Day 05: Digging It Up

The truck bounced along the track towards the woods, leav­ing a gradu­ally thin­ning mist of dust in the air behind it. The trees on either side occurred more and more fre­quently, nar­row­ing the road they trav­elled. Even­tu­ally, inev­it­ably, the call came from the cab. “Too nar­row. Get out and we’ll go on foot.”

They piled out of the back, host­ing ruck­sacks onto their backs and group­ing together by the driver’s door. “You all need to stick together for this one. We’ve already got the co-ordinates so let’s make this quick. Walk in, walk out, OK?”

There was nod­ding and a few “yeahs” from the group.

Good. Every­body be sure to grab a spade from the back and, if I see any­body so much as touch their water, bottle they’ll be sent straight back to the truck and they’ll never be out on field work again, no mat­ter how dull it turns out to be, got it?”

How far is it from here?”

Not too far. We should be there in under two hours and the forest is a tidy one.”

They set off through the trees, some using the spades as walk­ing sticks, some with them strapped to their ruck­sacks. It was warm and clammy, but nobody seemed to be sweat­ing much. Luce saw a bead develop on the back of Jackman’s neck.

Sneak in a glass before we left?” she said, mov­ing up next to him.

Huh?” He looked up from the ground, “sorry?”

She waved at the back of his head, “you’ve got a…”

Oh! Shit,” he wiped his hand around his neck and held it in front of his face. “Think I’ll get away with that?”

Luce shrugged. “I didn’t see anything.”

I didn’t have any­thing to drink. I’ve always been sweaty.”

Nice,” she said, wrink­ling her nose, “have another salt pill.”

Ugh. Really?”

If Whi­take sees you drip­ping he’ll send you right back and it’ll go down as a fail­ure to participate.”

That’s such bull­shit. Why do we even need so many people?”

You ever tried to dig an eight foot hole in sand and not break a sweat?”

No.”

Ain’t easy.”

The forest was clear of under­growth, as Whi­take had said, and the group made good time. They meandered around trees fol­low­ing his lead as he peri­od­ic­ally checked his GPS unit. After they’d been walk­ing for an hour and a half he stopped. “Should be just up ahead now,” he said, “spread out in a line, call out if you see some­thing and stay alert. I don’t want any­body blun­der­ing into it because they’ve got their eye on the sky or are chat­ting or whatever it is you lot do.” He switched off the GPS and put it in his rucksack.

Five minutes later, a shout went up from some­body to Luce’s left. Whi­take marched off towards the shout. “You got it?” he yelled to them as he approached, “definitely?”

Luce couldn’t hear the rest of the con­ver­sa­tion, but Whi­take and a few oth­ers went off ahead whilst the line waited. It was less than a minute before they heard a shout call­ing them to head after Whi­take, which every­body duti­fully did.

The clear­ing was about thirty metres across. “Not a big one,” said Whi­take. Luce looked around at the trees along the edges. Some of them were already show­ing signs of with­er­ing away, just like the trees which must have been here before. The ones on the edge would have already had half their roots des­troyed by the circle of dust that was spread­ing out.

Right,” said Whi­take, “I want the centre marked. Jack­man, Isere, get the rope out.”

Luce and Jack­man dragged the thin rope from their back packs. They took Luce’s first. She held it coiled in her arms whilst Jack­man walked around to the oppos­ite side of the clear­ing with an end. When she no longer had to reel it out and it star­ted going slack, she called to him to stop. He tied it to the nearest tree trunk. Luce did the same. “Want to try throw­ing it across?” she called across to Jackman.

Don’t even think about it,” said Whitake.

Jack­man grinned at Luce as he walked to meet her. She headed around the edge towards him, ready with the second rope.

They repeated the exer­cise, mak­ing the two ropes from a cross in the middle of the clearing.

And there’s your dig site, people. Right, I want teams of four. One dig­ger, three block­ers. Got that?”

The chorus of mur­murs and nods rang out again.

Sorry, this is more import­ant than that. Are you going to organ­ise yourselves or do I need to act as your wet nurse?”

People star­ted mov­ing that time, form­ing into groups of four, assign­ing one a shovel, whilst the oth­ers took out sheets of hes­sian and long nails that looked more like small grap­pling hooks. After a minute, there were five teams ready. Luce and Jack­man found them­selves together again. Jack­man was digging.

Three minutes per team to start with. Don’t leave any­thing back there or we’ll lose it as soon as the thing real­ises what’s going on. Roberts, take your group and get to it.”

Who­ever had the shovel dug and threw the dirt as far away as pos­sible. They star­ted by form­ing a wide circle under where the ropes crossed, only dig­ging half a foot down. Once that was done, the ropes were taken down as the first team moved back from the dust. The second team began dig­ging down, the block­ers pin­ning the hes­sian against the sides of the pit as it got deeper and deeper, mak­ing sure the dust didn’t spill back in to the hole.

Every three minutes Whi­take would call out and the teams would change places. Once they’d reached four feet down, the hes­sian star­ted devel­op­ing small holes, dust spill­ing through them. “It’s sped up!” called out one of the blockers.

Alright,” said Whi­take, “you guys get back. Two minutes from now on, people.”

Jack­man and Luce’s group was up next. Jack­man jumped into the hole whilst Luce and the other two block­ers begin pin­ning fresh sheets of hes­sian over the dis­in­teg­rat­ing ones. “We bring enough sheets?”

Luce nod­ded, “nor­mally we’d be through half of them by now. This one was slow. Didn’t real­ise what was going on for ages.”

That good or bad?”

Luce shrugged. “Dig. Don’t start sweat­ing because of idle chat.”

Jack­man had got another half foot of dust out before the two minutes was up. As the block­ers were drag­ging him up, he kicked a hole in the hes­sian. “Fuck!” he shouted, and turned around, scram­bling on his knees, try­ing to hold back the spill­ing dust with his hands.

Leave it, Jack­man!” yelled Luce, pulling him up. “Let the next group deal with it. It’s not much.”

They ran back to the edge of the clearing.

Don’t cut it so fine,” said Whitake.

The next three groups took the hole down to six feet and hit some­thing. “Found it!” one of them called out.

Right! Get back! One blocker per group grab a knife!”

The next group went in, the dig­ger mov­ing the dust from around the swollen, black lump that they’d uncovered. It looked like a rot­ting head, some­thing that had lost all but the resemb­lance of the fea­tures it once pos­sessed, some­thing that had been fes­ter­ing beneath the ground for uncoun­ted years. The group got called back, but they’d removed enough dust to reveal the thick, snak­ing vines which ran out of it into the dirt.

Luce’s group was up. She held the knife and jumped into the pit. Jack­man remained up top, hold­ing his shovel use­lessly. Luce began cut­ting, sli­cing through the vines which oozed black onto the dust. It didn’t dry up or seep into it, it just lay on the sur­face, clotting.

Time’s up, get back!” shouted Whi­take from out of sight. Luce car­ried on drag­ging the knife back and forth across the final vine.

Come on, Luce,” said Jack­man, hol­ing his hand down to help her out.

One second. I’ve almost got it,” she replied. She could feel the vine giv­ing, see the knife almost through it. She watched as each slice spilt more ooze onto the dust. Her hands caught her eye; they were with­er­ing. She grunted and aimed a final hack at the vine. It split in front of her and she dropped the knife, grabbed the bulbous, bloated head and threw it out of the pit before grabbing Jackman’s hand.

Jesus Christ,” she mur­mured, “Get me some water.”

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