I am very happy being a mole. I love being snug in my burrow, love being surrounded by the warmth of darkness, love delving and slowly pondering. My molishness is so encoded into my being I have barely given thought to how it might be to inhabit a different body. But there are times when I am blindly groping that I am ever so slightly aware of some other being, fluttering within me; a being that is somehow able to rise above the task in hand, see the whole spread before me. A few days ago, when I popped down to the store-room for a light-bulb, I got an inkling of who that other being might be.
But I need to begin much longer ago on a warm June day at the beginning of the school holidays. I was staying at Great Uncle Mole’s with two of my cousins who, like me, were just at that point in our lives when the lure of adventure is not yet tempered by the caution of experience.
The three of us had been warned not to go to Trelawny’s field, and certainly nowhere beyond it, but one of us, I can’t remember which, dared the others to break into Trelawney’s cellar. This was very daring indeed. As I have mentioned before, this neighbour was quite mad and had an arsenal of blunderbusses. We had heard he had a still in the cellar, and although we had no idea what that was, we knew from the hushed and disapproving tones that accompanied any discussion that the still must be a very exciting thing indeed. It was. And after we had tip-toed around the tubes and coppers and glass jars and Bunsen burners, we thought we might try the liquid contained in the bottles. I think I was the first. I gasped. Tears streamed from my eyes. My throat was on fire. So I took another gulp to show I was unaffected, and passed the bottle to my older cousin. We dared and dared each other until the bottle was nearly empty and then we left the cellar, two of us giggling and carrying the youngest, who was feeling sick, between us. We reeled out into Trelawny’s field and laid down in the dark.
The next thing we knew it was dark. Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were standing over us with lanterns in their paws. They were not alone; there were others hovering behind them. They had been out searching for hours. One said we must be suffering from sunstroke. ‘Sunstroke, my eye’, said another. ‘Those nippers are drunk.’
We were put to bed, but early the next morning, although we felt horribly ill, we were led into the parlour and told to sit down. Great Uncle Mole looked furious. Uncle Ratty seemed unsure whether to be furious or commiserate with us.
‘Three little moles went out frolicking…’, Uncle Ratty began.
‘Stop!’, said Great Uncle Mole. ‘This is my story.’ Great Uncle Mole hardly ever told stories. It was Uncle Ratty who was the raconteur; his stories so drew you in, you could quite taste the salt in your snout, shiver at the frailty of your ship tossing in the howling, black-clouded storm, horribly aware that it would take only one more breaker and your ship would be smashed against the rocks and you would end up with the countless other ships and crews whose skeletal remains littered the ocean floor. But even though you could feel and taste and smell these tales you were somehow always knew that you were home and safe and that supper would be waiting.
Great Uncle Mole’s stories, on the other hand, were bare-boned and frankly alarming. Especially when he enacted the parts.
‘Three cousins’, he said, glowering at each of us in turn. He was not sitting in his favourite armchair, but standing with his back against the empty fire-place. ‘Three cousins went beyond Trelawny’s fence and into the fields beyond, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THEIR ELDERS.’
Great Uncle Mole clambered onto the armchair, knocking over the what-not and only just saving himself from over-balancing by grabbing hold of the top of the dresser. Looming over us, he went on in a voice that we had never heard – a sort of boom, punctuated by squeals:
‘High above them, far out of sight, an eagle was circling, looking out for just such tasty morsels as these three DISOBEDIENT moles. It swooped down over the field beyond Trelawny’s fence, grabbed the middle one in its sharp talons.’ Great Uncle Mole leapt off his chair, grabbing one of my cousins by the collar and falling on top of him in the process.
‘That little mole never, ever saw its parents again’, he wheezed.
The cousin began to sob uncontrollably.
‘Oh, Mole’, Uncle Ratty said anxiously, trying to help his friend up and console the cousin at the same time. ‘You can’t leave it there. You have to tell them about the miraculous rescue.’
But Mole wouldn’t and limped out of the room. Uncle Ratty followed him.
We never went beyond Trelawny’s field again.
I had heard stories like this since and always rather thought them Burrow Myths, cautionary tales tweaked to suit the circumstances. But one day not long ago I was in the store-room looking for a lightbulb and got side-tracked by a box of albums that had belonged to Great Uncle Mole. One of these was a scrap-book filled with newspaper cuttings mostly, it has to be said, about engineering feats, especially tunnels. I’m sure, in fact, that I had glanced at it before and only kept it because Great Uncle Mole had such a passion for the subject. This time though, I saw a cutting that had been folded twice to fit. The paper was yellowing and brittle and I opened it carefully. It was the front page of the Burrow Bugle, and the headline read:
‘Roaming Mole-Child Snatched by Eagle.’
At the bottom of the page there was a photograph of two small moles wrapped in blankets and being led away. The caption read: ‘Trelawny Field. The remaining cousins.’ But what really caught my eye was the photograph that took up most of the top half of the page. The camera had caught the eagle as it rose into the sky. A small mole was clamped in its talons.
It was a terrible story. And I felt a retrospective guilt that we had forced Great Uncle Mole to relive his experience with our thoughtless adventuring.
But the little other being that I sometimes feel within me couldn’t help thinking how thrilling it would be to be lifted up high by an eagle, to suddenly feel the whoosh of air, the world expanding as you rose. How much more wonderful still to be the eagle, with eyes that could take in the whole and yet still hone in on the single mole morsel below.