Mole Rat by Meir Shalev (translated from Hebrew by Joanna Chen)
Facing my house is a tilled field, and every year it shifts from stubble yellow to plowed brown and from that to the green of germination and growth. Sometimes this is the radiant green of corn and sometimes the bluish green of the vetch, and now—the month of January—as I stand on the balcony and gaze out at the view, it is the soft inviting green of sprouting wheat, punctuated by dark brown mounds of earth that have arisen almost overnight. These are molehills, but they are not the usual mounds that mole rats leave behind. There is something about them, something that indicates a great subterranean drama.
The mole rat is a reclusive creature that disapproves of all other beings and particularly abhors its own kind. Most days it digs itself an underground system of tunnels and chambers that serve as lodgings and provide for everyday needs and—if it is a female mole rat—a place in which to raise the next generation. The mole rat defends its kingdom with ferocity, widening and deepening it through hard labor. It gets rid of the soil with upward motions and, consequently, mounds are formed above its living quarters. Usually they are scattered haphazardly over the area, but the ones I see now draw a straight and purposeful line for several dozens of feet along the wheat field. In other words, this particular mole rat is striving toward a goal, or, more precisely, this is a male mole rat digging in order to get to a female one.
Since I am also an animal of the male persuasion, I will describe the situation as follows: there are two men here, one who stands upright, on the balcony, looking at the view, and another who crawls under the earth and cannot see anything at all. They both belong to the mammal department, they both have four limbs, they both have a heart and brain, lungs and a stomach and a backbone, but I stand loitering, enjoying the brilliance of a pale winter sun, the blossoming of cyclamens and the fragrance of daffodils in the garden, while he labors inside a dark and suffocating tunnel. On journeys and hikes usually taken in daylight, I see the terrain through which I move, sometimes I even use a compass and map, while the mole rat knows to calculate and maintain the azimuth of his heart’s desire even in complete darkness.
All this is very nice. They say that love is blind, and some people even say love causes blindness, but the mole rat is born blind and lives in a dark environment. Evolution has sharpened his sense of smell and hearing but rendered him sightless. In spite of this, he will reach his heart’s desire with wondrous precision. She won’t see him, he won’t see her, but in this pitch darkness, and after so much solitude and effort, he will be sure he has arrived at his Rachel even if she is a Leah mole rat, and the next day no morning will shed light upon them or say he erred.
How does he know where she is? What makes him think she will agree? And how does he find his way with such precision? In fact, mole rats communicate with one another by knocking their heads against the tunnel ceiling, and the knocking sound traverses hundreds of feet of deep earth. He deciphers her knocking—“I’m ready”—and he soon thumps back, “I’m coming!” and on the way he hears the thumping of another male or two sending the selfsame announcement and knows that, before the arousing event my grandmother named consumatzia, he can expect a battle.
I know all this as well, because, although I lack the sharp ears of a mole rat, I also lack its dulled eyes, and I am capable of distinguishing two more lines of mounds also headed for the same spot. But with all the sympathy and appreciation I have for the efforts that male mole rats, and men in general, are willing to invest on their way to love, in the depths of my heart I hope that those wooing mole rats will fail, and if they somehow succeed in reaching Madam Mole Rat, I hope they fall in the battle for her affections before one of them impregnates her. All this is because one of their offspring may reach my garden and do its worst, as has already happened. Thus far are the romantic zoological ruminations, among others, on the small, determined, solitary, and blind males who choose to abstain from light, scenery, blossoming, and—aside from the annual subterranean love escapades that I have described here—they also abstain from any social life, not to mention love life. Now I will tell you about the damage they do to my garden.
Despite its violent and malicious misanthropic temperament, the mole rat is vegetarian, and because it destroys roots and bulbs, and at the same opportunity also moles molehills—farmers and gardeners regard it as an absolute terrorist. As for me, the molehills do not bother me in the least. I know that owners of ornamental, landscaped gardens, particularly those with lawns, are horrified by these mounds of earth. But my garden is a wild one, rough and ready, messy and grass-free, and I even find a sense of grace in these molehills, part of the garden’s natural landscape.
