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This selection is paired with Chapter 6 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Get NonBinary Review #18 from Zoetic Press.
The sunshine streamed through the windows of the dining room at Toad Hall, casting delicate shadows over the table where Rat and Badger were finishing breakfast with their host. The Mole was not with them that morning, as he was preparing his home for company. His sister’s youngest child was coming to pay him a visit, and there were many things to do before he would be ready. His friends had offered to help, but Mole knew that the only one of the three who would be of any use in a hole was Badger, but rather than hurting anyone’s feelings, he declined all offers, with profuse thanks.
Nevertheless, the Rat was feeling some pangs of guilt, thinking about his friend working all alone, and it showed on his face. Toad, who had become much more perceptive, noticed.
“What’s eating you, old boy?” he asked kindly.
“Oh, just a little worried about Mole,” Rat confessed.
“He’ll be fine,” Badger said roughly as he polished off his hard-boiled egg. “If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s keeping a good home.”
“I know,” said Rat. “But it’s not only that. Do you ever notice how much he’s done for us and asks so little in return? We’ve been neglecting him a little I fear. And…He hasn’t said as much, but I think his eyesight may be fading a little.”
“I’ve noticed that too,” admitted Badger. “I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We should give Mole something to show we appreciate him, but that will also help him.”
They sat in silence for a while, mulling over what Mole could find useful. Suddenly, Toad burst into a smile and said, “I know the very thing!” The others pressed him to tell them what it was, but he waved them off.
“Let me take care of things. It’ll be my pleasure.”
* * *
A week or so later, Mole’s niece Tally had arrived and was settled in with her uncle. Mole brought her around to Toad Hall shortly thereafter, at Toad’s invitation. Tally was awestruck at the size of the house.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, uncle!” she gasped, clutching Mole’s paw.
“It is a bit grand, as is Mr Toad, but he’s a good animal, you’ll see.” Mole replied reassuringly.
Thankfully, Toad was out in the gardens, inspecting the growth on his perennials, so he was able to put Tally ease much more readily than in the drawing room.
“Let’s get a look at you, then,” said Toad, once introductions had been made.
Tally was a small creature for her age, but she had a neat, velvety black coat like her uncle’s, and an inquisitive air about her.
“Very good, very good!” said Toad, who was fond of all children. Badger privately thought it was because Toad was rather childish himself, but would only say so in private to Rat and Mole.
“What plans for your visit, then?” continued Toad, cocking an eye at Mole.
“Nothing in particular,” said Mole. “Tally’s going to be here for a while as my sister’s burrow is being fixed up. All her brothers and sisters have gone to other relatives to stay.”
Tally had let go of her uncle’s paw at last and was wandering along the garden path, looking at all of the sprouts and wondering what they could be. Mole and Toad watched her for a bit.
“You’ll stay for lunch of course?” asked Toad.
“My dear fellow, you’re too kind,” replied Mole, humbled as always by his friend’s generosity.
“Think nothing of it! Old Ratty and Badger will be along presently.”
* * *
It was pleasant and warm that day, so they launched on the veranda. Rat and Toad were doing their best to keep their excitement hidden and even Badger was more jovial than usual. At last the things were cleared away. Toad cleared his throat, and Rat and Badger’s ears perked up. Mole and Tally looked over, a little puzzled.
“My dear Mole,” began Toad, using his best oratorical tone. “We have had the pleasure of calling you our friend for many months now. You are an animal of the utmost integrity. You are loyal beyond measure. A pearl amongst moles.” Toad paused for breath and to wipe away a tear.
“Steady on,” said Mole, who was now rather alarmed.
Toad smiled gently at him and continued. “Our debts to you can never be repaid in full, dear friend. But we hope that you will accept this token of appreciation from us with as much goodwill as it is given.”
With that, Rat whisked out a small parcel and handed it to the stunned Mole with a flourish. Tally and Badger burst into wild applause as Mole slowly turned the parcel over in his paws.
