Abacat Hooram-Al Naphi was a fragile child, her limbs like needles dipped in wax, her face bloodless & tallow-pale. She attended school only because it was required. She spoke little to her classmates or to her pubkeeper father or to his customers.
Her father did not beat her. This fact would have surprised most adults of Abacat’s acquaintance. He was not known for his gentle spirit, & Abacat’s humorless stare, her fondness for long, detachable sleeves & leggings she knitted herself were so easily attributable to bruises & habitual fear that they required no further explanation. This suited Abacat.
In the afternoons she swept the pub floor clear of chili nut shells & molechip crumbs. She filled bowls of fresh molechips & set them on each table. She replaced table-candles, if they needed replacing, which wasn’t so often; there were better places in Streggeye Town for reading, & any hopeful lector must bring her own fire, for Abacat’s father didn’t provide. Candles came cheap, molded from mole-tallow in candle factories mere blocks away, but matches arrived mostly from far-off Mishalthup & cost dearly.
By the time Abacat finished these tasks, the regular rowdies would have wandered in. Abacat would retreat to a perch on a high stool near the liquor shelves, & she’d listen. She was never disturbed except in tones most polite by trainsfolk patrons not generally given to politeness. (Recall, if you will, Abacat’s father’s reputation.)
The molers jovialled & joked over the antics of earthworm shoals, into which a sailor could disappear, bloody, in the time it took to realize he’d gone overboard. They legended the greatstoats & the moldywarpes, from blind infants as small as dogs to the great southern moles that rose like bluffs from the sea. They shuddered at the remembered death-sweet stink of an earwig lair passed by.
Abacat’s father saw her listening. He loved her well enough, in his blunt, fisted way. He wasn’t so great a talker himself, though, not as pubkeepers go, & less still did he know how to conversate with his daughter, wordless as the railsea itself.
Abacat sat high on her stool, & she listened to the drunken outsized stories as silent & intent as a hungry mouse sniffs for cheese.
Or perhaps, if we are feeling generous & sentimental, maybe it’s that the moler Talas Burn saw how Abacat listened, & thought to give her something new to listen to.
Talas was everything Abacat wasn’t: solid as a furnace, tanned as a molehide, hair a tangle of red curl as thick as rope. She’d come through the Railer’s Repose a few times now between journeys, had caught Abacat’s attention & winked last time, two months previous. & now here she was, her eyes beer-bright & promising, hinting dirty nothings in Abacat’s ear.
“Will you take me to see your train?” Abacat asked.
“Sure thing,” Talas said, unsurprised. Perhaps she’d been expecting this. She had, it seemed, been paying attention.
It was a fair walk down to the docks, through late-night crowds of molers & other trainpersons taking their shore leave. Talas filled the time with tales – not big tales, like the liquor-rich molers at the pub usually told, but real ones of moldywarpes Talas had harpooned herself, or helped render down into fat & meat & bone, or seen breaching through the poisonous railsea dust.
They arrived at the docks, & then at Talas’s own train: the Majoram. Talas took Abacat’s hand – shy, almost, & maybe Talas wasn’t so wise with experience as we thought, maybe she was a young harpoonist just a few voyages old, with a fancy she’d been nursing & just enough courage to see it through. She led Abacat up onto a car. The distance from dock to train was less than a foot but it might have been the highest Abacat had ever been.
“My bunk’s down this way,” Talas said. Abacat followed her through a car bursting with things: hammocks hung, tools of uncertain & menacing purpose propped against walls, chests of personal treasure lining the aisle on each side. All through that car, & across the walkway that must have teetered & swung when the train was in motion, & now into another sleeping car, one with bunks, solid & sure & all empty.
In the middle of the car, Talas stopped & pointed to the upper bunk. “Mine, right there.”
“Because you’re a harpoonist,” Abacat said. “You get a real bunk.”
“That’s right,” Talas said, puffed up & pleased. She nodded towards the harpoon hung on the wall just past her bunk.
Abacat had gotten what she wanted. She’d been on a real live train – almost alive, sleeping, hibernating before it steamed out again asearch for the kill - & now, surely, it was Talas’s turn. “What do you want to do now?”
Talas’s face brightened like mole-oil lit afire, & she said, “Come on up with me, & I’ll show you. You’ll like it, promise.”
Sometime later, Abacat swam up through the detritus & debris of sensation & realized, to her surprise, that she had.
Later still & coming onto morning, Abacat said, “I want a place on the train. Or a different one,” she added, in case Talas should think that an evening’s fumbled pleasure had tied Abacat to her like a lurching caboose. “A moletrain.”
Talas wasted no time on surprise. “You’d need a skill. Moletrain’s got no use for joyriders, nor layabouts.” She took a pinch of Abacat’s arm. “Can’t say I see you a harpoonist.”
She said it lightly, & anyway it was true enough. “There’s other jobs,” Abacat said.
