“Well, what do you think, William? How is the day going to go?” His dad sounded cheerful for a change.
William had his arms outstretched, palms upward, checking for rain. He stuck his tongue out for effect. “There won’t be any rain today,” he said, eager to dispel any doubt from clouding his father’s decision.
They were standing next to each other in the back garden. His dad’s eyes scrutinized the sky. “Let’s hope you’re right. Have I ever told you how to read the sky for an approaching storm?”
No, he hadn’t. His dad pointed upward with his big finger at the distant puffy clouds. “The experts call them ones cumulonimbus. Storm clouds to you and me!”
The news of a budding storm washed away William’s enthusiasm. The last thing he wanted to hear was this. Why did his father have to talk about bad weather? It was Ireland. William was only nine years old and even he knew that everyone knew what was coming ‘round the corner. There was no need to point at clouds or read the sky. And why did he have to be so cheerful about this?
“Do those cumul-on-the-bus ones mean we can’t go to the top field?”
William’s question forced a silent chuckle from his father’s wheezy lungs. William stood staring at his dad, unamused.
“Relax, William. They’re a bit away yet. I’m sure we’ll be all right,” his dad said, appeasing his son’s temperament.
Following his father’s assertion, William sprang back to life. In animated fashion, he formed two fists, making a back-and-forth jerking motion with his arms, pretending to drive some sort of machine.
“Digger time!” he shouted.
The first field William’s paternal family had purchased decades back had a mystery. Every year it would rain and the field would flood. Every year his father would dig a trench that bit deeper. The surrounding fields below the top field never had flooding problems. The top field soaked up water like a greedy pig, his dad liked to say. This idea of a greedy creature living beneath the soil frightened William anytime he cycled past that field alone: the hairs stood up on his neck, his legs pedalled harder.
“You better go get your high-vis jacket and working boots…” but before his dad could finish his sentence, William had sprinted into the house and bounded up the stairs, changed into his work clothes that he had dreamed of wearing all week, and admired how he looked in the mirror for half a minute before sprinting back down the stairs and out to his father’s side. He wore his baseball cap backwards on his head, his dad’s high-vis that hung down around him like a trench coat, and his old denim jeans with their self-inflicted rips at the knee. He was also wearing his old working boots. William hated wearing new shoes; so, at every opportunity, he scuffed up his working boots. Only kids wore new shoes.
“Let’s go, dad. Time to go to the digger. It’s digger time! It’s digger time!” William chanted, dancing and skipping around his father and pulling at his dad’s hand in mock impatience. The strained smile on his dad’s face didn’t last long, for in the doorway of their home, William’s mother stood with one hand clasping the other, evident bad weather brewing in her eyes.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right up there, John?” she said. His dad nodded, but the couple held each other’s gaze long enough to suggest doubt.
His father’s large hands didn’t need to work hard. Moving the digger about the field, they made brief, definitive gestures. He sat William on his lap. The digger’s cabin pivoted back and forth with mechanical ease. William placed his hand over his father’s. He wanted to feel the power his father exerted in every muscle. He wanted to know so bad what this power felt like – as a man – watching the bucket, composed and indifferent, as it thrust into the earth, coming up with great clods of soil. William imagined he was operating the machine. He looked over his shoulder into his father’s eyes, brimming with masculine pride.
“Smell that earth, William? Our land. Our country. This is what you’ll inherit.” His father’s vigour returned briefly.
The damp scent of freshly-dug earth made William’s head spin. It was too ripe, but he inhaled it all the same.
The bucket plunged into the soil, pulling up old animal bones long buried.
“Horses. This field was once full of horses,” his dad said.
“Like a graveyard?”
“A bit like a graveyard. This is where the horses went to heaven.”
“Do it again, dad.”
The bucket breached the earth again.
“Are you ready to see what we’ve got this time?” his father asked.
“What is it, dad? What is it?”
His father drew the bucket up as slowly as he could.
They made out the rusted frame of a bike.
“This field is like a lucky bag,” his dad said.
“Was that yours?”
“Probably your granddad’s or his dad’s even.”
“How old is this field?”
“Land has been here from the start, William, and will be here long after we’re gone,” his father said, fighting off a harsh fit of coughing.
As the day wore on, the cabin grew stuffy. William grew restless, agitated by the heat. He grew bored of sitting on his dad’s lap and wanted something more. Sliding down, he began pulling on his father’s hands to get at the joysticks.
“It’s my turn now,” he said, trying to dislodge his dad’s hands from the controls.
“Be careful, William,” his father insisted.
“I want a go, dad. You said I could drive it,” he said, knowing his father would never make a promise like this.
“William, stop it. You gotta stop behaving like this when you want things,” his dad said, but William started slapping his father’s arms.
“You’re too old. You need a rest. It’s my go now!”
“No, William, you’re too young to be driving this. I thought we had this talk already.”