“My dear, dear friends,” Mole said with some difficulty, “I am at a loss for words…”
“Don’t bother with a speech, old chap!” interrupted Rat with a grin. “Open the parcel!”
“Yes, yes! Open the parcel!” squeaked Tally with excitement.
“Very well!” said Mole, who untied the string and opened the wrapping paper. Inside was an oddly shaped container of a style Mole had never seen before. It was black and roundish, yet oblong as well, and it had a strap. It seemed to be made of black leather, and there was a brass latch keeping the lid closed. Mole flicked open the latch and inside was nestled a strange looking object. It was double-barreled with two sets of lenses, one set smaller than the other.
“What is it, uncle?” asked Tally in bewilderment.
“Field glasses!” exclaimed Toad in triumph. “You can use them to look at things at a distance. You just turn that little wheel and everything becomes clear.”
Mole took the field glasses out of the case and held them up to his eyes. “No, no!” said Toad a little impatiently, “It’s the other way around!”
“Oh, I see.” Mole meekly turned the glasses around. “Now, let’s… Oh!” He had found out how to work the focus and could now see Toad’s stable as if it were right in front of him rather than on the other side of the yard.
“I say, these are remarkable!” he exclaimed. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Look, Tally!” He handed the field glasses to the little mole and showed her how to work them.
“I think you’ll find these jolly useful,” said the Rat, who was secretly dying to try them out himself. “You can see the whole Wide World with these.”
“The whole Wide World!” echoed Mole a little breathlessly.
* * *
Sometime later, Mole and Tally headed back to Mole End. Tally wore the field glasses over her shoulder while Mole carried a small stack of books borrowed from Toad’s Library. It included The Birds of Shakespeare, a pocket guide to the county, and an Atlas of Astronomy.
Both animals were rather overwhelmed by the generosity shown by their friends, and the further they walked, the more excited they became about their new treasure.
“Tally dear,” said Mole, “I think we ought to make a project out of these field glasses.”
“What’s a project, uncle?” asked Tally, who had skipped a little ways ahead.
“I mean a plan,” replied Mole. “A list of things we’d like to see. And we’d keep track of the things we do see in a notebook so that you’ll be able to take it home with you.”
“Oh, could we?” asked Tally, slowing down. She had never heard of such a thing and was quite taken with the idea.
“We’ll start tomorrow,” promised the Mole.
* * *
The next morning, Mole showed Tally how to make a quire by taking two sheets of paper folding them in half, then half, and then half again. He took a knife and cut the folds. He showed her the little book.
“Won’t it fall apart?” asked Tally anxiously.
“Ah-ha!” said Mole with a smile. He took a thick needle and some yarn and sewed a seam along the remaining fold, puncturing the paper very carefully. He then handed it to her his niece, along with a pencil.
“Now, let’s make our list,” said Mole.
“I don’t know how to write very well,” said Tally with some embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” said Mole kindly. “I didn’t know, you tell me what to write, then, and we’ll begin there.”
Tally looked thoughtfully at the kitchen ceiling. “I would like to see some interesting birds.” Mole nodded and made a notation on the first page of the quire.
“I would like to climb the big hill and see the Wide World.” Another note was made.
“I would like to see a shooting star.” Mole grunted his approval. He was fond of stargazing, even if it had been more difficult to see the stars of late.
“And I would like to see people,” Tally concluded. Mole nearly dropped his pencil in surprise. “We animals don’t tend to mingle with people often unless we need to,” he said.
“I know,” said Tally serenely. “But I’ve never seen them before. They don’t come to where we live.”
“All right then,” said Mole indulgently as he added the final item on the list. “Right, I think that’s a fine start for the great Mole and Niece Expeditionary Company, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes!” cried Tally. “When should we start?”
* * *
They started that very morning, with a trip to visit Rat out on the river. They told him of their plans, and Rat, being the adventurous sort, responded enthusiastically.
“If you ever need a first mate, I’m your rat!” he said. He offered to take them upstream that day, an invitation they gladly accepted.
