Elizabeth and Mary had known one another since birth. Mary’s youngest brother was a baby. Mary’s mom did not allow her to help with her younger brothers. Pretending to be older than a nine-year-old, Mary asked if she could play with her baby brother. She promised to be extremely careful with him. Mary’s mom replied with a prompt, “No.”
Mom said no and that meant no, but Mary was not the most compliant child.
While her mother was preoccupied with one of Mary’s six siblings, Mary took her baby brother out of the bassinette, down the hallway, and into her bedroom. “I want to play house, even if we don’t have a daddy,” she told her baby brother. Mary had a real live baby to play with. Ecstatic, Mary exclaimed, “He’s way more fun than dolls.” Mary talked to herself when she played by herself. With three younger brothers and two older brothers, playmates lived elsewhere
When Mary’s mother appeared in the doorway, Mary sheepishly claimed, “He was crying and I helped.” Waving her hand, as if to dismiss Mary from her room, her mother reeled her back to reality with a knock upside the head, saying, “No means no.”
Not easily dissuaded, Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home to play. The last time Mary visited Elizabeth, she spent the night at Elizabeth’s home. Not long after going to bed, Elizabeth fell asleep, with her eyes open. Her dad came into the bedroom and fussed at Elizabeth for not going to sleep. Mary tried to tell him, “Umm… Elizabeth… is… asleep,” but he cut her off. Kids were to be seen and not heard; preferably, neither seen nor heard. Elizabeth’s dad was almost as scary as Mary’s dad. Shortly after arriving, Elizabeth’s dad came home and Mary wanted to leave.
Unfortunately, they had to take Isaac. Elizabeth often had to care for Isaac and to Mary, a three-year-old was useful if he pretended to be the baby; otherwise, the three-year-old is a royal pain, no middle ground. When the girls tried convincing Isaac to be the baby, he shouted, “Wanna be daddy.” Looking down at Isaac, Mary said, “But you’re only three-years-old. You’re not old enough to be the daddy. You have to be the baby.”
“No” demanded Isaac, “I’d be da daddy.” Mary shook her head and looked away from him.
Elizabeth took Isaac’s hand, and the three wandered down to the Georgia gullies, created by geological erosion, like the Grand Canyon, but on a smaller scale. The gullies in Eden Georgia appeared ominous and unwelcoming from the outside. The overarching trees created a mysterious canopy, as inviting as a haunted house. Those who dared to enter the dark and eerie freak of nature found a child’s paradise. Under the canopy, the gullies shaded visitors from the harsh sun and the coolness of the sandy bottom provided relief from the heat. The adults did not appreciate the glory of the gullies, which made the gullies even more inviting to the children.
Mary was the middle of seven children and she thought her big brother was the smartest person among the group of people with whom they lived. “Elizabeth, David said if we dig a hole straight through the ground we’ll be in China. Then we could go back and forth and nobody would know.”
Looking at Isaac, Mary said, “You promise not to tell anybody? You have to promise!” Isaac did not talk much, unless he was mad or upset, and then he was inconsolable.
Elizabeth was jumping up and down, squealing, “Let’s dig a hole to China!”
Elizabeth took her queues from Mary, who was older and usually the one in charge. “But Isaac has to promise, and you have to say, ‘I promise. Hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, I promise not to tell.’” Holding her hand to her heart and pointing towards her eyes, Elizabeth responded, “Hope to stick a needle in my eye, I promise.
”Throwing sand into the air, Isaac yelled, “I pwomise.”
That was close enough, decided Mary.
The digging commenced. The soft, damp sand made digging easy. Mary and Elizabeth ignored Isaac, who was throwing sand and prancing around, falling over like the Pillsbury doughboy. He loved the wet sand on his feet, and in his hands, and on their dresses, and in their long hair. Isaac didn’t care if sand got in his pants. Mary questioned, “What is wrong with that boy? He’s strange.” Shaking her head, she looked away. He was entertained for now; an infinitely better situation than when he threw fits.
Mary noted the grime under her nails and started to shudder as the saw the soft sand forced its way into every cranny. “That feels so gross,” said Mary.
Digging the sand with her bare hands, Elizabeth acted like a puppy that found a new escape route. Sand was flying everywhere.
“I love the sand. It’s not gross,” said Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth, your mom’s gonna’ get all mad at me because you and Isaac are rolling in the sand. It’s in your hair and you’re dad is gonna’ kill me.”
Elizabeth was excited and took off running after Isaac, playing a game of Catch Me if You Can. The girls wore dresses that were six inches from the floor and inevitably while running, a foot or shoe caught in the hemline, causing Elizabeth to fall head over heel in the sand. “Seriously Elizabeth? You’re supposed to be helping me.”
The idea of going all the way to China was almost too much anticipation. Neither child had a clue what was in China, but China was anywhere except for where they were, and they all wanted to get away from where they were.
