First of all, we were never tunneling to the center of the earth. I mean, we’re not stupid. We knew we couldn’t get to it with the materials we had. The psychiatrist that Mom and Dad hired to talk to me is responsible for the whole Journey to the Center of the Earth thing because, to him, what we were actually doing wasn’t as exciting. In fact, I don’t think he ever fully understood what we were doing. I don’t think we really understood it
either. We were just digging.
It started last summer. The three of us, Hunter, Amy, and myself, had just graduated from college with meaningless degrees, things like Gender Studies and Canadian History and Morse Code. We had devoted our academic careers to things we couldn’t seem to find applicability to the world we were now in. We never really thought about it when we were in school, reading about gender and Canadians and Samuel Morse. We never realized that we were supposed to be preparing ourselves for future lives, self-sustainable
lives with jobs and all the other things like family cars and magazine subscriptions. And so I think it was that kind of disconnection from what we were expected to do that made us get out the shovels. It’s the only reason I can figure.
We had just been sitting around in my room at my parent’s house since graduation. We still wore our graduation caps, would twirl the tassels like strands of hair as we watched TV or played cards or smoked cheap pot that Amy’s brother sold us. My mother would leave the want ads outside the door of my room and that’s where I left them, too. “Maybe you could teach Morse code to kids at the elementary school,” she told me one morning as we ate breakfast. And sure, I would have loved to teach kids Morse code, to tap my finger onto their tiny palms and explain the words being formed on their hands. But schools can hardly afford to teach real languages like Spanish and French.
Besides, people want to know how to say only two things: “I love you” and “SOS.” They wanted to know a romantic code and then tap it out on their lover’s naked body and spend the night a little less lonely. So at parties I was always tapping out the same things, showing drunk people the correct timing, the pauses necessary to say the words. But even then it didn’t matter. They would tap whatever they wanted, correct or not, and their lover would be happy. And if they were in a situation where they actually had to resort to using Morse code for help, well, they were not going to get it. They were going to die.
None of us came up with the idea on our own that morning. It just sort of hit us all simultaneously. You spend enough time with someone, you start to think in sync with them, and at this moment we all just thought the same thing: We should dig, get
underground. So we did.
We went to the garage and grabbed all the shovels and digging tools we could find. Hunter took the posthole digger, for the initial opening, plus another shovel for once we got started. I had a new shovel, with a perfect, unblemished silver spade and a lacquered handle. I also took one of those shovels with the pointed spade, to break through the rocks or tree roots that we’d likely come across. Amy wore two garden trowels on her hips like a gunslinger, for the intricate digging and shaping along the
sides of the hole. She also filled one of her pockets with spoons from the kitchen, just in case.
We stepped outside the garage with purpose, weighed down with our tools, and walked into the backyard. My mother was washing dishes in the kitchen and slid open the window. “What are you kids doing?” she asked us. I told her that we were going to dig a hole. She asked us to stay away from her tulip garden and we did, picked a spot in the far corner of the yard and started digging.
We worked day and night that first week, burrowing down a good twelve feet into the earth, expanding the hole so that all three of us would fit at the same time. We took our lunch breaks back on the surface, where my mother would bring us sandwiches and chips and lemonade. We liked to lie on our stomachs and eat our food, staring down at the hole we’d made. We’d gotten down far enough to where we were touching earth that probably hadn’t felt the gaze of sunlight in hundreds of years. At one point, Amy took a big handful of dirt and held it close to her face, took deep breaths of it. “It smells like a museum,” she said, “like something from the past.”
My father came over one afternoon and knelt over the hole, careful not to set his knee down in the torn-up earth. “Son, your mom asked me to tell you that if you are going to keep digging this . . . hole, then you’re going to have to do something about
all this dirt.”
I asked him if we could just spread it out evenly through the backyard, maybe heighten the ground by a few inches, but he said no.
“You see, son, we have all this grass and plant life in the backyard and if you just throw a blanket of dirt over all that, you’re going to kill it all. No, you’re just going to have to figure out a way to get this stuff out of here.”
