The Hole to China was greater than a childhood whim. It was a place for girls, not yet bad, who dreamed of escape. There was an understanding of things foreign underneath the earth, on the other side of the world, creature different that lived in paper houses, had ducks as pets, and children who wore gaily colored tunics.

It was a place for girls who knew the sudden chill of autumn nights, girls who feared the screech of owls. It was a dungeon, a palace, a cave, a refuge. It had been made one spring when the girls were only six. Winds raged toppling a sycamore, uprooting the 45-foot giant. A bowl had formed where once roots secured its footing. These same roots formed a canopy and to look down on it, one was certain the hole went on forever, to China. Water collected in the eight-foot-wide bowl during the spring, but when summer came it dried and the girls discovered it claiming it as their fort, their own.

The Hole to China lay in the center of the woods. The girls had been brave to find it, brave to return to it, brave to inhabit it. And they did live there, stealing little scraps of home, a broken mirror, a trowel, ribbons that they tied to the dangling roots. They became muddy and were scolded by their parents, but it didn’t stop them.

They talked of the Chinese, how they would welcome them to their part of the earth, when they had dug through the miles between them. They dug with their little shovel carrying small packets of earth to the rim, and after a time the soil became a wall and they sang songs they thought the Chinese children would like.

They were happy times, but still traversing the woods frightened them and they whispered to each other.

“If the bad thing happens meet me at the Hole to China.”

It became a mantra, and they would repeat it four or five times a week.

One week it snowed, and their mothers saw to moots, and mittens, and hats and sent them out into it. Of course they headed to the Hole to China. The snow was deep, and they struggled leaving deep furrows of where they were going, where they had been. As they neared the hole two great black dogs, their flanks heaving, sprung out at them. They barked and snapped their jaws. The girls heard the click of teeth in the muted air. The girls scurried into the hole, sliding down its banks into the safety beneath the ribbons and the roots. The dogs danced in fury around them, peering over the rim, kicking up ghost showers of snow.

They were not really bad girls yet, and they sat there, their arms around each other. One girl picked up the broken mirror and angled it to shine, that brilliant snow white light, in first one dog’s eyes and then the other. The other banged against the dangling roots making the ribbons dart and spin crazily. The dogs whined pulling their paws against their muzzles until finally they ran off.

They were girls who knew they had outwitted misfortune. When they left for home, it was twilight. The path they made in the snow guided them. They knew they were bad girls now. There was a sinking feeling that on the other side of the world, their actions had been observed, judged, and found wanting. They knew, of course, the dogs had been evil, had cornered them, would probably have harmed them, but it did no good to know these things. They would not return.

Nancy Demme was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and received a bachelor’s in psychology from the College of New Jersey and an master’s of library science from Drexel University. She has served as a youth services librarian for 24 years. Creative writing, has been her focus as a librarian, and she has developed creative writing programs for children in grades three to 12. She has also facilitated an adults writers’ group for 15 years.

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