A Mole Tragedy

Once upon a time there lived two moles whose names were Bernard and Frieda. They met one day whilst burrowing, and so enjoyed each other's company that they decided to spend the rest of their lives together. This they did, happily eating and burrowing and doing all the other things that moles like doing. Mainly eating and burrowing, in fact.

They also had a son, whose name was Derek. Derek did not like burrowing. In fact, even when he reached an age at which most moles would spend most of their time burrowing with great enthusiasm, he never helped his father and mother to burrow - he preferred to stay on his own, thinking about many different things. Whenever his parents asked him to help them burrow, he told them that he was too busy and didn't want to. Bernard and Frieda were beginning to get quite anxious. One day they decided to have a serious talk with him.

"Derek," Bernard called, "your mother and I would like to have a serious talk with you."

Derek sighed. It was not a convenient time. He had been sitting in his own personal part of the burrow, trying to compose a poem about what it was like to be a mole. So far he had only written the first stanza, and he wasn't altogether happy with that.


Within the labyrinthine tunnels that
Conceal our brief lives from the noises above
Our toils and troubles walk hand in hand with
Other happy-making joys of life

He wasn't worried about the fact that it didn't rhyme, for Derek knew that real poetry, especially modern poetry, did not have to rhyme. But he felt that his words had inadequately expressed something that he hadn't entirely intended to express in the first place. It was the last line in particular that bothered him - aside from the clumsy syntax he had resorted to using the cliché "joys of life", which carried an optimism entirely contrary to the mood he had set out to suggest. Furthermore he was painfully aware of the fact that, were his short limbs capable of holding a pencil and writing his poem down, he would be completely at a loss as to how to spell "labyrinthine".

"Derek!" His father's call carried his thoughts away from such difficulties and back to the world of the burrow in which he lived. Derek reluctantly decided to abandon his musings for a while, if only for the sake of diplomacy. He shuffled out of his corner and into the main part of the burrow where his father and mother were waiting for him. He looked at their serious faces and prepared for the discussion that was to follow; he had nasty feeling that he knew what it was going to be about.

"Derek." His father cleared his throat, and there was an uncomfortable pause. Derek's mother was the next to speak.
"We love you very much Derek. And we're very proud of you."

"You're our only child, at the moment," his father continued, then stopped. Another awkward pause followed.

"It's just..." his mother began, looking at Derek's father for support.

"We're a little bit concerned that you never seem to want to do any burrowing."

Derek fixed his father with his small, dark eyes. "I don't like burrowing," he said.

"Why not?" his father demanded.

"I don't like getting dirt stuck in my claws," Derek replied.

His father paused, taken aback by this answer. "You don't expect me to believe a silly excuse like that, do you?" he finally asked.

"But it's true." Derek continued to calmly stare at his father. "I don't like the feeling of having dirt and stones building up underneath my claws. It makes them ache." Derek looked at his bewildered father, then continued "and once the dirt is there it's impossible to get out. It's not as if we have particularly good cleaning facilities down here."

"But you're a mole!" his father burst out, angrily. "You just have to put up with having dirt under your claws!"

"I don't have to put up with it if I don't burrow."

You can't choose not to burrow!" Derek's father exclaimed in disbelief.

"Of course I can."

"No you can't! Moles have to burrow! It's part of what we do."

Derek tried to explain. "We don't have to do anything. What's the point in our having free will if we can't choose what we do?" His father was shaking with barely concealed fury, but he carried on speaking. "If we all burrow just because everybody thinks we have to, then nobody is really doing anything that they want to. Our whole life simply become one meaningless duty."

"Meaningless?" Derek's father spat. "My father burrowed, and his father burrowed, and his father's father burrowed, just as I have spent my life burrowing, and just as you" - he gave Derek a look that would have terrified most young moles - "are going to come and burrow with me now!"

"No I'm not." Derek was not like most young moles. He was not easy to intimidate, especially when he knew he was in the right. But Derek's father did not like to be argued with, especially by his son who was so clearly trying to evade his responsibilities. Derek's mother knew all of this, and seeing the direction the argument was likely to take she nervously intervened.

"It's just that it's ever such a lot of work for me and your father to keep burrowing without your help," she told her son, who simply glanced back and said "Stop burrowing then."

"We can't stop burrowing, don't you understand?" Derek's father shouted.

"No, I do not understand." Derek was careful not to raise his voice - he would try to win this argument in a civilised manner.

"We have to keep burrowing, dear" his mother said, her eyes silently pleading with him to agree with his father, "because if we didn't we'd be stuck in the same place the whole time."

"Why don't we stay in the same place, then?" Derek suggested. "I'm quite happy where we are." At this Derek's father began snorting in rage, and Derek quickly continued "If you stayed here you could stop burrowing and do other things instead."

"Other things?" Derek's father repeated incredulously. "Like what? What is it that you do all by yourself while your mother and I are doing all the work?"

"I think of things. I make things up in my head."

"Oh, really?" Derek's father laughed, sarcastically. "So what have you got to show for all your thinking, eh? We've got all these tunnels and our burrows, that's what we've achieved. What have you achieved, ever?"

Derek considered reciting his incomplete poem, but decided against it. It hadn't even come close to fulfilling the potential of his ideas - he had started to think that a clever conceit might be a better way of encompassing the range of emotions he wanted to express. It would need a great deal of work, but even without these problems he felt sure that his parents would not remotely understand the concept of poetry.

So instead Derek said the first thing that came into his head. "I'll achieve something, Dad. I'll learn to play the harmonica." Which wasn't necessarily a bad idea, but it wasn't one that was likely to please his father.

