China

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

part 1 of 3


It was a Saturday when I went out to work on the hole, but I was in my Sunday clothes. Dad had made me throw them in the dryer and put them on hot, because he said we were going to be late for saying goodbye to Lucky. I sat through the whole service, burning in my skin, while everybody said goodbye. Dad told me to stop squirming, and I thought it was kind of funny then because I’d heard him say the same thing once to a nightcrawler on his hook when we went fishing.

Almost everybody who said goodbye followed us home. They drove their cars all over our lawn and dad fed them crackers and his salmon dip. Our house isn’t that big. Old men and dad’s friends and people from the church all crammed themselves together like a bad game of Tetris. With all of them breathing and some of them laughing quietly the air got to feeling like those early days of summer when dad still refuses to turn on the air conditioner.

I asked dad if I could change into my play clothes, but he said I couldn’t. I waited until he had our pastor’s arm around his shoulders and his head bowed, and then I slipped into my bedroom and out the window.

I headed for the forest, right to where Lucky and I had been digging. We had a place a hundred yards into the thicker trees, right next to a creek, where we used to build forts together. Lucky would chop wood with a hatchet while I would draw plans in the pebbles for what the fort would look like. It took him hours to chop through even the smallest branches with his dull blade, like logging with a club, so we never got very far. The creek always washed out my designs, but I’d draw them up better each time.

When Lucky graduated from high school, we didn’t have as much time to make forts. I tried by myself, while he was away at college, but I never got into the rhythm of the hatchet. Mostly, I just played at stories of knights and assassins in the trees by myself. One summer, Lucky came home and said we were going to make something in the forest. He wouldn’t tell me what it was until we were out by the creek. He wore a smile like Orion’s belt, crooked and small and a long ways off.

“What are we going to build?” I asked when we could hear the familiar rush of the stream, its pitch the same as it had always been, like the voice of a father who only knows one bedtime story.

“We’re not going to build; we’re going to dig,” said Lucky. He had brought a shovel for him and a trowel for me. He told me to pick a spot away from the stream, so I found a place with ferns all around it and carved an X in the dirt. We dug for a while. Lucky stamped on the head of the shovel with his sneakers, pulling out piles of wet soil like bites from a cake.

“How deep are we digging?” I asked, chopping at sod with both hands on my trowel.

“All the way to China,” said Lucky. “That’s where I’m going next year. Do you remember Brodie? He came and visited us last Christmas. Him and me, we’re going there to spread the good news of Jesus. So, I want you to be able to come and find me. If you miss me, just come out here and keep digging, and sooner or later you’ll make it all the way to China, and I’ll be there.”

“They walk upside-down in China,” I said.

Lucky grinned and shook a bit of dirt into my hair for fun. “How do you know you walk right side-up?”

“The blood goes into my head when I’m upside-down.”

We dug for a couple of hours. By the time we were done for the day, we both had piles of dirt up to our shins, only Lucky’s shins were taller than mine.

“How close are we?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” said Lucky. He dusted off his hands against his jeans. “You’ll have to keep digging. Come on. Dad’s probably got dinner ready.”

Dad said that Lucky and Brodie were out late one night in Shanghai and some bullies tried to take all their money, which wasn’t very much. The bullies got angry, and they all got into a fight. One time, when I was in third grade, I got into a fight on the bus home from school. A big fifth grader named Angelo gave me a knuckle-punch because I wouldn’t let him see my wallet, and I scratched him back. He grabbed two of my fingers in his fist and twisted them like an Indian burn, and I cried out.

Lucky had been sitting two seats behind me, thumb-wrestling with one of his friends. When he heard me he stood up, even though the bus was moving. He took a couple steps up the aisle and the bus driver yelled at him to sit own. He didn’t, though; he stood between Angelo and me. That’s all, just stood. Angelo let go of me and tried to give Lucky a knuckle-punch, but got his hip by accident, and I heard his finger pop.

I wondered if that’s what he did in China, if he stood up. I remembered how tall he was, with the dirt up to his shins.

He wasn’t in China anymore, but I wanted to dig, to move away from all those people in my house where they wouldn’t think to look. My teachers always told me how much I reminded them of Lucky, in the way I looked and the way I acted. He was always such a good student, they would say, and vice-president of the technology club. My last report card was all A’s, and I came up with the idea this year of the technology club having a sleepover to play video games on the school’s computers.

Lucky went to China. I dug until my shoes were filled with cold dirt, and then I took my shoes off and kept going. I hadn’t made much progress on my own in the few months since Lucky left — maybe another couple feet down in a hole you could fit four of me into, shoulder-to-shoulder — but that night I guess I got down another whole foot. If I stood in the pit on my tiptoes, now, I could hook my chin on the lip of sod.

I crawled out of the hole on my hands and knees. My Sunday clothes were a mess; I’d never be able to wear them again, but I didn’t really want to. I walked back to my house with my head down, my fingers hooked in the laces of my shoes. Most all the people who had followed us home were gone, but I could still see a couple through the kitchen window, just talking with dad.

