The hole did not seem remarkable, viewed from far away. The ground around it was dusty, and the air was so dry Willa’s nose started bleeding.
She hopped the ditch next to the road and picked her way around tufts of spiky, unfriendly looking flora that poked out of the ground. She almost tripped over a nasty barrel cactus about shin high.
Yellow caution-tape fluttered around the hole.
Funny, she thought. Seeing as there was no wind. But she felt the breeze when she got near. It smelled like ozone. She lifted the tape and ducked under.
The hole was large enough to swallow a car. Its rim was circular, its walls perfectly straight. It was smooth and striated like windswept sandstone.
When she was about two feet away, she could hear it: an indistinct whisper in her ear. She’d been warned it could sound like this. That she shouldn’t get any closer.
She stepped closer.
What was it saying, though? Was it Willa? Was it Want?
If she just cocked her ear and stood there long enough, maybe. If she took one more step, maybe—
Willa heard about the hole on the radio, while she was driving west with all her life packed in her trunk. She was driving because she thought she’d live somewhere else for a while, somewhere she didn’t have to have clothes for every season.
She’d been laid off six months ago and run out of rent money two months after that. It was easier to walk out on her lease than find a new job. Twelve years. She was too tired to fight anymore. So one morning she put her books and knick-knacks in a box out on the sidewalk for the taking: the detritus of her life released into that urban ecosystem that composted everything eventually. Nothing to tie her down anymore except those old regrets that blew around her brain like tumbleweed as soon as her head hit her pillow. She wanted—she didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted to want something else.
It was a surprise and a relief to find that everything she cared about could fit in her car. She left her favorite thrift store vase outside her neighbor’s door. That was it. And then there was nothing to do but walk out of the building and down the steps.
As she drove, the music on the radio finished, and then it crackled for a while along the brown, desolate stretch between small, identical towns. Then the voice of a preacher came on. The static syncopated his words:
there’s a hole west of Benton that would make you believe. I saw it myself with my own eyes. It opened up right there in the desert like a thirsty mouth waiting for the rain to come on down. And it’s still waiting. A deep bottomless pit. Some people say it’ll eat your needs and wants if you let it. Just go over there and shout your worries down that hole. You may think that sounds pretty good, that you’ll just go on over there, and tell it what you desire. Let it take that all away. Wouldn’t that be nice? Watch out, though. Hunger doesn’t eat hunger. That isn’t how it works. It might just take you as quick as the devil. To want is to be human. Don’t you want to be human?
She pulled over on the side of the empty two-laned road and looked it up on her phone. The place with the hole, this miraculous hole that could devour. She wanted to see it with her own eyes. It sounded more interesting than the World’s Largest Collection of Cheese Rinds she’d paid three dollars to see at her last pit stop. Which was indeed more cheese rinds than anyone ought to have, a small hill’s worth. But it had reminded her of her old refrigerator: greasy nubs and faded stickers, green around the edges. This hole was only one hundred and twelve miles away. And she had nowhere she really needed to be, did she?
She was nowhere.
When she stopped at the diner to ask a waitress for directions, there was a middle-aged man sitting in the front booth, with an expression that said he didn’t see the point in smiling anymore. He drank the free coffee refills with hands that shook as he lifted the chipped mug to his lips. He heard her ask about the hole and shook his head.
He gestured for Willa to join him. She sat and ordered a slice of key lime pie that was too sweet to eat.
“It’s a dangerous thing, that hole. It’ll swallow all those little things that keep you up at night. But what if that’s all you’ve got? I know a woman who just jumped in. A woman I used to know.”
He looked out the window. Willa followed his gaze. He was looking at nothing, unless the red dust swirling around counted as something. In which case he was looking at something.
“She’d been in and out of rehab. Shitty sort of place that sucks the life out of you. Serves pills in dixie cups and won’t let you pee without letting someone know. Rest of the year, she lived in a trailer near there.” He folded his hands. “One day, she went out there and stepped right over the edge.” They watched a car pull out of the parking lot. “What do you have to worry about, anyway?”
Willa reorganized the sugar packets, pink on one side, white on the other, brown in the middle. She shook her head. “I just want to know what it’s like.” To be empty, she meant. He pursed his lips and shook his head quickly, raised his hand for another pour from the waitress.
“I’m telling you, lady,” he said. “Don’t go over there.”
Even with directions, she might have missed it but for an old ice cream truck parked on the side of the road. A woman with a crew cut was packing away crates of equipment. There was no ice cream. She wore a sun-bleached blouse that had once been blue. The crates in her truck formed precise stacks. She didn’t seem surprised to see Willa.
