Solid Ground

Water can swallow you. You can fall from the sky. I can’t count the times that I left a shaky ship or airplane and finally set foot on solid ground. I always felt relaxed when I was back “home” in our element. I always thought the ground was safe.

Soil, stone and wood. Only wooden floorboards sometimes disturbed me with a creepy creak or their slight elasticity. Still the ground seemed safe. It seemed so solid.

Then the shaking started.

Molly woke us up. She was six.

“Mom! Mom! Mom!”

I pulled Molly into our bed and hugged her.

“I want mom!”

With a sigh Jordonna rolled over and plucked Molly from my arms. Molly hugged her back. For some reason Molly never liked to hug me back.

“Mom, dad, is that an earthquake?”

Jordonna and I stayed quiet. We didn’t feel anything. We thought Molly had just had a bad dream. Since she had her own room Molly often had bad dreams.

“The ground is tickling.”

“You mean shaking?” asked Jordonna.

“No,” said Molly. “It’s tickling, like, really mildly.”

“Your feet are tickling?”

“No, the floor is tickling!”

I slithered one of my legs down the bed. A slight shiver ran through my body when I felt the wooden plank that marks the end of the mattress and the beginning of what I like to call the ‘dark realm’ below the bed. In that respect Molly is more courageous than me, she was never scared of the darkness that hides under the bed.

My foot touched the ground and instantly goosebumps ran up my leg.

The wooden floor was shaking faintly but it was definitely shaking. Vibrating. Tickling.

“Oh,” I said. “Maybe it’s really an earthquake, or just a broken generator.”

Jordonna didn’t believe us until she had felt it herself.

There was no noise, none of the objects in the shelf shook, nothing fell, there was no dark background grumble of an incoming thunder – just a slight tickling vibration that seemed to envelop the whole house.

Molly slept in our bed. She preferred that anyway.

It is strange to think that we live in our little bubble and still don’t even notice our immediate surroundings. School, work, supermarket. It was cold, maybe else we would have seen the change in the garden earlier.

I noticed it four days after the nightly vibrations. The grass was ripped open. It was thrown up in folds and here and there the bare brown soil glimpsed through.

Right in the center of our garden was a round circle of soil. The grass seemed to be ripped away in one clean circular line. It looked as if it had been done by a miniature explosion or at least a man with a shovel.

Molly suggested we should make a sandbox for her in that spot. Jordonna preferred to just throw a few grass seeds on the bare soil.

The next night Molly was back in our room. She didn’t wait for us to wake up, she climbed right into bed.

“It’s tickling again,” she said. “And it tickles more than last time.”

Molly fell quickly asleep in her mother’s arms. Jordonna didn’t even wake up. But I couldn’t close my eyes anymore; I felt a faint vibration in the mattress and thought of creatures crawling out from under the bed.

We went to work – and school – like any day. When we came back home Molly ran to a poster that someone had stuck against the street light:

“Missing Cat”

“That’s sad,” said Molly. “We should help them find her.”

The earthquakes didn’t seem threatening. We thought that if they were dangerous we would have been warned by someone.

They came back nearly every night. We talked to the neighbors and they felt them too, but friends a few blocks hadn’t noticed anything at all.

They went on for weeks.

I’m not sure who suggested that the eartquakes were responsible for the missing pets. At least four cats and then Mrs Altmann’s dog.

The noise drives them away. Some sort of deep vibration, likely a broken power station that also creates a high-pitched noise. The animals can’t take it and so they run off. That also explained why all the dogs seemed particularly slow and most of the reamining cats particularly shy.

When the electricity finally sent their maintenance guys they didn’t find a thing.

The earthquakes changed their timing. From day to day they appeared slightly earlier until they began in the evening hours and ended shortly before midnight. Despite my “only one cuddly toy”-rule our daughter slept in our bedroom every night.

Two days of sun. Molly began to play in the garden.

I liked watching her. It was like a meditation to just sit and watch Molly play with imaginary friends.

Then she cried.

I picked her up.

“Why are you crying little princess? Don’t worry, it will all be fine.”

I gave a kiss on each of her knees.

“Someone stole my cars!”

“No one stole your cars. They are probably still inside.”

“Mom gave them to me and now they are stolen.”

“They are not stolen,” I said. “We will find them.”

Together we strolled through the garden.

“There!” Molly pointed towards the round circle of soil without grass. “That’s where I left them.”

We looked everywhere, we even phoned Jordonna, but Molly’s cars were gone.

The steady nightly vibrations kept me awake.

Around 11 I heard a bird shrieking from the garden. The noise stopped abruptly.

It was a Saturday. Molly and Jordonna went to buy groceries, I went to buy toy cars and grass seeds.

Saturday was “daddy cooks” day. I made bechamel and bolognese sauce while Jordonna spread the grass seeds throughout the garden.

The vibrations were so strong that Molly too had trouble sleeping. She kept rolling from side to side until Jordonna finally pushed her into my arms.

“You don’t go to church,” she whispered. “And you’ll sleep until noon anyway.”

Molly and I really woke up around noon. Jordonna was already back. A plate of cold pancakes stood on the kitchen counter.

Jordonna and Molly played games while I read books and worked my way through three weeks of unanswered emails.