“You got brains? Navigation, the reading of the maps, folks with that kind of expertise ain’t easy to come by.”
At her studies, Abacat was indifferent at best. Mostly this was because she was indifferent to them, & they reciprocated. “I can learn.”
“I expect you can, at that,” Talas said. “Best way to aim for a captaincy, too. Can’t have a captain that don’t know the rails themselves better’n the creases in a lover’s face.”
There was just enough light through the murky window above Abacat’s head to see how Talas’s eyes widened, how she’d repeated the old line maybe before she’d thought it through. “I’ll learn,” Abacat said, & laid her head back down on Talas’s shoulder.
Abacat was far better at sums & letters than she’d been three months ago. She’d learned all the basic flag signals, too. She’d found maps in the city library & pored over them & fancied she could take the train into the open railsea her ownself, given the chance. “Will you take me to see the captain?”
“I’ll take you.”
“They’re just moles,” Talas would say, bewildered. Abacat shared her bunk sometimes, though they must needs be very quiet in their activities. There was enough snickering in the surrounding bunks even when all Abacat & Talas did was sleep.
“Yes,” Abacat said, because somehow even as vast, as mountainous as the moles were, she was expecting something more. She saw no intelligence in these beasts beyond the need for their own self-preservation.
Still she spent every spare minute on deck or atop the crow’s-nest, awatch.
When the train took down their first moldywarpe of the journey, Abacat began to grow muscles. First it was fetching & carrying as the mole was rendered. The next mole, it was taking a knife herself & freeing bone from flesh.
“Takes the wonder out of ‘em a bit, doesn’t it?” asked Talas, eyeing Abacat’s work. “Flesh, just like the rest of us.”
“Not like we’d get much tallow out of you,” Abacat said, poking at Talas’s arm.
“All meat,” Talas agreed, “& tough meat it is, too. Better let me live.”
Abacat ventured a smile. This was another thing she was learning aboard the Majoram. Talas grinned & slapped her on the shoulder & went on her way.
“Tell about the mole rat, just out of Manihiki,” they’d always say. It had been indeed a prodigious rodent, & there was Abacat all alone in the upturned jollycart, slumping over in the earth. She’d taken a crewmate’s harpoon from the floor & jammed it into the rat’s throat with force she still thrilled in; she’d never be a harpoonist, however long she moled, but she’d done Talas’s training proud that day.
For all the crew’s coaxing, though, she never retold the killing. It was just a mole rat after all, & now it was dead. The physics of that collision of steel & flesh didn’t interest her. What her mates wanted, what everyone in those pubs & taverns always wanted, was story, meaning, & there was none in that downed beast, however long & fearsome its teeth.
“What are you wanting, then, a philosophy?” Talas asked. “Speaking of putting meaning where there ain’t none. Turn a sane captain mad, they do. Can’t say I recommend them.”
The next time they were in port, Abacat took an evening at the Vivacious Weevil, captain’s pub, philosophers’ den. Talas went with her, grumbling all the while, & the harpoonist Shomany Deemun, weighing twice the two of them put together, & Jeel Cotta the doctor’s assistant. They sidled in quietly & took a table off to the side, & they listened.
A man stood at the front – “Captain Genn of the Ashphenaz,” a woman replied to Talas’s hissed question – & he was holding forth on the topic of his ferret. His ferret was a marvelous creature, a creature demanding of devotion & worship & awe, a creature who never once during their first meeting or any meeting since, deigned to acknowledge the captain.
“& still I chase,” Genn said, “& still I yearn after. The farther my ferret from me, the sweeter the pain of my desire, unmet.”
“Lot of nonsense,” Talas murmured.
& perhaps it was, for Abacat felt no care for the man’s unrequiting ferret. Talas herself, liquor-lubricated, could tell a better tale, richer in muck & gore & terror. However, the timber of his longing resonated. Longing, that was something with which she was intimately acquainted, though hers had nothing to do with ferrets.
She left the pub no more satisfied than when she’d come.
There. A middling moldywarpe, the speedier for its unremarkable size. Still profitable. Hie after it went the carts, sharp rose the voices of the cart crews.
A talpa that size didn’t turn all those hills. Abacat turned to Shomany Deemun, leaning at the rail to favor his fresh-lamed leg. She saw the moment he saw the mole & reckoned those molehills in his head.
“There’ll be another one,” he boomed.
As he said it, there it was, a fleshly mountain, its progress marked by the berm rising above it. & this was no moderately fed mole, no modest moldywarpe. By the sheer volume of that berm it was clear to all what rose from the earth: a monstrous patriarch of moledom. Here came a creature worthy to be called talpa ferox rex.
“Why’s there two?” someone yelled. “When’ve the Stonefaces themselves ever seen there two of them?”
