by Afiena Kamminga
I dug out the first short story I wrote in English, almost fifty years ago. It was published in Short Story International in the late seventies, and re-published in From a Chosen Land, 1986. I’ve had fun re-writing the Moleman story, and found it grew to twice the original size. So I decided to serialize and publish it on my website in ten parts.
Part 1 - A Better Life?
He stands in the meadow, stroking the moles he has caught in his traps, marvelling at the smooth texture caressing his fingertips – nature’s satin. The tiny limp corpses look vulnerable in his large bony hands. He wonders not for the first time how hard it must be for a mole to die in a trap. He loves moles, always has; and he kills moles, always has.
He fingers the shiny unblemished fur of the largest mole caught today. ‘You’re a fine one – a few more like you, and she’ll have her coat.’
For three seasons he has saved the best of his moleskins for the coat he is piecing together for Anneke. When finished, he will wrap it in newspaper, tie a string around it and take the parcel to town, where he will board the bus to Montreal and another one to Oakville, Ontario. He will walk the quiet lanes down to the lake to the two-story house where he left her, fifty-two years ago. He will ring the doorbell and stand on the doorstep waiting for her to open the door. He will hand her the parcel and tell her it is a gift from one she used to know a long time ago. “I think you will like it.”
He will take a good look at her face to update the grainy half century old image of her which he has carried around in his mind. He will nod goodbye, turn around and leave to catch the bus back.
Anneke had never considered mole trapping a proper way for a man to make a living. Back home under the clouds scudding over the Friesian pasture lands by the Wadden Sea, he used to leave before dawn with his sack and bicycle and head for the freedom of the windblown grasslands. They were twenty years old and newly married when the Nazi occupation of their homeland ended and the world opened up. ‘Let’s go elsewhere,’ Anneke insisted. ‘Let’s go some place where a man can earn a living without ever skinning another mole.’ She never did understand that he was a mole trapper by choice.
One day, caught up in the flow of war-weary emigrants, they left the Netherlands and sailed for the wide open spaces of Canada.
They traveled from Halifax to Ontario and stayed there like so many other post-war newcomers. He worked at odd landscaping jobs and Anneke found work cleaning houses. Together they earned enough money to live but not to save up for a house, not enough for building a future, for starting a family. Anneke ran out of patience. She decided to leave him and move in with a truck driver, a long distance hauler with his own house who could offer the security she needed to start her family. It didn’t occur to him to contest the divorce.
Part 2 - Might As Well
‘Might as well go trapping again,’ he thought. But moleskin was not in demand in this country with its abundance of valuable furbearing animals. He decided to head north and settle in a place where he could make a living trapping for fur. He took the train to Hornepayne in Ontario’s Algoma district, bought a canoe, traps, some tools and supplies, and hired a local to guide him to a small remote lake. There on a narrow tongue of forested land jutting out from the lakeshore he built a cabin with a woodshed attached to one side.
In those days he thought like most young people, that he could make himself feel at home anywhere.
He hardly noticed the years slipping by while he made a steady, though modest, living in the tree-studded wilderness of northern Ontario marked by lakes and streams. He gave little thought to the future and rarely thought of the past, of his life together with Anneke. Over the years he seemed to catch fewer animals in his traps. And each year the fur dealer next to the rail station in town paid him a lower price per skin. After fifty two years of living his life in contentment by the lake, it dawned on him that the world was changing and the old days would not return. His annual harvest of furs had dwindled to a trickle and he received barely enough cash in return to pay for the things he purchased in town. Not that it worried him much. He had learned to live off the land and kept paring down his annual purchases to the minimum of flour, salt, sugar, canned cooking oil, some odds and ends of hardware and occasionally a fresh supply of sewing thread. He had no debts and no obligations to anyone.
Yet there was something on his mind.
Part 3 - Taking leave from the trees
Forests are communities of trees living on their own terms, indifferent to humans who choose or happen to live among them. But humans are eager to exploit any forests they can reach and subdue. Humans make war on the forests of the world. Humans like to claim prime spaces once colonized by forest to build cities for themselves, or to make place for enslaved trees in what they call tree plantations. What if the forest decides to strike back? The moleman, all alone with the trees, decides to bolt while he still can.
