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The hole arrived with the heat, but no one suspected the connection except Tillie, who threw her hand over her nose and said, The hole is breathing. I can taste its breath. If the hole really was breathing, if breathing was the word to best describe the slow, consistent leak of air from its deep belly, then its breath was hot. It had been a warm summer already, the end of June leaning back into its beginning, opening its arms into the final days of May, and now the heat—mid-July—was nearly impenetrable, hanging like an invisible wall outside every closed and air conditioned front door. The heat at the cottage was better, but it was still bad. From the sun-baked driveway, between the pine trees and carefully sectioned-off underbrush, to the edge of the windless lake where the dock and the boats bobbed disconsolately with their reflections, the heat wedged itself, thick, wet, and pressing, into the air. The heat was almost enough to distract from the hole, which arrived, as Tillie noticed, on the same day. It was almost enough. Almost. The hole was in the driveway, so it was hard to ignore. The hole was in the driveway, so it swallowed the car first. Peter was the first to find the car missing when he went outside to drive to the marina and pick up his morning newspaper, an anachronism he still entertained while on holiday at the cottage. It was a whimsical act, this buying and reading of the newspaper, an act that made him feel nostalgic for his boyhood and his own father. Besides, he reasoned (he reasoned with the rational part of his brain), the local economy deserved his business, and there was something that struck him as pleasing, something quaint and almost laughable, in the way the owners of the marina—a husband and wife widely set, with dark eyebrows angling inward as if they were siblings—sniffed at him when they thought he wasn’t looking, passing a word between them as if they knew something he had as yet failed to recognize. He always paid with credit card for the paper. He liked the feeling of plastic sliding against leather when he pulled the card from his wallet. He liked the look of the generous tip he added to his total on the machine. But this morning, when he went out the back door of the cottage, pulling his keys prematurely from his pocket, Peter found the car missing and a hole there instead. The hole was roughly circular and reached either side of the driveway. It was deep, impossibly deep—Peter couldn’t lean far enough over to see the bottom. Peter’s daughter, Tillie, threw her hand over her nose. She was standing in the open bathroom window, her dress hiked up over her knees because she had just been preparing to pee when she saw her dad outside staring into the hole. It stinks, she said, her voice strangled through her fingers. Peter didn’t hear her. He didn’t smell anything, either, despite his head hanging over the mouth of the hole. All he felt, throughout his entire body, was the heat. Like mud, Tillie said. Like rotten mud. Later she would change her description, when they all stood around the edge of the hole, staring into its center, not venturing too close for fear of erosion. Peter, Martha (Peter’s wife, wringing her wrists with her hands), Old Peter (Peter’s father, rubbery jowls hanging, in transition to a nursing home—Peter hadn’t found an appropriate placement for him yet, everything too ill-kept or unorganized, every home, even the expensive ones, too imprecise—this time at the cottage existing as a temporary arrangement, despite the empty bedrooms with made beds in the basement), Little Peter (Peter’s son, already collecting stones and pinecones to throw into the hole, already eyeing his sister’s hair to pull), Tillie (hair in curls, a tempting poof around her head, and yellow dress jam-stained—Martha examining it between glances at the hole, exasperated, counting the laundry loads), and their French Bulldog, saggy-lipped, named Toad (she had brindle fur and a limp, one slouching red eye; only Tillie called her Toad, this is what she had named her from the beginning, but everyone else knew her as Joanne). Peter, Martha, Old Peter, Little Peter, Tillie, and Toad/Joanne. Together, they looked into the hole. Separately, too, they looked into the hole. To Peter, the hole looked like an obstacle, something that, in his boyhood, he might have liked to jump across. Or climb into. Its openness was like an invitation, a space for him to fill. To Martha, the hole looked like the dark scoop at the bottom of anxiety. Old Peter could hardly see the hole, although he looked in the same direction that the others looked. He hadn’t told anyone yet, but he had begun to go blind. To Little Peter, the hole looked like something he wanted to hurt. It had frustratingly swallowed everyone’s attention. He had already thrown one stone into it—the sharpest he could find—and, even more alarming, absolutely nothing had happened. The stone disappeared, the hole didn’t flinch, and his family kept staring. To Tillie, in her bare feet and big eyes, the hole looked open like a wide open mouth hollowed out like a gap between words that the brain splinters against. It hollowed out a space in her head the same way heat does, sluggish and immobilizing, like the soupy bones in her limbs couldn’t quite catch hold what her head commanded. The hole was heat in the way it stunted thought and motion. It was epistemo- logical nothing, the separation between Tillie and Tillie, herself and herself, Tillie and the outside that was not Tillie, aching her with hurt like the sloughing pain in a sep- arated shoulder. Hand still over her nose, Tillie changed her description. In reverence, she changed her description. Not it stinks. Not like rotten mud. But instead, The hole is breathing. I can taste its breath. To Toad/Joanne, the hole looked like anything else. She licked her lips in the sauna heat of its exhalation.
