Author’s Note: As is the case with much fiction, ‘Hartman’s Hands’ was inspired by a dream. I always record my dreams, and many of them are not worthy of a short story or novel, however, in this case, I felt there was something there.
I have experienced many instances where senior citizens lose their partners and struggle to deal with it mentally. It happened to my grandmother, and she was never the same. Sharing your life with someone for so long and then losing them must be devastating. I wanted to explore this with Bill Hartman. He is isolated, he struggles, and he is lonely in his grief, but finds solace in a series of unknown events.
Magical realism is not a genre I have written since I was at university. I find it complicated and worry about over-usage. However, in this instance, I thought it was a powerful way of demonstrating Hartman’s mental health issues, but also the power of love.
It appeared on her birthday.
Bill Hartman had been finding it harder to maintain his garden. He was 76 now, and not as fit as he used to be. There was the arthritis in the hands, a wheezy chest from his past of smoking, and general aches and pains that limited his daily output. It was tough getting old. You have all the time in the world to do something, but the body won’t let you. Despite the pain, he kept trying. He had to keep it going for her. She was buried at the cemetery, but her heart was in that garden.
‘Get someone in,’ John had said, several times. ‘You’re getting too old for it, Dad.’
He didn’t want to get anyone in. He didn’t want anyone else touching her garden.
This summer was the first full one he’d had to garden. Hartman tried his hardest to get ahead in the spring and keep on top of things, but by late May it was a different story. Keeping the flower beds going was fine. He’d done his reading since Hazel died, and he knew things needed a drink. He pruned the roses in the spring and sprayed them once a week to keep the black spot and flies off. The peonies and lilies did great. The clematis took care of itself but needed an occasional trimming. It was the mowing of the lawn, the cutting back of the bushes and the weeding that took its toll. And it always needed doing.
The pain was constant. His hands were stiff and often clumsy. Tasks could make them ache for long periods. The painkillers didn’t do anything, and he was gaining an increasing tolerance to whiskey. What used to be an occasional indulgence had become a nightly routine. So what? There wasn’t long left for him. Who was going to tell him off? Although, his tortoiseshell cat, Zoe, gave him disapproving looks regularly.
John kept talking about him moving out to Australia to be with them. Maybe it would be good for him. He would have loved to see them more, especially the grandkids, but he was too old for all that travel – it was too far. Plus, he didn’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone. Zoe wouldn’t like it on a plane, anyway.
Hartman was torn between staying in a house he’d lived in for thirty years with everything that reminded him of his wife and heading down under to be with the rest of his family. Maybe it was the garden that was keeping him there. Keeping him and destroying him at the same time.
Then it was Hazel’s birthday.
He wasn’t going to bother getting up at first. He was sleeping in later than he’d ever done in his life, owed mainly to the whisky. That wasn’t what Hazel would want. She wouldn’t have him wallowing in self-pity. Zoe didn’t tolerate it either. She needed feeding and she’d always remind him, jumping onto his bed and pawing at his stomach with the faintest amount of claw.
‘Alright, alright,’ he groaned. With ache set deep in his bones and a fuzzy head, he rose and made himself a coffee and went to sit on the patio as he always did in fine weather.
The first thing he noticed as he went through the sliding doors was the weeds that had sprouted up through the cracks in the concrete. A couple of days of bloody rain and it was always the same. He would have to get it re-grouted. Now that was something he would have to get someone in for. But as he sat down and surveyed the garden in its late-June mid-morning glory, he slammed his mug down on the table so hard it cracked and spouted Kenco.
Colour left Hartman’s face. He stared, unblinking, his shirt splashed with coffee.
There was a hole in the garden.
It was about a foot deep, three foot wide and perfectly circular. Exactly in the middle of the lawn. Bill looked around, blinking, but there was no sign of anything else. He looked at his neighbours’ fences. Sydney would never do a thing like that. What about the others? They didn’t even own a spade. They did nothing in their own garden so why would they sabotage his? But the strangest thing was there being no evidence of it even being dug. No spade marks, no soil in the surrounding areas of grass. No soil at all.
A meteorite, maybe? But then there would be evidence, burn marks and such. Meteorites in his garden. It almost made him laugh.
He fingered at his wedding ring with shaking hands. Nothing made sense.
