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The Digger


ISSUE:  Fall 2010
splice of grass roots in earth.

I needed to rest so I rented a big house near the coast, far away from the city. I was almost there, following a gravel road toward the sea, when the thick grass made it impossible to go on driving. The roof of the house could be seen in the distance. I decided to get out. I took the bare essentials and went on by foot. It was getting dark and, although the sea was invisible, I could hear the waves reaching the shore. I was almost to the house when I stumbled on something.

“Is it you?”

I stepped back, afraid.

“Is it you, sir?” A man sat up with difficulty. “I haven’t wasted a single day. I swear it on my own mother …”

He spoke hurriedly; he smoothed out his wrinkled clothes and straightened his hair.

“It happens that just last … Imagine, sir, so close I couldn’t leave things for the next day. Come on, come on,” he said and climbed into a well among the weeds, only a step from where we stood.

I knelt down and looked over the edge. The hole was more than a meter wide and it was impossible to see anything. Who does a worker labor for if he doesn’t recognize his own boss? What might he be looking for digging so deep?

“Sir, will you be going down?”

“I think you’re mistaken.”

“What?”

I told him I would not go down and, since he didn’t respond, I went off to the house. It was only when I’d arrived at the stairs that I heard a distant very well sir, as you wish.

The next morning I went for the luggage I’d left in the car. The man sat on the porch of the house, head nodding in a vanquished sleep, balancing a rusty shovel between his knees. When he saw me, he left it and hurried to catch up. He walked behind me in silence. We arrived, he waited as I took everything from the car, and he carried the heaviest items. He asked if the packages were part of the plan.

“First I need to get organized,” I said, and I took the things he carried to keep him from coming into the house.

“Yes, yes, sir. As you wish.”

I went in. From the kitchen windows I could see the beach. There were barely any waves, the water perfect for swimming. I crossed the kitchen and spied through the front window: the man was still there. One moment he looked back toward the hole, the next he studied the sky. When I went out, he corrected his posture and greeted me respectfully.

“What shall we do, sir?”

I realized that a simple gesture on my part would have sufficed to send the man running back to the hole to start digging. I gazed past the dense, weedy grass, to the hole.

“How much longer?”

“Not much, sir, very little.”

“What does ‘not much’ mean to you?”

“Not much. I couldn’t say exactly.”

“Do you think you can finish tonight?”

“I can’t guarantee it. You know it doesn’t only depend on me.”

“Well, if you’re so into it, go do it.”

“Consider it done, sir.”

I saw the man take the shovel, go down the steps of the house to the meadow, and disappear into the hole.

Later I went into town. It was a sunny morning, and I wanted to buy a bathing suit to take advantage of the sea; after all, it wasn’t my concern if a man was digging a hole in a house that didn’t belong to me. I went into the only store I found open. When the salesman was wrapping my purchase, he asked, “And how’s your digger?”

I was silent for a few seconds, perhaps waiting for someone else to answer.

“My digger?”

He handed me the bag.

“Yes, your digger.”

I gave him the money and stared at the man, surprised. I couldn’t resist asking him, “How do you know about my digger?”

“What do you mean how do I know about your digger?” he said, as if he didn’t understand me.

I went back to the house. The digger, who was asleep on the porch, woke as I opened the door.

“Sir,” he said, standing, “there’s been great progress, could be we’re getting closer each moment …”

“I’d like to go down to the beach before it gets dark.”

I don’t recall why it seemed like a good idea to tell him this. But there he was, happy to hear it and ready to accompany me. He waited outside while I changed and a little later we walked to the sea.

“There’s no problem if we leave the hole?” I asked.

The digger stopped.

“Would you prefer I go back?”

“No, no, I’m just asking.”

“It’s just that should anything happen …” He feinted toward leaving. “It would be terrible, sir.”

“Terrible? What could happen?”

“It’s important to keep digging.”

“Why?”

He looked at the sky and didn’t answer.

“Well, don’t worry.” I kept walking. “Come with me.” The digger followed, uncertain.

Once on the beach, I sat to take off my shoes and socks. The man sat next to me, set the shovel beside him, and took off his boots.

“Do you know how to swim?” I asked. “Why don’t you join me?”

“No, sir. I’ll watch you, if that’s all right. And I brought the shovel, in case you think of a new plan.”

I stood and walked to the sea. The water was cold, but I knew the man was watching me, and I didn’t want to turn back.

When I returned, the digger was gone.

With a sense of doom, I looked for possible traces of him leading toward the water, in case he had taken my suggestion, but I found nothing and so decided to go back. I examined the hole and its surroundings. At the house, I searched the rooms with distrust. I stopped at the landing of the stairs. I called to him from the hallways, somewhat ashamed. Later I went out. I walked to the hole, looked in, and called to him again. I couldn’t see a thing. I lay face down at the edge, put my hand in, and felt along the sides; it was carefully built, sinking down toward the center of the earth. I considered the possibility of getting in but decided against it. When I pushed myself up, the edges of the hole crumbled. I grabbed onto the long weeds, paralyzed, and listened to the sound of the earth falling into the darkness. My knees slid along the edge, and I watched how the mouth of the hole caved in. I stood and studied the disaster. I looked around me, fearfully, but the digger was nowhere to be seen. Then it occurred to me I could fix the edges with a bit of wet earth, though I’d need a shovel and some water.

I went back to the house. I opened the closets, looked through two back rooms I’d never entered before, and checked in the washroom. Finally, in a box next to other old tools, I found a garden shovel. It was small, but it would be enough to get started. When I left the house, I found myself standing face to face with the digger. I hid the shovel behind me.

“I was looking for you, sir. We have a problem.”

For the first time, the digger eyed me suspiciously.

“Speak,” I said.

“Someone else has been digging.”

“Someone else? Are you sure?”

“I know the work. Someone else has been digging.”

“And where were you?”

“Sharpening the shovel.”

“Well,” I said, trying to be firm. “You dig what you can and try not to get distracted again. I’ll keep watch.”

He hesitated. He drifted a few steps before stopping and coming back to me. Without noticing it, I’d let my arm slip, and the shovel rested next to my legs.

He stared at me. “Were you planning on digging, sir?”

Instinctively I hid the shovel. He seemed not to recognize in me the man I’d been to him just a moment prior.

“Were you planning on digging?” he insisted.

“I’ll help you. You dig awhile, and I’ll take over when you get tired.”

“The hole is yours,” he said. “You can’t dig.”

The digger raised the shovel and, fixing his gaze on me, planted it into the earth.

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