By lunchtime, three trees had sagged as if in exhaustion and collapsed into the hole. The hole had undoubtedly widened. Its circumference crumbled toward the bottom porch step. And the heat had undoubtedly thickened. It had undoubtedly deepened. Cellphone service at the cottage was always sporadic, but now it had completely disappeared (into the hole—the heat?), and Peter declared he would walk to the marina to contact the authorities if service didn’t return in an hour. An hour was the longest he would wait. An hour was all he needed in order to rest, because the heat had made him drowsy, the heat had made him slow and uncertain, he would just close his eyes for a moment, only for a moment close his eyes against the heat, and three hours later he woke to Little Peter poking him in the face where he lay on the couch. In the meantime, the hole had swallowed the shed that stood beside the cottage, the shed that held the water skis and wakeboard and lifejackets and canoe oars. The hole had pulled off the porch steps. Dad, said Little Peter. Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad. Tillie was in the garden with Toad/Joanne, digging smaller holes no more than ten feet away from the big one, pushing her fingers into the earth. Martha saw her from the screened-in porch where she was reclining in sweat. Without lifting an eyebrow, she said, Tillie, can you hear me? Get inside right now. I told you not to play so close to that hole. Tillie? Tillie, now you listen to me. Tillie didn’t react to her mother’s whisper falling through the screen window. Both she and Toad/Joanne were more accustomed, and therefore more responsive, to Martha’s shriek. But God it was hot, and Martha had no energy to shriek. She had no energy even to move. It was hot and the lake water did nothing to help. It had begun to bake and had begun to smell, too, like a bucket of urine. The fans set up around the cottage did nothing. They provided no more than a warm beating of breath on Martha’s skin. The open windows did nothing. They made it worse. The air was stagnant, mouldering (it was palpable to the point that it could complete the process of mouldering). And there was no air conditioning. This was something Martha had decided when they built the cottage (or, rather, when they paid someone to build the cottage for them), that they would have no air conditioning. It’s sometimes nice, she reasoned (she reasoned with the rational part of her brain), and Peter agreed, to have less in order to experience more, to do without some common conveniences and feel the reality of, for example, the outside air filtering into your home. They escaped the city to escape schedules, to escape obligations and regulations, and a regulated air temperature seemed too indicative of this lifestyle, the numbers on the thermostat too exact and unyielding. There was something liberating in letting the world for once take care of itself. This was the same ideology that made her fight off the installation of the internet for so long. Less convenience denoted a more natural and therefore more appealing state of living—it meant quiet, meant fresh air and time spent out of doors. It was a battle Martha constantly and diligently undertook, the good fight, the wholesome struggle for less. So the air in the cottage began to regurgitate itself, moving in humid slurps in and out of the family’s lungs.
Dad, said Little Peter, poking his father in his flabby cheek. Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad.
