~ Nathan Batchelor
The sound coming from the guitar amp was interference, I told Maggie, opening the door of the closet where we kept Reggie’s things. The smell of him was still here. Pencil lead and the lightest touch of mole. You could never get that scent out of a man born in mole country.
“It could be spies,” Maggie said.
“It’s not spies,” I said.
“Russian spies,” Maggie said. “or Chinese.”
“This is Canada, hon,” I said. “We’ll check the radio stations. What we’re hearing is sure to be from there.”
“Still, Boston is close. There has to be important things there, right?”
I kept hearing the click of her tongue ring, while I dug through Reggie’s things. Here was a medal from a 5k race, third place, just a year ago. Here was his undergrad thesis, titled The Composition of Dung Balls in the Canadian Dung Beetle. Here was a photo of him as a child, pushing a mole on a swing set, the mole’s face set in fear. When I asked him about it, he said the mole was so scared that he snapped the chain with his grip after the photo was taken.
“Do you want me to help?” Maggie asked.
I forgot sometimes I had no hands. Birth defect. One arm ended at the elbow. For the other, there was a wrist that terminated in a ball of flesh without fingers. I had learned to manage, and with some setup could do just about anything someone born with two hands could.
“Go ahead,” I said.
It gave me time to think. I hated puzzles, at the same time, it was the most excited I’d seen my daughter since she’d stopped helping me make cookies, before she wore black lipstick, before I found the scars on her arms.
Moving the amp around did get rid of the interference. That was enough for me, but Maggie, like her father, had to know what the interference was.
After she’d dragged out the boombox, we sat around it in the living room and clicked from station to station.
“It’s none of them,” Maggie said.
This wasn’t something I could let go of. My daughter was growing away, doing things her father never would have approved of. I needed this. She needed this.
“I’ll ask at work,” I said.
“But you teach anatomy.”
“I still have friends in other departments, Maggie.”
I hardly knew anyone in the physics department, except for Dr. Blagg, who I knew because we were on the committee for students with disabilities. He stared at equations of gravity all day, but he would know enough to help us.
On Monday, I found him in his office, aroma of chalk and coffee. His pants were spotted with white handprints.
“It’s not spies,” he said, after I explained the situation to him.
“Of course, it isn’t. But will you come look?” I asked. “Please,” I must have sounded a little desperate. “For my daughter.”
He came Friday evening. He squatted by the amp with his ear next to it. Maggie sat on the edge of the couch with a notebook, writing, though I knew not what. They looked ridiculous. There was some part of my heart that tugged for Blagg. I had made him dinner and was prepared to entertain the notion of some kind of unspoken gift, perhaps a brush on the arm, a date, even a kiss. He wasn’t a bad looking man. But he hadn’t expected any of that. Nor did he seem all business. He seemed to take an interest to Maggie. Asking her questions about her life that seemed to excite her. Something I had not done in a long time.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Trying to write down what they say,” she said.
“It’s more than one person. Can’t you tell?”
I couldn’t. I wasn’t even sure that the sounds were even human.
“I’ll be back,” Blagg said. “I can’t hear anything either.”
He came back with an electrical device from his car. “We’ll just hook this up to the amp. It’ll record the sounds. I’ll clean up the audio this weekend.”
After he left, I washed the dishes, the sound of laughter extinguished, nothing but the hum of the air conditioner. The silence bothered me so much that before I went to bed, I turned the amp on for a little while. But I could make out nothing.
When Dr. Blagg didn’t call on Monday, I wasn’t worried. He was a busy academic. But he wasn’t there for the committee meeting on Thursday either. Later, when I called him, it went to voicemail. But when I called the secretary of the department, she had said he had missed no classes. I prayed nothing was wrong.
When I asked Maggie if she had figured out what was being said, she said nothing, but in a curious way that would set off any mother’s alarm. After she’d gone to bed that night, I browsed her notebook. She had written a script out of the noise. Speaker one and speaker two. Syllables and words randomly placed. There was a single word circled. Dad.
I didn’t feel anger, so much as sympathy. There were stories of children acting out fantasies about their dead parents, but I had thought my own Maggie would be immune. The therapist said her turn to darker things was nothing but a phase, that I should support her in whatever she wanted to do, even if it wasn’t something Reggie would have agreed with.
“People change,” the therapist had said. “Perhaps he would ask her what she wants.”
I doubted that’s what Reggie would have wanted. I put the notebook back where I left it. I would call the doctor in the morning.
“I really don’t want to say,” Dr. Blagg said when I’d finally tracked him down on campus. “It’s not certain at all really.”
His feet were slanted away from me, and when the lightest rain began to fall in front of the physics building, he started to walk away. I followed him. I had not brought an umbrella. They were awkward to use without hands.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are you saying the message is some kind of secret thing?”
