Dirt seems to breath in sunshine and breath out dead leaves. If you hold it close enough, you can almost hear it exhaling. I liked the way it felt, the wet graininess that bubbled and burped and sank between my toes and fingers, or the dry stuff, even if it made my eyes hurt when I accidentally rubbed them with my dirty hands. I used to regret that I could not eat it, or if I did, suffer the ear drumming, gritty texture grinding between my teeth.
The summer before the millennia, 1999, my mom and dad were building their new home from scratch in the ex-corn fields of West Michigan. My aunts and uncles came for a family reunion to help build at one point, I think. All I remember is that dirt was everywhere. My cousin Meg got our van stuck in the long muddy driveway, I think it took about three uncles and my dad and thirty minutes to get her out.
Meg was pretty old, she could already drive, but our other cousins, Jake and Joe, were almost my age (just a couple years older). They both played baseball, not professionally of course, they weren't old enough yet, only about eleven and nine, but they played on a team all year, even during the summer. I guess they didn't get a lot of vacation time, so the fact that they were spending it with us was pretty special. Anyway, the black and gold dirt was everywhere that summer. When I looked at our yard, it reminded me of a marble cake or a desert wasteland with no weeds. Naturally, mud fights were the most exhilarating thing in the world. My two cousins and my older siblings and I scrambled across the packed, never-ending source of ammunition. I never really thought about how Jake and Joe were such good baseball players, and they could throw about ten times better than me on a bad day. I guess I just never bothered to make the connection. Although, one day in particular, I do remember hiding behind a dune half scared out of my mind. If I'm honest with you, sometimes the war became pretty serious and somehow everyone else knew what team they were on and I was just the little fifth one, chucking at whoever came close enough. Except Nate, I wouldn’t ever throw dirt at Nate. I stuck my head just over the tip of the dune.
“Danae, get down.” Nate whispered, chest flat on the ground, dirt in hand.
I turned to look, but it was too late. Smack. I tasted it before I felt it. The hardest piece of dirt in the whole world smeared me across my right cheek and exploded in my mouth. Now, I was not a baby, I knew that if I was going to get myself involved in a war, I was going to get hit. But no one considers how the biggest, baddest, rock-hard chunk of black dirt, bigger than your whole fist, might just nail you clear across your entire jawbone and shatter in a million tiny pieces halfway down your throat. I didn't understand what was happening as the impact threw me down. I felt my body being spun sideways as I skidded face first in dirt. Blood and drool and mud came out like vomit. I started howling like a hyena and holding the mess of red and black dirt in my hands and looking at my cousin like I was going to murder him.
There wasn’t any more mud wars after that.
That same summer my brother Nate and I would swim for hours in the pond that giant cranes had dug up behind our unfinished house. I think that’s where all the dirt came from, one single pond. Mom was somewhere else, I don’t remember where, maybe she was working, and dad was busy building. Nate and I didn’t think to bring our bathing suits, so we just took off all of our clothes except our underwear and slid down the mountains of sand piled around the little pond. We slid down the sand dunes until our underwear turned golden and we had sand stuck so far up our butt holes I was sure we’d be pooping dirt for weeks.
When we got tired of swimming, we buried each other under that pond dirt, all but the head, and then get up and laugh until our guts hurt at the soil clinging to our skin and hair. We made beds and chairs and tables and even ink. We wrote on dead leaves or the bottom of the windsurfer that dad picked up for us somewhere. That windsurfer was the most beautiful massive slate of hard white plastic I ever laid eyes on. It didn't have a sail anymore, so it looked like a big sad flat shark. I was terrified of it, partly because of its truly shark-likeness, and partly because it had a sharp little piece of metal sticking up at one end. When you swim in a pond for hours your skin becomes soft and noodly, so a tiny hook of metal like that drives in deep. It didn’t stop us for taking that board out to the middle of the little pond and running off it, though. Sometimes we jumped, but mostly we just ran off because our momentum and the weight of our bodies sent the board shooting in the opposite direction so whoever was still sitting there would get spun out pretty fast.
I lived for the moment right before I hit the water, when I catapulted myself in the air, arms and legs spread out like Tarzan, and I could see the water right beneath me. I hit it like a torpedo, smack, and the world closed up and I shut my eyes tight and let the darkness poor into me. I could only take it for two seconds, then I started feeling panicky and pulled my way upward. I could never tell just how soon the surface would hit, sometimes it took a while, but I’d burst through the darkness and spit out the pond water and wipe it from my eyes and spread the hair from my face. Before I set foot on the sleek white plastic, before I even knew where I had landed, I already wanted to jump in again.