Tillie was in the garden. Tillie was in the tall grass by the swampy side pocket of the lake. Tillie was beneath the basement stairs, rummaging for paint so she could colour the canoe. Tillie was in the crook of a tree, her dress pulled up around her waist, letting the heat slide by her legs. Tillie was standing beside the rocking chair in the screened-in porch. Mom, she said. Martha woke wondering where the light had gone. It was the middle of the night. Mom, said Tillie. Where’s Grandpa? Martha felt sludge in her head that she was sure would slide out her ears when she stood up. She went to the living room and woke Little Peter and Peter, who had fallen asleep together on the couch. Where’s Grandpa? Where’s your father? My dad? Old Peter was nowhere. His shoes were gone, too. (Into the hole—the heat?) I’m going to the marina, said Peter. Martha said, It’s the middle of the night. I have my wallet, said Peter, and my cellphone. As if these were things that could safeguard him. He pulled on his sandals and opened the back door to find the hole waiting for his first step. It had swallowed the porch, all of it. Peter went out the front instead, toward the lake, and circled around to the forest. And was gone. Martha was standing at the open back door, wringing her wrists together with her hands and staring down into the hole. We should go find some flashlights, she said. In case the power goes out. She went down to the basement and sat in the corner of the room. Upstairs, Toad/Joanne reclined on the carpet, licking her crotch. Tillie had found a book to read off the bookshelf. The heat had wrinkled the pages, and she tried to smooth them with her fingertips. Little Peter, looking sour and tired, yanked the utensils drawer out from under the counter and stood by the open back door, chucking spoons into the black and vacuous hole. The humidity had struck him like a hammer striking bone, and each throw swung his exhausted body dangerously over the edge. We could camp out by the lake, said Tillie, flipping a page. But nobody—no nothing, was listening. It would be good to get some rest, she said. The heat won’t let us rest. But nobody was listening. Her eyelids began to fold like curtains over her face. We could leave on the boat, she said. Get as far away as possible. But nobody—no nothing, no nothing—was listening. The cottage was quiet, and Little Peter had disappeared from the doorstep.
Toad/Joanne and Tillie went down to the water. It was the only place Tillie thought they might be safe, because the water belonged to nobody. Even Peter had admitted, while driving his family in dizzying spirals in the speedboat, that the water belonged to nobody. You can buy all the land around it, he said, and still someone can drop down from the sky and into the lake and not belong to you. It was a riddle he couldn’t decipher, a puzzle he couldn’t put together. He knew, at least, that it had something to do with movement, that the movement of the water was unmanageable—that there was something, however enigmatic, in its simplicity, its liquid homogeneity, that would always resist possession. There was something as elusive as emptiness, something as slippery as heat, in its sustained, unvarying fluidity. Tillie went to the water and waded in up to her knees. Her yellow dress bloomed around her, wet, like a sunspot in the dark. Toad/Joanne whimpered. Tillie waited. Martha, in the basement, deep now in the basement of herself, found that she couldn’t feel the sweat on her forehead anymore. She experienced a moment of relief, of bliss and coolness, like an icy wind against her skin, and she wondered if this is what her meditation books were trying to teach her. A sudden stillness, a total freezing nothingness snaked up through the bones in her toes. Lessness, openness, emptiness. She opened her eyes and saw that the floor was gone in front of her.
As the sun rose, a breeze started up from across the lake and pulled through the heat like fingers pulling through hair. Goosebumps stuck up on Tillie’s forearms as she walked through the bushes. The cottage was gone. Tillie and Toad (no longer Joanne) sat on the edge of the hole. Toad sniffed the air and smiled and Tillie swung her legs and swung her legs and swung her legs and swung her legs and swung
Erica McKeen is a graduate student at Western University. Residing in London, Ontario, she is a Poetry London board member, assistant editor for The /tƐmz/ Review, and co-organizer of lomp: reading series. Her writing has been published in Canthius, Minola Review, The Quilliad, and elsewhere.