“…but the reason why the grave-digger made music must have been because there was none in his spade”
― Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
At some point recently—certainly within the past month—the contents of the Red Clay Bestiary whizzed silently past the fifty thousand word mark. This is exactly the kind of meaningless fact I can spend hours dwelling upon; in purely quantitative terms I have outstripped Slaughterhouse Five and I’m a quarter of the way to Moby Dick. And like Vonnegut and Melville, I have seen death up close.
Dial the years back, one by one, passing by Trump and his Golden Escalator, 9/11 and the Brooks Brothers riot, past Monica Lewinsky and the Challenger disaster, New Coke and the Falkland Islands War, until we arrive back in the hinterlands of Michigan in the late spring of 1981. My grandfather—Grandpa as it were—resplendent in ubiquitous tan slacks, plaid button-down shirt, and a dark green bucket hat had appeared in the yard; always a significant event. The emphysema that chewed away at his lungs kept him in a world apart from me, silent and ponderous, like a tree or a vast stone worshipped by primitives at midsummer rituals. A giant from a forgotten world.
What drove him from his more traditional haunts—his bedroom, the dining room table where he could often be found with a beer and a transistor radio, listening to Ernie Harwell narrating Tigers games; or one of the canvas folding chairs that stood at the door of the old garage attached to the house—was a mole trap, one of several deployed in various parts of the backyard around the garden. The garden was big; probably forty feet square, with peppers and sun-warmed tomatoes, carrots and potatoes gift-wrapped in earth, prickly cucumbers and bulbous squashes. It had several rows of blackberries along the back, a cluster of towering sunflowers, and all by itself on one side was a gooseberry bush that was the cause of eternal strife between my grandma’s desire to make gooseberry jam and the desire of my sister and I to eat fresh gooseberries all day long. We loved the garden… and so did the moles. I’m not sure if gigantism was a common feature of Michigan wildlife, but it certainly applied to two species: the mosquitoes—fat, lumbering sacks of blood that lay like a thick cloud over the state throughout the summer—and the moles, which were like those massive foil-wrapped burritos you get at places like Chipotle, except terribly alive and exploding with concentrated terror and anvil teeth and needle claws liberally slathered with flesh-eating bacteria. They dug networks of tunnels all over the yard and through the garden—stepping on one felt like stepping on a loaf of white bread—where they ate everything they could find below ground.
Interlopers. Pests. Enemies.
So we had these big steel traps. They consisted of a rectangular arch with pointed feet. In the center of the arch was a spring-loaded ring of sharp spikes attached to a thin flange. A small metal tab clung gamely to the edge of this flange, ready to be shaken loose by the motion of some porcine rodentia trundling between the legs. Like soldiers planting mines we’d push the traps into the earth astride a mole tunnel and cock the spikes, gingerly setting the small tab against the flange so that it was like a man hanging from a sixth-floor windowsill by the tips of his fingers.
These things looked like medieval torture instruments; paragons of cunning but crude and malevolent. Tools of the trade, made strictly for utility: the utility of concentrating a great deal of kinetic force on very small points and mechanically ripping the living guts out of all those we held in contempt. Without ruth we stole into no-man’s land to set our traps and then retired to our bunker to await the inexorable carnage.
Unfortunately the fucking things never worked as advertised. I have no idea what was actually going on underneath the traps, but we’d pull ‘em out of the ground confident that they’d left behind a big bloody wad of fertilizer only to watch in horror as a smug bump of dirt flowed away with great alacrity the instant the steel spears emerged from the soil. It didn’t seem possible, but no trap ever came up with so much as a tuft of fur attached to one of the impotent spikes.
So we tended our minefield and grew despondent over its meagre yield, until this particular day when Grandpa decided to investigate. When I spotted him he was already at the trap, bearing a small trowel, so I stopped what I was doing went over to offer my support. He slowly knelt and turned over a few scoops of dirt from around the trap. A commotion emerged from deep beneath the soil as the mole struggled to free itself. Grandpa stood up, and putting his hands on his hips he just stared quietly at the trap for a long while. I stood next to him, hands on my hips, looking at the trap.
At length he went back into the house and came out a few minutes later with the rifle—a .22 with a manual bolt that he kept over the door to the garage. We often used it for target practice. Walking back to the trap he took a round from his pocket, flipped the bolt over and pulled it back, slid the round into the chamber and locked the bolt. Holding the rifle in one hand he jammed the muzzle into the ground right at the center of the trap.
He pulled the trigger. The rifle cracked. He lifted it and withdrew the bolt, ejecting a hot brass case which I recovered as soon as it could be picked up. He leaned over and jiggled the trap. Again the commotion rose from the mysterious depths.
