At the Core

On my ninth birthday I received the Commodore 64 as a gift from my father. That night I read and re-read a four-page section from the computer’s instruction manual by flashlight, huddled under a rainbow-colored quilt given to me many birthdays before. caution: attempt this irreversible procedure only in an emergency appeared at the top of each page, framed by lightning bolts, as if the recipe for something nuclear should follow—but below were only the thirteen steps one was to perform in order to erase the Commodore 64’s operating system from its hardware.

I memorized all of them before burying the instruction manual in the backyard.

The following morning I performed the steps, and I restarted the Commodore 64: an implacable cursor blinked in the monitor’s corner. I returned to the backyard with the shovel and map—drawn on a section torn from a grocery bag carefully burned along its edges and strategically dirtied to lend it the air of authenticity—but my map depended on the fixed presence of a tennis ball, which must have rolled in the wind. I spent the whole afternoon digging up rusty nails and clipped-out photos of women’s lingerie.

Either the manual fell through a crack in the Earth’s mantle, I thought, or was eaten by the roots of the poplar tree.

I was on my own with the implacable cursor.

* * *

The earth of the backyard contained those objects of my life too precious to play with, too precious for air. One and a half feet below the ground lived a Transformer named Megatron, the covetous desire for whom once evinced in me anxiety such that I barely slept the first twenty-four days of my seventh December, and such that the day I finally had him, I had no choice but to bury him; the remains of Prince Adam, He-Man’s plainclothes identity, and the shame of having felt something tingly in my stomach at the sight of his bulging biceps and quads—I hacked him to pieces with my father’s hand ax and committed his glossy limbs to the grave; hundreds of shiny plastic balls no larger than seeds of grain—they were pictures of bras and guns clipped from discarded catalogs, crumpled up and sealed with Scotch Tape for protection from the elements.

I buried them all one and a half feet below the ground.

When a toy on the floor of my bedroom drew from me an overbearance of desire, I buried it one and a half feet below the ground. When a toy on the floor of my bedroom compelled me to fall asleep and dream of a world in which that toy was the paragon of human achievement, possessed only by me, I stayed awake just long enough to dig a one-and-a-half-foot hole in the backyard, to drop the toy from the hand of my outstretched arm, to push the dirt back into the hole with the instep of my sneaker.

Every toy from the bottom of every box of cereal: one and a half feet below the ground.

I buried everything one and a half feet down, as far as I could dig before striking that impenetrable hardness; at one and a half feet my spade clanged against the iron of the Earth’s mantle.

* * *

The blinking light of the Commodore 64’s cursor kept me awake late into the night. I timed my breathing to the blinking; one night my breathing quickened, it raced far ahead of the cursor. I rose from my bed and lugged the Commodore 64 to the backyard.

My spade sparked against earth, showing the way. At one and a half feet, I beat upon the spade with the heels of my sneakers—I stood upright on the hilt, jumped high, pulling myself higher with my hands on the handle—I came crashing down.

At three feet down, I dug through diamond-hard dirt like salt.

And later, when I lay atop the computer’s grave, it seemed to me as if the blinking light of the cursor had never existed, but only this pleasant din above, the twinkling of stars.

How deep must one dig to bury a star? At least six feet deep. It must be buried at the core.

I returned to my room and slept as heavily as a mound of nickel retrieved from the Earth’s second innermost layer, that same dense layer now home to my Commodore 64.

The next morning my father scolded me for my holes; he said I had taken my burying too far. We laid Bermuda grass sod, together, over each of the backyard’s bare patches. Shadows from the poplar tree danced across our fingers.

* * *

I piled my toys in buckets and hauled them down the staircase, to the garage.

I was ten years old and I could dig a four-and-a-half-foot hole with my eyes closed.

I would no longer concern myself with toys, I told my father, but only with books. He led me to a corner of the garage where dusty boxes reached to the ceiling. He stood still before them, silently, his arms at his sides.

Finally, he reached into a box and retrieved a book with a dark red cover. My father placed the book in my hands and he did not let go of it for a long while but remained holding one side of the book while I held the other.

We carried the boxes up the stairs. In my room we counted 383 total books. We arranged them on my shelves according to their position in the spectrum of the rainbow: Violet-colored books began the first row, followed by indigo-colored books, blue books, green books, yellow books, orange books, and red books. I tried to force other-colored books to fit into the scheme, a black book before the first violet book, or a brown book between the orange and red books. But soon the spectrum became confused. Ill-fitting concessions were made for multi-colored books, and gray books seemed to belong nowhere at all.

