The sack of mangosteen falls to the ground and a fruit rolls out. Farel slams it with a rock and scoops out the rind, more sweet than oranges.
Sweating on the ground, under the shade of trees in the noontime sun. Evergreens bend with more fruit.
Next to him, a broad leaf. He moves it to reveal a hole. Puts his hand into the darkness, searching for a bottom, but no bottom is there. He takes a mangosteen and drops it into the blackness, waits for the retort of it hitting the bottom, but there is no sound that emerges.
Farel puts his head next to the hole. The air that is coming out is cool, and soothing. He sleeps in its breath.
“Ouch!” cries a voice. “This hurt!”
Farel’s eyes open. The voice has come from the hole. He peers into it. “Who is that?”
“English!” returns the voice. “But such an accent! Where are you?”
Farel blinks. “Solok. In the jungles near Solok. Indonesia.”
A pause. “I am in Brazil. Also a jungle. This place is Manaus. Near the Amazon. What kind of fruit is this?”
“Mangosteen. Open the shell. Eat it like an orange, but it is much better.”
A longer pause, and the sound of eating. “Delicious. Really very delicious. I am Karolina. You are…”
“Farel,” repeats the boy. “I am gathering fruit. I have been climbing trees all morning.”
“Climbing trees? What about the snakes? And the monkeys? The spiders!” says the voice. “But never mind that. I’m bored, Farel. Tell me about yourself.”
The sun is high, the air still. Farel considers the coolness of the hole. Then he begins to speak.
Don’t give me your technicalities. This isn’t a technical discussion, but if you must go there, we’ll start with this. It takes 42 minutes to pass through the earth from one side to the other, if you were of a mind to make the trip. You’re accelerating as you go down, faster and faster, but eventually you stop because your acceleration is zero – you’re at the centre of mass, essentially at top speed, but then you’re past the centre and you’re slowing down because gravity is increasing on you. This is 8000 miles you’re travelling, my friend.
On that trip, you’re at a maximum of about 18,000 miles per hour, but what you really need to ask yourself is this: if it takes 42 minutes for a piece of fruit to drop through a hole connecting one side of the Earth to the other, what does that mean about the sound of your voice? Faster, slower, somewhere around the same? More or less than 42 minutes?
And on that topic, what about light? Faster, surely, but by how much?
You keep spinning these questions, and sooner or later you have to ask yourself a basic question: are you just not dreaming enough? Do you have something that gets in the way of your fancies, and if so, what are those things? List them, one-by-one. Evaluate them. What do you do now? Strike them off the list or add to them?
Or, do you find a hole and simply jump in?
He can’t sleep. The concrete walls are cool, and next door his father is snoring.
He slips out of the house and into the darkness. In the jungle, a fire and people drinking whiskey around it. They are singing old songs and mangling them terribly. Farel’s brothers may be in that crowd, he doesn’t know.
It’s dangerous to be alone in the jungle. He can hear stirrings in the undergrowth, slitherings and scrapings that do not fear one fourteen-year-old boy.
There is a plank on the hole now. He pulls it aside.
“Are you there?” he asks the darkness.
“Do you expect that I’m just sitting here waiting for some boy from Solok, Indonesia to call me through a hole in the ground?” Laughter. “Of course I’m here. It’s the middle of the day, what time is it there?”
He tells her. “I can’t sleep. Tell me, what do you look like?”
She describes a queen, and he can’t tell if she is joking. “Now your turn. But don’t exaggerate! Ah, I see,” she says after he’s done. “You’re that boy. The lonely, quiet handsome one waiting for a friend. They have written about you in many books.”
“I don’t read.”
She gasps. “Then how do you know about the world?”
“I know about you. And the trees, and villages of Sumatra. There is a city not far away, Padang. I go there with my family. We eat in restaurants and buy goods from the mainland. My father gets drunk in the bars. My mother buys cloth.” He pauses. “I stole a comic book from a store once.”
“Why did you tell me that?”
“Because I never told anyone it before.”
“Just you. What do you think of that, Karolina?”
A pause. She says it is hot in the place called Manaus, Brazil. She says they are experiencing the same heat, because even though they are on opposite sides of the Earth, they share a common latitude.
“What do I think?” she asks. “Well, there is this big Amazon river here that is in all the books. It moves a tremendous amount of water to the east, into the Atlantic Ocean. But I’ve not seen that place. Not even once.”