‘It’s happening at last,’ he muttered to himself. Dementia, as he’d always feared, was kicking in. That, or pure insanity. This hole was a mirage, an illusion. Possibly he was dreaming still. He did the old cliché of pinching his arm, but it hurt and nothing else.
Anger overcame him. On Hazel’s birthday, of all days. She would have been 72. Now there was a hole right in the middle of the garden. It was a violation, and the fact that he could not explain it infuriated him even more.
Zoe crept from behind him, rubbing against his legs and walking through the space between them. Then she pounced into the hole, rolling around on her back and sides, purring loudly, like the soil was laced with catnip.
‘You’re a strange girl,’ he said.
Zoe kept purring and rolling.
Hartman stayed in the house that day. The anger subsided; he didn’t want to brew over it on what was already a tough day. But he couldn’t help it. Who had heard of a self-digging hole? It had just appeared for Christ’s sake. Maybe he’d have a chat with Sydney tomorrow, see if he knew anything or had any ideas.
He tried ringing John, but he didn’t answer. It was hard to remember what time it was out there, and his son was often busy.
He drank his whiskey earlier than usual and so his bedtime was earlier too.
‘Going for a pond eh, Bill?’ said Sydney, smiling down over the fence. ‘Thought you wanted less work!’
Hartman woke from his daydream and stared at his neighbour with a blank expression.
‘Pond,’ he murmured.
Walking across the garden, he ignored his frowning neighbour. The hole had got bigger; it had doubled overnight. No evidence again. Where was the soil going?
‘Bill?’ asked Sydney.
‘Erm, yeah, a hole,’ he said. ‘I mean a pond. Yes, a pond. Always wanted to have one. Koi maybe.’ He kept staring down at the stain on his wife’s garden.
‘Oh, I see,’ said Sydney, still frowning. ‘Takes some work, that. You’ll need some help. I mean, you are better off getting someone in, but I can help if you want.’
‘No, it’s fine. Thanks. I don’t want to get anyone in.’
‘Well, if you need a hand-’
‘No thanks, Sydney. I have hands.’ He flexed his tight fingers and dug his nails into his palms.
‘Ok,’ said Sydney, slowly, tapping his fingers on the fence. ‘You know what’s strange? I’ve been in all week. Thought I would have heard you make a start.’
‘It started yesterday,’ said Bill, scratching his head.
Sydney went to say something else, but Hartman turned abruptly, leaving the hole and his neighbour behind him, and went back into the house.
His day was spent on the sofa. The tele was on, but he paid little attention to it. Zoe purred around and on him. He got up to use the toilet and to feed her, but nothing else. Only thinking.
Sydney wasn’t involved then. It didn’t look like anyone was; there was never any trace of anything. Maybe he was doing it in his sleep, one of those weird sleep-walking things you would hear about? But where was the evidence? A drunk, sleepwalking man in his 70’s making clean cuts in the earth without leaving a trace.
Hartman thought about the hole, and about everything. Chapters of his child and teenage years, meeting Hazel and all the times they had together – all came flooding back to him. It was like the hole had stuck a pin in his memories, and they were all leaking out. Whiskey went down quicker than usual and he crashed out on the sofa, tears on his cheeks.
As he woke with a jerk the bottle fell to the floor, spewing its brown contents onto the carpet. All he wore were his boxer shorts when he left the house through the front door, not fazed about the summer night's rain that fell heavily.
A pale security light flared on and highlighted the black smudges that were dotted all over the faded white door of his neighbour’s house. Flickering light from a television danced through the curtains of the living room window. Hartman knocked loudly. The rain trickled down his face.
Clicking and scratching came from inside the house, and the door opened.
‘Woah there, fella. You okay?’ said the man.
Hartman suddenly realised he’d lived next-door to them for a few years and he didn’t know their names.
‘My garden,’ he said, the rage ebbing away. He cleared his throat. ‘Have you seen anything strange in your garden, or mine?’
‘The garden?’ said the neighbour, scratching his chin. ‘Nah. I don’t ever go in mine. It’s all overgrown.’
The man knew nothing. It was stupid coming over here like this. He swayed slightly on the doorstep.
‘Are you alright mate? It’s bit late, you know. And chucking it down.’