They spent the remainder of the day exploring the marshlands, which were full of nesting birds. The explorers made great use of the field glasses. Tally, though she was not very good at writing, made some wobbly drawings of the reeds and the birds. She gave these to Rat as thanks for his help. He proudly pinned them to the kitchen wall above the mantle.
* * *
Every fine day was spent in a similar manner: Mole and Tally would pack up some supplies and head out for the day, returning in the dusk. They filled quire after quire with notes. Mole promised that he would bind them together when they were done. Rainy days were dedicated to the otherwise neglected housework and to planning the next few days’ adventures.
After several bird watching trips, Mole asked Tally if she’d seen enough interesting birds to check off that item on their list, but Tally shook her head. “Not yet, uncle,” she said. “I think there’s still plenty to see.”
As it turned out, within the week they were able to check off two items at once.
* * *
Mole and Niece had decided to tackle the big hill beyond Toad Hall. For the two small animals, it was as challenging as an Alpine track, taking them several hours to reach the top, before flinging themselves into the grass to catch their breath. This accomplished, it was time for their picnic lunch which they tackled with little regard for table manners. It was a perfect summer’s day, warm, yet not too hot. White puffy clouds hung in a perfect blue sky, resembling the flocks of sheep in the fields they could see beyond the reaches of the Wild Wood.
After lunch, Mole handed the field glasses to Tally and gave her the watch, while he pulled his hat over his face for a quick nap. There was a lovely, fragrant breeze that wuffled through their coats, and led Mole to fall into a doze.
Tally was perched on a small rock, looking at the Wide World through the field glasses. She had never been so high in her life, she felt almost as if she were a bird herself, the way the county spread before her in every direction. Toad Hall seems little more than a toy house, although thanks to the field glasses, Tally could see Mr Toad reading a newspaper on The Veranda.
Then her attention shifted to the Wild Wood. Uncle had taken her to visit Mr Badger twice so that she could see his magnificent home, one she secretly preferred to Mr Rat’s or Mr Toad’s because it reminded her of home. She chuckled as she thought of her brothers and sisters and what they would think of Tally the Explorer, founding member of the M & N Expeditionary Co.
A flock of geese flew by, distracting her. She watched them until they were out of sight, and then made an entry in the latest notebook, her writing having much improved over the past few weeks thanks to her uncle.
Then she focused on the sheep below. There was a dog too; keeping a close watch, but what caught Tally’s attention was the shepherd. Her first person! She squealed with excitement. He was too far away to get a close look at, even with the field glasses, but she watched him pull out a red kerchief and wipe his face with it before he headed back to the farmyard. Tally was beside herself with excitement, but she did not disturb her uncle, knowing that no grown-up enjoyed having a perfectly good nap disturbed by the younger set. She settled instead for drawing a picture of the shepherd in the notebook. As she was thus absorbed, a shadow passed overhead. Tally looked up with alarm. Could it be a hawk? Small animals like her tended to keep clear of birds of prey, and she and Uncle were out in the open here.
It was not a hawk. It was a long, hollow rectangle with paper wrapped around it at each end, leaving the middle bare. There was a string attached to each end and joined in the middle. The thing drifted a little further on the breeze and then settled down on the grass.
“Uncle! Uncle!” Tally shook Mole’s arm gently, but urgently.
“Hey, what?” asked Mole sleepily; he had been having a pleasant dream.
“Look!” Tally pointed to the thing.
“My word, a kite!” said Mole, as stunned by the sight before him as his niece. “I’ve heard of them but I’ve never seen one before.”
“What does it do?” asked Tally, who crept towards the kite to investigate more closely.
“Oh, people use them for experiments and things, or as toys. Given this one’s quite small, I suppose it’s a toy that got lost.”
“Oooo…” said Tally, who gently poked at the paper membrane and ran her paws over the frame. “What shall we do with it?”
“It’s rather large for a toy for us,” said Mole, thoughtfully, “But very few people come up here, so it’s not likely anyone will come for it, and it is only get ruined if we leave it here.”