His father cut the engine and grabbed his son in an embrace. William sobbed into his dad’s chest. The sickly smell coming from his dad led him to sob harder.
“William, it’s ok.”
“It’s not ok, dad. I just want a go. You’re sick. You need a rest. I heard you and mum talking,” William said.
“It’s ok. You’ve got to stop getting angry like this.”
“Can I drive her tomorrow, dad? On my own? I need to learn. You can’t do all this work on your own.”
“We’ll see, William. Let’s go home for dinner,” his dad said, taking a firm grip on his son’s hand. “You know, William, these machines are not all that special. What I am trying to say to you is that they’re only machines. In the end, they merely serve a purpose.”
“I just want to dig up the earth like you did, dad. It’s my turn anyways.”
William jumped down onto the tracks of the digger. He placed his hand on its side, allowing the warmth from the engine to heat his skin – she would take a good hour to cool down, he figured, the angry mist clearing, brightening his mood.
“She’s a good digger,” he said, his tone contrived to sound like an adult.
He watched his father climb gingerly down from the cabin.
Dinner that night was steak – all rare, including his mother’s. They sat upright around the dining table, William facing his parents. He sliced into the meat, but his unwavering enthusiasm for the day’s work in the digger had replaced his hunger. Between bites, he kept a close eye on his dad, all the while summarising in detail the afternoon’s work for his mother. His mother was a tall, slim woman. She held unflinching eye contact with her son as he talked. His father’s eyes remained fixed on the plate of food in front of him. He sluggishly chewed his meal. William had noticed that lately, his dad could manage only a few bites. His father once had a fierce appetite for food. These days, he would put his fork down and look sadly over at his mother, shaking his head. Maybe he was fed up with his mother’s cooking.
“You look tired, dad,” William said.
Dad’s lips pressed into a smile. “All that hard work,” was all he could muster.
“Make sure you eat your dinner,” his father said, prompting his mother to place her hand along his father’s shoulder. The half-embrace looked pitiful, almost condescending.
“Maybe you should go lie down. William and I are quite capable of tidying up,” she said.
William caught the slanted light cross her face – sharpening her features, darkening her eyes. They watched dad stand awkwardly, holding on to the back of the chair. They remained seated as dad had insisted that he was still well able. After his dad left, his mother looked at William again.
“Eat up now, Will. You’ll need your strength.”
The following morning, William was up earlier than anyone else. Outside, a royal blue veil covered the world. He waited and waited, but no one stirred – that is no one except the cat outside on the windowsill. William stood entranced by the cat confidently flicking its tail back and forth.
He made his way to the foot of the stairs listening for movement, willing his father awake yet reluctant to wake him. The top of the stairs harboured gloomy darkness. It unsettled him. Turning his attention to the coat rack, he zoned in on his dad’s jacket hanging there.
He took a step closer. His narrow, puerile fingers wilfully felt the outline of the keys to the digger through the fabric of his dad’s jacket pocket . . .
He wasn’t too young to help. Besides, his dad needed to rest. He could finish off the work they started yesterday.
Then the keys were in his palm. He was looking straight at them in partial disbelief. He had no idea how they got there, yet he knew he could never put them back.
The white cat rubbed itself up against his leg. Stupid animal, he thought.
The gradual morning light fell into the hallway, blinding him. With clenched fists, he glanced around one more time listening for signs of life. William crept out of the house with the stolen keys in his pocket. Without looking back once, he pedalled furiously down the country road toward the fields, forcing back the tears. Karma was a word William had never heard before, but the idea that punishment for what he had done would follow terrified him.
As he cycled, a melody drifted into his head. He recognized the song instantly. He quite liked it and hummed along as his bike dipped and soared along the road’s inclines. The two little streams of sadness down his cheeks dried. His melancholy dissolved, and before he knew it, his lungs were on fire with song, his crime forgotten.
William coasted through the haze of diffused light that cast long, soft shadows across the land. He forked off onto a narrower road toward the top field. He skirted around the gloopy puddles of sunlight that had settled in pockets on the road. He dodged potholes and ducked oncoming insects. This time it was the rush of air that caused his eyes to water.
He parked his bike by the steel gate, ignoring the blood-red KEEP OUT sign that his dad had painted. Though the morning was warming, the chill was unmistakable in his hands as he clasped the gate and climbed over it.
He paused at the foot of the hill… He didn’t have to do this. He still could go back. Yet, that thing that dragged him forward proved stronger than the thing which pulled him back. His anxious mind traipsed behind his determined footfall.
The digger sat on the horizon, resting its arm on a pile of earth. As he made his way up the hill, William battled with his imagination to conquer the fear he had for this place. This was for his dad.
