Our backyard was large and sprawling, cut off from the rest of the neighborhood by a tall white fence. For as long as we could remember, Dad mowed the lawn every Sunday and Mom grew sunflowers near the shed. But that spring, after the trouble started, we were the only ones who ventured past the sliding glass door.
Mrs. Stone, who lived down the street, came over once. She asked if our parents were home and we led her to the kitchen. As soon as she reached them she pulled a vial from her pocket, popped it open, and shook it in Mom’s direction. Mom flinched and Dad began to shout. Mrs. Stone apologized, claimed it was only holy water and she was just trying to help. “Think about your daughters,” she said, her voice pleading. But we had never been to church, never prayed or confessed, did not recognize her blessings. It was not in our nature.
After Mrs. Stone left, Mom mopped up the water and Dad drank a beer. We crept through the back door and into the yard. The episode unsettled us, and we were already on shaky ground. We began to kick at the grass behind the shed, slowly exposing the earth like a wound. This was how it began.
The hole was small at first. We didn’t have real shovels, just plastic ones meant for the beach. If we pushed too hard they threatened to crack, so we dug carefully, tenderly.
The first thing we uncovered was a Barbie doll, a relic from when we were smaller. It lay naked in the dirt, blond hair matted, bottom lip scratched. We brushed the caked mud from its body, revealing hills and valleys in the arches of its feet, the swell of its breast. When we were younger and owned a whole village of dolls, we’d take off their clothes and press their bodies together, moaning and sighing the way we imagined adults did. The way our parents must have, before. The way we might, one day. The game always felt profane and one day, in a fit of penance, we threw every last doll into the yard. When we unearthed this one, our shamed bloom anew.
It was getting dark and the wind had picked up. Across the neighborhood, a dog howled. We threw the doll into the trash and rolled the can to the curb, hoped the truck would come by soon and take her away for good.
The bottles were not far below the Barbie, so we knew they weren’t ancient. Our guess was that they’d been buried a few years ago, before Dad quit drinking, before he started again. He used to sit behind the shed, hidden by the tall sunflowers, and emerge glassy-eyed an hour or so later, his voice too loud, his body too loose. Mom would purse her lips and fix dinner in silence, and we’d watch carefully, cataloging their every movement. Things were better after he stopped going behind the shed, but we knew his strength was circumstantial. Mom knew it, too, which is why she waited so long to go to the doctor.
We didn’t care about the bottles, really. They weren’t pretty or rare, and we couldn’t think of a game to play with them. That should have been the end of the hole, but we weren’t ready to give it up. Digging gave us something to do, a reason to stay out of the house. And so we kept going, deeper each day, the dirt burrowing under our fingernails and following us like a fog.
The hole, still blocked from view by the shed, was nevertheless getting harder to hide. When we stood inside it, the tops of our heads disappeared. We were between three and four feet tall, but didn’t know our exact height. Our parents stopped measuring us against the doorframe after Mom got sick. Now we’d never know how much or how little we’d grown.
We were thinking about this loss when we found the gold coins. They glinted at the bottom of the hole, even through the dust and grime. At first we thought maybe it was fool’s gold. Dad had given us some a few years ago, told us it was real and then laughed as we discussed how to spend it. When Mom revealed the truth we wanted to be angry, but couldn’t. We didn’t care that the gold was fake—it still glittered.
This gold, however, was different. The coins were flat disks, ribbed on the edges, a serious face emblazoned on the front of each one. Some of the coins were scattered in the dirt; when we dug a bit deeper, we found a threadbare bag filled with hundreds more. The bag was heavy, and as we lifted it out of the hole we worried it would break, that the coins would rain down on our heads. It held. We carried it into the house, past the couch where Mom napped all day. Dad was working extra hours since Mom left her job, and we knew we should give the coins to him, to help, but we wanted to keep them. We’d already lost so much and we’d dug the hole, after all. We split the bag in two, hid the coins beneath our mattresses and made our beds with tight hospital corners. When Mom woke up, she thanked us for keeping our room so neat.
Last year one of our classmates brought a gun to school. He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone—he just wanted to show off. A teacher saw him slipping the gun from his backpack into his cubby and took him to the principal’s office. We never saw him again. So we were nervous when we pushed aside a pile of rocks and found the gun, even though it was old and rusted and probably didn’t work. We recognized the shape of violence.
It didn’t seem right to tuck the gun beside the gold coins, as if its rust would make them glitter less. We thought about burying it again, but quickly abandoned that idea. Once something was unearthed, we had to face it—that was the deal we’d struck with the hole. Finally we picked it up at the same time, sharing the burden as we’d done since last spring. It was just beginning to get dark. Mom would wake soon and of all the things we’d found so far, this would get us in the most trouble. Our house was not far from the bay, though it was farther than we were allowed to walk. We walked there anyway, the gun raised between us like a scar. The marina was empty when we reached it, boats bobbing silently on the surface. Above us, a seagull screamed. We carried the gun to the end of the dock and, on the count of three, slid it into the water. It shot to the bottom, weighed down by things we couldn’t see. The water was shallow but dark and no one swam there anyway. The gun would be safe and so would we.
