The Bottomless Pit
by Sharma Shields, recommended by Henry Holt
EDITOR’S NOTE BY CAROLINE ZANCAN
Remember that time, when you were around six — maybe even four or five if you were one of those precocious, dare-accepting, grass-stained kids with dirty nails — when you watched that scary movie you weren’t technically allowed to watch? And then a night or two later, when your bedroom was particularly dark and the hallway outside your bedroom was suspiciously quiet, you couldn’t sleep because you were alive with the things that movie had shown you? Things that still burned on the back of your flower-petal-delicate eyelids. And you were terrified, sure, but you didn’t even mind, because it was also electrifying. The many terrors and wonders a human could encounter on their walk across the earth made you want to crawl into your mom’s bed, maybe, but they also made that long walk a lot more interesting.
Well, “The Bottomless Pit” would make the hair on that movie’s neck stand up.
You might wonder, at first, how the brilliant, nimble Sharma Shields has terrified and transfixed you so, because there aren’t any of the cheap tricks of childhood movies here — there’s no blood or guts, there is no man with a chainsaw chasing a girl. It’s just a boy and his dog and the father who cares for them. Reading “The Bottomless Pit,” it’s the subtler, unknowable dangers and mysteries and unanswered questions of the world that nibble at the corners of your mind. The small, everyday kind of strange we’ve all encountered at some point: a door you could’ve sworn you locked that’s suddenly open; the animal you just know is trying to say something to you. Things too strange to tell your friends about, if only because saying them out loud would confirm your fear, or give it a voice.
Creepy is one word for this story, but anyone with a little imagination can do creepy. What’s truly remarkable is that it’s also funny and devastating and, somehow, despite its fantastical elements, true. It’s bizarre, yes, but also familiar, and very human. It’s wise and heartbreaking, and the ending is shocking and totally unforeseeable but totally satisfying — just right — in the way all the best endings are.
Because I was lucky enough to work with Sharma as the editor of her novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac from which “Bottomless Pit” is taken, I can tell you that every one of her stories has a creature or scenario equally fresh and mind-bending. And the thing that might surprise you the most — and keep you up long after you’ve finished reading — is that by the time Shields is done with you, you’ll have grown some love, or at least empathy, for the strange and other worldly forces you’ve encountered. Because if there’s one thing that’s certain here, it’s that there’s a little monster in all of us.
Associate Editor, Henry Holt
The Bottomless Pit
by Sharma Shields, recommended by Henry Holt
Eli was only ten years old when Greg Roebuck, the boy’s hardworking father, found the family dog struck dead by a car.
The dog’s name was Hermit. He had been the perfect companion for Greg’s lonely son. Frost stitched the body to the side of the road. Greg pried it free, the wind stinging his eyes. He carried the body back to the house.
He went to wash his hands in the sink, thinking only of his son. He dreaded Eli’s reaction. The boy had already lost his mother. And now this. What sort of unmoored life would Eli live if his childhood proved only a steady parade of loss?
When Eli arrived from school, Greg met him on the dirt road that led to the house. The fields were heavy and frozen and stank of manure. Greg, tongue-tied, motioned grimly: Follow me. The boy tensed. It began to snow. They entered the house together. Eli did not drop his rucksack to the ground or remove his coat.
In the kitchen, Greg mumbled an apology. He had covered Hermit’s body with an old blue quilt, and he whipped it aside now as though unveiling a prize. You asshole, Greg chided himself. Slowly, now. Slowly!
He had rested the dog on the table, and he chided himself for that, too, given his son’s already timid appetite.
Greg could not bring himself to look Eli in the face; he heard only the great intake of breath, the fumbling of his boy’s fingers over Hermit’s body, and then a series of brief, staccato questions delivered almost professionally: When? Where? Who did this? How long was he there? Did it hurt him? Is he gone forever? Can we save him? Why is there so little blood? This doesn’t even really look like Hermit, does it?
The questions droned on, weird and touching, and Greg offered few answers. He reached out like a blind man and randomly patted his son’s shoulders, wondering if this offered any comfort at all or if it only registered faintly to the boy, like raindrops, maybe, or like tears.
Greg had felt similarly useless when Agnes left. Like Hermit, she was gone, both disappearances untimely and permanent.