In the late evening the sun finally came out. Molly and Jordonna shifted their games outside while I stayed where I was.

A few moments later Jordonna was back inside.

“The seeds are gone,” she said. “It were probably those birds.”

She grabbed the box with grass seeds and went to the garage to find a rake. I heard Molly singing in the garden.

The singing stopped abruptly.

“Let me help you,” said Molly.

“That’s not a toy,” said Jordonna.

“Please?”

“You can play with your cars. See, they already look sad because they are all alone!”

Their voices faded from my mind. I wish I had heard the rest of what they said to each other. At some point I noticed that the hair on my legs stood up again. The floor was vibrating so much that I had trouble reading the screen.

“Dad?” Molly stood behind me. “Mom needs help.”

“Why don’t you help her?”

“She says she needs you.”

“What happened?”

“The rake is stuck.”

I told her I would be out in a second. I just wanted to finish an email.

One second turned into three or four minutes.

“Dad? Mom says come quickly.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Please, quickly!”

I sent the email.

“Okay,” I said.

Then I heard the scream.

Molly froze in the doorway;I pushed past her.

Jordonna stood with one leg in the grassless circle that marked the center of our garden.

“I’m stuck!” shouted Jordonna. “And I think I’m sinking!”

A large part of the rake was already embedded in the soil. I remember wondering why she had dug so deep with it.

I walked closer and laughed.

“Relax,” I said. “We don’t have quicksand here.”

“I’m serious,” Jordonna said. “It feels like I’m being pulled down.”

Her whole foot was already in the soil.

I pulled on her leg. Jordonna cursed.

“I can’t move it,” she said. “My foot is totally stiff.”

With one abrupt movement the rake sunk deeper.

Jordonna saw it too.

“Something is pulling us down!”

I grabbed her under her arms and tried to pull her out. Her foot was stuck.

“That doesn’t work,” she said.

Molly ran to us. She fell on her knees and grabbed Jordonna’s leg.

“No!” Jordonna screamed.

I grabbed Molly just before her hands touched the soil.

The same second Jordonna was pulled further into the ground.

“Help me!”

“Help mom!”

I sat Molly down. She leapt again towards the grassless circle.

I pulled her away.

Jordonna sank deeper.

The rake disappeared completely.

“Goddamn help me!”

“Molly, run next door! Get the neighbors! Fast!”

I sat Molly down further away and rushed back towards Jordonna.

I pulled on her body with all my strength, still she sank deeper into the ground. Her right knee disappeared, then her thigh.

“My leg!”

The soil looked calm, undisturbed, all around her sinking leg.

Abruptly she was pulled deeper.

There was a loud crack when her left leg broke. Her scream followed a moment later.

I can’t describe how much more she screamed.

When our neighbor arrived with the shovel I was already on my knees. I had my arms under her armpits. Jordonna was in the soil up to her hip; her left foot, badly bent, was just beginning to disappear.

For a moment we thought she was saved. Our neighbor hammered the shovel into the ground, right next to Jordonna’s body.

The shovel cut smoothly into the soil.

Jordonna was pulled deeper, her shirt began to be pulled down.

The shovel refused to come back out.

She screamed and cried.

The neighbor stepped onto the bare soil and instantly his sole was enveloped by soil and sank.

The neighbor was quick enough to take his shoe off.

Jordonna was pulled faster. Her hands too got stuck.

She was in the ground up to her chest.

The neighbor grabbed a wooden plank from our terrace and pushed it under Jordonna’s left armpit. The ends of the plank sat on the normal, grass-covered ground. I realized it too late to stop him.

When she was pulled deeper I pulled my hands away just in time.

I will never forget the cracking sound and her scream, when her arm and torso were pulled down, over the wooden plank.

Bone and blood exploded on us. I didn’t notice. I just heard her scream and saw her being pulled down.

She screamed until her mouth was surrounded by soil. Soil that moved smoothly as water to let her in, but was hard as steel when we tried to pull her out.

The last that disappeared in the soil was her hair.

I ran to get another shovel.

When I came back grass had begun to come out of the hole. I tried to dig at the sides of the hole, but I was too slow. The grass came back out, thick like it had been before the bare patch came.

I rammed the shovel again and again into the ground. The soil was soft again, normal. I thought if I’m just fast enough I could still get to her.

While shovelling I remembered Molly.

She stood in the doorway with a wide open mouth and tears running down her cheeks.

I wasn’t fast enough.

We dug it all up. Someone even managed to get a digger. We dug for two days, at least fifteen meters deep.

We didn’t find her.

The only things we found were three toy cars.

Molly is sixteen now.

We never found out what it all was. Nobody believed the neighbor and me. They helped us dig, but they never believed us. The police kept me locked up for a few days. They threatened to take Molly away.

I was lucky that I won; I was lucky that I at least kept her.

But Molly has convinced herself that what she saw was a trick of her mind. She thinks her mother had an accident – and that the digging she remembers was her mother’s burial.

I don’t think I can ever tell her the truth – the things she watched.

But, deep inside, I fear that she still knows.

She still hates gardens. She hates soil and grass and sand alike. She gets panic attacks when the floor she stands on vibrates too much.

And, every night, the toy cars are still on her night stand.

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