The mole didn’t care for funerals. Death, as a whole, disturbed him. It was too arbitrary, to his thinking, and far too final. He stood on the manicured lawn, listening to the whispers of the willows along the riverbank, staring up at the red brick edifice, and denouncing funerals in general.
Long months had passed since he’d visited Toad Hall, and he cursed those as well, as if the intervening days were each a dark mark on his character. To come too late in the end, to return not for a friendly visit, dinner, and a long evening’s conversation by the fireplace. This seemed the worst of it.
He’d come back to say goodbye.
Voices tittered on the spring air, the sound of Toad’s grandchildren playing on the grounds. While he lingered before the threshold, a trio of plump amphibian boys bounded around the corner of the main house. They wore no play clothes today but had been stuffed instead into well pressed jackets and ties that already came loose and dangly. One child held a wooden toy in his padded fingers. He swooped the flying machine through the air, making motor noises with wide, rubbery lips.
How Toad would have loved that sound.
Mole sighed and, smiling for the children, approached the entrance where a finely suited rabbit held the wide door open.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Mole.” The rabbit tilted his head in greeting, his voice somber and as grim as his expression.
“I suppose it is,” Mole said. “Fine weather at least.”
“They’re collecting coats in the hall, sir. The widow is in the parlor and…” He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in place. “The viewing, sir, is in the study.”
Mole’s throat turned dry as fall grasses. He jerked a nod and managed to choke out his thanks before stepping past the butler and moving on as quickly as his short legs could trundle. “The viewing.” He repeated it under his breath. “I suppose that’s the thing to be done.”
He shuffled into the grandiose hallway where, beneath a chandelier the size of ratty’s old boat, a group of field mice took his coat and hat. Voices murmured from the nearby rooms, and the mole followed them, not toward the study just yet, but in the general direction of the parlor. He drifted with the press of animals waiting to see Toad’s widow, and he made himself as small and unnoticeable as possible.
Somewhere in the throng he heard Badger’s deep voice rumbling, and though he longed for days of sitting beside the larger animal listening to his friends and enjoying their company, the mole made no move in that direction. In fact, he made no move at all of his own accord, instead letting the tide of animals direct him around the room and avoiding any communication at all aside from a nod or a sad smile as he passed each one.
The result of which was his, quite sudden, arrival in the widow Toad’s presence. She sat on a pile of velvet cushions, dressed in a gauzy black gown and surrounded by rabbits and various small mice who patted her about the arms and offered a steady stream of sympathetic smiles.
“Ah, Moley.” The toad woman’s bulbous eyes blinked slowly, one slightly after the other. “Dear friend, come and sit with me.”
Her voice burbled like a marsh in the summer’s heat. She patted a cushion to her right with knobby fingers studded with both warts and diamonds. Mole fixed a solemn expression, a bent and doleful look that fully matched his heart. He eased to the widow’s side and climbed as gracefully as possible beside her on the over-padded seat.
“My,” His throat drew all the moisture from the air, clogging and forcing him to clear it sharply. “My deep condolences, Mrs. Toad. My heart is all but broken.”
“As is mine, dear Mole. Whatever shall we do without him?”
Mole lay one paw over the toad’s hand, and they shared a quiet moment amidst the bustle of mourners. A line had formed for the widow’s attention, but she leaned into Mole’s side and he had no desire to disturb her by moving. Instead, he let his eyes explore the parlor, taking in the new lamps that gave off just the right sort of warm yellow light, the framed diagram of a flying machine on the wall beside the bookshelf, and the haphazard pile of books on an end table.
That was the thing he loved most about Toad Hall. For all its grandeur and formality, it had a lived-in aura, a sense of constant activity and the weight of many memories clinging to it like cobwebs.
“I suppose he’s on a new sort of adventure.” The widow sighed and lifted her wide head from his shoulder. “He’d like that, I think. He was a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather, but I truly believe he missed the old days as much as he loved the new.”
“I’ve never seen Toad any happier than when he was here with his family,” Mole said. “Not truly happy.”
“Thank you, dear Mole.” She patted his hand and sighed again. “I only wish I’d been there at the last. The boys were with him, of course, but it just feels… unsettling a bit.”
“Of course it does. Only natural.”
“You mustn’t be a stranger, Mole. The children adore you.”
At this his chest tightened. He remembered an invitation last fall and the excuse he’d fabricated to avoid attending. Ratty had been back, of course, and that had made the thought of Toad Hall unbearable. Now, with the estate populated by grief and all the neighbors of the riverbank, Mole wished he’d been a stronger animal. He wished he’d come to visit at least once more, river rat or not.
Mrs. Otter and her daughter waited to pay their respects, and Mole smiled for them as he climbed down from the pillows. He pressed a brief kiss to the widow’s hand and shuffled from her presence with his guilt chasing him. To have heard Toad’s voice one last time… Yes, he understood exactly what she’d meant by unsettling.