Not much time passed, when Elizabeth’s arm could not reach further to dig. With her hands, Mary touched the bottom of the hole in the sand. After digging out a few more hands full of sand, Mary was unable to reach further than the tip of her fingers could touch. Shrugging their shoulders, Mary looked at Elizabeth and asked, “What now?” The girls realized they could not dig a hole to China this way.
“How about one of us get in the hole and dig around our feet. We can take turns!” said Elizabeth, thrilled for once that she came up with the idea to solve a problem.
“Elizabeth! Watch out! You’re knocking all the dirt back in,” as Elizabeth tried to fit her tiny six-year-old body in the hole.
“I can’t fit!” cried Elizabeth.
If Elizabeth didn’t fit, nine-year-old Mary would not fit! The hole was too small.
“I bet Isaac can fit! Let’s get Isaac to get in the hole and dig?” advised Mary.
Elizabeth looked at Mary, then at Isaac, unsure what she should allow. Elizabeth wanted acceptance and to please Mary and as usual, what Mary wanted won. Isaac was excited to be lowered into the hole and to be helping the older girls. At first, he loved the feel of the sand all around him and he fit perfectly in the hole… Maybe too perfectly. He couldn’t reach the sand around his feet with his hands. The hole was not wide enough. The dirt began falling in around Isaac and he laughed as the sand filled in every crevice available. Mary and Elizabeth were laughing so hard at Isaac, they automatically started packing sand around him. He was squealing and laughing and unhelpful.
Moving his shoulders up and down, trying to pull up his hands, he started whining, “Muh nose, muh nose, muh nose!” Finally, Elizabeth scratched his nose and he stopped blubbering. Tightly packed up to his neck in the gullies’ soft sand, Isaac started crying. He couldn’t move. His itchy nose was the start of a monumental melt down. Isaac was screaming without words, and understanding what he was blathering was incomprehensible. The more he wiggled, the tighter the dirt packed around him.
Elizabeth tried to pull him out of the hole, but without arms to pull on, she couldn’t get a grip on him. She was beginning to panic. Isaac was screaming and Elizabeth looked as if she would begin crying at any second.
“Help! I can’t get him out, you have to help,” wailed Elizabeth. Mary began tugging on Isaac’s shoulders, trying to wiggle her hands under his armpits, all to no avail. The girls began to dig away the sand from around Isaac. The damp soft sand seemed to pack around him as if they poured cement in the hole. The less Isaac could move, the more he screamed. Both girls started to panic. They tried digging around him, both tried pulling him by his shoulders, but Isaac didn’t budge.
“We have to go get help,” said Mary, with a look of wild fear in her eyes. The thought of approaching James Saint John about the weather was scary enough. “We have to tell Bro. Saint John that Isaac is stuck in the sand. He can get Isaac out, but we’ll be in big trouble,” said Mary. To the six and nine year-olds, James Saint John was big as a house, and when he got mad, scary things started happening. He threw temper tantrums that made a three-year-old’s meltdown seem like a game of patty-cake. If she thought Elizabeth was going to give in and go tell Saint John, Mary was wrong. This would not be a fight she could win.
Elizabeth tried to calm Isaac, but all she could do was sit next to his bawling head poking out of the ground. She worried about how much trouble she was going to be in when her parents heard about Isaac ending up in the sand.
“Isaac, you need to stop crying. James Saint John is coming and you’re going to be in big trouble. Stop screaming. Mom and Dad are gonna’ find out and then you’re going to be in more trouble. Calm down. I’m not leaving you.” The sound of Isaac’s wailing echoed through the forests giving the gullies an even greater fright factor. A few minutes ago, the gullies were a child’s secret garden and now, Isaac was buried alive!
Running about a quarter of a mile, as fast as her nine-year-old feet would carry her, Mary burst into James Saint John’s trailer house. Seeing his shocked and outraged expression by her sudden entrance, she quickly said, “I’m sorry! I forgot to knock.” Through gasping breaths, Mary explained, “Isaac got buried in the sand. Me and Elizabeth can’t get him out of the hole he’s stuck in. We need help.”
The adults often gathered at Saint John’s house to discuss business. None of the children knew what business they discussed because the adults did not allow children in the meetings. As anticipated, the adults and James Saint John flew into a panicky, loud, rage. “Show me where he is,” Saint John demanded. With the adults following close behind, Mary took off running back to the hole. Nine-year-old children have short legs. James Saint John was over six feet tall and he ran fast. Saint John broke a limb off a tree, as if Mary needed encouragement to run faster. Swinging the stick at her, he loped behind Mary, who was running faster than ever. Crossing under the barbed wire fence, required holding one strand of barbed wire up higher, creating enough of room to slip between the strands. Mary caught her dress on the barbs and ripped a hole in it. “One more thing to worry about,” she muttered.
Once within earshot of Isaac, led by Saint John, the adults took off running like a herd of runaway horses, leaving Mary in their dust. When they reached the sandy bed where Elizabeth sat next to a screaming head sticking out of the sand, with one fell swoop, Saint John had Isaac in his arms, lifting Isaac as if he was a piece of chalk on the floor.