Pile of Dirt by Aaron Case

Growing up as a kid in the nineties, summer always seemed to represent this sweltering vacuum of imaginative release. Sure, at school during recess, we had our twenty minutes to try and relentlessly dig to China using plastic sporks from the cafeteria, or make stick villages near the monkey bars, or suspending ourselves over gravel heated by early-May, pretending that the rocks below were lava.

But it was always never enough.

During the summer, each day was like a new toy. A new friend. The toasting of our skin would change with each afternoon. Our minds would work like hands, morphing objects into what we wanted, or what we perceived that we wanted. Bicycles would become horses that we would whisper to, name, pedal with bare feet, encourage to go faster. A ditch would become a canyon that we would rule and escape to. A park slide would become an esophagus, digesting us, sending us tumbling into the cobwebs of static. We would land on our feet, wide-eyes, toothy and toothless grins, hair standing on end.

Summer was infinite and euphoric play. There wasn’t a concept of time—days, hours, minutes—except for when the looming streetlight gods would bow their shining heads upon us, signaling for us to go home. We could either come home then, or when our mothers would howl our names into the evening. Their voices bouncing off the suburban, cookie-cutter homes.

Adjacent to my quaint neighborhood was an uncharted land, separated from the rest of civilization by a barbed wire fence that we just called “The Farmer’s Yard.” As far as we could see, The Farmer’s Yard was simply an expanse of dry, clotted soil. Devoid of cattle or crop. Hardly a farm. Ten years from now, this land will have sprouted dozens more cookie cutter homes similar to my own. All with orange roofs and crème-colored walls.

As if the barbed wire fence didn’t say enough about how we were forbidden from entering this place, our parents always said The Farmer’s Yard was “off-limits.” In the face of childhood rebellion, we would always gaze through the barbed wire fence, wondering what was out there that made it so bad. We had no concept of property, especially when it came to the neon-orange colored “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” In Lion King terms we could understand, The Farmer’s Yard held an “elephant graveyard” level of prohibition.

One night, in a tired game of truth or dare with my friends Claire and Travis, Claire, dared me to slip through the barbed wire fence and into The Farmer’s Yard. She was tomboyish and fearless as proven from legs speckled with scrapes and bruises and walking with bare feet, and I wanted to impress her. I knew that I would be in trouble if I went through with it, but the severity of my mother’s scolding voice seemed to be outclassed and outmatched by the scalding heat of a dare. Breaking into The Farmer’s Yard held the same sensation of perhaps escaping a prison. My leg swung between the rusty wire followed by my body, my Tasmanian Devil T-shirt getting snagged by the fence’s teeth, tearing a penny-sized hole in the sleeve.

When I reached the other side, I felt swallowed by the sheer size of the land—brown and desolate. I suppose getting there was more like breaking into a prison, than breaking out of one. My friends crouched down on the other side of the fence, wanting to follow close behind me. Wanting to see what it was like. I told them that it was amazing, that it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And really, it was. Where I had been surrounded by the cookie cutter houses and streetlights my entire childhood, I was now in this expanse of earth, that seemed to go for miles. It was like walking around in a Dali painting. And I was waiting for the melting clocks and the teary rose to come floating by.

But at the same time, it really was just earth, and lots of it. Dry, clotted earth. My light-up tennis shoes flickered with every crunchy step I took further away from the fence. In the distance, guarded by bobcats and bulldozers, was a giant mound of dirt—of Ayer’s Rock proportions it seemed—and I desperately wanted to climb it. As I ventured out further, I heard the fast-paced crunches of Claire and Travis behind me trying to catch up.

There were spots that we had grown accustomed to when it came to play. The ditch, the backyard, the cul-de-sac. All places we knew we could play and let our imaginations run free, and we could always return the next day to play once more. But with The Farmer’s Yard, we knew this would be a one-time thing. So we wanted to explore as much as we could.

The pile of dirt had to have been as tall as a two-story house. It reached above trees, above telephone wires, above everything it seemed. There wasn’t any story that went along with our expedition. No traversing the treacherous slopes of some foreign mountain, no scaling a volcano. It was just a pile of dirt, and we wanted to reach the top of it.

We crawled up the clotted dirt slope on all fours, dry earth digging into our fingernails, dry earth spilling away from our hands and feet, mangled roots that we would reach out and grasp like outstretched hands. Sky finally peered over the edge of the hill, signifying that we reached the top.

I looked around at this flat, crumbly summit studded with rocks and dressed with weeds, and realized how great this expanse really was. The plot seemed to stretch for miles, pressing up against a border of trees and of course, the barbed wire fence. I remember—right then!— understanding the potency of “property.” How bewildering it was to see from up high, an army of houses, and houses, and more houses that spread like weeds forever, stopped short by a barbed wire fence that was only four feet high. Stopped short by what was so easily passed through by group of eight-year-old kids.

Claire and Travis lifted themselves over the summit’s edge shortly after me. Our arms and legs were drenched with dirt and sweat, a sensation that made us feel like we had not only conquered something much bigger and greater than us, but that we had worked tirelessly to achieve this sensation of being bigger and greater than everything below us. The excitement spelled us into wild and frenzied dance, skipping around the hills perimeter, waving our gangly limbs in the air like some crazy jitterbug jig. My light-up shoes shimmering red around my feet. We were loving it. Claire was tossing dirt in the air, Travis was kicking around a dirt clod like a soccer ball, all of us attempted to spit as far as we could from the hill’s edge. We were loving it, and we knew we could never come back. We were making the best of it.

We could see everything from up there. Our houses with their tepid porch lights humming through the evening, the cars drifting along the highway like blood cells in a vein, flocks of birds searching for a quaint cedar tree to rest out the night, the streetlight gods guarding the streets with their bowed illuminated heads. And in the distance, I could hear my mother—a sort of waning ellipsis at the end of a summery sentence—howling my name in the night for me to come home.

Aaron Case is an English undergraduate at the University of North Texas, making a deliberate decision to be clear, precise, and on point since 2005.