My son says that he is digging a hole to China. I go out in the yard. His little fists are wrapped around a garden spade. His throat flexes each time he throws a clod of dirt over his shoulder. My wife says that he has my nose, and my face, and my mulish stubbornness.
“How we doing buddy.” I hand him water and crackers.
“Digging a hole to China Dad.” He says, wiping fat pearls of sweat made milky with sunscreen from a wide shelf of forehead.
“Just be careful not to overheat.”
He returns self-seriously to the private business of little boys.
When we call him in for dinner his clothes are covered in dirt. He slouches in his chair, legs dangling, looking spent.
• • •
It is a rainy Saturday. My wife and I are together in the kitchen. She is making coffee and we are looking out into the yard. All we can see is his little yellow Gore-Tex cap, bobbing in and out of sight. Mud slides back into his hole with the rain.
“He looks like the Gordon’s fisherman” She jokes.
“He’s really set on making it to China.” I say.
He spends all of the next day drawing himself a tentative work schedule in crayon. In each little calendar box he has written a depth he hopes to hit by day’s end. We pin it to the fridge.
At night, I hear him in his room practicing conversational Chinese.
I peek my head in.
“How’s the Mandarin going?”
“It’s not Mandarin.” He explains. “It’s Pinyin. It’s the basic text Western children learn in school, before they’re ready to transition to Mandarin, because it’s readable with Romanized characters.”
“That’s great buddy.”
“The hole is getting very deep now. I’m going to need to get more intentional about design.”
“Your teacher said on the phone you won’t go outside for recess.”
“I have to conserve my energy for the dig.” He says, not looking up from Chinese For Kids!
• • •
We are at a parent-teacher conference. My son has begun falling asleep at school. He is losing weight. All the chubby babyfat has receded from his arms and cheeks.
“Is something different at home?” His teacher asks.
My wife and I shake our heads mutely, hold hands under the table.
I go out at night and inspect the hole. He is right that it is getting quite deep. I can hardly see the bottom in the dark. He has dragged in our aluminum ladder from the garage for him to climb up and down while he works.
I argue with my wife about filling it in while he sleeps.
“My parents always undermined my decisions and I never forgave them for it, Dan.”
“This is different.” I say.
“Is it? or is it just your kid?” she kisses my cheekbone and goes to bed.
I get a call at work about authorizing purchases made recently on my credit card. I come home and find my son out in the yard.
“Buddy” I say.
“Yeh Dad” he does not look up from measuring out some obscure dimension.
“There’s an outstanding charge on my card for a three-thousand-dollar percussive drill and sump pump.”
I stand awkwardly waiting for him to say something more. When he does not, I say:
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that.”
He looks up impatiently. It is the sort of impatience you only show people who love you unconditionally.
“I’m about to breach the water table in the next few days.” He says. “It was either that or a sough. And the drill is necessary for the project to continue on schedule.”
“We don’t have that kind of money, Buddy. It doesn’t grow on trees.”
“What I’m hearing” he says, appraising me with the same arithmetic stare he reserves for the floor of his hole “Is that you have never sufficiently believed in a project, to invest all of yourself in it.”
I go back into the house looking nervous and agitated. My wife calms me down.
“How’s the hole to China going” she asks him over dinner that night.
“Dirt walls are a problem” he says. He shovels food into his little body, trying to outcompete some vast calorie deficit. Shakes his overlarge head. “They’re structurally unsound. Rain, water-seepage, the very act of digging will eventually destabilize them.”
He seems to be speaking mostly to himself.
“Well, failure’s a better teacher than success.” I say encouragingly.
He fixes me with a level, unblinking stare.
“I didn’t say that it’s not salvageable.”
I feel a flush creep up my face.
“Right” I say, a little annoyed, “sorry.”
“It is frankly unbelievable to me that I haven’t hit bedrock yet.” He remarks, returning to his food.
“Very lucky.” My wife agrees.
“I’ll need to install horizontal braces along the shaft for support.” He chews on a dinner roll.
• • •
The drill arrives on the back of a truck. My wife convinces me to talk to the credit card company about paying down the principal over time, increasing my rotating monthly credit limit. She takes my son to Home Depot and they return with huge criss-crossing lumber struts.
My son sets right to work, clambering back down into his hole. I go out to check on him.
“You want any help with anything buddy.”
He squints up from the ladder.
“I don’t think you know anything about the structural integrity of the shaft Dad.” He says, apologetic.
“O.K.” I say.
“I do need someone to contact the embassy about Non-lucrative Visa requirements.” He remarks from the bottom of the hole. “If you don’t mind putting something together for me to look over later.”
I go back inside and draft a form email to a nameless Chinese diplomat.
• • •
It’s Spring vacation. My son, for his seventh birthday, requested a hardhat with headlamp, and industrial pulley and crank. He put together a book-fair with the diocese (even though we are not religious) to raise money for steel braces (to replace the lumber struts) and a small three-man crew to go down into the hole with him.
“I’d like to treat the fellows to a meal.” He explains to his mother “After all the hard work they’ve put in.” She hands over her debit card for him to order pizza and soda. He looks apologetic.
• • •
He grows more distant, his work more dangerous, by the day. We are cast further in debt. He is monomaniacally fixated. His project has gone overschedule and overbudget. He makes terse announcements at dinner.
“We hit bedrock today. A week late.” His face is always dirty with soot. I scrub furiously whenever I’m giving him a bath, but it doesn’t ever come fully off. “Harvey—the draftsman—he says we need to start tunneling at a forty-five-degree angle, to make rock-removal feasible at the rates we’re expecting.”
Neighbors come over to gawk at the project. The whole back yard is covered in dust. No one ever complains about noise, my son keeps strict hours that correspond with the neighbors’ work schedules.