I took off my clothes, so they wouldn’t get the floor dirty, and wiped my bare feet in the grass so I wouldn’t leave filthy prints. Dad didn’t notice when I slipped inside. I went straight to the shower and buried my clothes at the bottom of the hamper. I was breathing all wet steam and letting my muscles melt when dad knocked on the door. It was gentle; maybe he had tried a few times before I heard him.

“Hey,” he said. “Great-uncle Steve wants to see how much you’ve grown.”

* * *

The next morning, with Lucky all the way in the ground, I felt weird when I got out of bed, almost as if I were a few inches taller than I should have been. Like humans who weren’t sure if they were supposed to fly, I tried to keep low, my head down and my neck kinda bowed. I ate breakfast with dad and a couple of relatives who had stayed the night, and then I asked to be excused.

I went right out to the forest with a promise to be ready for church in a couple of hours. I knew just how to fix my height problem. I could get so close to the ground that it swallowed me right up. It felt right, as if neck-deep in the dirt had been waiting for me to find it, like China had been waiting for Lucky.

As I approached the clearing, that sense of propriety vanished, replaced by an awkward fear that something was dreadfully wrong. The normal sounds of the forest were cloaked behind a sound like wind, but not quite — wind is an outward force, and this sounded and felt like one great indrawn breath.

The ferns and low bushes of the clearing were waving as if underwater, and the stream and leapt its banks by a few inches. They were all bending toward my hole to China. I felt my hair whip around my ears, tugging me toward the rounded lip.

I peered over the edge. The bottom, which had been far too shallow the previous day, now had disappeared into a cold, black distance. For a moment, I felt as if all my perceptions of distance had somehow become tangled in my brain to make four feet seem like a glimpse into infinite space. A quick experiment with my hand in front of my nose disproved that theory, and I lapsed into a kind of blankness, just staring down forever.

I whispered a couple of small words, and felt them tugged off of my lips like coiled ropes attached to a descending anchor. I raised my voice and never even heard an echo.

Next thing I did was what I bet anybody would have. I dug around the clearing until I had a good handful of different-sized rocks, and I dropped them one-by-one down into the hole. After the last one faded quickly out of sight I waited for a good five minutes, but I never heard anything other than that big, long inhale. The sound of it reminded me a bit of the times Lucky would take me fishing, because nature is nature. We would lay out bow-to-stern and shoulder-to-shoulder, this close to capsizing under our awkward weight, and listen to water slap against the hollow aluminum of our little boat. It was nothing, and it could fill hours.

I don’t know how long I spent staring down the hole, because I didn’t look what time it was when I first came out, but it must have been a while because dad started shouting and hard. I picked myself off the ground, dusted my knees, and ran to meet dad before he could find me at the hole. I knew he’d want to do something to it, or keep me from playing in the forest anymore.

You just know your parents like that. I know kids from school who ask their moms for money for the movies, and their dads to let them stay home sick from school, because it wouldn’t work the other way around. Lucky would have found our Fourth of July fireworks and tossed a lit sparkler down the hole. Dad wouldn’t.

He was in the backyard, walking head down toward the forest, and it looked as if he had given up on yelling. He was just angry. I thought about calling out to him that I was on my way, but decided not to. Sometimes if I don’t talk he doesn’t either. We just looked at each other, and I dusted off my jeans again.

“We’re late for church,” said dad, not as angry as his face looked.

“Sorry,” I said.

Dad got down on one knee so he was just a little bit shorter than me and put both his hands on my shoulders. “It’ll be back to you and me in just a bit, I promise. We can talk, then, and figure some of this out.” I nodded, and then he kinda jumped the gun. He kept talking, about everything that Lucky had touched in his life, or even just breathed on. I stood there in my dirty clothes and listened as he poured his words into me. He didn’t wait for echoes, but he wouldn’t have got them, anyway.

* * *

School the next day was about Galileo. It was just about the last week of school, so Mister Tripp had a bunch of fun things planned. Monday’s was a lesson on gravity, and the school janitor let us up on the roof for it. Mister Tripp stood at the edge overlooking the tether-ball courts and talked to us about how gravity is an acceleration, which meant getting faster all the time and only stopping with some other force to say so.

I hung at the back, because I’m a little scared of heights — actually, I’m more scared that I’ll take myself up on the urge to jump off of one some time. Angelo stayed back there with me, but for him it was because he didn’t feel like listening. Mister Tripp was going on about Galileo and his experiments, and I wanted to listen, but Angelo breathed down my cheek and said, “I heard about your brother. That’s what they do to homos over there.” I pulled away, because his breath smelled like farts, and came face-to with his grin. He always shut his eyes when he grinned, squinted them shut as if to make more room for his dull-toothed shark mouth.

I had learned a little trick from Lucky, back when he taught me to read using the book of Jonah and his high school science textbook. I grinned back at Angelo, but not so wide that I would lose sight of him. “Are you a homo sapien?” I asked.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

Home Page