We used Amy’s truck to haul the dirt away. We did it at night, once the lights all went out in the houses of our subdivision. We loaded the dirt onto a plastic tarp in the bed of her truck and drove down to the lake. Amy would back the truck right up to the edge of the water and we would pull on the tarp until the dirt was gone. The surface of the water would bubble as the earth drifted down, worked itself in with the silt and debris at the bottom of the lake. By the fifth week there was a report in the paper that the water level had risen even though there had been no rain in twelve days. That’s how much dirt we were hollowing out of the ground.
One night, Hunter woke up thrashing in his sleeping bag, rolling from side to side dangerously near the mouth of the hole. When we finally got him awake, he told us that he’d dug too far in his dream, had felt the earth give easily under his shovel and that fire had come out of the cracks, spilling around his feet.
“We can’t keep digging down,” he told us. “We’ll find mole people or molten lava or some underground ocean.”
“Or China,” Amy offered. “We’ll come up in China. That would be embarrassing.”
Hunter nodded in agreement. “Nothing good down there,” he said.
So we went sideways.
We started expanding, tunneling farther and farther underneath our town. We dug random patterns that looped in on themselves and spread from one edge of the town to the other. We dug tunnels high enough to let us walk upright that would quickly turn into tiny pinpoints, so small we had to wedge ourselves through to keep going, the earth scattering in pieces as we moved. We never worried about cave-ins or getting lost. We
were young and felt invincible. You never think about dying when you’re twenty-two and drunk driving or bungee jumping or digging ill-designed tunnels underneath your parents’ house. Under the surface, the air was cool and slightly damp and we felt like we were moving through a haze, a dream world that held no possibility for pain or disaster. And then we had a few near misses on some small cave-ins, and pain and possible death seemed slightly more possible. So we started building structures to reinforce the walls of the tunnels. After that, we just kept moving, up and down, left or right.
Eventually, we added rooms that served as the heart for all the tunnels, the source for all these paths to come and go from. We made them wide and high and eventually started sleeping in them at night, when we couldn’t dig anymore. My mother gave us food weekly, dropped bags of groceries into the hole in the backyard, where one of us would go pick them up. “Here’s your snacks honey,” she would tell me as she dropped the groceries down the hole. I wore sunglasses to protect my eyes from the light that shined down on me. I was covered in dirt; it was under my fingernails and behind my ears. My mother was not pleased. “Honey, do you think that maybe it’s all the marijuana that’s
making you do this?” I reached for another bag of groceries and shrugged. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I don’t think so.” I didn’t know how to tell her that I was actually happy for the first time since college had ended. I had a purpose. I had to dig. I don’t think she would have understood even if I had told her.
We found time capsules that had been forgotten and never dug up. Amy made up stories for each memento, giving new pasts to the objects we found before we sealed the capsules again. We always put them close to the surface, poking out of the ground slightly, where someone might notice the glint of sunlight reflecting off the silver canister.
There were a surprising number of jars filled with money. Old people must have buried them and then forgotten where they were. They were stuffed full of moldy tens and twenties, folded and wrapped in rubber bands, the jars sealed tight with paraffin wax. We found Styrofoam McDonald’s containers and metal poles that had sunk into the ground and been forgotten. We found animal bones and human bones, and the still-decomposing body of Jasper Cooley, a drunk who had disappeared a few months ago. We couldn’t find any signs of why he died and the clothes he was wearing were nice, even covered in dirt and bugs. Amy had found him, scraping her shovel against the rubber soles of his shoes until she finally realized what they were. Hunter and I worked carefully to fully remove him, careful of the decomposition that was taking place. Finally, we carried him in a sheet of plastic all the way back to one of the rooms. We propped him up against the wall until we could think of what to do about him. Hunter wanted to take him aboveground, leave him where someone could find him and give him a proper burial. “He’s properly buried right now, Hunter,” Amy said. “For all intents and purposes.” But Hunter did not like this answer and so Amy and I had to dig a grave in the floor of the room, digging deeper into the ground. We had a ceremony and said a prayer and felt somehow better.
