Short Story Second Place: The Benevolence of a Shrew

Callista Holleschak

Our story begins on, or rather under the extensive cornfields of Farmer Lionel in the domain of the moles… 

Mr. Jax was not a member of the Mole Council, yet he thought he would attend the monthly meeting to watch; if time allowed, to voice his concerns. The familiar scuffle of clawed feet and scrape of chairs against earth meant that the council-moles were settled and about to begin. 

Mr. Jax could no longer contain his fear and he didn’t want his nerves to best him, so he spoke: “Each season our tribe grows stronger, unhindered by disease or famine, growing more resourceful every day, but we can’t forget that we are merely guests on Farmer Lionel’s land. We live under his cornfields, but with each new tunnel we dig, Farmer Lionel grows angrier at us for spoiling his soil. I overheard our sentence when I was returning from the bank: the angrier Farmer Lionel gets over our growing society, the less he feeds old Brutus the farm dog. The less he feeds Brutus, the more Brutus will be motivated to finish us off!” 

His ominous words sent ripples of unease down the council: “Preposterous”, “Drag out this crazed animal!” 

Mr. Jax continued on as if the murmurs had not reached his ears: “I’ve seen Brutus scouting our tunnels, the first frosts have long passed; a dog’s hunger will always triumph over his laziness! We must escape these looming threats!” 

The palpable silence reverberated off of the earthen walls; after a long pause and drawn out sigh from the Mole Council leader, the Leader and Highest Ranking Mole Elder spoke: “Regardless of the truth of your speech, we moles are not ones to run. You are distinctly wrong about one thing Mr. Jax…that is we are not guests on this land. Moles have lived and thrived here even longer than Farmer Lionel, leave if you wish, but the cold will kill you. Real moles will not follow, we will defend our land ‘till our deaths!” A murmur of assent passed through the council and from then on it was agreed the moles would stay. 

Mr. Jax, unconvinced of the Elders decision, made his way back to his family. His wife had died years before and her last wish was for him to give their five children a happy life. What if the rest would not heed his warnings, Mr. Jax would take his family to safety the very next morning! 

On the other side of the farm an old lady shrew was leaving her burrow to stock up on bits of dried corn for the holidays. Her stores were running low and the old shrew, Mrs. Pickerel did not want the harsh winter to claim her as a victim. That same morning, Mr. Jax gathered his five children, bundled them in layers of warmth and set out for the brook. 

Mr. Jax had rather poor eyesight, and like all moles, relied on a pair of dusty glasses and his acute sense of smell. His children trailed after him, the oldest Lilia making sure the little ones stayed far from harm. But they were getting tired from all of the walking with no prospect of a warm meal any time soon. “Why, the frost is freezing me! Being underground is much cozier” said Lilia, “Shall we stop for a rest?” 

Mr. Jax did not reply, for he was intently sniffing the air, focusing all his mole sense on what he thought he felt. “I smell seeds, dried corn and berries, I smell bread crumbs and mushrooms! I believe right below us is some forgotten storehouse!”

In excitement, the mole family started digging in the frosty leaf litter, the scent of shelter growing stronger in their noses. Finally they entered the burrow. It was a long tunnel, but neatly tucked away from the biting frost with little draught, it was filled with dried seeds and nuts: some provisions an animal had stored, but there were also cobwebs and no recent footprints of any inhabitant. 

“It looks like we are in luck! We found a nice abandoned burrow full of food to shelter in before we can continue our journey to the woods past the brook where Brutus won’t find us!” Mr. Jax and his family were relieved to wait out the winter in their new-found home, away from the harsh frost and murderous farm dogs. 

Little did the Moles know that the end of the burrow they claimed was home to the old shrew Mrs. Pickerel, and she was on her way home, arms and skirt laden with seeds and bits of food she gathered to add to her winter vaults. She had not been down there in a while due to the back pain plaguing her, some of the tunnels had collapsed and shoveling the earth away was hard on her worn body. But the crisp air ushered in by the winter months had Mrs. Pickerel feeling stronger. 

Lilia heard it first, the humming coming down the tunnel. She raced back to her father and nervously whispered “Oh Father, I heard footsteps and humming, I believe this burrow is not unoccupied like we thought!” 

Mr. Jax could hear it loudly too, moles have strong senses and although he could not see her, he felt a little old shrew making her way down the tunnel of her own burrow that he had rudely occupied. 

But it was too late to take action, for Mrs. Pickerel had poked her whiskers around the corner and yelped: “Ah! A family of moles, what are they doing in my vaults? Surely I hadn’t stored them away last spring to eat in the winter!” But she said it with a friendly, joking twinkle in her eye which shone until she recognized who exactly the moles were. 

“Mr. Jax, why aren’t you the banker, the Mole that foreclosed on my old home because I was injured and couldn’t take the payments into the bank on time? Why you mean animal! What are you doing in my new home, here to snatch it from me again I suppose?” Her voice was laced with anger, boiling up from the wound in her heart that hadn’t healed. Mr. Jax had been the owner of the bank, but he governed without flexibility. If someone could not make payments, for whatever reason, he would lose money, and he couldn’t have that! 

“Oh…Mrs. Pickerel, I thought you had left town, I never dreamed we would be encroaching on your home in such a manner, good day!” Mr. Jax turned to leave, but his hungry children, too young to follow the cue sat looking up at Mrs. Pickerel with large, wondering eyes. 

“Ahhh” Mrs. Pickerel let out a sigh, “But I would like to hear what brought you here in the first place, at least come up to my living room. I see your poor children are hungry, I can offer a cup of tea.” 

But Mrs. Pickerel realized that the holiday’s were so close. It was almost Christmas and she could not turn down guests to the cold in a season which one was supposed to be kind, for she was a shrew who placed values dear to her heart. 

She sat in her rocking chair by the hearth talking with Mr. Jax. “So tell me Jax, what is this all about?”

He told his sad tale when a wild howl pierced the crisp afternoon winter air. When she peeked through the curtain, she saw Brutus patrolling, searching, she assumed, for Mr. Jax and his family. 

“The poor moles! They haven’t seen something so bad since the beginning!” She thought. 

“I understand now. Stay the winter. I will give your family a nice Christmas holiday and then you can be on your way in fairer weather.” Mrs. Pickerel’s old heart could not stand to turn away the fugitives now in her care. 

The next day, Mrs. Pickerel dragged in a sprig of juniper to serve as the Christmas tree and treated the mole children to warm meals and taught them to make ornaments. The children reminded her of the old days and made her smile, she grew more fond of them each day, doting on Lilia the most. She could not stand to imagine Brutus searching for them. 

Each night she set to work on her gift to the Mole family, she would wake up muddy and tired, but she knew it was worth it. On Christmas, when the presents were exchanged, she brought the mole family to a distant corner of her burrow and showed them what she had been working on, “Here moles, I dug a tunnel all the way out past the brook into the woods where Brutus never goes” The mole family was speechless, grateful tears shining in their eyes. Mr. Jax shook the old shrew’s hand, gathered his family and started down the tunnel to their new life.