Farel raises his head. In the distance, there is a rustling. He doesn’t know how to describe it, but it’s always there. Always present. Lapping against the shores of Sumatra, it is the Indian Ocean. From the top of the trees, he can see it easily. When he’s of a mind, he goes there, and swims. The water is clear, warm. It is full of colour and life, and when he is under water, he is a breathing fish-creature that forgets its origin and threatens to crawl onto the sand, there to be made into a type of human being called a boy.
The other thing that we have to be cognizant of is that the Earth has a core. Everyone thinks it’s a molten pool of lava, because surely volcanoes get that heated ooze from somewhere… Well, it’s actually a solid core made up of metals, and that solid core is as hot as the surface of the sun. This presents a technical challenge. An obstacle, if you will. How do you contend with that heat? That sheer solidity? What are your ideas on this topic?
Here are mine. The Earth is an assemblage. It’s comprised of bits and pieces of star-matter, cobbled together in a different time. Each piece was fit and molded, but surely brought pieces of its origin with it – maybe even tunnels and corridors, or straight shafts that defy the intense density inherent to the core. How do you know different? Have you been there? Are you likely to go?
On the surface of the planet, far away from that thrumming core, are people who don’t know how they got there, or were able to participate in such a miracle. It is a miracle. Your life is a miracle. My life is a miracle. We are all part of a myth, and a dream, and an unexpected constituency of cosmic forces that assembled to seize on this very moment in which we are living – and in the face of all that, you are wondering how it would be possible to have a hole through the centre of the planet?
“Are you ready?” asks Farel.
“Yes. How long do you think it will take?”
“I don’t know,” returns the boy. He can’t read, and the mathematics it would take to calculate the answer are well beyond him.
“We’ll trust that it will work,” she returns. “We’ll believe that the hole doesn’t pinch, or turn hard somewhere. We’ll believe that the heat isn’t too great, won’t we?” Her voice is uncertain. Farel tries to answer, but before he can, she continues. “I won’t make a sound. Promise. I will not scream, no matter how fast I go.”
It’s nighttime in Manaus. Karolina is in the jungle, far from her home. She speaks of snakes and boar, as though they are waiting for her. She talks for another moment, and then tells Farel she is ready. After that, silence.
Farel studies the jungle. He’s climbed the nearby trees, pulling down fruit. In a metal tin, he has noodles mixed with steamed nuts, and besides that, strips of chicken. There are mangoes in his sack, weighing down the thing.
He has a watch. It is noon. The hole is quiet. In the distance, the voices of people travelling through the forest, and beyond that – further away – the buzz of machinery.
The time passes. He eats one of the mangoes and throws the pit into the jungle, then licks his fingers. Minutes have gone, but there is no sign of Karolina. She should have appeared, he thinks. He puts his head to the hole, searching for any sign of her. At half past the hour, he is sure that something awful has happened to her. He yells into the hole, but either she can’t hear him or is keeping her promise to keep silent as she travels.
Hands around his knees, he sits next to the hole. His breaths are loud, strained. Then, near the hour, a voice.
“Hi,” it says. He looks up. Before him is a girl in a white dress. The cloth is scraped and blackened, but she is smiling. Indeed, she seems like a queen to Farel. “Do you have any food? Long trip.”
He gets up and goes to her. It’s the strangest thing to not fully understand human contact and then to experience it; he puts his arms around her, and she laughs and hugs him in return. She digs into the food that he’s brought, but he beckons her to hurry, because the afternoon is strong.
Through the jungle they travel. There are similarities in the trees and the brush, she notes, but there are so many things that are different too. Farel explains what he knows about the land, as it dips and becomes sandier, but he stops talking when the trees part and they come before the Indian Ocean.
“It’s not a river?” she breathes.
“Not a river.”
“How far does it go?”
“All the way to Brazil, maybe.”
Then her dress is gone, and she’s wading into the water. Farel follows her in, and underwater they swim amidst the colours, two peculiar sea creatures holding hands as they dive deeper and deeper into the salty surface of the Earth. When they emerge, they eat more food, and Farel points her to the boat perched down the beach.
“For us?” she asks.
He draws her to the boat and pushes it out into the waves. A sail unravels and puts its arms around the wind. The Indian Ocean slides by, warmed by the Sumatran coast. Farel is working on the rigging as Karolina eats, and dips her hand into the water.
“Where are we going?” she asks, eventually.
“Somewhere neither of us has been,” he returns – and points the boat to the west.
As a matter of fact, there’s good evidence that two-legged creatures became sea-farers as early as fifty thousand years ago. They spread out from the Pacific and explored islands. Can you imagine these people, using primitive wayfaring techniques, tackling immense stretches of water that they had no idea contained so much as a clod of dirt?
What do we imagine these people were looking for? What do we think they found?
Here’s a hint.