September 15th, 2009
We boarded a car that hung upside down but that had right-side-up seats bolted to what had been the roof. All of the machinery seemed to have been discarded by the humans above ground and re-used by the beings down below. Farkus put the light crystal on the side of the car, in a special container, to light our way. He pushed a button and we began to move through the network of tunnels they had built. Everywhere there were groups of the little hairy creatures working. You saw a bushy head of dirt-colored hair, a big nose, big pale hands, and big bare feet. They were constantly molding the sides of the tunnels and shoring up the roofs with chunks of wood or building materials found upstairs.
Like ants, they moved in groups, gathering garbage from the storm sewers, cleaning it, and finding uses for it. The tunnels had the same rich, fertile, loamy smell of my grandmother’s pantry. Above, we sometimes heard a rumbling as a truck or train lumbered overhead, which caused the Rootweavers to stop what they were doing and hold their collective breaths. The air was mostly clear, and only occasionally bore an unpleasant tang, when our paths grew close to the storm sewers.
I was taken to areas where the roots of the trees were being worked on, the little creatures tying the tendrils together, crammed in a tiny muddy crawlspace where the light crystal did not reach. A constant hum of voices filled my head; the Rootweavers were never quiet, but in constant communication. After a while my eyes failed to register anything in the light. “I can’t see!” I called out. A light was brought to me. I heard a growling. Then all was quiet again.
When meal time came, we all crouched in a circle, a pile of nuts and root apples and a few tubers—carrots and turnips—that had been yanked downward from gardens above. There was also one discarded Swanson TV dinner tray that I refused to touch. All around me voices grumbled and spoke at once. “Don’t you have anything but apples and nuts to eat?” I asked.
“No,” said Farkus. “But you could return to your world and bring us some of those date bars.”
In my memory, I could taste the date bars. But rather than return home, I decided to stay with them through the evening. I began to feel trapped by enclosures of dirt constantly surrounding me like so many giant closed hands. I longed to feel the open sky above me, to see the sun, the stars. “I have to see the light,” I said. We crouched, creeping for what seemed like miles through networks of tunnels. We opened a makeshift wooden door. On the other side was light: a storm drain pointing up to the sky. I stood there for perhaps five minutes, drinking in the open air.
“Do you still want to stay with us?” Farkus asked.
When the little people came out in the middle of the night, I emerged with them. It felt like diving into a pool of cool clear water on a blistering August afternoon. I came up the street to discover the flashing lights of police cars illuminating my block. There were two cars in front of my house. I hurried over, thinking (as I usually did) that my father must have died suddenly in the night, a recurring fear.
“What’s going on?” I asked. My mother came down the steps. “Greg! Where have you been? I was worried sick about you.” She hugged me even though I was covered in dirt.
“This is the one who was missing?” said one of the cops, looking me up and down scornfully. “Where were you, playing in the mud?” I was speechless, realizing that they had all been looking for me. I had thought we were all separate, never thinking about one another, but like the trees that seemed to be so isolated, there were roots, woven together.
My brother came up the sidewalk from the other direction. “Where the hell have you been? Mom just about had a heart attack over you.”
“You were looking for—me?” I asked him.
“Of course I did, I couldn’t stay in that house while she was so worried. I only did it ‘cause she told me to.” He went indoors without another word. The cops left. Things got back to normal quickly. My father and sister returned after taking down the “Missing” signs they had already been putting up around the neighborhood. When they asked where I had been I told them I wanted to sleep in the woods, under the stars, and that was why I was covered in dirt. We all went back to our separate orbits and pretended not to notice another once again. I thought for a moment I could all perceive their thoughts; I heard voices in my head. But all was silent.
I went inside, asking, “Are there any more of those date bars?”