Out of a Molehill

Bob Cox stood by his kitchen window watching the birds flitting around on his lawn. He had just eaten his breakfast and was feeling his oats. What he needed, he thought, was a project. But even better than starting his own project would be to help someone else with theirs. Looking across the street to where his new neighbor stood, he realized he’d just found the opportunity he was seeking.

I was kneeling beside a small mound of dirt when I felt someone standing behind me. I turned to find the old man from across the street regarding me intently.

“Whatcha doin’?” He asked.

“I’m putting gum down here to get rid of the moles,” I said.

“Naw. Don’t waste no more gum on ‘em,” he said. “Why don’t you put down some candy bars or nylons? Something they could use.” He chuckled then leaned closer to me and said, “Say, I was gonna ask you… Was that your husband out here the other day sneaking around in his underwear with a pistol?”

“No,” I said, “that wasn’t.”

“That wasn’t your husband out here? He walked around for a while then he’d drop down to a hunker next to one of them molehills and just sit there watching it for a while.”

“That was my husband,” I said. “That wasn’t his underwear. It was a swimsuit.” The old man whistled.

“Hoowee! Swimsuit? Why, my kids had diapers bigger than that.”

“Besides,” I said. “He wasn’t out here all the time with that pistol. Sometimes he had a shotgun.” The old man had followed me to the next molehill and stood behind me, blocking the sun, as I scooped the dirt up with a spoon and put it into my bucket. Then I opened a packet of gum, slipped the piece in my mouth and started chewing. The old man shook his head at me.

“You can’t kill moles with gum,” he said. “Not broken glass neither and you can’t shoot ‘em out. There ain’t no person as fast as a mole.”

“Then how do you get rid of them?”

“To catch and kill moles,” he said leaning close again, “you need a special mole-catching dog.”

“I didn’t know you could train a dog to catch and kill moles,” I said.

“Of course you can. We had us a real good one. Say,” he said then paused, “Why don’t you come on over and I’ll tell you all about it?”

“What about your wife?”

“Former wife,” he said. “‘Sides she don’t have to like everything I do. We’ll sit right out on the front porch where everybody can see us and know there’s nothing wrong about it.”

“I guess that’d be okay,” I said. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bag of coffee and a carton of milk then crossed the street to the old man’s house. Once the coffee was brewing, we settled into sunny chairs on the porch and he began.

“About ten maybe fifteen years ago, but not more than that, I had me a real bad mole problem. I mean you couldn’t walk from here to the mailbox without tripping over half a dozen hills.” I looked out over the now parklike lawn then nodded for him to continue. “I heard tell from a man down to the store that his brother had a dog that was specially trained to catch and kill moles. I asked him could I borrow the dog and he said his brother wouldn’t part with it but they were gonna breed her and I could have one of the pups. Now that was a generous offer but I told him that I was desperate. He finally agreed to ask his brother to call me, which he did, and we were able to come to a financial understanding and this brother agreed to loan me his dog.” The old man went into the house and brought back two cups of coffee. I fished a dog hair from mine while he scrunched himself around in his chair till it was comfy again.

“So what happened then?” I asked. “Did the dog come here and get rid of the moles?” The old man waved a pacifying hand at me.

“Now hold on,” he said. He took a big sloppy sip of coffee then sighed with happiness. “The dog did indeed come. She arrived in the back of a pick-up like most dogs except…” He stopped for another sip of coffee. “Except that instead of running around loose in the back she traveled in one of those crates like they have for dogs on airplanes. I’d never seen a dog going around like that so I asked the man ‘why?’ and he told me that if she wasn’t kept penned up then she’d jump out the back of the truck and start trying to chase moles even before he got stopped. He said that one time she done it riding down the highway and that’s how come she limped like that. Now I didn’t entirely believe him but she did favor one of her front legs a bit so I decided I’d wait and see.”

“And?” I prompted.

“They was all tuckered out from the long drive and it was getting on towards suppertime so we figured it’d be best to start out fresh in the morning. So everybody sat down all around the table and in the living room and we ate everything there was and then called it a night.”

“Did your wife do the cooking? Were you still together then?” The old man looked over my shoulder to where his former wife, who lived next door to him, was weeding her garden.

