Gentle Gravedigger, Rare Suitor
By Catherine Wilson Garry
The first time I saw you, I was struck by how unlikely you are. Your hands bent towards your back, your black coat covered in dirt, the complete lack of shyness or shame about you. I shucked my shoes off into the grass to try and creep closer and you open your pink mouth and shrieked at me until I backed away. I didn’t see you again that day. I cleaned the kitchen as quickly as I could, drove to the library and went to the non-fiction section.
‘Can I help you?’ said the woman behind the counter. Her cardigan was too big, and threads of it around the sleeves were coming loose.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’d like a book about moles.’
Later, in bed, as my husband brushed his teeth, I learned more about you. How strong your sense of smell was. How powerful your awkward little limbs. How, if I’d been able to touch you, your fur would feel like velvet. I turned a page as he gagged and spat into the sink.
Female moles have a high level of testosterone. It is believed they produce this to help them gain the necessary strength to dig tunnels, keep predators at bay and protect their young.
Were you a woman? I wasn’t sure. I read on.
Female moles also have male sex organs. Some say, there is no such thing as a female mole – as we understand it. I shut the book quickly and hid it beneath the bed. I was convinced my husband would see a page over my shoulder, or worse see something in me that betrayed what I was reading, and why.
The next day I spent as much time in the kitchen as possible. It was the only room in the house with a ground level window that faced onto the garden. I rushed through my morning tasks, then lingered by the sink – washing each dish in lazy clockwise motions whilst staring through the glass, hoping you would emerge again. I baked bread and muffins. I slow roasted a leg of lamb. I mopped the floor and rearranged cabinets. By the time my husband got home, you still hadn’t raised your head from where you’d peeked out yesterday.
I spent as much time with him in the living room as I felt was necessary then slunk back to the kitchen to do the dishes. Once it got too dark to see much out the window, sadness lowered itself into my stomach.
My husband fell asleep quickly, and I lay awake, thinking about you wandering around in the dark grass.
The next day, when my husband went to work, I fished the book out from under the bed. There had to be some clue about how best to stage our reunion. I read about how your diet mainly consisted of earthworms, so I drove to a Garden Centre and bought a box of them. The woman behind the till assumed they were for compost, and I didn’t bother correcting her.
I drove home and slipped my shoes off and ran to the back garden. I wanted to feel your vibrations through my toes. I scattered worms throughout the lawn and waited on a chair nearby. I left enough distance that I could see the pink bellies of the worms as they waved around. After a few minutes, I went back inside, made a cup of tea, grabbed the library book, and came back outside to resume my watch.
I’m not sure how long it took, but once you reemerged, I knew every second had been worth it. The first thing that came into sight was your small head, parting the dirt above it as if you were being born straight from the ground. I let out a breath I didn’t realise I had been holding. I saw your nose wriggle as you crossed the grass, seeking out a worm that hadn’t twisted down into the dirt yet. Before I blinked, the worm was there. After, it was gone.
I put another worm into my hand and approached you slowly. You shrunk back when you first heard me, but then your nose began to move again, and I knew you’d be receptive to me. I crouched down near you, holding the worm out. Blink, worm. Blink again, nothing. Not quite nothing – a small kiss from your nose onto my hand. I shivered. I extended my finger to touch you and you flinched back. Too fast. I told myself. Gently.
I moved away slightly, watching as you trod across the grass, claiming this garden as your own space. Then suddenly you disappeared into the ground and our encounter was over.
The next day it rained. Our bird bath spilled over, the flowers bowed their heads, and the smell of loam filled the kitchen as I looked out the window. It was harder to see anything with all the movement of the rain but there was a flash and, sure it was you, I rushed outside.
Sure enough, you’d resurfaced, shrieking indignantly at the feeling of rain on your back. I hurried back inside, grabbing a carboard box to construct a makeshift shelter for you. You climbed in happily, with the help of my hand – our first touch! – and bedded down. After a few minutes, your shrieking stopped and you allowed me to stroke your soft back, damp from the rain.
I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful you felt, how I marvelled at the feeling of your fur on my fingers. Later, I was struck by how I could still feel you on my fingertips. An odd, tingling sensation as if my heart knew where to flood all my blood.
That fucking phone call. At first, I didn’t realise how it would undo us.
A few days after we first touched, my husband poked his head around the door and mentioned something about Daphne next door. She was considering selling and wanted to let us know. I didn’t think much of it, other than a slight I no longer needed to provide excuses not to go to her church functions. I didn’t know then that it was the first trickle of rain that leads to a monsoon, a monsoon that washed us both away.
My husband’s interest had been piqued because, when he searched for Daphne’s listing, he realised our house was worth a lot more than what we’d bought it for with his parent’s money as newlyweds. We had no plans to move, but it didn’t hurt to make sure everything was “up to spec” as he said, replacing the faded lightbulbs in the garage, replacing a creaky hinge on the kitchen drawers.