“What’ve you got going back there Dan? Pool?”
“My son’s digging a hole to China.” I say.
“Wish I could get mine out of bed ha-ha.”
“Yeh.” I force a smile.
My son’s mood grows dark and portentous.
“Drill blew out today.” He says.
“I’m sorry.” My wife says.
He shrugs. “Was inevitable.”
“What does that mean for the project, going forward?” My wife says.
“We’re going to need to start in with explosives.” He says grimly. “Which means more safety regulations, which means permits and paperwork. I’m going to need one of you two cosigning on anything that requires an adult, obviously.”
My wife and I exchange a look.
“Buddy.” I say. “What if we just stop here.”
He looks back and forth between us, small hands wrapped around his silverware, knuckles standing out white.
“Just that” My wife tries, clearing her throat “It’s getting expensive, and your teachers say if you miss any more school you’re going to have to repeat.”
“Should I greatly treasure a formal education if its proponents are so blinkered they can’t be brought to see what is right in front of them?” he asks flatly.
“What is right in front of them, Buddy?”
He looks at me eyes widening.
“Another world. A continent weighed down by one point five billion people. Right under your feet. And yet you, your neighbors—none of you—have ever tried to make it there.”
“When I was your age.” I say, “I tried to dig to China.”
He smiles without any humor in it.
“And how far did you get.”
“I don’t know.”
“For you it was a game.” He says. “Some childish fancy, like an imaginary friend.”
“No” I say defensively.
“You made an imaginary friend out of a continent of people who were just as real as you were. You dug a pit out in the yard with your—whatever—your plastic shovel, and you abandoned the attempt the same day. You never reckoned with the enormity of the task before you, the things that would be required of you. Eight hundred million humans lifted out of poverty in your lifetime and you treated the project of reaching them with all the seriousness of a capricious infant.”
“No” I say, sounding in my own ears, wounded, strident, “That’s wrong. I really wanted to go.”
“If that’s true.” He says, looking at me, “It is even sadder.”
I get up to wash the dishes.
“What if we start to save money so that in five or ten years you can fly to China, to visit?” My wife suggests mollifyingly.
My son shakes his head, looking mournful and remote, as if to engage with this suggestion would be to concede some key article of faith.
• • •
Summer vacation comes. He works even longer hours out in the hole. I encourage him to stay hydrated but he hardly acknowledges my advice. The pile of rock they’ve removed from his hole has grown so large that trucks are required to come haul it off. We all must wear masks out in the yard on account of the silicate dust. Neighbors have finally grown fed up with the noise and the dust, the eyesore, but my son’s permits are all in order. The couple down the road have begun the slow process of bringing the matter before the county selectmen.
One night he brings a bearded, tweed-draped man with him to dinner.
“This is Doctor McPhee.” He explains “From the Geological Survey.”
Doctor McPhee is faultlessly polite and very complimentary. After the lasagna, my son and him stay up in the living room, drinking coffee and juice, pouring over a bedrock map.
“We’ve mapped five kilometers more of Heartland Schist” McPhee points “then here’s where you’ll hit a relatively thin band of Littleton Marble, then at depth, you come on about ten more kilometers of Waterford Gneiss.”
“After that what?” I say, hovering in the doorway. Both look up, they seem surprised to see me there.
“Inferred basement rocks.” My son says.
“Meaning you don’t know.” I say.
“Meaning we infer that there are basement rocks.” He sniffs. He turns to McPhee. “Can I keep this, to make copies?”
• • •
Explosions issue from the hole daily.
My son gives the dig crew off on days when they’re not clearing rock from his hole in order to keep costs down. Every time one of these explosions occurs he raises himself back out of the hole via the pulley, to confirm to us that he is alright. He has graduated now from Pinyin to true Mandarin. He is in negotiations with someone high up at the Party Committee offices about negotiating jurisdiction, immigration issues, peripheral commercial matters.
“We have to partner with a Chinese company.” He explains to me as he is lowered into the hole by the Draftsman, “It’s part of their regulatory structure regarding foreign concerns. We are getting very close now.”
It is late summer, and my wife and I are talking quietly about whether he will be able to go back to school.
We have stopped keeping track of depth. The man from the USGS came back the day the dig crew breached mantle. The Governor pronounced it “an historic occasion” and pinned my son with a ribbon. He didn’t seem to care.
One day I come home from work to argue with him about another of the charges that has popped up on my credit card. The crew is off today. I walk to the mouth of the hole.
“Bud.” I call. “I need to talk to you, this is getting out of hand.”
But I do not hear the impatient sigh that normally presages his emerging. I walk back in the house and ask my wife if he is in his room, or at a friend’s house. She shrugs.
I search the house, begin to get nervous, come back down to the kitchen. Has she heard any explosions come from the hole today? She shakes her head no.
“He’s probably just napping down there.” She says.
We walk back out to the hole together.
My wife calls my son’s name.
I say: “Bud, we’re getting a bit worried up here.”
We look at each other.
“It won’t have caved-in, he was too meticulous.” She says.
I clamber into the basket of the mining elevator.
“I’ll lower you.” My wife says. She pulls the lever we have seen the draftsman pull.
The platform begins to descend carrying me down into the swallowing dark.
I hold my hand in front of my face and cannot see it.
I call out again, fearing, as I am lowered not some cave-in or collapse, but that he has made it, punched all the way through, to the continent he began at seeking, that he is somewhere now, on the other side of the planet, underneath a different hemisphere entirely, different stars and constellations entirely, that he has emerged finally after months spent in the ancient ground, and laid eyes on the land that has vouchsafed his most shaping fantasies. That he is happy there, without me, and there is no way I will ever be able to bring him back home again.