The boy was crying now, his questions finished for the time being, his little heart accepting in throbbing registers the fullness of its wreckage.
“Whatever you want for dinner tonight,” Greg said. “Muffins. Candies. Root beer.”
Eli could not respond, could only turn and run from the room, to his bedroom, to his bed. Greg heard the small mattress receive him with a groan. Uncertain of what to say or how to proceed, Greg went to the door and listened to Eli’s earnest, desperate prayers.
“God,” the boy pleaded, “I’ll do anything. Please bring Hermit back. This is a dream. Say it’s a bad dream. Wake me up, God. Wake me up. Wake me up! Please, God, wake me up.”
Greg stood quietly in the hallway, rooted to the floor by the deep strands of his son’s woe; he was strengthened somehow by the purity of these strands, their unfathomable depth and beauty. How pierced the earth was, too, how altered. Around their tiny woodland home, the air seemed to shimmer and thicken. The new world, Greg saw, was a place of great love and great loss.
Eli whispered himself into a fitful sleep and later, much later, emerged. Greg had removed the dog’s carcass to the woodpile outside. He sat now with the newspaper on his lap, the newly washed surface of the kitchen table gleaming like the belly of a fish.
“I want to bury him,” Eli said.
“It’s done,” Greg lied, wanting to save the boy the pain of the activity, the horrible labor involved. “He’s already buried.”
Eli began to cry. “Then we’ll dig him up. I want to see him again. I want to clip some of his fur. I want to bury him. Me.”
He sobbed, utterly broken.
It was not uncommon for Greg to scold himself for being a poor father, but now, too, he was a liar.
“Eli. Don’t fret. He’s there. He’s right there. I just thought — well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. Anyway. If you want to bury him, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Relief crossed the boy’s face, a look that was so close to joy that Greg felt unburdened. Yes, he thought. This is a good activity for a boy and a dad to do together. Bury the family dog. And tomorrow — a Saturday, the only day this week that Greg didn’t work — we’ll go to town together to choose a new dog.
And they did.
The new dog had no name for nearly a full week, but then, out of the blue, Eli began calling her Mother.
Greg disliked the dog. He had disliked Hermit, too, in the beginning. He didn’t like dogs, generally speaking. He liked animals with a purpose: horses, cows, pigs; animals to pull, milk, eat. He had brought Hermit home not long after Agnes’s departure, at the suggestion of a friend, to make their motherless, wifeless household appear less lonely. It was a strategy that had, to Greg’s relief, worked. Eli became happier, dedicating himself again to his schoolwork, so long as the dog remained by his side, Hermit’s tail slapping out a friendly beat on the battered wood floor. Eli’s grades improved, his friendships improved, his relationship with his father improved. And, either out of a feeling of gratefulness or just because Hermit was such a good-hearted dog, Greg, too, began to love the animal. Not the way he loved Eli. But just enough. The three of them made a respectable family.
But the new dog was strange. She was a mutt, part Welsh terrier, part some-other-breed-he-couldn’t-remember, a breed that, the breeder told him, had delicate bones. She was shaggy like a terrier, with a terrier’s round wet nose, a nose that shocked Greg when she pressed it like a soggy sponge into his hand or bare leg, a thankfully infrequent behavior. But he definitely did think of the word delicate when he saw her — she was delicate, not doglike at all but graceful, careful, like a long-limbed bird. Hermit had been overeager, sliding across the floorboards when Eli came home, racing frantically and clumsily around corners, but the new dog literally stepped, that cold black nose in the air, like some well-trained Spanish show horse, from one corner of the house to another, lifting each foot off the floor with a gait suitable for dressage, as though disgusted by Greg’s housekeeping. When she wasn’t traipsing about the house like an elegant snob, she sat dolefully in the corner, staring out the window, or she turned those black shining eyes on Greg. Regarding him, she seemed unimpressed.
Mother enjoyed Eli and she abbreviated the boy’s grief, but, compared with Hermit, she was measured and fussy. She would sit with Eli at the couch, for example, but she would not approach the boy if he sat in his father’s recliner. Or she would greet Eli at the back door when he returned from school, the door facing the woods, but never the front door, facing the road. The boy changed his habits to suit her, but Greg was annoyed. He wanted to return the dog and find a more affectionate one, although he could never bring himself to suggest this to his son. Eli already loved her, and Greg begrudgingly tried to accept this love. But she reminded him of something, or someone, although he couldn’t quite think of what or who it was, not until Eli called her Mother.