I lugged the wheelbarrow up the staircase, into my room, and I placed all the wrongly-colored books inside. I hauled them down the stairs, back to the garage. I returned to my bedroom and removed the first book from the shelf, a violet-colored book. I lay in bed and began to read.

* * *

Months later, I lay in bed reading the final pages of a green-colored book.

By then I had already read and buried all the books from the first shelf of the rainbow, and my father and I had already painted my bookshelves gray and blue and white like a clearing sky.

I had seen her handwriting before, perhaps in the indigo-colored books, but I had never stopped to read it until now, when I turned the page in my green book to find that the next had markings in the text, notes in the margin. Beside the word forest was an arrow, and next to the arrow, a note:

The noises of a forest, particularly the sound of wind in the branches, sends a tingling sensation down my spine. When in a forest, cover your ears tightly. The sound of rushing blood and the beating of your heart makes a forest.

And later, to the left of lizard, double-underlined:

I can still see my first boyfriend’s skin when I close my eyes. His skin was dry and scaly. Always remember to moisturize your skin.

I tore out the marked page and placed it under my bed. I finished the book, buried it, and returned to my room to start the next one, its cover a slightly lighter shade of green.

Page 12 was filled with her handwriting, as well as many arrows and asterisks. The words olive, Neptune, and thumb were each followed by a note. I read each note carefully. I tore out each page and placed it under my bed. Thirty pages later I came upon another marked page: I read it, tore it out, and stacked it atop the other two. When I finished the book, I had eleven marked pages, neatly stacked beneath my bed.

In the final green book, the word innocence was followed by an asterisk; another asterisk appeared in the bottom margin, followed by a note:

Do not be afraid of the dark.
We have the same eyes. In the dark, our eyes will be our clue.
Study your eyes in the mirror.

I tore out the page and placed it atop my stack.

* * *

On my eleventh birthday, there were 1121 pages under my bed, each filled with more markings than the one beneath. On that day I buried my first yellow book—I had torn out almost half its pages; what I buried was barely a book—and at five feet down, the Earth trembled under my spade.

The final yellow book I buried by the end of spring, the final orange book by the end of summer. When the leaves on the poplar tree began to change, I started in on the red books, beginning with a pink book, every page of which contained markings. The medium-red books were next, books in which entire paragraphs were double-underlined. And then the dark red books, pages on which nearly every word was struck through. As I began to read those books of red’s very darkest shades, handwriting so dense filled the white spaces that when I moved the book away from my eyes, the pages appeared solidly black.

* * *

My bed pivoted on my pages. It took me several trips up and down the staircase with the wheelbarrow to haul all of my pages outside.

That night there was no place on the ground that did not contain a stack of my pages; no Bermuda grass was visible. The night sky was like a treasure map of the backyard: Each star marked the location of an old hole, and the harvest moon was the hole I dug that night.

I dug, and then I dug deeper, then deeper than I ever had. At five and three-quarters feet down, I heard a low grumbling, followed by a high-pitched whistling. I lifted my shovel to find its spade missing, only a black burn mark at the end of the handle.

The Earth’s center now appeared just beyond the tips of my sneakers. I braced myself against the wall of my hole and closed my eyes as the grumbling and the whistling increased, as I felt before my face a stream of fire shoot from the Earth to the moon, as hands reached gently beneath my arms to pull me out of my hole and place me down upon lush Bermuda grass.

Half the marked pages stacked to his left and the other half to my right, my father and I read by the light of the moon and the stars, handing pages back and forth beneath the poplar tree.

This was the first book I had ever read twice, so I was able to pay less attention to what the markings and the words in the margins meant, because I already knew them. I paid attention only to the sound of the words, and it was as if they were sung like a lullaby from a mother to her child: The lips softly parted, they softly closed.

The next morning my father and I placed the pages in the ground. We filled the hole back up and smoothed the ground over with our hands. Shadows from the poplar tree danced across our fingers as we laid fresh Bermuda sod.

* * *

On my twelfth birthday I still saw faint shadows of lingerie in the poplar tree’s falling leaves, I still saw faint firearms. The sentences of my blue books one year, my green books the next, and my red books another would grow fainter on the leaves as the years drew on, and the double-underlined words and black marginalia more distinct as I grew older, as the tree’s roots reached deeper into the ground, toward my pages.

Then one year, the markings grew fainter. Another, the roots twisted and melted in the core, and the leaves wilted.

I studied my eyes in the mirror.

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