During the long winter nights he spent in his cabin by kerosene light repairing clothing, snowshoes, traps, fishing and boating gear, old memories began to stir. At first they were mere pictures, faded images stored in dormant corners of his mind. Gradually the images took on colour and sound. The relentless hum of steady winds from the sea and the cries of shorebirds brought back to mind the low-lying pastures and windblown shores in the land of his youth. At night inside his cabin, protected from the deadly cold winter night by a glowing wood stove, he could smell the salty breeze, hear the melancholic calls of cows trying to keep in touch in the evening dark, and make out distant shapes of sheep grazing on the dikes.
He began to feel restless in this landlocked country surrounded by spindly spruce. The mass of dark woodland appeared like a menacing army clad in black, ready to advance on him behind a wall of spears. He felt increasingly anxious to escape to a land with clean treeless horizons.
One balmy spring morning when winter’s icy stranglehold had lost its power and gurgling streams rampaged all over the bedrock of the Canadian Shield, he loaded the old patched up canoe with the slim pile of furs collected that winter. He walked back to the cabin to fetch a bundle of clothes and the precious string of tiny mole traps wrapped in oilcloth, which he had treasured all those years. He stepped into the solid tumblehome canoe and looked straight ahead, pushing away from the pebbled beach one last time, bequeathing the cabin, a stack of seasoned firewood, his remaining traps and other gear to whom it might concern.
He sold the canoe to the manager of the newly established hunting lodge on the other side of the lake and hitched a bumpy ride with the manager’s jeep into town. He ended up one last time selling his furs to the dealer who lived beside the railroad track. The man shook his head when he pawed through the furs. “All right then, I’ll take these off your hands, for old times’ sake.”
Times were tough he explained, and it wouldn’t be easy to find a buyer for the small motley assortment of skins. “As a favour to you after all these years, I’ll give you enough for them to cover the train ticket to the Maritimes that you’re talking about.” He counted out a stack of grimy bills. “There. It’ll be more than enough to buy a one way ticket to Amherst, Nova Scotia – if that’s really where you want to go, old man.”
He nodded. ”That’s all the money I need from you. I’ve saved enough to cover other expenses for a while.” He fished in his pocket for the crumpled page torn long ago from an old atlas left behind in Ontario. It showed with little detail the sweeping width of Canada from coast to coast, a few main roads in bright red, and even fewer spider-lines in black hinting at the main railroads. His calloused index finger traced the trans-Canada rail route creeping east through Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, to a low-lying isthmus: the Tantramar Marsh, linking the lands of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by keeping apart the waters of Fundy Bay and Northumberland Strait.
He showed the map page to the fur dealer. “See that? That there’s all diked-in grassland with few trees. There will be seabirds and shorebirds and meadow birds in the spring and fall, and there will be moles …”
Part 4 - The Tantramar
In the New Brunswick sentinel town of Sackville on the edge of the Tantramar Marsh, he left the train and continued on foot along the Trans Canada Highway into the marshlands. He tied his sacks – one holding his clothes and the other holding his mole traps – to the old birch pole he had been unable to part with, and swung it up on his shoulder. When he came to Aulac, a wooded ridge of land elevated above the sweep of flat grassland, he decided to abandon the highway turning right, and climb the ridge to follow the road running on top between the trees. The road ended abruptly at the end of the ridge. He stood for a while, gazing down on the single track railroad below, and beyond it across the expanse of pasture and hayfields, to the distant dike and the waters of Fundy Bay.
He turned and walked back in the fading daylight to the abandoned farm house he had seen from the road, dilapidated, its doors and windows boarded up. He walked around the house and back to the front, looking into the house through a window that had lost the plywood cover. In there he could see part of what seemed to be a large kitchen – more spacious than his entire cabin had been – with uneven bare floorboards and peeling strips of dirt-grey linoleum. It began to rain.