And so he repeated the process: load, aim more or less, fire, eject, check. The result was the same, except that after the second round Grandpa turned and labored his way back to the house. I waited, but he did not return. So now, I thought, the duty had fallen to me.
Now, I feel I should point out to the younger readers that a lot of things were different in 1981. Of course, we lived in the country and the rules are always a little different out there, but I wasn’t strictly speaking a country kid—just cosplaying one for a couple years while my mom finished school. But even in my city mode I owned a pocket knife, and had since I was about eight. I often did stupid things with knives, but I only had one serious injury to show for it—a knife without a blade lock folded shut on my index finger, producing a laceration deep enough I could see the bone. But I’d duly bandaged it and kept it carefully hidden from anyone who might chastise me until it eventually healed. Point is, I wasn’t shy around dangerous implements.
The hunting knife was another matter. The fixed blade was six inches long, which would make it illegal currently in Michigan, though perhaps the law was more forgiving in those innocent days. It had a handle of bone, or fake bone more likely, white and textured with a succession of narrow ridges. How it came into my possession is a mystery. It may have been a gift. More likely it was just something I found in the byzantine clutter of the garage, which had been built for Model-Ts and was too cramped for modern vehicles—my grandparents used it as sort of a room-sized junk drawer instead. I spent many hours combing through the shelves and cabinets and up in the jumble of the loft, and any time I found something that seemed useful, I added it to my arsenal.
Now I bore the knife before me like a totem, walking back to the scene of what I perceived of as Grandpa’s humiliation. I was grim-faced in my determination to destroy the animal for its many trespasses, both physical and psychological. Kneeling at the trap I dug out a couple more scoops of dirt. A glimpse of the dark fur on the mole’s back appeared and I snatched up the knife and brought it down right in the center of the hole. It glanced harmlessly off the animal.
I decided I needed to fight this enemy mano a mano, or mano a mole to be accurate. I dug around the trap until I was able to see the full compass of the beast. Unfortunately this caused the trap to loosen its grip, and my quarry was in danger of escaping. So in a single deft movement I pulled the trap out with one hand and shoved the trowel beneath the mole. I lifted and quickly flipped it onto the grass.
It was surprisingly large and quick. Immediately it tried to get back under the soil, but I grabbed it and held it fast. It twisted around, attacking my hands with its sharp teeth, ripping at my palm the way a cat disembowels prey with its back claws. I grabbed the knife and gave it another try, again failing to pierce the tough skin of the mole. Once more I lifted the knife and brought it down this time with all the force I could muster. The point stuck and held, and the blade following sliced through skin and muscle and unknown viscera. I felt horrible—I wished I’d never started on this path. But all the same I knew now that I couldn’t turn back without causing unnecessary suffering. I pulled the knife out and plunged it back in two or three times.
The mole continued to struggle and claw at me, but its effort was waning. At length it grew still and I felt its heart stop within its body. I picked it up and carried it to the woods, throwing it amongst a pile of bracken.
Back in the house Grandpa was sitting at the dining room table with a can of Budweiser.
“I killed the mole,” I said, as matter-of-factly as I could muster, like it wasn’t much of a thing. He made a sound, a sort of grunt which may have signaled approval. His eyes traveled across my face and swung toward the window. He didn’t say anything else and as always I couldn’t possibly guess what he was thinking.
Killing anything, particularly anything warm-blooded, is a sobering undertaking. I eat meat, which I know makes me a hypocrite, but I don’t hunt, which I know makes me irritating to those who do. It’s not a judgement though, it’s simply a recognition that there are some things for which I’m simply not well-equipped. I’ll stick to writing thank you very much.
Several months after the mole episode I watched in horror one afternoon after school as a group of classmates bashed a squirrel to death with a board, laughing hysterically at the animal’s bulging eyes. I can’t begin to understand the relaxed monstrosity of my schoolmates—to me the first stab at my mole was very much like the moment I remove a part from my car’s engine I’ve never removed before, or the moment I put a saw to a significant structural member of my house. It was a moment filled with the terror of being in uncharted territory; the cold knowledge that you’re entirely alone with whatever fragments of skill or smarts you happen to possess. Once you’ve breached the boundary between life and death there’s no way out but through, and even though the mole was (relatively) small, the burden felt almost impossibly large to me, like I’d just shifted something important in the structure of being itself. Although I took the task on out of a sense of duty to Grandpa, I finished out of duty to the mole.
Thanks as always for reading. Hope this episode wasn’t too gloomy, but it’s been raining for days and my roof is leaking and what, really, do you expect? Please comment, like, share, evoke, presume, boil, exsanguinate, or defenestrate as you see fit. The surprise I mentioned last go round is still cooking and I swear to God will get done one day. I can’t wait to tell you.