Joe was a better digger than I was. He’d always been husky, for one thing, while at eleven I was still a stick figure shrink-wrapped in skin. And my enthusiasm ran out quickly during strenuous exertion of any kind. Give Joe a long-handled shovel and a sandy spot, and in forty-five minutes he’d be standing up with his head below ground level, while I was only knee-deep and just nibbling around the edges, or, more likely, sitting on the edge of his hole offering moral support. In the end we were always stymied by the water table, with groundwater beginning to seep into our excavations before the six- foot mark. Despite this limitation, digging pits remained a major pastime throughout our childhood.
Most of our delvings were situated in Joe’s backyard and not mine, since the earth was sandier, the water farther down, and most importantly, his parents didn’t care if we sank craters into the patchy lawn. We’d make hidden bunkers big enough for both of us to hide in, covering the opening with a sheet of plywood and then a disguising layer of sand. Somehow, no one ever fell into these by accident. Or we’d make several pits and convert them to wildlife containment areas, planting the bottoms with vegetation and populating them with snakes, turtles, and toads.
One summer a chin-high pile of topsoil sat behind Joe’s house long enough to grow a covering of turf, and we felt confident that the dirt, no longer loose but packed by rain and time, would hold together enough for some lateral burrowing. After a weekend we had a forked tunnel wide enough to crawl through, with three openings around the perimeter of the mound. The grown-ups warned us repeatedly to be careful of cave-ins, of being buried alive and suffocating. We knew better than to take this seriously; could they not see what master diggers we were? A couple tunneling prodigies like us, if the roof fell in we’d just dig ourselves out before we ran out of air.
The chance for digging like we’d never dared hope for came on us later that summer. In the woods between our houses lay a clearing, graced with a shallow, sandy-bottomed pond. By August each year, the sun had diminished it until a kid could wade across without getting the bottom of his shirt wet, the better to chase tadpoles and tiny bluegill. We’d never taken notice whose property it was, but the land encompassing the pond had recently found a new owner. He took to storing his small construction company’s backhoes and bulldozers near the edge of the clearing, and eventually used them to expand that little puddle for fish stocking. One day we were staggered to walk out of the pines and find the pond suddenly more than triple its size and depth, and next to it, a long ridge of fresh sand at least fifteen feet high. In the flats of mid-Michigan, it looked mountainous to the two of us.
After the necessary sliding, jumping, and shoving each other off the dune, getting more sand in our hair than would ever come out from just one washing, we got down to the real business: digging. The outer skin of our mountain was dry, loose sand that avalanched down the slope when disturbed, but a couple inches under that was moist and firm, like a beach sandcastle. Emboldened by our success in mining through the little mound behind Joe’s place, it didn’t take us long to convince ourselves to hollow out some caves in our new mountain.
For whatever reason, we started on opposite sides of the earthen ridge. I don’t think we were intending to meet in the middle, but can’t rule it out. At the outset anyway, mine was a solitary project, with Joe out of sight on the far slope. Once the dry, loose sand was cleared away so it couldn’t slide down into my hole, the firmer material was a joy to dig in, coming away easily in cupped handfuls, holding its shape so that parallel grooves of fingertips remained in the receding back wall until a new track was gouged on the next pass. Like a sunburned backhoe myself, all ribs and shoulder blades, I scooped out a hollow into the hill, working at a downward angle to compensate for the dune’s sloping face. The tunnel took shape faster than I had ever been able to manage before, and I wondered if this time I could produce a cavern to rival Joe’s. In and down, inch by inch, until my hips passed into the hillside as my hands gnawed at the burrow’s end, which was dim and cool out of the sun. The further in I worked, the cooler and moister the sand under my fingertips. And then with a quiet, understated crumph, the earth closed its mouth on me.
I didn’t panic in the sudden darkness, not then. After all, only my front half was buried, or just a touch more, and it would take but a moment and a grunt to jerk myself loose. I pulled backward. Nothing happened. I tried to get my legs under me for leverage, but could just barely tickle the sloped face of the hill with my toes. I kicked ineffectually for a bit, then strained backward again, longer. The damp, heavy sand I was embedded in stayed where it was, and so did I.