It was true. Eli’s mother. The damn dog reminded him of Agnes.
Despite the wild red rage that flamed in him when he connected dog with woman, Greg could not bring himself, despite the years of rejection and regret, to hate the dog fully. Not yet. Eli loved her. Eli was quick to forgive her quirks, and the dog, in turn, became almost, if not quite, affectionate with him. It was not unlike the odd mother-and-son relationship that Greg had witnessed when Eli was little. It had been a relationship that comforted him as well as frightened him, with its easy floating intimacy, its foreign, accepting quiet. Greg’s own mother had been effusive, tender to the point of discomfort. Not so with Agnes. She had been attentive but distant, kind but aloof. In some moments he found her to be the best sort of mother possible, a mother who never raised her voice in anger or sighed in annoyance, but in other moments he found it bizarre — disturbing, even — that she sometimes did not notice Eli at all. There was, for example, the incident with the wood chipper, when Eli had shoved his little fist into its maw, curious. It was off, thank God, but Greg, pulling weeds from the flower bed, had launched to his feet with an angry shout, warning the toddler never to approach the machine again, all while Agnes stared vacantly into the trees, her face as black and unreadable as a crow’s. Later, Greg had asked her how she had not noticed. She had been standing with Eli, practically on top of him. How had she not seen what he was about to do, what he did? What if the wood chipper had been on? What if Eli had managed, being a smart boy, to turn it on right at that very instant?
Agnes had turned toward him, her face still empty. “There are people who worry. There are people who don’t.”
A little worry, Greg argued, was a good thing where a child was concerned. A boy as smart as Eli, as smart and as fragile, well, to go through parenthood with blinders on was unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable.
Agnes had smiled at him, and the smile reduced him, as always it did, to an insignificant, paltry thing: a man, a husband, a father — the ridiculous sex. As he spoke, his anger and worry waned.
What right did he have to tell a woman how to be? Wasn’t Eli growing up to be a marvelous boy, a truly kind and rational and generous child, a child rumored by other parents and the schoolhouse to be, in fact, brilliant? Men had no rights in these matters, and Greg was ashamed. After all, he was not in the house daylong, as she was. She knew Eli best. And he supposed, as many men supposed, that she loved her child more than he did. He backed off. His wife expressed no gratitude and no annoyance with him either way. If anything, she seemed simply bored with the whole affair.
And that was how Mother behaved, too. Bored. Not angry or tense, not furtive or sad. Just bored. At night, Greg passed by his son’s room, saying hello and good night on his way to work; he held down the night shift at a filthy pub, a job that was easy and decent despite the long, late hours. Usually Eli would already be asleep, one hand clutching the fur on Mother’s back. Mother, however, never slept. She lay very still, statuesque, but Greg had not once seen the dog’s eyes close. She didn’t even bother to raise her head to study Greg — she merely combed him over with her eyes, judgeless but uninviting. God, the boredom!
And, like Agnes, the dog simply lay there, visibly but joylessly caring for his son. Greg wondered if she would suddenly up and disappear, just mysteriously vanish. He considered purchasing another dog straightaway, to soften the blow of such a departure. Or he could put the dog down now and save them all from an even bigger misery down the road.
Most days, Greg found additional work mending fences or loading hay or repairing downed power lines, and he would sleep only two or three hours before rising and heading out to work again, his brain sloshing in his skull like a bowl of cold soup. It was dangerous to work in such a twilight state, especially driving testy machinery or climbing the bald telephone poles, but others did the work drunk or just plain boggled with stupidity. Greg was sure-footed, small but coordinated, his hands as deft as a raccoon’s, and he performed as well on no sleep as other workers did on a full night’s rest. He took whatever job was offered to him: He was saving for his son’s schooling. Eli deserved all he could provide. Greg had little else to give the boy if he died, other than the furniture and his good rifle, so he worked and saved.
When he left in the morning, he would knock on the door to his son’s room and say, “Leaving now. Go to school. Feed the dog.”