“There’s two options,” he said. “Either you’re in on the joke, or you’re not.”
“What joke?” I said. “I’m asking you honestly here, as a mother concerned for her daughter. Why can’t you just tell me?”
The wind picked up and blew his combover erect.
“You know I’ve never been able to smell the rain,” He said. “Everyone knows when it’s coming. Except me. I’ve never been able to.”
He wrote an address down on a notepad and handed it to me.
“This is where the signal originates. Perhaps it’s some relatives of his playing a joke with your daughter.”
“Relatives of who? Reggie?”
He nodded. “You’ll have to ask your daughter how she did it. Beats me why she’d go to such trouble.”
It wasn’t until I was back in the car that I looked up the address. It was in mole country.
I waited for Maggie to get out of school that day. I hadn’t picked her up in years. There was a new section on the school, one I didn’t recognize. When Maggie came out, it took me a minute to pick her out among the other kids. She walked like her father’s sisters, a bounce in her step that reminded me of Judy and Nancy, who both lived in Chicago. Not at all like the girl she had been, years before.
“Where are we going?” she said.
“Mole country,” I said. “For the weekend. Where your father grew up.”
The problem with mole country was that the maps barely help. Roads end and begin without reason. Roads may be horse trails, service roads, or abandoned mole tunnel toppers. And when you forget to download the maps, like I did, only the gray and green spaces greet you. When my phone lost service a hundred kilometers away from any major highway, I pulled over on the side of the road.
Maggie sat on the top of the car with her jacket off. It was warmer here, and the trees were not yet completely naked of their leaves. We had seen a mole walking up the road, a bucket on his arm full of apples, resting on his cane as he paused to peer at our car. Maggie had watched him with the requisite amazement.
She held the maps while I tried to match up the roads between what was on my phone and the map we’d picked up at the first gas station in the province.
“Not to be mean, Mom. But shouldn’t you be better at this. You’re a professor and all.”
“There are a lot of things I should be better at,” I said. “But you’ll just have to deal with me.”
I was losing my patience. This place wasn’t dangerous. The rumors of people being lost and eyes being harvested by the moles were exaggerated. There had only been one case of that, nearly a hundred years ago. Reggie had told me in detail, as his adopted mole parents had told him. It was better for her not to hear of such stories. That would only make things worse between us.
“Do you think a mole will try to take our eyes?” she said.
We sat in the car a long time before I decided to go into the convenience store. I left Maggie there. She was still fuming from an argument we’d had about where to go. I let her know that I was just inside, that there was pepper spray in the glove compartment. We hadn’t taken the self-defense course that long ago, and the instructor said Maggie was a natural at combat, which had bothered me at the time, but now I felt thankful.
“Hello?” I said.
There was a mole wedged between two shelves, the top half of his torso inside the hole in the ground, just like, well, a mole. It was every run-down shop in every run-down mole town. The musky scent. The cellar door, where moles who preferred to travel underground could enter and exit. Two aisles worth of monocles, glasses, and lorgnettes for the nearsighted creatures. Spiced strips of flypaper swaying in the breeze from the buzzing air conditioner. The sound or tremor of my steps must have alerted the mole. His butt wiggled.
“What? You finally find that flathead screwdriver?” the mole with his head in the floor said.
“No,” another voice said, this one much older, feebler. “We got a guest, Paul.”
I hadn’t seen the mole behind the counter, straining his eyes out of disbelief at this woman without arms standing in his store in the middle of nowhere. His fur was coal black. The lenses of his glasses were as thick as they were round.
“Be right with you,” Paul said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. I really don’t need anything at all. Just some questions.”
The mole behind the counter clicked his tongue. Was that a mole message? Perhaps a sound of warning. I wished I had come here more with Reggie. Though he had never wanted me to see the place he grew up.
“You some kind of cop?” Paul asked.
“She doesn’t have any arms,” the older mole said.
“Well, that don’t mean she can’t be a cop, Mason,” Paul said. “Mr. Sudduth had his legs cut off in the war and he is a cop.”
“Was a cop,” the older mole said. “Died last winter. Cancer.”
“No, I’m not a cop. I work at the university. In Toronto. But I knew Reggie,” I said, hoping their eyes would light up in recognition, thinking the stories were true that everyone in this part of the country knew each other by name.
I repeated Reggie’s name, the full one, mentioning his adopted parents, his sisters. “He was my husband.”
Mason’s head swiveled. I glanced back at the car. Maggie’s feet were up on the dashboard.
“He’s the one hit by the car, right, Paul?”
“It was a truck. Reggie was Leonard’s cousin,” Paul said.
I didn’t know a Leonard. I found myself holding my breath. Then caught myself. How foolish to think these moles would know something of Reggie’s death, something that would tie things up in a pretty bow.
