizing like pieces in a kaleidoscope.
Look at that! I say. Look at that!
It is page after page of a map. It is a map of our time and space and everything and here we are in the middle of it. It is another sign.
We’re warmer, says the man with the heart, holding his hand over the notebook. He flips a couple of pages. We turn left there (he points there) and that should lead us to due south. We will make sure not to step into glass. It’s a tricky path.
Which south? I ask.
This is Day Thirty-Four.
I remember going to visit a science lab in an older cousin’s high school when I was very small. My father lifted one of the test tubes arranged on the counter, opened my palm and poured something in.
Mercury, he said. I poked at the liquid mirror in my hand, watching it divide and pool.
I am thinking about this when the thermometer slides down the side of the tunnel and crashes heavily on the ground. It was more fragile than I would have guessed. The oak case has snapped in half. Thin, needly shards of glass are strewn throughout the tunnel and the mercury… the mercury is everywhere.
This is Day Thirty-three.
Today when I wake up, this is what I see:
There is a huge – I mean huge – thermometer made out of metal and mercury and some kind of polished oak propped up against the wall of the tunnel. The girl is reading something she holds in her left hand as she writes something with her right hand in her notebook. It looks like symbols. I’m not surprised. She’s the symbolic type.
The man with the heart is waiting. When I figure out that I’m what he’s waiting for, I smile.
He tells me that while I rested (I am the most active digger) he built a thermometer specially for the task of digging the tunnel in a way that expedites the process but not the adventure. In other words, if we’re going to use the warmer/colder method to dig, we should have an accurate instrument keeping our path true.
I realise we wouldn’t have found any of this out if we hadn’t found the centre of the universe, which happens to be in Pie Town, New Mexico.
We wouldn’t have found the man with the heart, either.
I can’t imagine life without you, he says, suddenly.
The girl looks up from her writing.
This is Day Thirty-Two.
The man with the heart is the first one to stop digging. I look at him, but I don’t put down my spoon.
If you are my path, then why have you stopped?
I am not sure if I say this out loud or my expression says it. He looks tired but his eyes brighten. He explains that though this tunnel we are currently digging is the right one we want to get through to China, the first tunnel, the lost one, will always look like something heroic to us.
Coke Classic, says the girl.
Exactement, he says.
Was there something wrong with the first one? I ask, no longer afraid my words will push him away.
No, he replies, picking his up spoon again and scraping. But there was so much cold on the way. Frost. Ice. We are using the warmer/colder method, and we don’t want to wake to snow.
I had not thought of that, and neither had the girl. She is already making an adjustment in her notes.
This is Day Thirty-One.