He moved on to the workshop, set back from the house. The workshop shed, and the house proper, had been sided and roofed a long time ago with cedar shingles, now turned a rustic black. He squeezed in through the half open door and looked around, smiling. In the corner, well away from a horse-drawn cultivator that took up much of the floor space, there was a pile of musty old wood shavings, enough for a makeshift bed in which he could sleep out of the rain tonight.
Part 5 - Making arrangements
The next day he called on the people in the mobile home next door, asking who owned the abandoned house. The middle-aged residents of the mobile turned out to be a brother and sister born and raised in the crumbling farmhouse. They had opted out of living there and fixing it up, but they still owned the place and kept the yard mown.
He asked if he could move into the old place. “I’ll take care of the house and the yard, keep down the weeds and the brush. I could save you a lot of time and bother.”
“I don’t think so,“ the brother said. “The house isn’t fit to be lived in,” the brother said. “There’s no power right now. It would need a whole lot of re-wiring.”
“And there’s no water,” his sister added. “The well has been out of use for so long. There’s an old hand pump in the mudroom, but I don’t remember we packed it before we moved out. It’ll be frozen to pieces.”
They seemed eager to see him leave. But he had taken a liking to the old farmhouse and he insisted. “I’ve lived without power for longer than I care to remember, and I’m pretty sure I could get the pump going again.”
The brother shook his head. “The water would need to be re-tested.”
But his sister put her hand on his arm. “Now wait a moment,” she said. “Don’t be hasty. If this fellow wants to live in the house and do some fixing and yard upkeep, why not let him try? He could come here and get a regular supply of drinking water from our own well.”
That seemed to settle it. He moved into the old house, took the plywood sheets down from the windows and fixed up the kitchen and part of the roof. Down by the highway, in the convenience store annex to the truck stop, he found some hardware and other items to make repairs. After his money ran out, he walked along the highway back to town to sign up for social assistance. When the first Old Age Supplement cheque arrived, he walked into town once more to cash his cheque and buy himself a change of clothes in the thrift store. He also needed a bicycle. The thrift store clerk pointed him to the workshop around the back, used by volunteers to fix up donated bikes, offered free of charge to those in need. He selected one with front and back carriers.
The following week he cycled to town on a day designated for outsized garbage pickup. He arrived early, and pedalled slowly through the streets looking for things he could use. He picked up a children’s bike with sturdy wheels and good tires, small enough to take home on his bike carrier. Behind the town’s pastry shop he spotted a pile of discarded pallets with a sign: ‘feel free to take us home.’ He selected two sturdy pallets, lashed one to each side of his bike and set out for home on foot, pushing the bike with its precious load. With the lumber salvaged from the pallets and the pair of small bicycle wheels, he built a sturdy bike trailer – no match for his old canoe in carrying capacity, but sufficient to serve his needs in this place.
Part 6 - Rebuilding a life
He scouted the grasslands looking for well-drained pasturelands, the kind of places where moles prefer to live.
At first, when he passed by other houses on the ridge road with his bike and his sack, people looked up from their garden or out through the window to stare at him. After a week they concluded he was a harmless eccentric, not deserving of special attention. Local children home after school followed him to the mole fields to begin with, until the silent stare from his pale blue eyes scared them away.
Twice a day he made his way to the trapping fields riddled with mole runs. On some days when the fog rolled in from the bay, he lingered to savour the smell of the sea and taste the salt on his lips. On Saturdays, after collecting his traps, he did not reset them, but took them all home for cleaning and oiling. On Sundays, he would stay home or take a walk on top of the dike, in summer to look at the birds breeding in the wetlands, or migrating in flocks towards the fall, lingering to feed on the mudflats at low tide, or skimming over the water. Sometimes he would lie down in the grass on top of the dike and watch the twirling, spiraling clouds of sandpipers trekking along the coast, untill he fell asleep dreaming of other, much higher, dikes from where, in his youth he used to watch birds much like these commuting back and forth between the polder lands and the Wadden Sea mudflats.
He rarely needed to make purchases in town. Sometimes he rode to the gas-station store by the highway to cash a cheque and buy some odds and ends. Twice a year he cycled to town with his trailer to stock up on salt, sugar, oil, milk powder and flour. The kitchen garden provided the bulk of his meal ingredients –- greens in the summer, root vegetables and beans for the winter. To feed the kitchen stove which served for cooking and heating, he cut elder stems in a poorly drained corner of the property and stacked them behind the toolshed to season.