And now the time had come to be a braver mole. He didn’t wish to visit the study at all, and yet, his mental record-keeping said he owed Toad his presence, that though he’d come late in the end, he had still come to see his friend and wish him well. And so he moved against the current washing toward Toad’s widow, darting between elbows and stepping cautiously over tails as he went. The mole found the hall again, and without giving himself the time to think it through and so back out of his convictions, he reached the study door and slipped inside.
Rat was there, of course. Another inevitable meeting.
The casket lay to the side of the room, candles lighting it at head and foot. The lamps had been set low, and shadows flickered over the Persian carpet, making scowling faces of the designs there. Ratty stood halfway across, heading out or in. Mole couldn’t say which, but when he spied his old friend, they both froze in midstream, living statues, another part of the elaborate decor.
“Moley.” Rat’s voice broke the silence first, thick and sweeping as his river love.
“Ratty.” Something sticky filled the mole’s throat. He choked on it once, and then spat it out as a confession, “Old friend.”
That fact, spoken aloud in the dim room, broke the spell that had settled like ice around them. The river rat stumbled across the distance, his arms spread wide. Mole met him a step in, a guarded step that allowed him to return the rat’s hug, but not to fully enjoy it.
“Dearest Mole.” Ratty smiled when he pulled back, but there were shadows in his eyes. Shadows that floated like the sea, that drove as deep a chasm between them as the Rat’s leaving had. No matter that he’d returned at last, that he’d set his life and his heart firmly back beside his river.
The Mole remembered the leaving, and that fear forged a distance between them. He might go again, it said. At any moment, he might go.
“How are you, Ratty?” He watched the rat’s eyes and saw distant waves dancing.
“Well, Moley. Very sad for our great loss, but well enough.”
It took the mole the space of three breaths to remember which loss he referred to. Even with the casket just there, the other pain seemed sharper. It cut across the space between them and forced the mole’s feet to carry him one short step to the side.
“Dreadful to think of,” Ratty continued. “Toad Hall without our Toad in residence.”
“The poor widow.” Moley shuffled his feet. “The poor children.”
“Grandchildren too,” Ratty said. “Toad’s legacy.”
“She wasn’t there with him, at the end.”
They both nodded, though Mole suspected they followed separate trains of thought, different paths as was their lot in life it seemed. He sniffled, and the study door creaked as another mourner joined them. Rat and Mole strode to the casket together then, almost in step. They lowered their heads and gazed upon the vessel that held all that was left of dear old Toad.
Mole tried to imagine him inside it. The lid had not been opened, and the gleaming wood seemed too stark for Toad, far too serious. He was hit by the sudden urge to call out, to press his muzzle against the side of the thing and shout for Toad to call it off, to get up and join them and put this silliness that was death aside. A tear fell from his eye then, a single note of a sad melody that had played in his heart all morning.
Ratty placed a paw on his shoulder, warm and full of things they’d missed over the years, conversations they hadn’t had, evenings not spent together beside a fire.
“The widow wasn’t with him?” A gruff bass spoke behind them, announcing the other part of their tragic party.
“Afternoon, Badger,” Ratty said. His paw fell from the mole’s shoulder, and another spell faded.
“Ratty, Moley my boy. What was it you said about the widow?”
“She couldn’t be there at the last, she told me. The boys were with him though.” Moley blinked away fresh tears and turned from the horrible box.
“Not James or Jeremiah,” Badger said. “Just spoke with them, and they said they were called away at the end.”
“That leaves Virgil,” Ratty said. “Poor boy. Not the most stable of Toad’s sons. To be there for it, all alone.”
“Perhaps,” Badger said. He rubbed one massive paw across his jaw and nodded as if answering some unasked question. “If you’ll excuse me. Remain here, please. I’ll be right…”
Badger moved fast for a large animal. He’d reached the door and vanished through it before finishing his thought. The study fell silent again. One of the candles sputtered. Mole stuffed his paws in his trouser pockets and drifted to the side of the room. He hummed under his breath, a little tune that reminded him of summer days on the river. Days that were as dead as poor Toad, but that Ratty’s presence brought foremost to his thoughts.
He kept his feet moving, as if standing still would open a door to conversations he’d been avoiding for too long to start now. His paws drifted over the bookshelves, and his nearly invisible ears picked up the rat’s breathing, the soft way his pants whispered as he, too, walked to the edge of the room.
“Never imagined Toad as much of a reader,” Ratty said.
“Nor I.” The mole stopped at a narrow table set just along the wall. There a large volume had been lain, and tiny scraps of paper sprouted from between its pages like new leaves. “Someone’s reading, though. He ran a claw over the embossed title. “The New World of Flight.”
“Virgil’s hobby, I think.” Rat sniffed and his steps pattered in Mole’s direction. “And I saw one of the grandtoads with a toy or two.”
“As did I.” Mole shifted aside and let the Rat step in beside him. “Toad would have loved it, though. Flying.”