The boy never needed to be told these things, but Greg liked to have a reason to look in on him, his yellow tufts of hair poking up from the blankets, the room awash with the sweet smells of his boyhood, smells of salty earth and maple syrup and warm, fetid sleep. Rarely, the boy stirred, but sometimes he lifted his head from the blankets just long enough to say, without opening his eyes, “Goodbye, Daddy,” and Greg’s heart filled and spilled over. He loved his son. He was not, he knew, the world’s best father. But, goddamn it, he did love his son.
One morning, on the way to scale poles just outside Wallace, Idaho, Greg poked his head into his son’s room and saw that he slept alone. He said goodbye and gave the boy a kiss on the forehead. Eli grumbled something and turned over, taking with him most of the blankets and a corner of the fitted sheet. Greg stood and gazed for a moment, embraced by the old, sleepy sensation of love. Then he went into the kitchen to retrieve his thermos of coffee and his lunch: some salami, a hard knob of cheese, and a round rock of a plum, dried to a small black husk. The same food sat in another satchel in the fridge, ready for Eli to ferry to school. Greg went to the front door and pulled on his work boots and began to tie the laces. He was energized and hopeful despite his short night of sleep. As he finished tying his right boot, Greg heard a soft snuffling noise. He raised his eyes to find Mother staring at him, her nose wet from the water dish, or maybe from drinking out of the toilet, something Hermit had loved to do, although Mother likely believed herself too good for such a lowbrow habit.
Greg smiled at the dog and patted his leg. “Here, girl. Here, Mother.”
Mother did not so much glare at him as raise her eyebrows with incredulity.
“Come here,” he said softly. “Come here, Agnes.”
The dog moved forward hesitantly.
Greg opened the palm of his hand.
“Agnes,” he said. “I thought so.”
Mother peered at the palm of his hand with a regal expression, as though staring down into a pit of snakes. She did not move closer.
Greg wanted to cradle the dog for a moment. Not in any weird, sexual way, he told himself. Just to feel her warmth, anything’s warmth, curled against him. Mother yipped in protest as he grabbed her collar and pulled her to his chest.
“Stay,” he said. “Stay. Mother. Agnes. Stay put.”
She squirmed against him and he held her there harder. Her breath came in a labored wheeze. Stop, he told himself. Stop it, or you’ll choke her to death. He couldn’t stop. He crushed her to him with more force, his own breath coming in urgent, clumsy gulps.
A horn sounded. The truck bound for Wallace. Greg released the dog and stood. Mother scampered, whimpering, away from him, and Greg thought, Good. He felt enormous, powerful, post-coital. And also: delusional, concerned, filled with an ominous regret. Had he hurt her? He saw her curl into a ball near her food dish, her indifferent face clearly expressing, You cannot reach me. Ever. You’ll never reach me. The expression meant she was okay, okay enough for him to be annoyed again, to want to give her a solid crippling kick, but he hurried from the house instead, shutting the door firmly behind him.
When Greg returned later, drained and irritated, he found Eli on the couch with the dog, looking over his arithmetic lesson.
A bright boy, brighter than Greg had ever been. Very much like Agnes. He could be an engineer, even a doctor. The dog, he noticed, leaned over the book, too, as though reading along.
“She’s smart,” Eli laughed. “Look how smart she is.”
“Oh, I have no doubt,” Greg said. He sat down to unlace his boots and noticed the dog peek at him warily — just for a moment — and was pleased when she quickly looked away. So. He had affected her. He felt satisfied. He rubbed at one of his sore shoulders and sat there on the old bench, leaning against the wall, listening to the heavy panting of the heating register.
“You know, son,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Hmm?” Eli said, half listening.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about this dog here.”
“Mother,” Eli said. He didn’t look up from his work, only turned his pencil over and erased what must have been a wrong answer.
“This dog here of yours. Meaning to ask how you came up with the name you did. It’s a queer name for a dog. Especially for a dog that’s not, you know, a mother.”
Eli stared into his book. A moment’s silence passed.
“It’s just,” Greg continued, tugging at a callus on his palm, “I’m curious. Why Mother? Why not Angela or Katie or Mutt or Aloysius? Good gravy, why not Spot or Fuzzy or any other normal dog name? Why Mother?”