My arms were of no use at all. I couldn’t shift them an inch, nor any of my upper body. I now saw how flawed our thinking had been on the question of cave-ins. We had pictured ourselves in an underground air pocket, with room to move our limbs, and empty space waiting to receive the earth being moved as we dug to freedom. Maybe that’s the case in a coal mine, if you’re lucky, but loose sand doesn’t treat you that way. There was no chamber in which to turn around and burrow out of the same way I got in. Sand was molded around my head, arms, and body, encasing them. I was in a cavity the same size and shape as me, and the barest wiggle of my fingers was all I could pull off from the legs up.
It didn’t take much more heaving to rule out pulling myself loose. No matter, Joe was only about ten or fifteen feet away, with nothing between us but a few tons of sand. I just needed to get his attention, and he’d have me out in seconds. I yelled, first Help, Help, and soon just wordless screams. Focusing all my will into my lungs, my vocal cords, I tried to make bursts of pure sound like claxons firing off. Even to my own ears it was heavily muffled. I was screaming into a wall of sand, and hearing my voice more through my own tissues than it was going out into the world and returning to me. If my ear, just a few inches from my mouth, was picking up just thin dregs of sound, then on the other side of the dune Joe was hearing nothing.
I was still for a few heartbeats, and then the fear that had been steadily creeping up ran wild in me. I screamed and kicked some more, but not in the calculated motions of escape. My thrashings – what there was of me that could thrash – were the ineffective flailings of a frog covered in stinging ants. I shrieked only because not shrieking lay outside my power. The sand swallowed it up. The absolute darkness pressed in on me, silent when I fell silent and charged with panic when I gave it voice. I knew as I never had before that I could end, that I could be held alone and blind in a black fist until I just…went out. I knew horror, and was horrified not just by death but my own horror.
How long I was half-mindless I don’t know, but a moment came when I realized all this howling and struggling was burning up oxygen, wasting the scarcest and most precious commodity left. How much did I have available? There was no air around me; the sand was right against my skin on every side, dribbling into my mouth when I screamed. How was I still awake? There couldn’t be air in minute spaces between the grains, could there? No, not if it was packed tight enough to hold me fast in this position. I only had what lungful I’d brought with me into the earth. Was I breathing that lungful out against the sand and back in again, over and over? How long could I recycle one breath before I depleted the life in it? And how long had I been spending it recklessly on useless yells and exertion? I didn’t know if I’d been in the dark for a minute or for ten. Time wears a different face when you’re buried alive.
One last avenue remained to me, and I turned inwardly to God and prayed. My hope was stained with desperation and guilt – guilt that I hadn’t thought of Him till now, guilt that I mostly just thought of Him when I needed something, or needed out of something. Things had once been lively between us but for years the relationship had been awkward and uncomfortable. I mostly gave God my attention when I couldn’t avoid it. I was just a boy but I knew what foxhole Christian meant, and I knew I wasn’t coming to Him in good standing.
Of course, all that was going to change. If He got me out, my life would really be His. I’d spend the rest of my days in gratitude, loving Him and everybody. Bible every day, hours spent in prayer, telling everyone about Jesus. There in the belly of the earth, I stacked up before the Almighty all the ways my devotion would flower if He just kept me from dying now, unprepared. I groped for anything that might sweeten the deal. The problem was, I couldn’t get myself to believe any of it.
An ugly self-awareness sneered at these wild promises. I knew myself well enough. Greed and dishonesty and meanness, they came naturally, while even a short stretch of sustained virtue took concentrated effort. Like carrying a brim-full bowl of water the size and weight of a swimming pool on one’s head, without spilling a drop. I would never manage. Even the trying – I fought to derail these thoughts before God could see them – tasted like stale bread to me. If I got what I asked for, fear and ardor would fade… and within days I’d be lying to my parents and bullying my little sister, whatever I might swear to now in my terror.