“Weren’t you there, Paul?” Mason said.
Paul stopped wiping his hands on a rag black with earth. I couldn’t tell if his hands were getting cleaner or dirtier.
He looked at me, then back at the old mole. “Say miss, would you care for some fly juice?”
There were chairs out back, hand-carved from mud like they sold in the department stores in the city, except these were the real thing, chairs shaped by powerful mole hands. I worried that my pants would get dirty, but Paul reassured me. Awkwardly, he handed me a soda. I had passed on the fly juice. He pointed to the chair. A delicateness in his hands reminded me of Reggie.
“It won’t dirty you up,” he said. “The chair, I mean. You coming, Mason?”
“To hell with your breaks. Someone’s got to work,” Mason called through the open door.
Paul sipped his spiced fly juice.
“I saw the truck pull out, strike your husband’s car on the side,” he said. “I was working on the subterranean road at the time. Volunteer Tunnelers’ Association.”
“I’ve heard of it,” I said.
“It was about noon. I was on break,” he said. “My eyesight’s a lot better than that old mole in there. Vitamins.”
“It was a mole driving,” I said.
He licked his lips and rubbed his eyes. “It was.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. “The driver’s name was Arthur. Did you know him?”
“There’s lots of people I don’t know around here ma’am. Maybe it’s better if you just say what you came to say.”
What had I come to say?
“I’m sorry,” I said. I had offended him. “My daughter has found something.”
He leaned forward. I explained the radio signals, the amp. I thought I droned on, but he never looked away. He never looked at my arms either. He never seemed to notice my disability.
“You say the signal is from here?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“That would make some kind of sense.” He rubbed his chin. “We are spies after all.”
I thought I had misheard. I felt an unease in my chest.
“I’m joking,” he said.
And then laughter came bursting out of me.
He said, “Would you like to see him?”
“Arthur? The man who hit him?” I said.
“No. Your husband,” he said. “Well, what’s left of him anyway.”
Reggie’s sisters had identified his body before my plane returned from an academic conference. I only saw him after the morticians were done with him and only from the neck down.
“It’s better this way,” his sister Judy had said.
It was dark in the tunnel with Paul. The musty smell was overwhelming. Chicken feed, dried corn, tubs of sawdust and stacks of firewood glowed green in the sight of the night-vision goggles he had given me.
“I kept it in here. Things last longer inside the Earth,” he said setting aside what must have been some kind of mole scarecrow.
After he turned on a light, and I removed my goggles, he offered me a ball of something. Teeth, hair, pencil shavings protruded from a something that resembled mud.
“What is it?” I said.
“I found this at the site of your husband’s wreck. I was wearing headphones, and they were picking up some noise. Voices I thought. But when I came back here, the sounds had stopped.”
Paul flipped on what looked like a baby monitor. I could hear voices under the static.
“Maybe this is your signal. I never put it and your husband together until you came in. I just thought it was some trinket thrown out a window,” he said. “Perhaps his presence amplified the signal somehow. Perhaps your presence works the same way. Yes, that must be it.”
I thanked him, though I knew he was caught up in a kind of mole superstition that Reggie and I would never believe in.
“If you want, I can let you talk to the Matron. She’d know more,” he said.
“But what is it? Why do you say this thing is him?”
“It’s a dung ball,” he said, “made by beetles. But I figure he made one. Probably not with dung or it would stink to high heaven. But it’s probably his teeth and stuff there.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. He studied beetles but he wasn’t crazy.”
“Maybe he wasn’t crazy. Maybe it was something he believed in. I don’t know what else to tell you,” Paul said.
Maggie was in a better mood when I returned to the car. We stopped at a diner run by moles. The food was so greasy I could barely eat it. She picked over mac and cheese.
“The trip isn’t completely wasted,” she said. “Do you know where Dad lived?”
“He would never tell me exactly,” I said. “He was ashamed.” I was suddenly not at all hungry. “Let’s go home.”
“But I’m still eating.”
“We’re leaving,” I said.
I almost threw the ball away then. Reggie wouldn’t carry such a strange thing. He wasn’t the kind to carry things. He even hated carrying wallets. And I knew enough of physics to know balls of dung didn’t give off radio waves.
I would put it away with his things when I returned home. The ball would serve as a reminder of the danger of wishful thinking.
If the signal was still there, I was going to get rid of it somehow.
That night, after Maggie had gone to bed, I switched on the amp. I marveled at the setup Maggie had made around it, almost an altar, with pen, paper, headphones, cups of coffee with just slivers of black in the bottom. I heard no voices, no interference.
I drank wine to celebrate. I put the ball away in the closet with the rest of Reggie’s things and went to sleep. Some part of me would miss the adventure, the bond with Maggie. But this had all been myth and circumstance.
