Ed Cottrell

The Bone Mole

———There was a little bone mole for sale, a carving of a mole made of bone. It caught my eye sitting at the bottom of a clear glass bottle. It lay still and then – thud – it came to life, preening itself with bone claws. Unable to comprehend what it was I held it up to the light. The mole turned transparent, I could see the grain of the bone it was carved from.

———In that moment of discovery I understood I had found a new species. A creature which nestled in the roots of an extraordinary isolation. But that is all I knew.

———The shopkeeper tidied her stack of books and said nothing. She kept watching me with her clairvoyant gaze, and I could tell she was spying on me. Otherwise the shop held perfect boredom and even her young assistant (who came in occasionally and poured tea into a little cup on her desk) looked half-dead. She retained only a residue of life, the rest had bled away. She sat in the next room listening out for the bell – which the woman rang when she wanted tea – and then, clump clump, she walked through with the pot.

———It seemed obvious that neither of them were paying the little bone mole any attention. So I went outside and picked a few stems of dead grass to feed it. I couldn’t think what else it ate.

———When I came back the woman’s attention was taken up with another customer, a man that had entered just after me, holding a cycling bag under his arm. He looked at the things for sale, dryly evaluating them by holding them up close to his left eye. His iris shrank when he did this and his whole eyeball turned completely white like a duck egg.

———Then, without any craft at all, he snatched a candle and hid it in his bag. The shopkeeper stood up, ringing her bell angrily. There was an altercation – she grabbed him, reached into his bag and confronted him with the candle he had stolen. He said, ‘I had no knowledge of that being there,’ he begged, ‘no knowledge at all’, and meanwhile, responding to the bell, the lifeless assistant ran clattering into the room, tripped over, and sent the pot of tea flying over the floor.

———I took this opportunity to drop the blades of glass into the bottle, which the mole received in confusion. It said, ‘That’s all very well, but tell me, what is the reason behind the unreasonable insistence in keeping me in this little bottle?’

———‘It’s no good asking me,’ I said, looking over at the shop woman. Now she had come out from behind the desk I saw she was wearing a beautiful dress, covered in elaborate floral stitching. She held the thief by his hair and shook him while he begged. ‘Why do you do it,’ she yelled, ‘you, you, all of you, who come in here, and take things, I am a perfectly reasonable woman, so why, why do you do it, can’t you see that it’s bad, that you shouldn’t? Well, can’t you? Answer me!’ As she did this, the lifeless assistant returned the candle to the shelf then drifted quietly to the back room.

———Pathetically, on his knees, the man kept up his lie. ‘I had no knowledge of that candle being there,’ he said, ‘No knowledge whatsoever!’ This only made the shopkeeper’s assault more vigorous.

———Despite the risks of being caught I tipped the little bone mole out of the bottle, hid it in my pocket, and replaced it with a stone of similar size that I picked from the chimney wall. I stole it.

———The shopkeeper must have heard the stone dropping into the bottle. She threw the thief to the ground and appeared next to me, holding her face to the side of the glass and peering in, like a giant at a window. Her features were enlarged, twisted up in the glass – while her warping eyes searched desperately for the bone mole. She seemed unable to trust her own perception but eventually it sank in – the bone mole was not there.

———She held my hand, squeezed it, then started screaming. She could not process the horror of its absence, this invalidation of what she had expected to see. I seized the moment, shuffled my fingers out from her grip, made a rush for the door and ran home.

———Shortly after I took it the bone mole started falling asleep. When it woke up, the mole moved about weakly. Then it would lie down, become disinterested in life, and return to deep sleep. Eventually it stopped coming alive at all. Perhaps it caught some sickness from the air outside of the bottle.

———A week later I returned to the shop to get rid of it. There was no point keeping the bone mole anymore if it wasn’t alive. And the memory of the woman’s painful scream – on finding the mole was gone – had been following me about. The sound was stuck in my ears.

———Cautiously I looked through the doorway. Inside it looked the same. Except, on the spot where the woman had stood, now her clothes lay in an absented heap on the floor.

———‘Hello?’ I said, peering round the back of the shop, where the lifeless assistant had made the tea.
———The window in the back flew open. I saw a cloud of smoke suddenly eliminated through it. The air held an odour, like incense with the smell of printing ink, too.

———Beneath the window I found the end of some gum-myrrh which had burned out, cold, and left the hardened remainder.

Ed Cottrell’s fiction has appeared in 3:AMBrittle StarStructo and other journals. He was the 2018 winner of the Desperate Literature Prize for short fiction, was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize in 2017 and has work forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Read more of his work at www.erghargh.com.

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