Part 7 - A coat for Anneke
Moleskin, he learned, didn’t sell in this town, and so he decided to turn the delicate little skins into blankets for his own use. He selected the best pelts to make a sleeveless vest he could wear in the house on cold mornings before the stove heated up. He made more moleskin vests to sell at the farmers’ market in town. One satisfied customer asked that he make her a jacket with sleeves. He made another one, found it sold easily, and became caught up in a one-man cottage industry producing and selling moleskin jackets. With each piece of clothing he learned a little more about tailoring, until one day an idea popped into his mind, refused to leave, and left him no other choice than to act on it. Soon the project that had suggested itself grew to consume every last bit of effort and time he could spare. It would be his life’s accomplishment to create the ultimate moleskin garment, a lustrous fur coat expertly crafted from countless delicate mole hides, for Anneke.
Only the best and largest moleskins found their way into Anneke’s coat. The others he used to make blankets and rugs piled high on the bed, or used to pad the hard wooden back and armrests of his old rocking chair. Surplus bits and pieces of skins he stitched into sock-shaped inserts to use as winter lining in his rubber boots. He saved skins rejected for their blemishes, until he had enough to make curtains and wall hangings. These went a long way to keep the icy drafts of winter from passing through the old house.
Part 8 - Moles, birds, cats and foxes
He likes to keep the same daily routine – except on Sundays. Just after dawn he goes out to collect last night’s catch. Moles don’t seem to waste time sleeping. In his mind he pictures them tunnelling on day and night without relent, munching insects, grubs and worms as they go, and pushing head first into the first mole trap they encounter.
Slowly, gently, he releases the dead moles from the traps, brushing away the dirt to reveal the velvet shine of the dense short coat, before he lowers each one almost regretfully into his burlap sack. His gaze sweeps across the mole fields riddled with tunnels close enough to the surface to show up as rounded inch-high ridges of brown loose soil snaking through the grass. The morning haze is lifting and he remembers the mole fields back home dotted with hundreds of small mounds – those freshly thrown up are still steaming, and each one casts a shadow twin sibling beside itself in the low morning sunshine. Mole hills on this side of the ocean, he reflects, are fewer and also smaller than he remembers from the fields back home. The moles in this land, responsible for creating the less than overwhelming brown mounds he has become accustomed to, don’t look the same either as those he used to catch in the old country. Before he puts away the last mole of this morning’s catch, he touches a fingertip to the pink fleshy whiskers that grow in a circle from the blunt little mole snout, eerily resembling sprouts from a potato. They have a rubbery feel to them. The skins themselves are as they ought to be, no different from moleskin back home – black, ultra-short fur with a silken sheen and, when touched, smooth-textured like velvet or satin.
He sits on the bench near the toolshed scraping blood and flesh from another prime skin for Anneke, oblivious to the feline stares from two pairs of emerald eyes by his feet.
He goes to the base of a rocky outcrop to bury what’s left of the moles after skinning – a suitable place for dead moles to return to the earth and remain undisturbed – except when early spring comes around and a pair of breeding foxes come to carry away a freshly thawed carcasses or two with shreds of flesh left on them.
If only Anneke could have seen the mole fields this morning glowing in the hazy morning sunshine. She never did understand about moles, never understood his fascination with moles and their blindly efficient way of life. She will change her mind he feels sure, when she opens the package to unwrap the master piece he created for her.
Each new day strengthens the pleasure he finds in living his life once again a mere walking distance away from the sea. It has been four years since the bus dropped him off on the road at the foot of the ridge one drizzly afternoon. Since that day he has lived through more than a thousand days – almost one thousand five-hundred – and nearly all of them marked by wind, clouds, rippling grass, and by skies alive with birds playing and pitching, or being hurled about, fighting the wind. Each of those days has been one to remember, while all the days of his fifty some years in the woodlands and bogs of northern Ontario have merged to a blur of uncounted seasons, a timeline of dreams and events briefly re-surfacing in his awareness now and then, before they slip away from his conscious mind.