“It’s just a naturally occurring phenomenon,” she said, when Willa asked her about the hole. “The ground under there must have been hollowed out by water and stuff. I’ve measured as much as I could, but my instruments aren’t precise enough. A federal grant will only pay for so much, you know? Just ‘cuz I didn’t figure out what it is doesn’t mean there’s anything weird going on. It just means I didn’t have the right equipment. Anyway, I’m done. Got a fellowship starting next week. University up north.”
“Don’t you still want to know what’s down there?” Willa asked.
The woman looked at her and frowned, like she surprised herself.
“You know? Not anymore. There are plenty of other mysteries to solve.” She opened a box, and lifted a paperweight with a scorpion frozen inside, rifled through a stack of papers underneath. She looked at her notes, then seemed to reconsider showing them to Willa. “The ground may not be stable. I think the hole has gotten smaller. My last measurement said nine feet. A hole doesn’t just shrink. A hole gets bigger. But someone’ll get to the bottom of it, some day. I mean that literally. Every hole has a bottom.”
She tossed Willa a tape measure. “Keep it,” she said.
The vast flatness of the earth swallowed the slam of the van door, and when she drove off, her tires kicked up a cloud of dust that ghosted down the road.
Willa took out her phone and pressed record, held it out gingerly over the edge of the hole. The strange breeze lifted her hair. The scent shifted from possibility to a kind of moldering, like wet sneaker.
She waited for a good minute.
The whispering again. On the cusp of distinct.
She lifted the phone to her ear and played back what she’d recorded. It sounded like faint breathing. Nothing close to words like she’d heard. She frowned and hit record again.
After a few more failed attempts, Willa stuck her phone in her pocket, got on her hands and knees, and pulled the woman’s tape measure from her bag. Careful not to get too close to the edge, she extended the stiff metal tape until it stretched all the way across the hole. She braced herself, as if expecting something to snatch it. The tape threatened to bend, then caught the other side. Some dirt crumbled and fell into the hole, down, down.
Eight feet ten inches across. She measured from a different angle, and it was the same. The hole was perfectly round. And sure enough, it was two inches smaller than the woman had said.
She reeled the tape back in and sat there, squinting. Waiting, maybe. The notwhispers tickled the smooth canal of her inner ear.
Willa crawled to the lip of the hole. She was getting dirt on her t-shirt and her last clean pair of pants. She thought if she could just stick her head over the edge, she might hear the words.
She peered down into the hole.
She poked about with her phone light, and she thought she heard something rustling. She felt its fingers in her hair, on her wrist, holding the phone.
Yes, yes, yes, whispered the voice.
“I want—” Willa said.
What, what, what?
Was that a pair of white eyes blinking up at her? Was there something down there, staring back?
She brushed a pebble off the lip of the hole, and the pebble disappeared and wasn’t anymore. She wondered how many people there were like this: dust motes floating in the air, bumping together and apart without meaning.
The invisible fingers stroked her wrist. She opened her hand and let her phone go. She listened, but she didn’t hear it land. She yanked out all the yellow caution tape and stakes and threw those in. What else could she throw away? She opened her bag and found some tissues, dropped those in. Pomegranate chapstick. A dried-up ballpoint pen. Dog-eared business cards. She upended her whole bag over the hole and let everything go. The hole ate it all.
She had nothing left to offer. So she pulled off all her clothes and chucked those in until she stood bare-bodied in the sun. The whisper was louder now, and still she couldn’t understand what it was saying.
She screamed at the hole: “I don’t need anything!”
And the hole ate her scream.
She clutched her gut and felt it, the ache, just as big as before, the hunger for something she could not define. Something other than herself.
It bothered Willa how easy it had been to leave a place she lived for more than a decade. A few text messages had followed her departure, but she felt no tug to reply. How had she drifted in the eddies of that place for so long?
She began to cry, and the wind licked her tears from her cheeks and the hole swallowed them and they went down like they were nothing.
The hole looked a little smaller than before. She couldn’t be sure. She’d thrown in the tape measure.
After a while, she realized she was getting a sunburn. She turned around and walked back to her car. The hard ground scratched the soles of her bare feet. There was a hat perched on a fence post. It was a straw hat, with a flower sewn into the ribbon. She put it on and felt a little better.
Well, she thought, seeing her keys still in the ignition. Sometimes it’s good to forget.
She went on driving west.