We ate sandwiches and listened to the faint noise of people and cars and machinery aboveground. We had portals all over town, tiny, obscured openings in the earth, which we could pop out of if we ever wanted to. But we never did; instead we spent all our time underground, digging more tunnels, coming out only in the middle of the night to dump the dirt in the lake. We were trying to hollow out a new world under the earth, to fill up
the one above us.
Our shovels bit into the earth until they disintegrated, finally worn down to the wooden handle. We used the money from the sealed jars to buy new ones, pure titanium that my father got from the hardware store. He lowered them down to me one night, telling me, “These are the best they got. Good, dependable shovels.” I took each one he handed down and bundled them together as well as I could. He also handed down boxes of batteries, and more flashlights, candles, and lanterns. “Mom and I aren’t quite sure what you’re doing down there,” he whispered to me, stooped low over the hole. “We hope it’s nothing we’ve done, but we just want you to be happy. So, if you have to be underground to be happy, that’s fine with us.” His hand came down through the hole and I shook it. Finally, we both walked away in the same direction, him on the surface of the earth and me below it. I imagined his footsteps above me as I moved.
At night, when our day of digging was over, we would gather in one of the main rooms and eat our dinner. We talked about our days, where we had dug, and what kind of soil we’d encountered. We loved to talk about dirt now. We all knew the wonderful feeling of digging into a new kind of soil. There was something transforming about watching the earth change as you dug and then passing through it, feeling yourself changed in the process. We were seeing the secrets of the earth revealed in tiny increments. It was better than drugs. Though we still did the drugs. There wasn’t a whole lot to do at night under the earth.
We smoked pot that Amy’s brother dropped through one of the holes on the surface. We did not tell him about the tunnels, though. We didn’t want him and his high school friends using the tunnels as make-out spots, littering them with empty beer cans and used condoms. We just said it was our new drop spot, and he was too bored to care much beyond that. At nights, we rolled joints and made shadow puppets on the walls with a
spotlight. Hunter could re-create Apocalypse Now in its entirety with only his two bare hands, twisting and flexing in the light, while Amy and I watched the shadows of his hands against the wall. He would make the bald head of Marlon Brando with his hands curved into a dome while he murmured, “The horror . . . the horror.” We felt like cavemen, discovering all the various ways we could amuse ourselves. When we finally went to sleep, we dreamed of tunnels, endless, perfect structures that led us to some unknown place that we knew was heaven. Amy, the Gender Studies major, kept saying that there were Freudian theories based on these kinds of dreams but I really think that sometimes a tunnel is just a tunnel.
Hunter was tunneling one afternoon with Amy close behind him with her garden trowels, smoothing the passages. He hit something with his shovel, which he assumed to be rock. He traded off for the other shovel he had, the sharp, pointed one, and tried to work his way around. After an hour, he realized the rock spread out for at least ten feet on either side. “There’s a boulder in the way,” he told Amy, but kept chipping away. These kinds of things had become fun to us now.
Finally, he felt the rock give and saw light burst into the tunnel, filling up the passage. Hunter poked his head inside the hole and looked around the Corning family’s basement. He’d broken through the cinder-block wall of their basement, which had been turned into a recreation room for the children. The Corning children stared back at him, the Foosball table no longer in action. “Sorry,” he told them. “I must have the wrong house. I’m so sorry.” He and Amy started backtracking, filling the tunnel back in and feeling terrible about the whole thing. That night, we all sat around in one of the main rooms and thought about how the Corning children were going to be punished tonight by their parents for destroying the wall in the basement. Actually, perhaps we didn’t feel all that terrible about it. Perhaps we laughed for a long time. In all honesty, I am pretty sure that we
laughed for a long time.
And then it was November and cold. We took all three of oursleeping bags and zipped them together to make one large bag to hold all of us. Covered in dirt, teeth chattering, we huddled against one another and waited for morning, or what we suspected
was morning. The truth was that we had no idea for the most part. We dug until we were tired and then we slept. With both of their bodies covering my own, I felt the breath enter and leave their bodies, their hearts beating. And if there’s any chance of being happier than that—filthy, cold, and almost imperceptible from the ground we slept on—I would like to know how.