Exclaiming carried on all around Abacat, & shuffling & shoving, & distantly the captain ordered by his megaphone, but this was what Abacat saw: the berm proceeded with implacable certainty, nearer to the train itself than any life-caring beast would come, & in its path wheeled the jollycart in which stood Talas Burn.
Abacat took Shomany’s harpoon from his loose-clutching hand, & she ran. She ran the tops of the cars, though she didn’t remember climbing them. She ran past astonished trainsfolk. She raced the still-earthed moldywarpe, & by the speed in her legs & the speed of the train steaming beneath her, she gained on it.
By now Talas & her cart crewmates had seen the mountain bearing down behind them, & they turned to face it, harpoons hoisted, while that middling mole they’d chased cavorted on to freedom.
The moldywarpe breached.
It breached, & it was no color any moldywarpe wore. This snouted beast, this claw-handed deity was the ghost of a moldywarpe, of a hundred of them, its plush coat shining as palely intimate as bone.
Talas’s harpoon launched. It arced into that moon-hued terror & buried itself a yard deep into yielding flesh. & still the moldywarpe came. Other harpoons flew, from Talas’s cart & from the other coming alongside, & still the moldywarpe came. Abacat, at rail’s edge & so much closer to the talpa than deck crew rightfully came to any ordinary mole, launched her stolen harpoon, watched it arc higher than any throw of hers had ever done, saw it fix in that ivory hide.
The talpa turned.
In that moment hung all meaning. Abacat saw the moldywarpe’s eyes, huge & bead-black. It taunted her. It rose, vast & implacable, & it defied explanation. It permitted no interpretation, nothing so concrete as hugeness or paleness, no single abstract of arrogance or power. This was meaning itself, incarnate in moleflesh, & it rose before Abacat & mocked her with its polysemy, its many-hued, all-figured significance. It mocked her.
The next moment, it swiped at that dwarfed crew cart & sent it tumbling across the earth. & then, in a heave of bulk & earth, it dove.
Talas was unharmed, though trembly & bitter-tongued. “Unnatural animal,” she said. “Cursed bloody creature.”
“I harpooned it,” Abacat said. “From the deck.” Her arm still ached with the force of that throw. She stretched it out & whimpered with the pain.
“Pulled something, I expect,” Talas said. “You’ll want some cream for that.”
There was no work to be done the rest of that day. Even the captain sounded shaken. The train steamed on, & the crew told & retold the stories of the day. Some of them mentioned Abacat. “Harpooned it, she did. From the bleeding deck.”
But Abacat’s throw was a small miracle in a day of large ones, & it was soon lost in other, stranger stories. Abacat rubbed cream into her left arm as Talas suggested, & she climbed up into Talas’s bunk at her invitation.
“Did you think to save me?” Talas whispered, when the other bunks were snoring. There was something hungry in her voice.
Abacat didn’t know how to answer the question under the question. She’d begun to think she never would. “I lost Shomany his harpoon.”
Abacat feels Talas’s shrug in the dark. “He’ll make him another one. Do him good, while his leg heals.”
“What did you see? When it came bearing down on you.”
“You want a story,” Talas said flatly, “and I ain’t got one. Didn’t see much more than a monstrous molehill coming for me, & then earth & sky & earth one after the other. Was feeling well-acquainted with my own mortality, let me tell you.”
“I’m glad you’re still around to feel it,” Abacat said. She stretched out her arm, pushing against the pull of injured muscle until it was too much.
Mocker, mocker, mocked-her, mock-beast, mocker-mole. She repeated them over & again in her head, until she fell asleep.
But a captaincy Abacat had indeed been promised, on a piddling diesel train called the Xerxes, & a captaincy she’d have. Gently, she said, “It’s no good searching for a philosophy from the decks of another captain’s train.”
Talas spat onto the dock. “& well rid of it, you’d be.”
Abacat was taken with a sudden upswell of affection. “Peace,” she said. She took Talas’s face in her hands, & kissed her full warm lips. When she drew back, she said, “Would I have ever come so far, if not for you?”
“Don’t be laying this at my feet,” Talas said, uncertain & uneasy.
“Fair moling,” Abacat said, offering Talas a smile.
Talas softened some small fraction. “Fair moling.”
Abacat turned, & she strode up wooden steps slick with wear. Up here in the city, she knew, were people who grew limbs from grommets & wire & bone. They rebuilt people who’d been broken, irretrievably changed.
She flexed her left arm. The ache in it was gone now in all but memory, but that memory was strong, sure, her newfound lifelong guiding principle. She’d not lost an arm or leg as many a moler had, but her mocking mole, her Mocker-Jack had taken it nonetheless. These machinists & grommeters would build her a keepsake, a clanking rememberance of that present absent limb. Not until she cut that lost harpoon from Mocker-Jack’s flesh would arm & spirit be hers again, belonging to no beast nor god nor trainsperson but Abacat Naphi.
Lead on, old mole. Lead on.