It didn't. "Harmonica?" Derek's father stared at his son for several seconds, unable to voice the thoughts furiously racing through his tiny head. When he eventually spoke his voice was menacingly quiet, and he punctuated each word by jabbing at the floor with his claws. "I've heard enough of these silly ideas from you. You're a mole. Moles burrow. It's that simple. You are a mole and you are going to burrow."

"No I am not," Derek said again, and walked back to his corner of the room. His father snarled, an uncharacteristic noise for a mole to make, but he snarled nonetheless, and was about to follow Derek when his wife stopped him.
"Don't, Bernard," she whispered, "there's no point in shouting any more. He'll see sense soon."

Bernard looked at Frieda. She was right, of course. Derek would soon learn.


But months passed and Derek continued to refuse to burrow. His parents tried cajoling him, bribing him, threatening him; but Derek remained unintimidated by such tactics, and started to learn the harmonica.

"What are we going to do?" Bernard asked Frieda one day, speaking loud enough to make himself heard above the noise of Derek's harmonica practise.

"There's nothing we can do that we haven't tried already," Frieda pointed out, a note of desperation in her voice. "He just sits there all day playing that instrument of his."

"Where did he get the bloody thing from anyway?" Bernard questioned. But Frieda had no idea how any mole would find a harmonica.

"Perhaps he burrowed for it?" she suggested, hopefully. Bernard snorted derisively.

"He's never done a moment's burrowing in his life." He listened to Derek's harmonica playing and wondered quite how he had ended up with such a difficult son. "He's a mole, for crying out loud! He's probably the only mole in the history of the world to learn to play a musical instrument!"

"Don't tell him that, he'll only be proud of it," Frieda advised. They both listened again to the noises emerging from Derek's corner. His playing was remarkably accomplished for a mole, although his was having some trouble mastering throat vibrato (hardly surprising, given the structure of the mole throat).

"He will grow out of it," Frieda insisted. "He can't avoid burrowing for ever."

"Do you really think so?" Bernard retorted. Doubt and anxiety showed on both of their miserable faces.


The months wore on, and Derek grew older. But he did not grow out of playing the harmonica, and he still refused to burrow. He mastered throat vibrato, and many other advanced techniques, and began to compose many tunes of his own for the instrument. At the same time he began to think about what other musical instruments he might learn - ideally he would have chosen the cello, but he felt that even he would find it impossible to adapt his tiny body to playing such a large instrument. He did however think he might just manage the clarinet, and he made this his next objective. He had no idea about where he might find a clarinet to learn, but he did not let this cloud his ambition, for a harmonica had also once seemed like an impossible dream. If he really put his mind to it he would find himself a clarinet.

In the mean time he started to put together ideas for a novel.

His parents naturally knew nothing of these thoughts, and their frustration continued to grow. But it did them little good, and the more they argued with Derek the more adamant he became that he would never burrow. "I don't like getting dirt trapped under my claws," he insisted.

"How do you know that if you've never even tried burrowing?" Bernard asked him.

"I can imagine what it would feel like."

"You won't burrow because you imagine that you won't like it?"

"That's enough for me," Derek calmly responded.

"But burrowing isn't about imagining, it's about doing!"

One day Bernard decided that he'd had enough. He was going to have to force his son to try burrowing - after that, her knew, Derek would see how foolish he was being."

"You're coming with me," he told Derek firmly.

"I can't come now, I'm in the middle of practising my clarinet," Derek said.

"You'll come now, even if I have to force you!" Bernard shouted. "It's about time you did something constructive."

"This is constructive," Derek countered.

"That?" Bernard gestured angrily at the clarinet. "You call that constructive? Wasting your time making noise when you could be burrowing, building a home, making tunnels - things that will last? You could be building whole structures! What have you ever built with your instruments?"

"I build tunes. I take notes and I put them together in different ways to construct the most complex structures that can exist. Out of nothing I create sounds that are more real and solid than anything else, sounds the function on so many more different levels than anything physical could. My tunes," he said coldly, "will last for much longer than your tunnels."

How Bernard would have responded to this is mere conjecture, for at that moment there was a rumble and the ceiling of the burrow began to shake. Dirt rained on the two moles, and Frieda hurried into the burrow.

"What's happening?" she cried. A large crack appeared in the ceiling, and Bernard glimpsed a gleam of sharp metal.
"People!" he shouted, beginning to claw at the ground. "Both of you, burrow for your lives."

Bernard continued to burrow downwards, but as Frieda disappeared safely into the ground he glanced back at Derek. Derek sat, quietly playing his clarinet as large pieces of earth fell around him.

"Hurry, Derek!" Bernard shouted. Derek put down his clarinet.

"I won't burrow," he said, calmly.

"But you must," Bernard urged. "If they find you they'll kill you!"

"Death is inevitable," Derek said. "I can at least avoid discomfort."

Bernard looked in horror at his disobedient son, meeting those cool black eyes for one last time before a wall of dirty metal slammed in between them. Bernard turned and burrowed as fast as his claws could manage, away from the scene of destruction that had been his burrow. When he paused for breath he could see nothing behind him but darkness.


Shortly afterwards Frieda had six more children. As they grew up their parents told them all about Derek, and how his refusal to burrow had eventually caused his terrible death. The young moles listened with hushed awe to the tragic story; none of them could understand why he had been so foolish, and each of them was filled with pity for the older brother they had never known. They each silently vowed not to waste their own lives in such a pointless manner, and as soon as they were old enough to burrow they enthusiastically started to learn. Bernard and Frieda proudly watched as their offspring built tunnels and burrows, just as the young moles would one day watch their own children tunnelling and burrowing day by day like every other mole.


© Copyright James Lark