“I know!” exclaimed Tally. “We’ll give it to Mr Badger.
“I don’t know that Old Badger would want a kite…” began Mole, but Tally was insistent.
It took some doing, but between the two animals, they managed to pick up the kite and carry it down the hill. Despite its size, it was quite light, though it had a tendency to buck in the breeze, so they kept a firm hold of it. They carefully made their way across the field and into the Wild Wood, causing quite a spectacle for every creature they passed. An escort of squirrels joined them and followed them right to Badger’s door, chittering and chattering amongst themselves about the strange sight.
Tally gently put down her end of the kite and rang the doorbell. Shortly thereafter, the door opened to reveal the Badger.
“What on earth?” he exclaimed at the site of the two explorers and their prize.
“We’ve brought you a kite!” Tally said with glee.
“Compliments of Mole and Niece Expeditionary Company,” added Mole, somewhat sheepishly.
“Well, I never!” said Badger, flabbergasted. He held the door open for them and waved them inside. “Come in and you can tell me all about it.” And so they did. Badger, though gruff as ever, was so pleased by the gift that he and Mole hung it up in the parlour right away, where, as Badger said, “It shall remind me of summer breezes year round.”
“That knocks two items off the list,” said Mole as they headed back to Mole End. “We climbed the big hill and saw the Wide World and you saw a person.”
“Yes…” said Tally slowly, “But I think I’d like to see more people before we cross that off, Uncle. I don’t think we’ll ever see a more interesting bird than that kite, though.”
Mole could not disagree with that statement, and so those two items were crossed off.
* * *
Summer wore on, and as they entered into August, M & N Expeditionary Co. turned their attention to stargazing. Reading through the Atlas of Astronomy that they had borrowed from Toad, they discovered that there would be prime shooting star conditions very soon. This particular venture caught Toad’s fancy, and so he invited everyone to Toad Hall for a viewing party.
One evening, they set up on the back lawn with Toad’s old telescope and the field glasses. Toad had provided refreshment as well as rugs in case the evening turned too cool for comfort. The lights of the house were darkened and dark lanterns placed all around. It was beautifully clear, with a full moon. A perfect night, everyone declared. Everyone took turns with the telescope in the field glasses, looking at the moon and the stars. Tally pointed out some of the Constellations to Toad, who decided to pull her leg a little.
“That’s the queen on her throne,” Tally said.
“Looks like a “w” to me,” replied Toad. Tally agreed and pointed in another direction. “There’s the North Star and there’s the Bear.”
“Doesn’t look like a bear at all,” said Toad jovially. “More like a cooking pot.”
“Mr Toad!” Tally stamped her foot in frustration.
“Let’s make up our own patterns,” said Mole, ever the peacemaker, which they did for a while, deciding that this group of stars could be Otter, that other one could be the River, and so on.
Then they noticed the first shooting star, followed by another and another. All of the animals stood in silence, watching the bands of light streaking across the night sky while crickets sang around them.
“Lovely,” murmured Rat who had the field glasses. The others readily agreed, settling themselves in the chairs provided by Toad.
Some time passed, and the moon and stars moved across the heavens. Tally yawned, which caused Mole to say, “We must go.”
“Oh heavens, you can all spend the night here, old boy,” replied Toad. “No need to go all the way to Mole End tonight.”
“All right, but Tally really should…” began Mole, but he was quickly interrupted by a marvellous sight. A fireball streaked straight across the sky, so close that it seemed to be just about their heads. Rather than vanish though, it suddenly plummeted to the ground, landing near the edge of the Wild Wood.
“My word!” said Badger. Everyone else was speechless. “Tally, it seems you got your wish.”
“I wonder if there’s anything left?” mused Rat.
“It’s too dark to look tonight,” replied Badger, “But I believe I know where to look.”
They all agreed that nothing could top the fireball, and so they retired for the night, although truth be told, it was some time before any of them could fall asleep.