Part 9 - Mail delivery
No less than three hundred moles have bequeathed their skins to Anneke’s coat. After he puts in the last stitch he drapes his creation over a coat hanger and hooks it to the winter clothesline running overhead across the kitchen, not far from the stove. He pulls up a stool and sits down in front of it, imagining her surprise when she opens the package and unfolds the glorious garment.
After a while he gets up to open the top kitchen drawer. He takes out the pre-paid postcard he brought back from town a while ago. He sits down at the table, flips out his pocket knife to sharpen a stump of pencil, and writes his message on the card.
I hope you and your family are in good health. Is your husband still in trucking? I have something to give you, something I have always wanted to give you from the day I first saw you in church. Call it a belated wedding gift. I would like to come down and hand it over in person. Two weeks from now, if that suits you?’
No need to sign.
Next morning he waits by the road to wave down the mail woman in her small SUV. She stops in a cloud of gravel dust. This is the first time on her watch that she’s asked to stop at the crumbling house halfway her mail route, to pick up a piece to be sent. He hands over his message to Anneke. Back in the house he pours himself an instant coffee and sits down at the kitchen table. Nothing left to do, except waiting.
He looks at the floor and the walls and the bed, all blanketed in moleskin, enough to keep him warm for the rest of his life. He cannot justify killing more moles now that the coat is completed, and he decides to stay home the following days cleaning traps and putting them away. The red tomcat will have to subsist on milk from now on, or catch his own meat. He busies himself around the house, unable to sit down for long, restless, anxious to receive word from Anneke.
On the sixth day, another rainy morning, he is out in the toolshed feeding milk to the cats when the brown SUV with the mail sign on its roof turns into the muddy driveway. The mail woman pulls up right by the kitchen door this time. He hurries back to the house, wiping his glasses clean of rainwater.
“Oh, there you are,” the woman says through the one-inch window crack she has opened. “I meant to save you having to come out in the rain.” She lowers the car window further and hands him a familiar looking postcard.
“They’ve returned your mail I think.”
He stares blankly at her, at the card, and back to the woman.
She waves the card back and forth. “Here, take it! You had better check the address.”
He reaches out for the postcard and turns away without a word. The mail woman shrugs. “Well, thank you, Susan, for driving right up to the house,” she mutters, stepping on the gas to get out on the road. “Cranky old geezer.”
Back in the toolshed he sits on the upturned bucket staring at the postcard — pure white when he last saw it, now dog-eared, stained, bearing a black ink stamp that declares: ‘Undeliverable.’ Next to it, in blue handwriting, ‘moved to unknown address.’
Part 10 - Returned to the earth
Later that day he cycles along the ridge road, carrying a rake and shovel and pulling his trailer. He makes his habitual rounds through the mole fields, pausing at the familiar locations where active moles have left their marks. He rakes up loose soil from the mole hills and runs, and shovels it onto the trailer to take home. Three times he makes the trip between the field and his house on the ridge, each time with half a trailer load of dirt, enough for one man to push up the ridge. growing dirt pile next to the toolshed. After he has dumped the third load, he is satisfied with the size of the dirt pile next to the toolshed. He puts the bike and trailer away and goes to work with shovel and digging fork.
He clears thistles and quack grass away until there’s a strip of bare earth the length and width of an average human body. He digs out enough soil to make a shallow trench. He goes into the house and returns, arms stretched in front of his chest, carrying Anneke’s coat like an offering. He sinks to his knees and lowers the soft luxurious folds into the trench, arranging them to best advantage so they catch the afternoon sunshine – no better light than this to bring out the sheen of moleskin in its full splendor.
He uses the shovel for support to raise himself back on his feet. Slowly, he refills the trench with soil, one shovelful at a time, returning the skins to the earth, the same moist, crumbly soil that sheltered and fed the moles they came from, until the time of harvest. He smiles and nods to himself. It feels so right.
With his rake he shapes the pile to a conical mound, a super-sized molehill, the equal of which cannot be found on either side of the Atlantic.