“In the old days.” Ratty’s paw found his shoulder again. The weight of it felt solid, stable, not prone to wandering off at any moment. “Moley…”
“I wonder.” Mole said it quickly and then forgot how he’d meant to finish the sentence.
The study door opened before he had to invent something, however, and Badger rejoined them. He huffed as he went, groaning between steps these days, and heaved the study door closed behind him. He leaned up against it to catch his breath.
“How’s Badger, then?” Ratty asked.
“Confounded.” Badger replied. “Virgil was not, as it turns out, with Toad at the end. He was sent from the room by Toad’s doctor.”
“Not Doctor Mann,” Rat said. “He told me last week Toad wouldn’t have him. Brought in his own fellow from beyond the wood.”
‘Exactly,” Badger said. “His own fellow.”
“Oh dear.” Rat’s paw lifted. He rubbed his fingers over his face and shook his head in a way that told Mole he’d missed something important. “You don’t think?”
“After all these years.” Ratty sighed and steepled his fingers under his chin. “That old devil.”
“Need to be certain.” Badger stepped quickly, rocking from side to side a little more than he used to. He strode across the study and took position near the head of the coffin. “With your assistance, Ratty. Mole here can do the looking.”
“What’s that?” Mole frowned and tried to sort it all out in his mind. “What am I looking for?”
“The body, I should think,” Rat said. He scrambled after Badger, moving to the opposite end of the coffin. They both placed paws at the edge of the lid. They both looked expectantly at him.
“Toad’s body?” Mole crept forward. The pleasant feeling that had tickled his stomach as soon as Ratty mentioned the old days twisted now into a familiar, off kilter feeling. “I’m not sure I want to see that.”
“Don’t worry,” Ratty said. “Just a quick peek, old friend.”
It was the old friend that moved his feet. Mole shuffled to the side of the casket, wishing he had something to hold onto, a pillow perhaps, or a walking stick like Badger carried. He pressed his paws together and stared at the shiny wood.
Badger might have been asking Ratty, but Mole nodded gravely. He steeled himself as his friends grunted, heaved against the coffin lid and raised it a half dozen inches. Mole squinted, peered in at the gleam of satin.
“A little more, please,” he said. “It’s too dark.”
“Oh just open it already,” Ratty huffed.
The lid parted, up and up, and Mole stared at the contents of Toad’s casket. He stared, and his mind tried to sort it all out. A single bottle of whiskey lay where Toad’s remains should have been. Three cut crystal tumblers had been arranged around it, each etched with a single letter.
“Horrible,” Mole said. He’d formulated an idea, and was almost certain he understood correctly. “Someone’s stolen the body.”
His friends let the lid rest against the wall and joined him. Badger lifted one of the glasses, turned it in the light and grunted. “He’s even had our initials put on. The fool.”
Sure enough the glasses bore an R, M, and B in lovely calligraphy.
“Shall I pour, old chaps?” Ratty lifted out he bottle and turned it in his paws. “Look at that label.”
“A flying machine.” Mole smiled, happy to be part of the conversation, but also concerned that they should possibly be looking for whoever had stolen Mr. Toad’s corpse away.”
“Saw the boys with them,” Badger said.
“And the book there,” Ratty added.
“There’s a diagram in the parlor,” Mole said proudly. “Toad would have loved it.”
Ratty popped the stopper on the whiskey and poured a measure into each of the glasses. He handed the one marked M to Mole, and they all lifted their drinks together. “To Toad,” Ratty said.
“To Toad.” Mole sniffed his glass and then decided to sip it very slowly.
“Should we tell them all? Maybe let the widow know?” Ratty tossed back his drink and cocked his head to the side.
“He’s liable to get himself killed for real before we find him,” Badger answered.
The rat’s smile brought back the tickle in Mole’s belly. He smiled, and then frowned. “Get himself killed for real?”
“Best to tell them after we’ve caught him,” Badger said. “You with us yet, Moley?”
“Toad hasn’t died… yet?” Mole pictured the flying toy, the diagram on the parlor wall. He glanced briefly toward The New World of Flight. “Oh no. Oh DEAR.”
“Yes,” said Badger.
“So it is,” added the rat.
They returned the bottle and their empty glasses to the casket before closing it tight upon the evidence. Badger huffed. Ratty placed a paw on Mole’s shoulder and then dropped it to his side. Mole sighed, fanning the warm feeling and letting it spread outward, shiny, like the old days.
Without imagining endings at all, he took the rat’s paw in his. He smiled, sniffed, and caught the telltale wafting of adventure on the wind. Moley imagined old Toad, out there somewhere in a flying machine, above them all, laughing at the world, and the willows, and the mourners gathering in Toad Hall.
He let loose the happiest of sighs and whispered, “So, when shall we leave?”
Frances Pauli writes speculative and anthropomorphic fiction. She has published more than twenty novels, numerous short stories, and ebooks. Her novella, The Earth Tigers has been nominated for both a Leo and a Coyotl award. She lives in Washington State with her family and far too many pets.