‘I’m okay,’ said Hartman. ‘It’s just that, well I thought maybe you - oh don’t worry. I’m, I’m sorry to bother you.’ Hartman turned and nearly slipped as he walked down the path. He didn’t look back as he entered his home and slammed the door behind him. The neighbour stayed gazing into the rain.
Hartmann stayed in the following day, as the rain continued to fall, not wanting to do anything. He didn’t even eat. There was a knock on the door once which briefly broke the spell. Peeping out the curtains, Hartman saw the neighbour with no name, staring at his door. He didn’t bother answering.
That night the rain was still falling. Whiskey had been drunk again and Hartman’s feet were itchy. He had to look.
The hole had grown again. Still no evidence of any digging as he raked the torchlight across the lawn. This must be what madness was.
Sun shone through his windows the following day. He had made his decision.
It was a short drive to the local hardware store where he bought a pickaxe, bamboo fencing and some wood screws. Once back, he lay the bamboo across all his fence panels in the garden and fixed them with the screws. It was much higher now; he would not be disturbed. Finally, he got a spade and a shovel from the shed to go with the pickaxe, along with a wheelbarrow.
Hartman began to dig, attacking the hole feverishly. His chest was wheezing, and of course he was aching, but he carried on. The hole was now quite large after several nights of its natural growth and Hartman was adding to it, digging like he was twenty years younger.
‘What’s with the bamboo, Bill?’ Sydney called over, doing his best to peep through the fence. But Hartman, for so many years a friendly and chatty neighbour, did not answer.
‘Bill?’ Sydney could hear the spade piercing the ground, could hear the grunts of his neighbour, but there was no response.
Hartman heard, but he paid him no mind. This was his work, his contribution to the hole with his own hands, and he did not have the need to talk to Sydney.
After a while, he could not feel the aches. In fact, his hands felt looser than he could remember. He paused only to eat, making a cheese sandwich and sitting on the lawn next to the hole, Zoe beside to him.
‘We will see what this is all about, girl,’ he said, stroking his cat.
Zoe purred back at him.
He finished for the day when the sun began to set. Proud of the work, he dropped his spade and surveyed the rest of the garden, stroking his wedding ring gently. He would have to cut the bushes tomorrow. Nothing needed watering. And the lawn wasn’t going to be a problem anymore.
Hartman beamed when he saw the garden the next day. As expected, it had grown again and was a very deep koi pond now. There was only a two-foot-wide perimeter of grass left surrounding the hole. He trimmed the bushes and got back to work.
Sydney gave up calling. Hartman ignored his mobile that rang repeatedly until the battery died. When the house phone rang, Hartman carried on, immersed in his work. Again, Hartman only stopped for a sandwich and a drink, basking for a short while in the sun while Zoe rubbed her cheeks against the side of the hole.
‘Where will it end?’ he asked the cat, who continued rubbing herself along the edge of earth, craning her neck over, her white fur smudged into brown. ‘Where will it end?’ he repeated, staring into the hole.
Hartman sat with his back to the wall of the hole, running his hands over the earth and looking at the dark, smooth interior, the stones and flints that were embedded around him twinkling like stars. He was exhausted and pleased. His hands were more alive than ever. Sometimes he would sleep with his cheek on the ground, breathing deeply. Zoe sat beside him, cleaning her ears.
Two policemen knocked at Bill Hartman’s house. There was no answer. One of the next-door neighbours would not answer either, but Sydney did. He claimed that his neighbour, who was usually very friendly, had been acting strange for a while. He had closed himself off – the garden was obscured from view by the bamboo and nobody in the street had seen him leave his house for weeks.
‘All I have heard over that fence is digging,’ he told the police. ‘But I haven’t heard a thing for a while.’
The police decided to knock the door down. The house looked quite normal, if a little neglected, with a couple of untouched whiskey bottles in the kitchen. There was no sign of life, and a litter tray in the kitchen with no sign of a cat.
When they got to the garden; however, they found it. The hole went from the edge of the patio to the edges of the flower beds. What amazed them the most was that it was so perfectly dug. Smooth edges rolled down into the darkness.
They stood in silence. One of them broke the reverie, as he spoke into his radio.
‘We need some sort of specialist help here,’ he said.
But there was no specialist that could help the situation. The policemen called down, to no response, their voices echoing off the perfect earthen walls.