The Ditch Digger
Beneath a blue horizon, a gentle breeze rippled the bay, turning the rising tide into sparkling diamonds that lapped the rocks at the edge of the green pasture where 25 alpacas contentedly grazed. I stood atop the hill, cordless phone to my ear, listening to my mom tell me she has cancer. She didn’t want me to visit. Not yet. Too many tests and things to do and think about. In a couple weeks, we agreed, I’d go to western Massachusetts for a nice long stay.
Broken-hearted, I returned to work. Blind to the beauty around me, I picked up the shovel and continued to dig a 500-foot-long trench for Wilbur the Alpaca Farmer. The trench was supposed to help dry out soggy spots in the pasture near the driveway. It needed to be a foot-and-a-half deep so I could layer crushed rock under a perforated plastic pipe that we hoped would de-saturate the subterranean soil that prevented the field’s topsoil from drying out. Even after a light rain, small pools and puddles dotted that section of pasture.
Once again, I was cleaning up after the Mad Scientist, because Wilbur had had the same problem the spring before. My old pal’s solution was to drive the Gator back and forth across the length of the field, hundreds of times, in the belief that the resulting ruts would turn into canals. Naturally, this method failed, and the field stayed wet practically the whole summer.
The Mad Scientist wasn’t speaking to me since I’d gone to work for Wilbur. He claimed I’d stolen his job. But he still made my life difficult. Before getting fired for threatening to kill Wilbur’s sweet Passamaquoddy mistress, the Mad Scientist broke the tractor’s backhoe, and Wilbur couldn’t find anyone in Eastport to fix it. Probably a good thing, because the earth was so wet the tractor would’ve made a mess. But that meant I had to dig by hand.
Gotta admit, I’d had worse gigs. The ditch was only 18 inches deep, so it was more the monotony than the exertion that sucked. The toughest place to dig was one particularly low spot where the water was six inches deep. No matter how much I dug, the mud kept filling the ditch.
After a week of trenching, I was about three-quarters of the way through the big dig. I had just forded across another huge puddle when my shovel struck something hard and massive. I scraped for a couple minutes, then unearthed the mouth of a giant cast-iron culvert pipe. Eventually, I exposed the entire 20 feet of pipe. It was plugged and hard-packed with silt. After a little more digging, I threaded a chain around the pipe and lifted it with the tractor bucket. For several seconds, the chain strained and the earth refused to let go. Then the pipe broke free and bounced on the muddy pasture. While backing away, I looked to my right just in time to see the remaining puddles suddenly merge into a stream that drained in front of my eyes. The pasture was still soggy, but all the standing water had disappeared.
Back at the trench, I continued digging until I heard the clink-clink of shovel hitting glass. I bent over and found the broken neck of an ancient whisky jug. This excited me — I’m always on the lookout for old bottles. Digging gingerly, I found another treasure. Chockfull of mud, it was an unbroken, square bottle about the size of a soda can. I cleaned it in the farmhouse sink and read the embossed letters: “OBear’s Liniment.” I imagined a farmhand, 100 years ago, digging in that same spot. According to the bottles, like me, both his body and heart were sore.
And strangely, for a second, I felt OK.
A couple days later, on a Sunday morning, I sat on the farmhouse porch, reading. It was gonna be a day off, after taking care of the alpaca, pig and chicken chores. Then Wilbur appeared on the edge of the driveway. I hadn’t even known he was on the farm. He must have snuck in after dark.
“I told you when you started working here,” he said with a steely edge to his voice, “that I’d be mowing, but you were responsible for weed-whacking around the posts along the edge of the road.” He pointed toward the split-rail fence on the other side of the almost-dry pasture. “This is not acceptable. I want you to know,” he said slowly, accentuating each word as he walked away, “that I am not happy.”
“What was that about?” Sweetgrass asked, coming outside. “Something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, trying to ignore a mounting sense of dread. “Not sure.”