Then the next morning, when I came downstairs, Maggie was sitting on the couch, the amp was on, and voices were coming out of it. Clear voices. Mine and hers. We were arguing.
“What will we do with Dad’s body? Bury him?” Maggie said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Again? This has to mean something.”
“There is nothing else. There is no meaning.” I said.
I was screaming. I barely recognized myself. We had never had that argument. I shut off the amp.
“Mom?” Maggie said.
She was holding the ball of dung in her hand. I slapped it away. She drew back, eyes in a way I’d never seen them before. Not showing horror, but anger, enough to coax tears from her eyes. She stomped away. I had underestimated her. She had seen the dung ball, had snuck into my room to get it.
I turned on the amp and sat in the floor. But when I moved the ball, the noise cut away. I couldn’t take this. I called 911. But when they asked what they could help me with, I didn’t say anything. There was no one who could help.
But perhaps there was. By the time Paul said, “Yes, That’s what we’ll do,” the police officer was knocking on my door.
Paul had given me night-vision goggles again, though these fit worse than the last pair. The Matron’s blankets ensconced her and gave her the impression of a child. She was small, withered, and the hairs on her head were like vines spiraling out of control. Paul said she must be more than 200 years old, but I’d had trouble believing it. Until I saw her. The frailness, the scars on her arthritic hands where men had cut off her claws years ago, in bits of history Canadian humans would like to forget.
“Raise me up,” she said. Her accent was thick with the old mole language. It took me a moment to understand.
Two girl moles, teenagers I thought, perhaps only a little older than Maggie, pulled on pulleys weaved of roots. Then the old mole was staring at me, or perhaps she was totally blind and feigning a stare.
“What’s the problem?” she said, turning to Paul.
“She’s found a dung ball,” Paul said.
“My husband, he died and now there’s a dung ball that—I can’t believe I’m saying this—is broadcasting some kind of message,” I said.
Her eyes turned on me with the judgment only old lady moles are capable of.
“A singing ball of shit,” she said. “And I thought I’d heard everything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I came because I don’t know what else to do.”
“What do you think is going on?” she said.
“I think he left a message for us,” I said. “Somehow the dung ball is… him or part of him.”
“Then what do you need me for?” she said. Her old face cracked, and a smile formed among the wrinkles. Her arm touched mine. Her grip was so powerful. “It’s okay. You’re scared.”
“But why is this happening?” I said. “Is it because he was raised by moles?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We merely collect things. Maybe it’s not the fact that he was raised by moles, maybe he is special.”
Out of all the things to leave a message of. An argument about a body we’d never seen. Out of all the ways to leave a message. A ball of dung. Perhaps the sounds coming out of the amp were his last thoughts. Yes, that had to be it. But he thought about us arguing? Why?
It was long after midnight that I returned home. I sat the ball down atop the amp and went to the kitchen. When I came back I saw, slumped against the overturned amp, Reggie’s body, wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day he died.
It was as if some joke had fallen flat. I felt empty. Reggie’s body looked so livid. He looked as if he were only asleep. The ball of dung was gone. Of course, I didn’t understand, but I realized, like his death, I was past the point of understanding.
I wrapped the body in sheets as best I could, and picked up the phone, but how could I dial any number? Who could I call? Instead, I crept upstairs. Had Maggie seen him? She slept soundlessly. Of course not, she would have called someone, if not me, then the police.
I didn’t know what I should do. If I should call the cops myself and have the body taken away, or if that was precisely not what Reggie wanted. Instead I lay there on the couch, glancing from the amp to the body wrapped in sheets, until I fell asleep.
It felt like I hadn’t slept at all when I woke. Maggie was sitting in the floor in front of the amp.
“It’s gone,” Maggie said. “I’ve tried moving the amp everywhere and the signal is gone.”
Then she sniffled and said, “What will we do with Dad’s body? Do we bury him?”
“Yes,” I said, reflexively, not even catching what I was doing.
“Again? But this has to mean something.”
I was already standing. My jaw wired so tight, I thought if I opened my mouth a scream would emerge that could shatter the world.
But I looked over to the body. I thought of the words of the matron. And then I think I saw my daughter for the first time since Reggie died. There was some magic here. This did mean something. What, I wasn’t sure. It was just out of reach. Instead of screaming, I opened my mouth, and words of understanding came out.
“What do you think we should do, Maggie?”
When she looked at me, I knew something had changed between her and I and what was left of her father. I knew what the message meant and why he had left it. He wanted Maggie and I to get on with our lives, no matter how incomplete we felt without him.
“I don’t know. But maybe we can talk about it.”
Yes, I thought. That’s exactly what we’ll do.