But it got colder. The ground was more resistant to our shovels, and the metal spades wore down even faster. We ran out of money and had to make do with what was left. My parents were providing only the bare essentials now; they said it was hard to support three kids, especially when only one of them was their own. I understood, did not begrudge them this fact. We were finding the limits of what we could do and even though we acknowledged them, we had no idea what to do about it. We just kept digging.
Even though we still made new tunnels, we always seemed to find ourselves near the original hole by the end of the day. We would eat our dinner, crackers and bottles of water, and peek out to look at the stars. A few times, we climbed all the way to the top of the hole, looked over at my parents’ house, warm and well lit, and then slowly crawled back into our tunnels. Our food was nearly gone. Our tools were broken. Our bodies were tired. We knew it was time to leave but it seemed difficult to say out loud. We scratched in the dirt with a stick, weighed the pros and the cons. Whoever wanted to leave could leave, no questions asked. In the morning, Hunter was gone, the sleeping bag smaller by one. Three days later, with no new tunnels dug, Amy kissed me on the cheek and wriggled out of the sleeping bag and then it was just me and the entire earth below the surface. It was a little lonely.
I tried to refill the tunnels but the work was much harder than hollowing them out. I had only one shovel left, nicked and dinged and inefficient. I finally gave up and crawled back to the main room and waited for something to happen. I lit one of the few candles left and tapped on the walls of the tunnel, di-di-didah-dah-dah-di-di-di. SOS.
A few nights later, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I pulled myself deeper into the sleeping bag, afraid of what was inside the tunnel with me. And then I heard my father speak. “Son,” he said, “it’s just me and your mom.” I peered out of my sleeping bag and saw the bright light of a headlamp and my father’s face beneath it. My mother was close behind him, holding a candle. “Your friends called us,” he continued. “They wondered if you had left yet. I think they may be wanting to come back, feel like they’ve disappointed you.” I shook my head, said that I didn’t know if I was ready to leave. I couldn’t imagine life aboveground, or, if I did, it seemed less tenable than what I had. “It’s winter now,” my father said. “It’s getting cold. Less daylight.” My mother then said, “It’s time to come back up.” They told me that they would let me live in the house with them for a while, until I could find my own place. My father had talked to a friend about getting me a job with his landscaping firm. They had contacted a psychiatrist whom I could talk to. They made it seem very plausible. I grabbed my shovel and then took a plastic shopping bag and filled it with dirt and then, one by one, we climbed out of the hole and walked back to the house.
I don’t talk to Hunter or Amy anymore, though I heard that Hunter was in Alberta, spelunking around in Castleguard Cave on some grant from the North American Society. And Amy is getting her Ph.D. in geology and publishing some articles revolving around gender and mining. I’m still doing landscaping work, digging and planting and hauling. I ended up seeing the psychiatrist for a year. He said that I had been postponing my life, that hiding in the tunnels had been a way to avoid the responsibilities of the real world. And yes, that is true. I knew that the minute we started digging. But it was more than that. I don’t know what it was, but I know it was more than that.
Sometimes, when work is over and I’m gathering up the equipment and supplies, I place my hand flat against the ground and I feel the thump, thump, thump run through my body like Morse code. I listen for a long time to the sound of the earth and then I realize that it is just my heart, and the things it is saying are indecipherable. I dig my fingers into the freshly tilled ground, scoop up a handful of dirt, and feel happy again, happier than anything on earth, anything on top of the earth.
© Kevin Wilson
This electronic version of "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and Julie Barer of Barer Literary, LLC. It appears in the author's collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth published by Harper Perennial, NY, 2009; first published in The Frostproof Review.
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Kevin Wilson’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere, and has twice been included in the anthology New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, where “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” appeared in 2006 He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yadoo, and the KHN Center for the Arts, and teaches fiction writing at the University of the South, where he also helps run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Wilson was born and raised in Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and son.
Author’s website: www.wilsonkevin.com
Photo credit: Leigh Ann Couch