They Dug A Hole - A Short Story by Jeremiah Strickland
Nicholas and his father canoed out to the massive rock formation that looked like a head jutting out from the cliffs, the one that the indigenous people had been afraid of. Nicholas imagined the rocks were elastic and some giant Ojibwe brave inside the cliff was pushing his face into them, like that time Jason put his Mom’s stockings over his head.
Painted cliffs ran for miles along this stretch of Lake Superior, on either side of the head. Leaching groundwater had brought red iron, black manganese, yellow limonite, and green copper to the surface of the cliff walls, leaving the impression that distorted masterpieces were painted across their expanse.
Nicholas’ Dad said, “When people don’t understand things, they make up stories to explain them.” He took a can of beer from the little blue cooler at his feet in the canoe, opened it, and took a slug. Amber droplets trickled down into his beard. “They thought this was the face of some deity, some god to them. That was the story they told themselves. It actually looks like the whole goddamn head of some guy, though, doesn’t it?” He put the oars back into the water again. “Only the bravest warriors would row their boats past him for fear of those stone eyes falling on them. Can you imagine how scary that must have been? See his ear and his jawbone there?” He stopped paddling and pointed to the rock man pushing his face out of the sandstone. “That’s his headdress. Those trees there.”
“I see it,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas’ Dad worked for the Park Service. His team had just wrapped up a survey which used satellite data to unearth a handful of archaeological sites along the cliffs. With a job to call his own, Nicholas’ father was one of the lucky ones in the town where they lived. Hundreds of folks were unemployed since the minimum security prison closed. Guards. Maintenance. Janitorial. Nearly two hundred inmates were affected too. The state couldn’t bare their expense, so the lion’s share of the prisoners were dispersed to county lock-ups, mostly in the south. Others had their sentence commuted. The town just went to shit after that.
“What caused it, do you think? Why does it look like a god’s head?”
His father laughed. “Wind… Water… Not evolution, but you’re close, it starts with an E.”
Nicholas concentrated. “Erosion!” Sixth grade would begin in the fall.
“That’s my boy.” Nicholas was a green-eyed ginger like his old man. “Erosion and imagination is why it looks like a face. It looked even more like a face two hundred years ago, believe it or not. It takes extra imagination to see it now.” A half a mile down along the lake, a chunk of rock broke free from the cliff and splashed down into the water. They canoed closer to explore the aftermath, careful to stay far enough away to avoid another rock slide. Later, they went to a spot where there were miniature caves at the water line that you could canoe through. That was Nicholas’ favorite.
Afterwards, Nicholas’ Dad began his afternoon ritual at home on the couch with a glass of bottom shelf Scotch and water. Nicholas’ Mom would be home from work after six, and his parents would have their evening blow-out before going to The Dog House over on the corner of Ottawa and Fifth. His Dad would go first, slamming the door behind him. Nicholas’ Mom would follow an hour or so later, and in the morning they would be reconciled.
Nicholas didn’t stick around for the regularly scheduled programming. He loaded his father’s wheelbarrow with the necessary tools and hiked a quarter of a mile into the coniferous woods behind the town’s twenty-four hour gas station, far enough back to avoid being seen by any of the employees or patrons. It was a well-known plateau to the local kids because of the clearing, the collapsed ancient red maple, and the rusted out shell of an abandoned El Camino.
Nicholas dug. The hole had reached an impressive depth by the time Jason hiked his bike out to meet his buddy. The hole wasn’t big enough, though. Still wasn’t near big enough. There wasn’t much chance that Nicholas would get around to the sticks for covering it like he wanted to either. Not today. The trees didn’t let much light into the woods. It would be dark soon.
Nicholas said, “I didn’t think you were coming.”
“My Mom made me watch my sister after school,” Jason said. “I was gonna wait her out, but if she’s gone this long, she’s in the Dog House for the night. I told Grace to go ahead and eat that whole pie, so long as she didn’t tell Momma I left her alone.” From the wheelbarrow, Jason grabbed a spade. He always looked like a guy who knew he was going to have to shit soon but was afraid he might not find a squat spot in time.
“I didn’t think you were gonna make it.”
“It wasn’t the whole pie. I done had a big piece already. Strawberry-rhubarb is my favorite.” Some of it was still on his shirt.
As they dug, Jason said, “Mr. DeBoer told us when he was little, he saw a ghost ship on the lake from the old lighthouse.” Nicholas didn’t believe it. “It’s true,” said Jason. “His Momma saw it too. The side of it was opened up and they could hear metal tearing and men’s screams. Lots of boats got sunk out there in the olden days. Lots. Superior’s the graveyard of the Great Lakes.”
“I thought you were in for math.”
Jason shrugged. “Summer school’s different, you know? He can’t make us divide shit all day, our brains’d be mud by lunch. Mr. DeBoer doesn’t wear a tie or nothin’. He wears shorts. Today, he had a Kid Rock shirt on.”