The roots and bulbs it destroys are another thing altogether. A few years ago one of them made itself at home in my garden, and I well recall the day I saw it wreaking havoc there. At the time I was standing on the same balcony, looking at the blue blossoming of the lupines, when suddenly I noticed they were all erect and silent except for one, which was moving from side to side as if swaying in a soft wind. My curiosity was aroused. I continued watching it and, after a few seconds, the lupine lurched to one side and fell to the ground. I went down there and lifted it up, and the lupine snapped out of the soil as if utterly rootless. I inspected it and saw that, indeed, it had none, because the root had been eaten up to the neck.
I regretted its death, of course, but took comfort in the knowledge that lupines are annuals and they all die anyway at season’s end. But then the mole rat discovered the truly desirable delicacies: my buttercups and gladioli. Both are perennial flower bulbs, and as already mentioned with regard to the cyclamen and squill, I waited patiently for some years after sowing them until they grew bulbs large enough to produce flowers. At that point it became clear to me that it was not only I who had waited, but the mole rat, too, and when the bulbs reached the size and taste that he fancied, the mole rat finished them off.
I am usually a man of peace and I hate war, but I am not a pacifist and do not believe in the theory of turning the other cheek. There are occasions and situations in which a man has to fight back or even instigate a fight, for example when his defenseless loved ones are devoured in front of his eyes. And in the special case of mole rat as aggressor, what we are facing here is a veritable war between the sons of light and darkness. And in general, all kinds of enemies lurk in the garden, dangerous to the flora and even dangerous to its owner, but only one of them is worthy of the title “saboteur”—none other than the mole rat.
There are a number of popular methods of fighting the mole rat. The first stage for all these methods is exposing the opening to one of its tunnels. This is not difficult: dig out one of the molehills and under it you will find such an opening, maybe even three or four of them. Now there are a number of options open to you. The most conventional and stupid of them all is to insert a water hose into the tunnel and turn on the faucet full blast.
Anyone who has taken this measure knows that the outcome is always the same: all rivers run into the tunnel, yet the tunnel is not full. The mole rat does not flee but waits comfortably in one of the upper chambers it habitually prepares in case of winter flooding. The water permeates the soil, the mole rat returns to its work, and the gardener receives from the water company—in itself an enemy—a bill befitting a swimming pool.
A different method recommended to me involves inserting the droppings of predators into the tunnel. The smell is supposed to frighten the mole rat enough to drive it away from its home. Unfortunately, there are no leopards or lions where we live and, when I tried this method, I had to make do with dog poop. Indeed, the mole rat did not like the procedure, but, on the other hand, it did not leave home. It worked and cleaned through the night, and the next morning I found the droppings outside the tunnel, and beside them a fresh mound.
The third method may well horrify those with a historical awareness, as well as the noble minded: the hose of an inflatable jack is attached to a car’s exhaust, the other end is shoved into the mole rat’s tunnel, and the car’s engine is started.
“Sounds terrible,” I said to a friend who recommended this method to me.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “they don’t die from it. The minute they smell the exhaust fumes, they escape. Twenty minutes more at two thousand four hundred rpm is enough for the stink to linger throughout the tunnel, and that’s it—the mole-rat problem is solved once and for all.”
He promised me this, noting that he had already done so in his garden and that it worked. The truth? It sounded convincing and even tempting, but in spite of the temptation I decided there are things that Jews should not do. Instead of this I used a method that arouses fewer associations, namely the laying down of burning coals at the entrance to the tunnel. Animals are terribly afraid of fire, and the mole rat will swiftly run away, or so I was assured. However, my mole rat did not run away but instead built a barrier of soil close to the tunnel’s entrance, in front of the coals I placed there.
After all these methods had been considered and discarded, or tried and found lacking, and after further bulbs and tubers and roots had been demolished, I realized this was a real war, a war in which only one side could survive. I had a few tactics to choose from. One was the placing of poisoned tablets specifically for this purpose in the mole rat’s burrow. When moistened they release a poison that is supposed to kill the mole, or the gardener, depending on who is closer and which way the wind is blowing at the time. I tried, we both survived and remained alive, and I decided to resort to something I remembered from my adolescent days: a face-to-face battle, an ambush at the entrance to the tunnel.
