When a late-summer tornado leveled a nearby street four days after Sam’s eighth birthday, his father took him to see what was left. It was while standing in a crowd of gawking neighbors that Sam saw, with unprecedented wonder, that the surface structures for half the block were completely and utterly gone; their basements—the bones of their foundations—were exposed to the air.
It had never occurred to Sam that so much was underneath.
After that, he began to imagine, with some regularity, descending feet-first into the ground. As if in a kind of elevator, except he was the elevator, and able to see the things below, even when Mother Nature’s finger didn’t peel away the earth like a scab. He adored what could not be seen, what was definitely there in a way that could not easily be proven.
When he looked at gas stations, he saw volatile reservoirs of petrochemicals, motionless but dangerous. Trees were tangles of roots; stop signs were cement cylinders. During an early-season soccer game, Sam stopped just short of kicking the ball down the field because he could see nothing but aluminum cans, packed deep in the earth like razor blades in apples, flattened and buried after years of picnics and storms. When a group of protesters occupied a local park, Sam saw the sewage tank beneath their Porta-Potty, festering and blue.
When he and his father went camping in the mountains, Sam saw his stream of urine soaking into the pine needles as a constantly elongating shape, filtering unevenly through the layers of loam and dirt and stones in a funny, stretched-out line. This sent him into a fit of giggles. Only when it went on for four minutes, and then trickled off into a staggering moan, did his father realize that something was wrong. Sam said the word “her” seven times quickly, softer with each invocation, and then fell to the ground, twitching.
Full of guilt, the parents who had previously banned all video games on the grounds of brain-mush bought Sam Dig Dug.
Sam considered it the best present that he had ever received in his life. He slid the nub of the joystick one way, and then the other. He moved his man through bright layers of dirt like they were nothing. He made new paths and destroyed the monsters. His mother watched this from the doorframe, her lip curling in a way that she would remember twenty years later. She watched Sam sitting there, triangles of hair damp with sweat and plastered against his skin like a cartoon character’s, eyes focused on the screen, a drop of saliva in the crease of his mouth. She found herself reciting the title over and over in her head. Dig Dug. Dig Dug. Clipped present tense, protracted past. A thing that only ever got bigger.
The nonprofit offered Sam whatever he wanted. Did he want to meet someone famous? Lead a local parade? Shoot a basket before a big game? No. Sam wanted to see the earth from below. He imagined the perspective he’d gain from being underground, the layers he could see. All of history, pressed together like a sloppy cake. The truth of things. The nonprofit offered him a private excursion to a mine. Normally open to the general public, it’d be just him and his dad and a guide, no one else.
His parents talked about it, in the kitchen, in the dark, long past everyone’s bedtime. “It doesn’t seem safe,” said his father. “Does it matter?” his mother said. His father wept. His mother didn’t say anything else, only stared into the stainless-steel sink where moonlight was pooling.
On the appointed day, Sam and his father went to the mine. Sam was bundled up in a down jacket, a red-and-blue striped scarf tucked around his neck. From the outside, the mine was a parking lot, a rock face, and a set of glass doors with a Closed for Private Event sign hanging on a length of chain that was looped through the handles. Inside were tall posters with black-and-white photographs that told about the mine’s history, a closed gift shop, a roped-off section for waiting, and a freestanding elevator whose metal skeleton was painted dark blue.
Sam got a hardhat that he knocked his knuckles against, over and over, amazed at how little he could feel with it on. The hat had a lamp meant to penetrate the darkness. His father held his hand, a little too tightly, and Sam squinched his fingers from his grip. The guide opened the metal door of the elevator, the links folding like an accordion and jangling like pocket change.
They went down, down, passing, Sam imagined, dirt that had been covered up a decade before his birth, and then two, and back and back. Layers of broken china dolls and dishes and long-buried foundations, and then older things, folded into the once-silt of ancient lake. They must be passing dinosaurs. His ears popped.
At the bottom, a string of yellow light bulbs illuminated the tunnel. The guide encouraged them to touch the chilly walls. He called Sam “dude” and rapped his own helmet in response to Sam’s motion. The knocking chattered like conversation.
“Ready?” the guide asked. He pressed the button on his own helmet, Sam’s father’s, Sam’s. The lamp winked off. He asked if there were any questions. He reached for a switch; turned out the lights.
Sam’s scream surged up the elevator shaft and filled the empty lobby.
Soo Jin Lee (Fiction Editor): Sam, the young protagonist of Carmen Maria Machado’s “Down,” wishes to view “the truth of things”: the bones that he cannot see but that he knows are surely there. Broken dolls and discarded dishes and dirt become “history, pressed together like a sloppy cake” under the surface. As Sam reaches the bottom of a mine shaft, passing by those buried, unutterable things, he is able to scream, to make himself known.
This piece appeared in Indiana Review 34.2 in Winter 2012.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the World Fantasy Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”
Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Tin House, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.