“I hate that guy. That’s shit music.” Nicholas began singing that Gordon Lightfoot song about a shipwreck as he took the adze to a couple of thick roots. His Dad called the tool “Betsy” and thought his nickname was real funny. Nicholas didn’t get it. Still, the boy had taken to calling it “Betsy” too because his Dad never asked him to fetch the adze, he asked him to hand over “Betsy.” Nicholas didn’t even know what the proper name for the tool was.
Both boys were shoveling in silence when Evan approached them. Snot bubbled out of the six year old’s right nostril. He was shirtless, dirty, and his eye was still black. He asked, “What is you guys doing?” He had a ferret’s eyes, all shifty and bewildered.
Jason tossed his shovel out of the ever deepening hole and used his shirt to wipe sweat from his eyes. The hole was half as deep as he was tall. “Piss off, Evan,” he said.
“No no, it’s fine,” Nicholas said. “He can find the sticks.” He needed help if this were to be finished tonight.
Jason glared at his friend. “He’ll tell,” he said.
“He won’t tell if we’re nice to him.”
“What is you guys doing?” Evan asked. He snorted, then wiped green snot from his nose with his forearm.
“We’re setting a trap,” said Nicholas.
“He’ll spoil everything, dude.”
Nicholas climbed up out of the hole. “Dick Vanderslice told me his little brother Lester saw a sasquatch dumpster diving behind the gas station twice last month. We’re gonna catch him.”
Jason climbed out. “You’re going to scare him. He’s going to tell his Mom.”
“You’re just scaring him.”
The two older boys stood staring at the little kid for a moment. Nicholas and Jason exchanged glances. Evan snorted snot. “Are you scared?” asked Nicholas.
Evan’s eyes searched the trees. “No.” His ears moved like radar dishes.
“He’s gonna tell on us. Just piss off, Evan.” Jason moved some tools around in the wheelbarrow like he was looking for something. “Must be almost eight by now. Rob’s gonna be yelling for you soon anyway.”
“He ain’t my Daddy.”
“Just piss off.”
“Don’t talk to him like that!” Nicholas hissed. “He’s got it bad enough without you being so mean to him.” To Evan, he said, “We need a bunch of long sticks to cover up this hole so bigfoot don’t see it. That way, he just comes walking over it like it’s not there and falls through. It’s a trap, you see? You want to help us? Don’t listen to him. You can help us if you’re not scared.”
Jason groaned. “Dibbs on Betsy,” he said as he jumped back down into the hole.
The putrid volcano on Evan’s face erupted again. “Is yous gonna eat bigfoot when yous catch it?”
Nicholas thought about it. He said, “After we catch him, we’ll be more famous than Lebron James.” Evan’s eyes lit up. The basketball player was his hero, memorialized mid-air in two dimensions on the wall by the air-mattress on the floor of his bedroom.
The little boy set himself to finding sticks like the one Nicholas gave him as an example. All three boys worked against the setting sun, intent on capturing that sasquatch alive by morning.
It wasn’t a half hour later when Grace showed up. She caught them by surprise, saying, “Bubby, Mom’s not home yet.” Jason struggled to climb up out of the hole, furious with his sister. “I told you to stay put!”
“Did you tell her where we were?”
“I’m scared, Bubby.” She had hiked out to them with her pink ballet shoes on. There was a little twig caught in her blonde head. She had just turned seven.
“You know you can’t leave the house by yourself, Grace. I’ll get in so much trouble... They’ll light my ass on fire.”
“Is you seeing a bigfoot in the dumpster?”
“I can’t believe you told Grace we were here.”
“Bubby, I’m scared.”
“Is you see sasquatches getting gas?”
Nicholas shushed the other children. “Look,” he said. “We gotta get this show on the road, you guys. Dick Vanderslice said that Lester said he saw the thing on a Friday night both times, probably because that’s when they toss the expired food out. If we don’t finish today, it’ll be next week before we can catch him.”
Grace asked, “Catch who?”
“Bigfoot,” said her brother. “Tall, hairy, and mean.” He hunched over and swung his arms like pendulums, slowly lurching at his sister. “Stinking like death and the garlic he ate to keep the mosquitos off. And he’s hungry, Grace... Hungry for the blood of little children. Your blood!”
“Stop it, Bubby!”
Evan snorted, then exclaimed something unintelligible.
Nicholas pushed his friend. “Stop it, dude! He’s not a vampire or something.” He put his hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “Bigfoot’s a vegetarian, Grace.”
She looked up at him with a doe’s eyes. “My Dad says vegetarians are the biggest pussies there is,” she said.
Evan squealed with delight at the curse. Green bubbles birthed and burst.
“Watch your goddamn mouth, Grace!” said Jason. To Nicholas, he said, “If bigfoot was vegetarian, he wouldn’t give a fart about left over sausage biscuits in some dumpster.”
