Under Every Rock
We entered the forest carrying only a small shovel and a few plastic bags. All we needed was to extract a few pounds of decades old compost. As the tree leaves fell and decomposed on the forest floor each year they formed a thin layer of rotten vegetation. Year on top of year, layers formed on different stages of decomposition. From the freshly fallen brown leafs to the freshly formed soil several layers down.
My uncle buried the shovel in the ground and pushed hard on its edge with his heels. The shovel traveled deep and when he pulled out the wedge of earth I could see the layers of time. He cleared the the top few layers and rolled his sleeves. Get a bag ready, he urged me. Then stepped on the edge of the shovel once again. This time the shovel didn’t sink. Instead it scraped loudly on solid rock. My uncle looked at me and produced a comic questioning expression on his face. We knelt down and cleared the earth from the rock. It was flat and roughly rectangular.
‘Maybe a pot of gold,’ he smiled widely?
I knelt next to him and helped define the edges of the stone plate. Then he stuck the shovel under one side and lifted, I grabbed the edge and flipped the plate over. Underneath it was a city. A settlement of beetles, ants, worms and other unidentifiable creatures that panicked at the apocalyptic invasion of their home. A giant naked snail had tunneled across and zigzag leaving a perfect half-pipe, and was now resting undisturbed in one corner. Two black beetles were knocking heads over territory. Some larvae were silently filtering earth. A worm curled up and stood still hoping to avoid attention. The ants looked as always, as if they were just passing through, busy with a defined agenda.
‘No gold,’ my uncle smiled again.
We put the plate back down and cleared a new spot to fill our bags. He buried the shovel several time, turning the earth up side down on the entire patch of dark soil. Then we both got on our knees and filled the plastic bags, scooping the soft earth with our hands. I tied the loose ends of the bags into knots and stacked them on a pile on the forest floor. When we finished my uncle pulled a hemp twine from his pocket tied each bag to it like beads, tied the two ends of the twine and put it over his shoulder.
We started walking out of the woods. He carried the bags, I the shovel, and he whistled hands free. A few steps out of the woods a flock of sparrows ascended from the trees in our direction.
‘Did we fill all the bags,’ asked my uncle? ‘You know how your mom is,’ he smiled.
‘I do,’ I frowned, checking my pockets and producing one solitary plastic bag.
I held it out to him but let go before he could grab it. The wind didn’t wait, it lifted the bag up and swirled it around high in beautiful randomness. It filled up with air and ascended just when the flock of sparrows was flying over us. There were hundreds of them against the bag and most dodged it gracefully.
Two birds, seemingly in conflict, haphazardly dived right into the transparent prison. They tumbled in and rolled, unable to ride the wind any longer. The bag descended like a comet and landed in the tall grass.
‘We must have awaken a forest spirit,’ my uncle exclaimed after our attention was no longer held by this miracle.
He dropped his load and we both ran to the comet landing location. The sparrows were alive and well in a very physical fit of panic. They flapped their wings and hopped around with the bag. Nobody from the the flock had noticed their struggle. I extended my hand but my uncle stopped me. We watched them in silence rolling in the grass with their transparent prison. Until finally they untangled the bag, with the opening faced up. At first they just stood there in the open bag unsure of their luck. And all at once they flew out and hopped on the back of the wind once again with the same vigor as before. They vanished after the flock.
‘Well,’ my uncle said. ‘This is something you will never see again in your life. And you will be a man of character of you never tell of it.’
And I believed him, and still do.
more by MILEN VASILEV
photograph by Francesco Gallarotti