The apple and cherry trees had blossomed in the last few days. Cobb admired the pink and white blossoms through his goggles; everything was tanned and faded from the smoked glass, like a half-forgotten dream or a distant memory.

“Oy, Cobb! Quit dragging your paws!” Tamarack bounded back to the mole and prodded him forward.

Still looking upwards, he adjusted the sack he was carrying and caught up to Colm. The tod looked down at him with an understanding in his eyes. “The blossoms are right pretty this year, Cobb. You must have missed the autumn colors.”

“Aye, Zir Colm. Oi did miss th’ colors, but Oi gurtly missed th’ smell of th’ earth.”

The trio continued through the orchard as the sky turned pink to match the trees. The blazing sun began to fall behind the great walls of the abbey. Under an apple tree, a rat sat smoking a pipe, the blue smoke forming a cloud around him. A straw hat with a net attached lay on the ground beside him.

Cobb breathed in a lungful of the smoke and sneezed. The tobacco smell was tinged with a hint of cinnamon, a scent Cobb knew well. He looked around, his gaze falling on the rat. “Isidore, that be you’m?”

The rat looked up. “Indeed. Cobb, what are you doing here? Have you been here at the abbey all this time?”

The mole looked at his fox companions for approval before approaching the rat, who had stood up.

“Oi’ve been locked up in a dungeon, Isidore,” Cobb said, gazing at the ground. He shuffled his paws a little. “Moi garden wouldn’t grow, so Oi troied to steal some vegetables. Foremole caught Oi, and well…”

“You could have come to me.” The rat looked at his neighbor with pity in his eyes. “I’ve always helped you out.”

“Oi know, but Oi wanted to do something moiself. Naow, Oi be working with th’ Coffincreeper foxes. Oi dig graves an’ run errands for them.”

“Next time, just don’t get caught. Or come to me first.”

Cobb nodded and hung his head. He turned to rejoin the foxes.

“I’ll see you around, Cobb.”

Tamarack was practically bouncing with impatience when the mole returned to them. “How do you know Mr. Isidore?”

“He be moi neighbor. Outsoide, that is.”

When the group reached the foxes’ house at the edge of the graveyard, Cobb pushed his goggles onto his forehead. The sun had fully sunk below the red walls and everything was silhouetted against an indigo sky. He followed the siblings into their home. They were greeted with the smells of fish and tater pie wafting from the kitchen.

“Colm, I’m so glad you’re all back,” Ida called from the kitchen. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

Larch, Tamarack and Colm’s mother, was setting the table. “Tamarack, go wash your paws. You’re filthy. Cobb, dear, did you get the new clothes you needed?”

“Oi surely did, Miz Larch. Do Oi have toime to put them away?”

“Of course.”

Cobb entered the room he shared with the grandmother fox and went to his cot in the corner. He set the sack down and began to empty it. He had retrieved a pair of britches and two new shirts from a peddler visiting the abbey. The britches were too long for him, but that could be fixed. Perhaps Miz Ida can fix them for Oi.

Cobb joined the fox family around their table for dinner. He watched in silence the familiarity that comes from a family living together, eating together, and loving together. A glance here, a tease there, a stern look when it was warranted. Colm and Ida even slipped in a nuzzle when they thought no one was looking. It reminded Cobb of his childhood — eating dinner with his parents.

As they were finishing dinner, Cobb broke his trance. “Miz Ida, Oi was wondering if you’m could fix moi new britches. They be awful long for Oi.”

“Of course, Mr. Cobb. Bring them out after dinner and I’ll hem them for you.”

“Thankee, Miz Ida.”

Tamarack began to clear the dishes from the table. Her mother and Ida got up to help. Cobb went to his room and put the new britches on for Ida to fix. When he returned to the common room, the table was cleared and he could hear the sound of dishes clanking in the tub of soap water as Tamarack and Larch washed them. Colm and Emmerich has gotten out a set of wooden dice and were playing a game on the table near the fireplace.

Ida had taken out her sewing basket and called Cobb over to her. She folded the britches up to a comfortable height and pinned them. “Alright, Mr. Cobb, go ahead and change back into your other britches and bring these back. I’ll fix them right up tonight.”

The mole nodded and changed once again. When he emerged from the room, Althea had set up some papers and a quill on the table.