This method is based on the fact that the mole rat, as soon as its home is broken into, attempts to seal itself off, and from there, above the break-in, the gardener waits with raised hoe. All this is easy to say but very difficult to implement. After an hour and a half in this distressing position the gardener realizes that the damage made by the mole rat to his backbone is far more serious and painful than the damage wreaked on the gladioli and buttercups. After a further hour he understands that the damage he is causing himself is greater than the damage the mole rat is causing him, and after a further hour, when the mole rat—suspicious and longanimous—finally turns up, it does not come out and offer its head on the chopping block but instead pushes earth out of the tunnel with its snout. This is the moment to gauge its location and bring the hoe down with all one’s might in the hope that it will penetrate the layer of earth and strike the mole rat. However, the gardener usually misses or hits a rock that is also under the earth, and the blow is so terrifying that all his bones praise the Lord. The mole rat, who has already experienced such events in its life, chuckles to itself and continues crawling through the depths of its home, and the gardener also crawls home or, more to the point, to his bed, where he lies and then makes himself an urgent appointment with the physiotherapist.
Another ancient and violent method is the use of a firearm known as the mole cannon. The mole rat is not a mole—there are no moles in Israel—but neither is the instrument a cannon, but more a kind of improvised pistol: a short piece of metal pipe is used as the barrel, and a firing pin equipped with a spring and safety catch pulled forward beyond its tip, and every touch to it activates the mechanism and discharges a shot. This hellish device cannot be found in stores. To get one you go to an elderly moshavnik who throws nothing away, you look in his storeroom for one of these cannons from the British mandate, and meanwhile you hear stories, anecdotes, and political analyses on the State of Israel from him, with illustrative comparisons to the forties of the previous century.
But as you will already have noted, the destruction of a mole rat is not just any old operation, and it contains several levels of danger and sacrifice.
Ultimately you find a cannon, put a pellet from a shotgun in the muzzle procured from another acquaintance, who also has something to say about back then and right now, ask the inquisitive and the admirers and the advice givers to watch from afar, just in case, expose the tunnel opening, and put the apparatus in place. It is best to do so when the barrel is facing in, of course, and to cock the firing pin only when the cannon is in place. The mole rat is supposed to come up in order to close the tunnel and in doing so will touch the tip with its snout or paw, trigger the mechanism, and in fact commit suicide by gunshot. We’re talking about real firearms, and thus in many instances this adventure ends in serious injury. Not the mole rat’s. Yours.
Despite the fact that by now I would be happy to destroy the mole rat with a real cannon, I have never come across a mole cannon, and evidently this has saved me from enormous misfortune. But then I met a zoologist specializing in mole rats. I recounted my tale of woe and he told me that in the depths of winter, close to giving birth, the female mole rat prepares a nursery for her babies, a kind of subterranean residence with a larder and bedroom.
“If the mole rat in your garden is female, you’ll easily find the nurs- ery,” the zoologist promised me, “because the molehill above it is three times larger than other molehills. And when you open it, you’ll find all your gladioli and buttercup bulbs, classified and neatly arranged, and after you’ve touched her holy of holies, the female mole rat will run away and never come back.”
I looked for a mound triple the size—and there was none. I opened mounds double the size—and found nothing in them. Frenzied, I dug out a regular-sized mound, and after changing clothes—whenever I dig the earth I always strike the water pipe—I sat down on a nearby rock, looked around me, and thought about everything that had happened. I pondered myself, my behavior, and the destruction I had sown in the garden: Here I am, a grown man, usually responsible, who functions in a reasonable manner from a professional point of view, and in most cases from a social point of view as well, and suddenly he—I mean I—concedes precious working hours, the reading of a good book, recreation with his offspring, and dedicates entire days to the brisk digging of his garden, mining ugly potholes and inflicting damage upon himself, the irrigation equipment, and his surroundings, and all this for an ugly sightless creature the size of a sweet potato. So who’s the maleficent animal here? Is it the mole rat or me?
I stood up, renounced my righteousness, relinquished my self-respect, and overcame my vengeance. I pulled the survivors out of the earth—the gladioli and buttercups that were left—and transferred them to planters and pots. Since then the mole rat and I are no longer at war but rather manage a conflict, and I sow, sprout, and grow my buttercups and gladioli only in this way, safe from the enemy’s teeth and hunger. This is also the reason I do not plant asphodel in my garden, because they say it is very popular with mole rats. It’s true, I did not vanquish, nor did I win, and the saboteur continues his work underground. But I enjoy the flowers that grow above, so how bad can it be?