“You don’t like the name,” Eli said, and looked up at him, his eyes filling with tears.
“Well,” Greg said, “I didn’t say that. Don’t go crying on me, son, you’re nearly full-grown. Let’s not have tears here, now. You know I hate that. Tears are the tools of manipulation. I’ve always said it.”
“You hate the name,” Eli repeated.
“Tell me how come.”
“Because — ” he began. Then stopped, shook his head as though freeing water from his ears, and began again. “Because the man — her first owner — called her a first-rate bitch. He pointed at her and said, ‘She’s a first-rate bitch.’ And you said, ‘We’ll take her, then,’ even though I wanted a different one. I wanted the one who wouldn’t drink his mom’s milk, who had to be fed from the bottle. But you didn’t want him. And also,” and he looked up at Greg’s face again, brave the way only children can be, and said accusatorily, “and you called Mother a damn bitch once. I heard you.”
“I did not. I never said such a thing to your mother. Not once. Not ever.”
“Not to her. You said it about her. After she left. You said, ‘If I could get my hands around that damn bitch’s neck, I’d kill her.’ That’s what you said to Uncle Frome. And Uncle Frome said, ‘Now, now, that’s no way to speak.’ And you said, ‘That damn bitch. I’ll kill her! I’ll kill her for what she did!’”
The boy finished his exclamation and then buried his face into his dog’s body, the bravery stripped from his face, his deepest secrets dredged and discovered.
Greg, too, felt ruined. He wanted to put his arms around his son, console him and explain why, why, he’d said such horrible things, but the dog had risen and stood between them, and Greg worried that if he came too close to her, he would take her up in his arms and swing her sideways against the wall and smash her head open, spatter her brains against the wainscoting.
So instead he said, “I was angry. Very angry with her. For what she did. For leaving us. For leaving you. I was angry because it wasn’t fair to you, Eli, what she did.”
“She loved me,” Eli said, crying freely now. The dog went closer to him and nosed the boy in the arm, as though to say, Yes, as though to say, Hate your father, as I do. “She loved me; I know it.”
That may be so, Greg thought, she loved you, but she didn’t love you enough. That was the thing. Anyone could love. Anyone could say they loved their husband or child or wife or dog. They could be out in public and behave with perfect respectability, so that people would say, as was often said of his wife, What a wonderful person. What a wonderful mother. What a wonderful, calm, loving woman. Anyone could perform such an act. But to actually love, to love enough to commit to unhappiness, that was real love. When his wife would say to him, I wish we could travel, Greg; I wish we could go dancing; I wish we could drink beer until we black out and then do nothing tomorrow but vomit and fuck and then drink some more, Greg would frown. Yes, he wanted those things. They sounded like good fun. But they had a child now, he would say, a responsibility, and they owed it to Eli to be constant, reliable parents. Agnes would listen raptly with what Greg assumed was the pure, quiet understanding of love but with what he realized now was sheer bafflement at the depth of his own affection.
“It’s so easy for you,” she’d told him once, “to love and not grow bitter. It’s hard for me, Greg. I’m just not good at it. The more I love, the more bitter I become.”
“But you do love Eli?” Greg had pressed, worried.
“Oh, yes. I love him. Of course I do.”
And Greg’s worry had immediately deflated; he had decided that she was simply tired.
So many mothers were. So very tired. So very fed up with the young children they watched day in and day out. He understood it all in a way that most husbands did not. She would say that to him, even — You’re very understanding, Greg — but she would say it with a sorrowful tone, as though she wished he would beat her, or tongue-lash her, or choke her during sex, as she had once read about in a dirty book she’d found at a friend’s house. When she’d told him of the latter discovery, Greg had ignored it. He had not taken her seriously when she’d mentioned the choking, had not accepted the tacit invitation suggested there, but maybe he should have taken it very seriously indeed. Maybe a little roughhousing would have gone a long way.
“Did it matter, though? No. Probably not. In the end, she didn’t love them enough. She didn’t love Greg and she didn’t love Eli. Not enough. That was what had really shocked him. That her love for Greg had an ending point was not surprising. Such was the way with wives and husbands. But the love for her own son? A mother’s love was supposed to be unfathomable, like an ocean without a floor — reaching, spiraling into nowhere, into infinity — but her love had stopped before it even began.