“Cobb, would you please look at the advertisements with me? I want to get them ready for printing tomorrow. Saskia and Merritt should be here in the morning and can collect them then.” The old vixen pulled out the high stool that had been placed at the table for the mole.

He shuffled over to the table, head down and mumbled, “Oi doan’t know how to read, Miz Althea.”

She leaned down closer to the mole. “What was that?”

“Oi doan’t know how to read, Miz Althea. Oi never learned.”

“Well, I’ll teach you, then. After dinner each night. I taught Colm and Tamarack, you know.”

The vixen wrote a few shapes on the paper. Cobb looked at them and recognized them as letters.

“This one is ‘C’, this one ‘O’, this one ‘B’, and this is another ‘B’. Together, they spell ‘Cobb’.”

Cobb continued to half listen to Althea as he looked around the room at the foxes. Each had settled into their own quiet activity and was paying no attention to the mole.

Except Tamarack. She was looking at him strangely, her brow furrowed and her mouth half-frowning. Then she nodded decisively and began reading her book again.

Cobb shook his head and bent down to look at the letters Althea had scribbled on the paper. The lesson continued until he could recognize a few of them. By then, most of the family had taken themselves to bed and the candles were dripping wax onto the table.

Cobb yawned and stood up. “Oi think it be toime for bed, naow. Gudd noight, Althea.”

He took himself into the bedroom and climbed into his cot. Some time later, somebeast shook him awake. Cobb opened his eyes to a blinding light.

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Cobb

April 21, 2011

Male Mole

Cobb tunneled through the damp earth. His large digging claws tore easily through the clay and bits of rock. He stopped for a moment to adjust his goggles on top of his head and to get his bearings. Above him, he could feel the soil packed hard from foundations of the great walls that surrounded the abbey.

Hurr burr, they not be too far ahead naow.

The mole shifted his claws back into the earth and continued on his way. He stopped now and again to feel the tiny currents from the world above moving through the soil and to smell out his path. Soon, he was burrowing through the roots of the orchard. Cobb made sure to go around each root, leaving it soil and space to continue to grow.

After the orchard, there was a space with no roots. The digging here went faster than earlier. Cobb could feel the dibbuns running and playing above him.

At last, Cobb reached his destination — the garden. Little by little, he had been hollowing out a cavern below the abbey garden. Now, it extended under the whole of it. Cobb opened the sack he had brought along.

Let’s see naow… Parsnips, cucumbers, burdock, beets, taters, an’ spinach.

He set about filling his bag. Soon, it was bulging and Cobb could barely drag it behind him.

“This here’ll last Oi a gurt whoile!

The mole turned to begin his journey home. He stopped short; a new movement, sharp and close, was moving through the earth right toward him.

A set of claws broke through the soil into Cobb’s cavern, bringing a bright ray of sunlight with them.  He began to run.

“Stop roight naow, Cobb,” Formole commanded.

Cobb turned to face his captor, still inching toward his tunnel to the outside.

“So, you be the thief. Oi shoulda known it.” Formole advanced towards the other mole, holding manacles more menacing than the claw that held them.

“Formole, Oi’m only a thief cuz moi garden woan’t grow. Oi needs to eat.”

“You doan’t need to be thiefen from Zurr Abbot. Oi need to take you’m to see th’ Skipper naow.”

Formole walked forward and put the manacles on Cobb’s wrists. He prodded the guilty mole out into the sunlight and dragged the bag of vegetables up after them. The welcoming damp of the cavern called to Cobb.

Formole tossed the stolen produce toward a lounging group of otters — blurs in the harsh afternoon sun. “Oxbow, you take this here bag to the froier. He’ll want it roight away.”

The young otter nodded and left with the bag. Two of the others took hold of Cobb.

“Wait,” Cobb cried. “Oi needs moi goggles on! The sun hurts moi eyes.”

The otters turned to look at Formole. He nodded. They let go of Cobb. The mole arranged his goggles over his eyes, blinked a few times, and looked around; he had never been above the ground inside the abbey walls. The main building loomed over him, the spires seeming to touch the blue sky, everything washed in tea-leaf sepia.

The otters snatched Cobb’s claws and escorted him inside, through a door, and down a flight of granite stairs. At the bottom, four cells had been roughly hewn from the same rock. Cobb was thrown into one, the manacles still binding his wrists.

“Ye’ll ‘ave to wait ‘ere for Skipper to decide what to do with ye.”

Cobb sank down in one corner and shoved his goggles up his forehead.