He climbed up into the cabin half afraid that the machine would jolt to life and crush him or trap him. Once inside the cabin, he felt safer, less exposed. His father’s cologne lingered in the stale cabin air, rousing the memory of yesterday and all the secrets hidden under the soil. A patchwork of fields made up the valley below. William watched the cows grazing with indifference down in the valley. Their oblivious chewing resounded deep into his soul. This struck him…how alone everything was, and how the mindless chomping of cud spoke to him in more than a thousand words.
He really should not have taken the keys. It was that stupid cat and its stupid tail. He had no idea what he was doing. But then, who would dig the trench? His dad was too sick.
Gripping the joysticks and moving them about with gusto, William made sound effects while imagining the digger’s bucket sinking into the soil. If he could just finish off the trench, his dad would be so proud of him. It saddened him to think of his father’s dependence on everyone lately. He wanted to cry, but his father never let him cry. Drawing in a large breath, he forced his tears back.
He reached into his jacket pocket hauling out the keys. He held them up between thumb and finger to admire them. ‘This is for you dad,’ he said, then slid them into the ignition. No going back now. Those words. While he listened outside their bedroom door one night, William had heard his dad whisper this phrase to his mum, causing her to sob like she was suffocating. They were powerful words.
He turned the key, but nothing happened. He turned it again with the same result.
‘Stupid machine,’ he shouted, turning the key a third time – this time with force. A great mechanical roar vibrated through his body. The cabin shook to life. Sweat broke on his forehead, and he could not bring himself to open his eyes. When he did, all he could see were a jumble of objects: joysticks, the foot pedals, and the radio tuning dial. William found himself confronted by the alien complexity of the machine’s brain. Now what? he thought. It was mumbo-jumbo. The terrible noise of the machine obliterated everything his dad had taught him.
He took hold of the joysticks. As he pressed on one, the cabin began to spin. The field, the dark spruce skyline, the valley, and the sky whirled until the details of his familiar boundaries blurred. He grew lightheaded.
“Woohoo,” he hollered, but he could hardly hear himself.
As he rotated in the cabin, his foot accidentally hit a pedal, which one he was unsure, but it made the machine lurch back, knocking him backwards, before his foot pressed down on another pedal, throwing him forward in a violent motion, his free hand saving him from smashing his face against the windshield by inches. Time congealed as he witnessed the essence of his own fear expel with each breath and blur the glass. He wrenched the other joystick forward as hard as he could; the cabin began spinning in the opposite direction, throwing him back again, his foot hitting another pedal before the machine lurched forward toward the deep trench they had dug the day before.
He had no idea how this machine worked. If anything, it was working him. He slapped buttons and yanked on levers, but the machine continued motioning forward: its controls refused to obey. William yelped. He tried aborting his mission, but the door seemed jammed shut. “Open up! Open up!” he yelled, tears pooling in his eyes as the digger edged ever closer to the trench.
“Let me out,” he insisted as he pushed the door with all his strength, but the digger edged closer still to the trench. The drop seemed steeper than he had remembered. As the machine teetered, the door’s latch released and William barrelled out of the cabin. The digger toppled over into the trench with a terrible crash. Disoriented on his landing, he wobbled backwards, tumbling into the trench with it, knocking his head.
When he woke up, he could see that his ankle lay crushed under some steel that had come loose from the digger. He tried to wriggle free, but it was no use. It was too heavy, lodged firmly in the soft earth. He screamed for help, mocked by the engine’s indifferent hum that drowned out his efforts. The effort left him gasping for air.
He had landed with such force that he lay imprinted in the dark earth. He could not escape its stink. His land. But right now, he owned nothing, and he didn’t want it.
His shouting attracted the attention of a robin red-breast. The bird appeared by his side, hopping onto the digger’s tracks, studying William’s predicament. Hopping down from the tracks of the digger, it drew closer. He lay mesmerized by the cold indifference of the bird’s stare.
“What do you want, stupid bird? Are you going to save me?”
The robin paid no attention to his words, hopping along the ridge on the hunt for worms.
“Get the hell out of here, bird,” he yelled. But it didn’t go, not yet.
He didn’t want his father to find him like this – trapped under the weight of the machinery, wounded like an animal. Yet, it was obvious that this was where he would be discovered.
The robin flew off into the dusk. The machine’s engine eventually died. Hours passed, like months. William removed his high-vis jacket and hat and threw each item away in anger and disappointment. His screams for help became whimpers.
Picturing his dad weak and sick, William knew there was nothing he could do to change it – the man was dying. Of course, no one said as much. His parents hid the truth from him. He understood why. They thought he wasn’t ready, but he was ready. He had no choice but to be ready.
It was only yesterday that William had stretched his hands out in hope—hope that the weather would not deny him an opportunity.
Now, all that remained was hope, hope that someone would save William, that someone would lift the weight crushing him. He squirmed in the mud, resigned that this was his lot, his burden: there was no salvation, no going back now.
Above him, the sky filled with billowing portents. His dad was right, a storm was coming, still a bit away, but at least he knew how to read the clouds now.
Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash