A Quiet Afternoon Underground

One Saturday afternoon when I was about ten years old, I was up the maple tree above the driveway near the basketball hoop, where I spent a lot of time out of Mom's sight. I got there by climbing up the ladder into the garage attic, through the back hatch onto the playhouse roof, up through the treehouse to the willow crotch, out over the garage roof, and up the maple tree. The light was green up there. There were leaves all around, and the air smelled of maple sap. I was floating twenty feet above the driveway, with no one to bother me.

That day, my older brother and his alley buddy came around and called for me. Since he was my brother, I climbed all that long way down and went with them to the vacant lot down the street.

"Check it out," my brother said. They'd dug a round hole in the ground about three feet wide and four feet deep. "Get in there," his buddy said. I wasn't sure what this was about, but I did. I was looking around at the hole when they dropped a steel grating over the hole, and my brother rolled a big rock onto it. For a moment I met his eyes. He turned his head away, and he and his buddy disappeared. I heard whispering, and his buddy said, "No. Just wait!"

I heaved at the grating, but the rock was too heavy for me to lift. The grating was too narrow for me to slip my fingers into, and the rock pushed the grating down into the hole so I couldn't skid it sideways by friction. I sat down and thought things over, with a cold clarity I had never felt before. Was I really trapped? I didn't carry a pocketknife, but I did have a belt with a good, solid brass buckle. I pulled the belt off and dug at the dirt under the grating. It scraped away easily. For good measure I chewed a little at the layers farther down. The clay was tougher, but I knew I could dig my way out if I really had to.

What did they want? I knew, as clearly as if they had told me, that they wanted me to be afraid, to cry and beg, so they could laugh at me and feel big. And I knew that if I did those things, I would be their meat forever. So I wouldn't give them what they wanted, if I had to stay there all night. I could dig my way out if I really had to, and in a few hours it would get dark. Mom would be asking where I was, and if she found me here before they let me out, my brother would pay.

So I settled down for a quiet afternoon underground. The light was dim, but I examined everything, slowly and in detail. There was the smell of earth and plants. Up near the grating were the roots of grass and weeds, followed by about a foot of black dirt mixed with little stones. Below that was a layer of brown clay, and below that, a layer of small rocks, and below that bigger rocks. Under my butt was a really big rock, even bigger than the one my brother had rolled on top of the hole. Worm ends stuck out of the black dirt, and even out of the solid clay. The grass roots formed a solid mass, but other roots came out of the sides, some of them as thick as the branches that had surrounded me up in the maple. Ants and beetles crawled over the grass roots, and there were centipedes half as long as my thumb.

I picked at the layer of rocks for a while and pulled out some nice, smooth stones like those I'd found on the shore of Lake Superior, up in Michigan. Then I saw something else, at the top of the clay layer. It looked like a worm end, only stiff, not floppy. I picked it out and discovered I had a strange-looking nail, really rusty. The head was rectangular, not round like Dad's nails, and the shaft was rectangular and tapered toward a flat tip, not round and straight. It had to be really old. How old was it? Did someone forge it by hand? Who brought it there, and when?

Later, I had to piss. I thought it over, and dug a hole next to the big rock where the piss would trickle down out of my way. I carefully covered it up by scraping dirt off the wall with my belt buckle near where I'd found the nail. As I scraped, I saw something shiny. With careful work, I uncovered a flat, greenish bottle with raised lettering on it: "Old Crow." On the back was more lettering: "Coln O'Keefe, Wholesale & Retail Liquor Dealer, 97 Canal Street, Chicago, Illinois." In the neck of the bottle was a rotted cork. Nobody drank in my family that I knew of, but I'd read about "Old Crow" whisky in my books. I knew that the lower the layers were in the ground, the older they had to be. The Old Crow bottle was down with the square nail, so it had to be about the same age. I pulled it carefully out of the wall and put it with the nail and the rocks.

After a few hours, it started to get dark and chilly. I couldn't see much anymore. From time to time, I heard footsteps near the hole and whispers, and once I heard somebody calling my name, far away. I got bored and nervous, but that cold clarity was still with me. I was thinking about starting to dig my own way out when my brother came and rolled the stone away. I slid the grate off and climbed out. My brother said nothing, but in the twilight I saw shame on his face.

I said, "It's interesting down there. Look what I found!" I showed him the nail, the rocks, and the bottle, with the raised lettering that said, "Old Crow."