* * *
The next morning, after breakfast, Badger let them to the edge of the Wild Wood to see what they could find. The animals spread out in a line on the field in front of the woods, looking for anything unusual. It was Mole who found it, by nearly tripping over it. It was a small, lumpy rock about the size of a golf ball, but it looked very different from the sorts of rocks normally found in the field. It had a sheen to it and it was pockmarked.
“Look!” said Mole, holding it aloft.
“Well done!” cried Badger clapping him on the shoulder. Mole handed it to Tally who looked at it closely. “Uncle,” she said. “May we give it to Mr Toad?”
“My dear child!” Toad was, for once, at a loss for words.
“Whatever you wish, my dear,” Mole said encouragingly.
Tally handed the rock to Toad, who received it with a courtly bow. “I shall treasure it always,” said Toad, with reverence.
When they returned to Mole End that day, Mole and Tally crossed off the third item on their list.
* * *
Autumn arrived several weeks later, which meant that Tally’s family would soon come to collect her and take her home. One item remained on the list: Tally had yet to see enough people to satisfy her. They were sitting at the kitchen table working on the map featuring all of their adventures when Rat came to call. “Did you hear the news?” he asked. “I think I found a person for your list.”
“Oh?” asked Tally. She and Mole looked at Rat expectantly.
“How about a king?” asked Rat.
“A king?” Moe replied in disbelief.
“To be more specific, the King,” said Rat. “The word is that he’ll be visiting the county next week.”
“Oooo, I wonder if he’ll wear his crown and robes?” wondered Tally, whose eyes were shining in excitement.
“Not likely,” said Mole. “I imagine most Kings find such things bothersome these days.”
“Oh,” said Tally, a little deflated.
“Never fear,” said Rat, “He’ll still be worth a sight. I’ll keep an ear out for where he might be, and then we can go and take a look at him.”
“Really? Thank you, Mr Rat,” said Tally.
“It’s a pleasure,” Rat replied. “A cat may look at a king, so why not a water rat? Let’s not tell Toad though,” he cautioned.
“Why not?” asked Tally while Mole nodded his head in agreement.
“Mr Toad, while an excellent fellow, is apt to forget himself in the presence of royalty. He’d insist on being introduced to the King, whether the King wanted to meet him or not,” explained Mole. “Besides, these days, kings tend to travel by train or car, and we know how that can end up, eh, Ratty?”
Rat nodded solemnly and made a “poop poop” noise. And that was the end of that.
* * *
Several days later, Rat invited them for a trip down the River to the Village. “The King’s supposed to be passing through today,” he said. “We’ve got a decent shot of seeing him from the water if he passes over the bridge.”
It was a brilliant autumn afternoon, one of those days where the sky was a perfect dome of blue over a golden canopy of willows on the river banks. As they approached the village, the animals could hear the noise of the crowd that was lining the road and the old stone bridge that crossed the River. It was a greater number of people than any of them could imagine, and it put their instincts into a bit of a spin.
Rat rowed the boat to a little landing place nearby, where they made her fast and got out. They chose the shade of a large tree as their vantage point so that they could see and remain unseen. They didn’t have to wait for long. A cheer suddenly rose up in the crowd as a smart motor vehicle came along the road towards the bridge.
The hood of the car was up, making it difficult for the animals to see inside even with the field glasses so none of them could see the occupants. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the machine was gone. The animals looked at each other in disappointment.
“Oh bother!” said Mole, while Tally sniffed back tears.
“Rotten luck,” said Rat, leading them back to his boat. They all boarded, and Rat rowed them back upstream. After a while, they paused for a picnic tea, possibly the last they’d have outside this year. They pulled the boat up on the riverbank as if it were a canoe, and settled themselves on the grass above.
Rat had just said, “Who needs a king anyhow?” while nibbling on a biscuit, and they had agreed when suddenly they heard an automobile come along the road about them. They dropped low in the grass and crept up the slope to see. It was the same vehicle that had crossed the bridge earlier! It came to a stop a little way down the road from them, but not so far that they needed the field glasses to see what would happen next.