“Yes and no,” he said almost in a whisper. “Yes we was together and no she didn’t do the cooking. She never was much of a cook. Didn’t like to use spices in things. Nope, I did the cooking this night and that’s why everybody licked their plates.”

“And in the morning?”

“In the morning we all got up and had a real tasty breakfast and some good hot coffee.” He took a big gulp out of his own cup. I thought I saw him stick his tongue out but he must have had a hair in his coffee, too. “Now maybe that dog was feeling unsettled because she was about to come into season and there were so many other dogs around. Because, you see, word had got out that I was having a mole-catching dog visit my house to rid me of those critters so all morning, and partway through the night before, men had been driving up here in their trucks hoping they’d get to see a demonstration and there ain’t no pick-up around here that doesn’t have a dog in the back. By the time we filed out of the house after tucking into those blueberry pancakes and venison sausage, there must have been fifty trucks parked out in front.”

“That’s a lot of people,” I said. “How did everyone find out?”

“I’d assume some of ‘em heard about it down to the store same as I did and probably some of ‘em heard it on the scanner.”

“The scanner? I thought that was just for emergencies?”

“Or other important information,” the old man said. “And believe me, a mole-catching dog being in the area is very important information. As I said, maybe she was unsettled on account of all the other dogs or maybe her owner got a bad piece of meat the night before, though I don’t know how that could have happened with me cooking it, and it’d been nagging at him all night. In any case, what eventually happened never should have and it was a shame that it did.”

“But, what?” I goggled. The old man paused to raise his hand in a jaunty wave and I wondered at all the traffic we were having on our little country lane. There’d been three cars just since we sat down.

“Maybe you’ve heard that moles have a very sophisticated way of communicating. But do you know how they do it?”

“No,” I said.

“Well the thing is moles live underground but they’re a lot like bees.”

“Bees? But bees live in a hive.”

“So do moles. The only difference is that the hive is underground. Since it’s dark down there the moles can’t see each other so they talk by bumping up against each other. Every day scout moles go out and gather information and bugs and bring everything back to the main part of the hive where they pass it along to the other moles. ‘There’s lots of good bugs over on the North side of the greenhouse,’ they say and then the moles will dig tunnels over in that direction or ‘The people at such and such a house are putting out peanut butter. Let’s all go there.’”

“But I thought moles were poisoned by peanut butter,” I said. The old man shook his head.

“No. That’s what the moles want us to think. See they got ways of getting messages to us too. In actuality, peanut butter is considered a true delicacy to moles.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” I said. The old man nodded.

“You do that. If you listen to me you’ll learn everything you need to know about living out here in the country. Some of it’s stuff you can’t learn anywhere else,” he said smiling. For a second I’d have sworn that he’d winked at me but it was probably a trick of the light. “Now then. After that fine breakfast we walked out onto the porch and there were all those trucks parked out here and all those men a-sitting in ‘em waiting for us to come out so they could see the mole-catching dog. Her owner put her on long leash, must have been forty feet or so, and he walked her down onto the grass so she could take care of her business and then get started. And she did. No sooner had she ceased to squat than this dog took off for the nearest molehill and started digging like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. The dirt was flying over her shoulders and she started baying and then all at once she disappeared into the hole and came back out with a mole in her mouth.” I clapped my hands.

“It was true then. She really was a mole-catching dog.”

“Yep, she truly was,” the old man said bowing his head.

“But what happened? What was the shameful part?” I said. “Did she catch any more moles?”

“She did indeed,” the old man said. “She caught moles all through the morning and pretty near all through the afternoon, too. The first few were easy because they were near the surface and she’d just dig until she found one and then bring it on over and drop it at her owner’s feet. As the day wore on though she had to go deeper and they worked out a different method. She’d dig until she found a mole, just like before, and she’d be baying, just like before, but now she was going underground and we couldn’t see her. Sometimes if she wasn’t too far under then we could see the dirt moving but if she was down real far then we’d wait for her to stop shouting and we’d know she had a mole in her mouth and we’d pull on the leash until she was back up to the top.”

“Why didn’t she just turn around and come back up with the mole in her mouth on her own?”