What if she had seen Eli in the aftermath, when he had screamed and sobbed for her return, when he had been unable to sleep at night because he ached to hear her voice, ached to embrace her soft body in its worn nightgown and darned socks? When he had asked his father, over and over: Will she return? When? Where is she? Did she send a letter? Did she phone yet? If she had seen these things, heard these things, Greg wondered, would she have returned? Or would it have only made her more cocksure that her abandonment had been the right idea all along?
The right idea, Greg surmised. Yes, doubtlessly. She was always cocksure. She would not return. The more they wanted her to return, the less likely the possibility.
“So why,” Greg said to the dog now, who sat nosing his son’s weeping, supine form on the rotting couch, “why are you here now?”
The dog ignored him, as did the boy. Greg rose and took his son up into his arms and carried him to bed. The boy hadn’t eaten dinner, but he was clearly spent from his refreshed woe. Greg was almost grateful when Mother entered. She moved into the room’s farthest corner and sat on her haunches, raising her long chin high. She waited patiently for Greg to leave. When he did, he heard her trot across the floor and climb onto the bed, too. No doubt she felt safest with the boy. That made sense. Greg wanted to take a club to her head.
Greg went to the kitchen to eat leftover bread and gravy, which he reheated on the stove. He sat at the little table in the kitchen — more of a stool than a table, really — and noisily sopped up the food with a spoon. Then he sat there for a good several minutes, thinking of little and enjoying the silence. He considered rising and taking up the papers in the living room, but the idea of moving even one inch exhausted him, and so he merely tucked his chin down and fell asleep there, sitting up, as he did sometimes, his plate so clean before him that his last thought was that he could go swimming in it and how refreshing it would be to swim into the milk-white ceramic, like pushing through the supple, supportive fabric of the moon.
And then, with a sharp cry, he awoke. The room had darkened, the single bulb had burned out over his head, but the moonlight pushed through the window, illuminating the kitchen in a deathly bluish gray. Perhaps because of his earlier reverie, Greg worried for a moment that the world had flooded, that they were underwater. But as quickly as this notion appeared, it dissolved. Greg then noticed the black form of an animal in the doorway, an animal that gazed at him with wet, affectionate eyes. Mother.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked her.
She floated to him, stood at his feet.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Greg warned her.
Her eyes never left his.
He stood, his knees wobbling, remembering how Agnes would come to him every now and again, with this same wet, desperate look, this same longing for love. How grateful he would be in those moments, how immediately forgiving of all of her prior coldness and cruelty, and he would lift her and take her with him into the bedroom and strip her down and be with her, inside her, around her, and she on top of him and beneath him, and then in front of him, like a dog.
That was the worst thought, when it came to him, like a dog. The animal gazed up at him with that same question in its eyes. It mocked his loneliness.
“Leave me be.”
He scooted the dog out of the way with his foot.
He made sure to lock the bedroom door behind him.
That was the thing he remembered later: that he had locked the door, that he had checked the lock, made sure it was fast. So how was it that he awoke, hours later, the dog sitting right beside him on the bed, staring down into his face with a terrible silent urgency, an expression that immediately panicked and excited him?
He trembled as he rose and pulled on his robe. He lifted the animal into his arms and felt her go gratefully slack. What he wanted to do, what he wished more than anything to do, was lie down with her, wrap his arms around her, burrow his head into her stinking dog flesh, and weep. Instead, he went outdoors, marching for the woods, stopping once before the rusted spade, awkwardly packaging Mother beneath one arm so that he could take up the spade in his free hand. He continued this way, through the sparse snow, for several minutes. It was as if she knew what he would do. She remained where he set her down, waiting. The earth was cold, difficult to puncture, but he strained and heaved, more convinced with each thrust. It was better this way. Better for them all. She would be gone, and he would sleep, and, later, he and Eli would drive to town for a new dog. There would be some sort of necessary lie about the dog’s disappearance (carried off by raccoons or coyotes, he thought, stolen by some stranger driving a beige truck, merely gone, just gone, something the boy already knew all about).