My panic intensified with these thoughts, knowing He could see them as plain as I. He’d never intervene if I myself couldn’t believe I’d hold up my end later. I willed myself toward conviction that I’d live up to my word. Squirming in the grainy grip of the sand, I strained to conjure a faith that could stand up to Omniscience. Life and death circled around me. Everything was on the line, I was on the line. I would be righteous to save myself, I had to be.
No, all of it rang false. I couldn’t do right because heart-deep I wasn’t right, and tacking more days onto my span didn’t change the sort of thing I was. I couldn’t convince myself, let alone Him, I’d any capacity for real goodness – not even to get out of death (and maybe worse: whatever God and I had once had going, Heaven seemed more doubtful than ever). I was trying to bargain with no chips. I had nothing to offer. I still desperately wanted God to save me, get me out of the hole I’d dug myself into, but I could find no particular reason why He should. At the center of a vast, resounding stillness, I saw there was nothing to do about this from my end. No manipulations or maneuvering would move His hand. My Maker would act to rescue me, or He would not, and whichever it was it would be for His own inscrutable purposes.
Having let go of bodily and soulish struggling alike, all my pretensions fallen away, I floated in the close-pressed nothingness. It was so utterly black my eyes manufactured lights for me, shifting patterns of color that flowed silently from hue to hue. A few feet and a world away, my legs still drooped under open sky, bathed in warm sunlight. It seemed the joke to end all jokes: skinny, browned boy-legs sprouting up from the ground, while I was stuck down here. And still breathing that single trapped breath – how long now? An hour, a year? Meaningless words, made to measure something that only happened above ground. But it’d been long, anyway. Me still living might be a miracle of its own. That one breath of air was still with me, but he was getting thin and tired. There was no pulling at air and getting something else, as underwater. The breath came as easy as ever, just with the substance fading out of it, like a mouthful of cotton candy that turns into a mouthful of nothing.
I sent that ghost of a breath out against the side of my tomb and brought it back home, slow and leisurely. Again. Out, in, nothing to it. I could barely feel the grains between my lips now, or the sun on the backs of my calves. The physical facts of the world and my body didn’t seem significant anymore, just incidental to something else. I’d been so worked up about being caught here, all that commotion. I couldn’t remember why. Thought slowed to dim perception, perception dimmed to the merest wisp. Out…in. Out…
Across the universe, impossibly remote, something was moving. Vibrations in the sandy womb that cradled me. Hands prodding legs that I half-recognized as mine. The legs stirred weakly. The hands gripped, then a valiant tug. Whatever I’d shrunk down to was almost interested, almost faintly amused. The hands released and began scooping away sand from my hips, my waist. Such a flurry of activity, such a beating at the world. Didn’t anyone know how to be still? Stillness, stillness was the thing. Let me show you how to drift…
An irresistible pull and I slid out of the dune like a tooth from its socket. I breathed in and what rushed into me was so alive, so potent, I gasped. I drank deep lungfuls, maybe the first I’d ever truly tasted since the day I was birthed. My chest heaved with them, and there was nothing stopping my chest from expanding, there was open space all around me. I bent and straightened my arm in the peculiar freedom of open space. My eyes were open but I couldn’t see. Gritty sand on my tongue and teeth, sand on my eyelashes and in my ears. Joe was saying something but it was just sounds, loud strange sounds. Then the tingling, growing to a prickle from the inside of me outward as life rushed back into my blood, lighting up my tissues and nerves. It became painful, overwhelming, but I could barely writhe yet in protest. And as the pain started to subside the blank nothing of my sight cleared and blazing light gushed in, intense and bright-blinding. I blinked against it but was unwilling to shut out the glory, painful or no. My back against the sun-warmed earth, I lay for the longest time breathing that new-born air with the heavens flooding into my eyes.
The featured image is used with permission and gratitude to Jim Gade of Unsplash.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.