“Mole tunnels are very narrow,” the old man said. “There isn’t room to turn around in there even for moles never mind a dog. Moles just run right over the top of each other if they need to get past. So we had to pull this dog backwards out of the tunnel, after she got a mole, so she could get out.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.” Then the lightbulb went on over my head because I remembered something I’d heard about bees and I had a funny feeling how the story might end but I still wanted to know for sure. “So she was going further and further down,” I said.

“Yes, she was. More and more of that leash was disappearing down the hole and I was wondering if we was going to have to add some when the dog’s owner said this was going to be the last trip she’d make down the hole. By this time she was going so far down that he asked his brother if he’d get down on the ground above where we thought the tunnel was and kind of keep track of where she was since it was getting hard to hear her.” A cloud rolled in front of the sun and the sudden chill made me shiver.

“So this man’s brother was lying by the hole listening, like you do on the train-tracks, and giving us a report on the dog’s whereabouts. ‘She’s about three feet down and headed downhill,’ he’d say and then every little bit he’d tell us the new spot she was at so we’d know when to pull on the leash. He was flat on the ground listening to the dog and we was standing on the porch listening to him and all the men was sitting in their pick-ups listening to both. (Some of ‘em had tried earlier to listen to the ballgame but we told ‘em to turn the radio off since there’s a ballgame pretty near every week but you’re never going to see a mole-catching dog twice in a lifetime.) Everything was real quiet and our ears were sticking out from our heads with the listening. I wished I could’ve rotated mine around like my dogs do but there wasn’t any good to it. All at once that man on the ground jumped up and hollered, ‘She’s coming back. She’s coming back.’ We was all surprised, of course, and we figured he’d gone around the bend. Then we all heard it. The most horrible terrified howling you’ve never heard in your life. And, I’ll be darned, but that man was right as rain. Just under the sound of the howling and yelping we heard scuffling and shoving noises and it sounded for all the world like a dog running backwards up a narrow tunnel.”

“Why was she running and howling?” I said.

“In another minute we found out. It seemed like we’d been hearing these strange noises for over five minutes, but it couldn’t have been more than four, when all of a sudden that dog came flying backwards out of the hole like the Devil himself was after her. But it wasn’t him at all. In the fading afternoon light we could see that that poor old dog had been chased out by the biggest, meanest looking mole I’d ever seen outside of the County Fair. It was the old Queen Mole herself come to wreak vengeance on the creature who was destroying her hive and her home.”

“Oh my goodness,” I said.

“Your average mole runs to about four or six inches,” he said. “If you get a big male he might be eight. But this Queen Mole was nearly two feet high. She’d been down in those tunnels so long her fur was white and she had three inch long teeth growing out of her face and these huge paddle-shaped feet with razor-sharp claws. When she’d driven that poor dog out of the tunnel, she stopped and reared up to her full height. Then she raised her head and looked all around, sniffing at us. Her eyes were hidden in her fur so it looked as if she had no head at all.” He looked sadly at his empty mug. “Then she turned around and went back down the hole before any of us could get a shot off.”

“What happened to the dog?”

“Well, needless to say, the whole experience put her off of chasing moles. I don’t know as she ever did go back to it. Last I heard she was chasing cats like a dog is supposed to. Course I had to pay the man extra for ruining his dog when it was his fault for letting her go down that far by herself. Luckily though she’d put a scare into that queen too and no more moles came back to my lawn.”

Feeling more than a little shaken myself, I thanked the old man for the information and the coffee and climbed slowly and carefully down the front steps. I had only walked partway back to my house when his former wife stopped me.

“He been filling your head full of nonsense?”

“No. Actually he shared a very sad story about a dog and why he doesn’t have any moles in his lawn.”

“He’s an old fool,” she said, “and you’re a young one for listening to him.” I took a step back. “There never was any mole-catching dog.”

“But his lawn…?”

“He runs a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the hole and gasses ‘em,” she said. “Same as everyone else around here does and same as you’ll do if you got any sense.”

Bob Cox watched his former wife and his neighbor talking for a few moments then he walked through the kitchen and turned down the hall. After all the helping he’d done this morning he deserved a good nap. Maybe after he’d caught forty winks he’d have his energy back and be more helpful in the afternoon.


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December 2008
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