“I guess not,” agreed Nicholas. “But he won’t hurt you, Grace. Who’s ever heard of a bigfoot hurting someone? I sure haven’t.”
“Pussy!” said Evan. He looked around to make sure there was no one to get him in trouble.
“You want to help us, Grace?”
“We’s gonna be on TV like Lebron.”
“I don’t think you have anything to be afraid of, but if we trap’m, there’s even less to be scared of, right?”
She thought on it. “I want Bubby to take me home.”
Jason slammed Betsy onto the forest floor. “That’s not fair!”
“Life ain’t fair!” called an adult man’s voice. It was Rob. He was hiking into the clearing with Dick Vanderslice, both of them smoking cigarettes.
“What do you kids think you’re doing out in the woods this late? What are you, digging big holes?” asked Dick Vanderslice from under his cowboy moustache. He had at least twenty years on Rob but was in far better shape. He carried a .30-06 Springfield rifle on his shoulder and was geared up for a backcountry hike. A floppy camouflaged hat covered his eyes. They were both drunk.
“They’s making a bigfoot trap!” exclaimed Rob, peering into the hole with a flashlight. His eyes were like an iguana’s, as if the reptile which had burrowed its way inside his head was pushing its face into his, peering out the eyeholes like a mask, hungry and free from the burden of understanding. He wore pajama pants and a dirty white cut-off t-shirt with little burn holes on the chest. “Evan, you get your ass home, boy!” Evan was cowering behind Nicholas, clutching the back of the older boy’s shirt like the handles of a shield, protecting himself from those eyes.
“All you kids go home,” said Dick Vanderslice. “It’s too late to be out here.”
Nicholas broke free from Evan’s grasp with a series of awkward twisting motions, marched over to where Jason stood, picked up Betsy, and proclaimed, “This is our hole.”
“Get the fuck home, we said.”
“We dug it.”
Rob stepped up on him. “So?”
Jason said, “Come on, Nick.” Grace was hiding behind her brother. Evan joined her.
“No,” said Nicholas, his fingers opening and closing on Betsy’s handle. “We dug it. That was hard work. Our hard work. We’re gonna finish it. Tonight. Now.”
“You gonna use that adze, boy?” Asked Dick Vanderslice. “Pointy end would make a nice hole. Rob might do with a touch of trepantation.”
Rob glared at Dick Vanderslice. “Fuck you, man. Trepidation my ass.”
“Come on, dude.”
“It’s our hole!”
“A fine hole it is too. Much better than the one Rob and I used to share. Plenty big enough to bury Rob’s fat ass in too,” said Dick Vanderslice. He took the rifle from his shoulder. “Course, if I thought you were gonna swing, I’d have to put you down.”
“Bury your ass in it instead, boy,” spit Rob in Nicholas’ face. “Now get.”
Defeated, the four kids began trudging through the pines toward the road, Jason with his bike, Nicholas with his father’s wheelbarrow. “Anyways,” they heard Rob saying to Dick Vanderslice. “I told that mother fucker if he was gonna call the police, there ain’t no reason not to jaw him. Not if I was gonna go to jail again, least of all over his wife’s fat ass.”
When they got to the road, Evan scurried off. Grace took hold of her brother’s arm. Jason said, “Let’s go to the lake, Nick. Our Mom’s in the Dog House for the night, I know it.”
“So’s mine, but I don’t want to go to the lake. I wanted to catch that bigfoot tonight.”
“Me too,” said Grace, but she was relieved to be out of the woods.
“Maybe we could see that ghost ship tonight. It’s real clear out.”
Nicholas shrugged. “I dunno, dude. All I wanted was to catch that bigfoot.”
“Are there ghosts, bubby?”
“Come on, dude.”
“Is there any more pie, Grace?”
“One piece,” she said.
“Good. We’ll go to the lake, and when we get bored, we’ll go back to my house and share it three ways.”
“Okay. Alright. Let’s take my Dad’s stuff back to the trailer first.”
“Alright. Strawberry-rhubarb is my favorite, dude. You ever eat it? It’s so good.”
They were walking towards the smoky jubilation of The Dog House up on the right. Some eighties hair metal or modern country tune was blaring.
“Are there really ghosts, Bubby?” Grace asked.
“They can’t hurt you,” said her brother. “They’re way out on the lake, and they’re scared.”
“Is they scared of bigfoot?”
“Drowning, stupid. They’s afraid they all gonna die.”
The Dog House was the best show in town. A couple of old farts were communicating in gruff barks of profanity around back. Three ladies, held together by war paint and hairspray, stood sentry at the front door in short skirts. They were smoking, ignoring each other, looking at their phones. Some young dudes in trucker hats who smelled like skunks pushed past the women, saying their crude hellos as they went in the bar door with the blackened glass window. A jeep pulled out of the parking lot, honking its horn. No one paid the kids any mind.
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