This last thought occurred to him as he began to shovel dirt over the dog’s head. Mother shook the dirt off and looked up at him from the recesses of the deep hole. He shoveled more dirt down onto her. He was crying now, telling himself, No, no, don’t do this. Even if she is the ghost, even if she is. He stopped digging, thinking of Eli. He could not bury Mother alive, after all.
How Greg sobbed then. How lost he was! All of his life had tunneled toward this one dark hole in the woods. If he buried this dog, he would never rise from it. It would be the final descent of his soul. The dog gazed up at him calmly.
“You damn-it-all heartless bitch,” Greg said, and wormed onto his belly, reaching for the animal.
How far down had he dug this hole? He was amazed at its depth. It seemed implausible that he could have dug down this far in such a short amount of time, straight through the frozen earth. He could not reach the dog. His fingers scrabbled at her ears. “Up on your hind legs, damn you,” he said, but the dog lay down on the dirt with her head on her paws.
“Tomorrow, then,” he said. He was bone-weary. He had never felt so tired. He rose, groaning, and made for the house.
Tomorrow, Greg decided numbly as he walked, he would form a phony search party with his son, and they would come across the hole together, and he would make a big show of returning to the house for a ladder, and Eli would regard him as a hero, and all would be well.
And, he resolved: Mother would live with them again, unmolested this time. Greg slouched back toward the house, dragging the spade behind him. His shoulders and spine throbbed. He would treat her right, better than ever, and maybe the ghost would recede and the animal would come forth, or some such bullshit. Greg didn’t know. But he wouldn’t harm another hair on her head, not when Eli’s feelings were at stake. He went to bed feeling a bit of hope, and also a bit of gratitude that Mother was nowhere near the house. For the first time since her arrival, he slept dreamlessly.
The next morning began as Greg had expected: Eli rising, Eli calling for Mother, Eli arriving at his bedside, tearstained, to beg for his help in finding her.
“Sure, buddy,” Greg said, and nearly screamed as he sat up, the soreness in his back splitting open like the maw of a volcano. “Sure. Let’s go a-lookin’.”
They pulled on their coats and boots and went outside. Greg noticed the tracks in the earth from where he had plodded, to and fro, the night before, and he watched his son’s face for any sign of recognition, but Eli looked only side to side, every now and again throwing back his head and baying, “Mother! Moooooother!” It was a heartbreaking caterwaul, and Greg knew Mother was not the sort of dog to bark in response. She would remain silent in that deep hole, waiting for them. Always, it seemed, she was waiting.
Eli reached the hole first and stood at its lip for a moment, looking back at his father in delight and then saying very loudly, “Wow!”
So he’s found her, Greg thought, and heaved a sigh of acceptance.
Then, to Greg’s shock and alarm, Eli picked up a giant rock and hurled it as hard as he could into the darkness. Greg cried out, “Don’t,” baffled that his son would attack his dog in such violent fashion, but when he arrived at the mouth of the hole he saw that there was no dog visible. There was nothing visible at all. No dirt floor, even. Nothing but an endless blackness. The hole receded into the earth and kept receding, down and down, like a well that had been opened and abandoned.
“This can’t be right,” he mumbled.
Eli hoisted a fallen tree branch and flung it like a javelin into the hole. They listened to the dull thud of its impact on the dirt walls, waiting for some sound of a watery or rocky bottom, but there was nothing, just eventual silence. Greg backed away from the hole and urged his son to do the same.
“But,” Eli said, rising hesitantly from an uprooted tree stump that he was attempting to roll toward the opening, “this will be so great.”
Greg looked around him: Perhaps he was at the wrong hole — but how could that be? He knew these woods so well. He had followed his well-worn pathway here; he could still make out his fresher tracks from the night before; everything — everything — suggested that he had been here only a few hours prior, that he had dug this bottomless pit himself.
“Eli,” he said. “Move away. Move back now. Come here.”
The boy sobered, his grin fading. A sound issued from the hole — a long, womanly wail.
Part animal, surely, but also human.
What pain it bellowed! What heartache!
“Mother,” Eli cried. He fell to his knees, crawling to the opening, peering into the face of its irretrievable, unfathomable blackness. “Mommy!”
Greg lunged. There was nothing left in him but love for his son, nothing but horror at the potential loss of him.
He grabbed the boy’s collar.