Eventually it was too hard to dig any deeper. The earth became rocky and would not yield to our plastic shovels. Instead of giving up we started to dig out, expanding the circumference of the hole. We knew this was dangerous, that our parents might see its ragged edge from the kitchen window, darkening the grass blade by blade. It was a risk we had to take. Luckily no one used the kitchen anymore. Mom had migrated to her bed, where she lay with her eyes closed, asleep or pretending to be. Dad brought takeout home for dinner, which we ate on the living room floor, in the light of the television. Our house was shutting down room by room, and we might have mourned each loss if it wasn’t for the hole.
We weren’t expecting to find a bell, but that’s what the hole gave us next. As it slowly emerged we realized it was old and large, at least three times our size. Made of bronze and impossibly smooth, it felt like glass beneath our hands. It was beautiful, if you liked that sort of thing; we preferred gold coins. There was nowhere to put the bell even if we got it out of the hole, so we left it there and worked around it, clearing dirt and rocks, revealing its slope inch by inch. By the time we were done the bell sat in the center of the hole as if on a stage, ready to chime if only someone would ring it.
The hole became so big that we stopped going to school. We were afraid someone would fill it while we were gone, erasing all our work. Meanwhile, Dad stumbled around in a stupor and Mom grew thinner each day. The hole was all we had left.
A few months before we left school we learned how parts of the earth that are now desert were once ocean. Waves lapped the Sahara, mountain peaks were submerged in salt water. When we reported these facts to our parents, Dad didn’t believe us and Mom just said “interesting” in a way that revealed she was not interested at all. Although out neighborhood had never been a desert, the ocean was closer than most things. So it didn’t seem farfetched to assume the bone we found in the hole once belonged to a whale. It was long, white and smooth, the length of a human leg. We brushed the last pebbles from its surface, then stepped back and stared.
Until that moment, we’d been a team. We carried the gun together, we split the gold coins, we dug and dug and dug. But the bone changed us; neither one wanted it. In the hole we began to fight, slinging dirt in one another’s faces, throwing rocks and sticks. When one of us tried to scramble up the side of the hole, the other pulled her back in. We cried, we bled, we howled, and still no one came. Finally we collapsed on top of the bell and draped ourselves over its gentle curve. In this way, the hole cradled us.
Eventually, we came to a compromise. We brought the bone into our bedroom and took turns sleeping with it beneath our mattresses. A sign that we’d made the right choice: at night, in our dreams, we heard whales singing.
“Your mom is going to be fine,” Dad said. We’d just finished up another TV dinner, the plastic peeled back from our cardboard trays too soon, our faces flush with steam. “She’s a fighter. She always has been.” He’d had five beers in lieu of dinner—we counted—and his eyes were half closed, which made his lies sound like a prayer. We knew not to believe him. By now the hole had shown us there was no way to predict what you might unearth next, and no way to stop digging once you started. Like all of life, it was a journey that only led down.
We told ourselves we were done with the hole. The bruises from our fight over the bone were still darkening, and red scratches lined our arms. For three days we stayed away, left the sliding glass door locked. It rained, and we imagined the hole filling with water, felt the cool flood of relief wash over us.
But we broke our promise. Neither of us could sleep and we lay in our twin beds, staring at the ceiling, listening to the rain and the whales and the weeping on the other side of the wall. First one of us slipped out of bed, then the other. Through the dark house, out the door, across the yard. The hole was muddy and we slipped on our way to the bottom. It was too wet to dig but we dug anyway. Every time we lifted a handful of mud from the bottom, a new avalanche took its place. Still, we worked until the rain stopped and the sun rose. When we finally emerged, it was difficult to tell where our limbs ended and the hole began.
When we found the casket’s corner, we paused. It was made of wood, solid as the church bell and more frightening than the musket. Because a casket meant a burial, and while the whale’s bone had not concerned us, a human was different.
By this point the hole had spread considerably, butting up against the edges of our backyard in all four directions. Our fence, once perpendicular to the grass, now tilted inward, losing its purchase on the soil. Animals had begun to explore it. Each morning we saw evidence of their presence, scratch marks made by their claws that showed us where to dig next. We always followed their directions.
Because we didn’t know what else to do, we continued to uncover the casket. It was nailed shut, a rough-hewn cross on its lid. There were handles on either side, a pair in the front and another in the back. We tried to lift it but, like the bell, it was too heavy. By the time we finished uncovering it the sun was high in the sky, so bright we had to squint. We don’t know how long Mom stood above us. Until she spoke. It was the first time we’d heard her voice in weeks.
“What are you doing?” she whispered. “What have you done?”
We almost didn’t recognize her. She’d grown so thin that when she turned sideways, she nearly disappeared. Her hair, once long and thick, had begun to fall out weeks ago. As she stood beside the hole the wind picked up, gusting so hard it pushed her back, away from what we’d uncovered.
That was the only time she ever asked us about the hole. A few days later Dad trucked in new dirt, laid sod across the yard so it looked exactly as it had last spring. After that, we stopped digging. We kept our hands clean.
Author Bio: Christine Hennessey’s writing has appeared in Joyland, Cleaver, StorySouth, Necessary Fiction, The Boiler, Bodega, Prime Number, and LIT, among others. She’s been awarded fellowships to Aspen Summer Words and the Vermont Studio Center and was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington and continues to live in coastal North Carolina, where she’s currently at work on a novel.