When he wasn’t looking, I repositioned the flowerpots in the garden to cover the hole you’d emerged from.
Daphne had a leaving do of course. She set up a table in the garden and all the other wives on the street covered it with Tupperware containers filled with sweating potato salad, boiled eggs with anaemic yolks, starchy bread rolls and cold corn on the cob.
Daphne’s husband, Derek, was standing over the barbecue, his sweat dripping onto the burgers and hot dogs. My husband stood beside him with a beer asking questions about coal vs. gas and pizza oven attachments, so I was left alone with the other women.
‘So where are you off to Daphne?’ I asked. I realised I should have asked this when she phoned to tell us.
‘Oh, not far,’ she said. ‘One of the other new builds – just with a bigger garden for the wee one.’ She patted her small bump and smiled at me.
‘Have you got kids?’ asked one of the other women. My head briefly flickered with thoughts of you.
‘No,’ I said, pouring a drink to keep my hands busy so I didn’t look brusque.
‘Ah well,’ she said. ‘Plenty time.’
After a few days of waiting in the garden with your carboard house, I decided you needed a bit of an upgrade. I chose a day where my husband was watching a football game to drive a few towns over to a haberdashery shop.
The first shop I tried was closed, the second too small and only really sold curtain material. I struck gold in the third shop – wipe clean tablecloth fabric printed with leaves. I hoped it would make you feel right at home.
It was mid-afternoon by the time I got back. I took my bags out the car and was going to put them straight in the spare room until I had the house to myself and could work uninterrupted, but I noticed my husband was coming back from the garden. A prickling chill shot up my back.
‘Everything okay?’ I asked, as he helped himself to a beer from the fridge.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘just showing the gardener where the tools are.’
‘Gardener?’ I asked.
My husband nodded, taking a sip from the bottle. ‘I asked Daphne and Derek who they use. I saw our garden was getting a bit overrun, so I thought I’d get someone in to have a look round. Give us a quote.’
Panic gripped me. A gardener meant you being found.
‘Oh, there’s no need for that, I’ll tell him to leave.’ I walked towards the door. ‘I can do it on my own, I’ve just not been on top of it recently,’
Before he could stop me, I was outside. The gardener was hunched over the bushes on the left-hand side. If he’d started from our door, he might not have spotted your hill behind the flowerpot.
‘How’s it looking?’ my husband asked, suddenly behind me.
‘Oh aye, not too bad,’ the gardener said, peeling back some branches with his hand. ‘Just a bit overrun, really. Shouldn’t be too much of an issue.’
He hadn’t spotted your intrusion. I thought maybe if I could get him to leave, I could persuade my husband this was a waste of money. Or, failing that, I could sneak you into your new home, away from the garden and let him fill up your abandoned passageways. How sweet it would be to keep you in a linen cupboard or in the attic: somewhere my husband would never think to look. First, I would build you somewhere to live. I could make you tunnels to explore with cardboard tubes. I imagined washing you, your little body sitting upon mine as I sat naked in the bath. I wasn’t allowed to dream for long.
‘You do have moles,’ said the gardener, pushing his hands on his knees to stand. ‘But that’s an easy fix.’ He pointed towards your hill. How naïve I had been!
‘Cheeky buggers,’ my husband said, kicking back the flowerpot to look at the little heap of dirt.
‘How would you fix something like that?’ I asked, scratching my neck to try and seem casual.
The gardener popped some gum in his mouth and started chewing. He disgusted me then, so cavalier about where your fate hung.
‘Traps work,’ he said. ‘You don’t have kids, do you? Or pets?’
‘No,’ my husband answered for us. He was now nudging the hole with his feel, toppling your hill into flatness. Hate ran through me.
‘In that case, you could use gas or poison. I tend to use traps just because then you know for sure.’ He looked over at me and smiled. ‘If there’s enough of them, you could get yourself a nice new coat.’ He winked.
I walked away, the sound of my husband and the gardener’s laughter was still audible, even when I closed the door.
I waited for the gardener to leave. For the football to finish. For his friends to leave. I stayed up with my husband. I brought him beers and pretended to drink with him until he was drowsy enough to sleep through anything. I waited until it was dark then crept down to the kitchen. When I looked out the window, I was sure I saw your eyes cutting through the night, but when I stepped onto the grass you weren’t there.
I brought out the worms and turned the sprinklers on. I would wait for you. I didn’t care how long it took. Eventually, your hill, now stomped flat, moved. You poked your head over the parapet. What castles I would construct for you, now that we had time.
It took some time, but I coaxed you back into the box. You bit me once, and I sucked the blood from my hand. Small bite marks punctured through my palm. Our first kiss.
I covered the box with a tea towel and brought you inside. You squealed at first, so I held you close until you were quiet. Gently. I had already packed my bags. A trousseau.
The seatbelt fit snugly around your box, filled with blankets and a small bowl of worms. How soundly you slept, little one. You didn’t even move at all.
I drove away lighter, my wedding ring buried in your old lodgings.