“This will do nicely,” said a voice from the back of the car. The driver hopped out and opened the door for his passenger. Out stepped a man who was instantly recognizable by his profile. It was the King!
“Gosh, he looks just like the coins and stamps!” whispered Rat, who pulled a farthing out of his pocket and looked at it for comparison.
Tally had the field glasses and was using them to examine the King’s features. “He has funny looking whiskers,” she said to herself, referring to the King’s beard and moustache. “And he’s so old! But his eyes are so blue!”
The King and his driver were clad in long coats covering their suits. They’d both been wearing goggles, but these were now perched on their soft caps. The car itself was a magnificent machine: deep red with a black hood and brass fixtures, including a horn resembling a serpent. Mole whistled under his breath in admiration. “A very good thing old Toad isn’t with us,” he thought.
The King walked around a few paces as if to stretch his legs. “Lovely spot, eh, Simpkins?” he asked his driver.
“Charming, your Majesty,” replied Simpkins, who had clearly been hired for his driving abilities rather than his conversational skill.
The King stripped off his gloves and lit a cigarette. Simpkins held out his hand for the match, which the King dropped into his glove once the ember had faded. Simpkins put it in a little tin he carried in his pocket.
The King smoked in silence. He had few opportunities such as these, so he liked to enjoy them when he could. He listened to the breeze in the trees and watched the River make its way past with no regard for anybody. The animals crouched low, unnoticed and watching. It was tranquil, peaceful.
But the magic moment passed all too soon. The King finished his cigarette, depositing it in Simpkins’ little tin with a sigh.
“We’d better head back, your Majesty.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said the King with another sigh as he put on his gloves again. “Pity.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The two men put their goggles back on. The King resumed his seat in the back, and Simpkins turned the crank to get the motor running before getting behind the wheel. Then they were gone in a cloud of dust once more.
“Well!” said Mole. “Well done, Ratty! I don’t think that we could have done any better.”
“A happy coincidence!” protested Rat, not willing to take credit for good timing. He turned to Tally and said, “Let me show you something, give me your notebook and a pencil.” Tally pulled them out and handed them over. Rat opened the notebook to the last page, put the farthing behind it and rubbed the pencil across the paper until an image appeared: it was the King!
“Bravo! said Mole, as Tally giggled. “I should never have thought of that.”
“Now you have a souvenir of today,” said Rat. “You can keep the farthing too, of course.”
“Now the list is complete!” crowed Tally as they headed back to the boat for the trip home.
That night, Mole and Tally checked the final item off the list and marked the place on the map where they saw the King.
* * *
The next day, as they were binding of all the notebooks together, a field mouse dropped by with a message that one of Tally’s older brothers would be there the next day to take Tally home. After cleaning up from the bookbinding, Mole took Tally around to say her farewells to Badger, Toad, and Rat. She clung tearfully to each of them, and they returned her embraces in kind, for they were as fond of Tally as if she were their own kin.
The next morning, Mole helped Tally to pack her things, and then they waited for Morg to arrive at Mole End. They didn’t have long to wait, as the young mole arrived right on schedule. His uncle invited him to lunch, not wanting to say goodbye just yet, and Morg gladly accepted.
As they ate, Tally told her older brother about the adventures she and Mole had had during her stay. Morg had trouble believing some of the things she described but saw silent mods from his uncle, so he knew it was true.
At last, it came time for Tally and Morg to head on their way. Mole escorted them to the surface to see them off. After they went out of sight, he let out a big sigh, and went back down into Mole End, which seemed rather empty now that he was once again the sole occupant. But once he came across the field glasses and the map, he broke into a big smile. “What a jolly time we had!” he said to himself. “We saw the whole Wide World. Time for me to retire from exploring and get ready for winter.” He picked up the field glasses and the map and gently put them on a shelf, before going to make some tea.
Jessica Allyson is a new author, with work featured in an anthology published by the Writing Prompts Group on Facebook, and on Story a Day.org’s StoryFest. She is based in Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband and their cat, who is their most vocal critic.