I’ll never forget the year I met the mole men. I’d moved into a basement apartment on the north side of Cedar Rapids and thought they were doing some heavy construction next door with all the banging. It stopped when the sound of shattering concrete came from my hot water heater closet.
I opened the door, and a stub of a human being, maybe two feet tall, crawled out of a hole, hammer in hand. He was extremely pale, thin white hair, and wore the pelt of a raccoon that fit him perfectly, his arms and head coming out of it where the raccoon’s would have been, the tail still intact.
“Hullo,” I said. My first thought was to be non-threatening, in spite of the intrusion. He was small, but he just got through hammering through cement, so he obviously had some power wrapped up in his little form.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. His voice had a scratchy rumble, and he winced at every syllable. “Terribly sorry for the intrusion. We estimated this spot to have some dead space.”
The articulate manner of the man relaxed me. “You must have learned architecture in a public school,” I said.
The middle of his thick unibrow pinched, and I was afraid I’d offended him. “Aw, your busting my chops, aren’t you?”
“It’s how I make friends,” I said.
He smiled. If you can imagine a naked mole rat smiling, that’s about what it looked like. I tried not to laugh.
“I have a rule,” I said. “Anyone who busts through my concrete floor and crawls inside has to have tea and snacks with me. You like oatmeal cookies?”
“Too much sugar,” he said. “But a rule’s a rule.” He dropped the hammer next to the hole and followed me to the kitchen.
His name was Borrian, and his underground community was new to the area. I offered a stack of pillows to sit on, but he preferred standing on the kitchen chair.
“Do you have root tea?” he asked.
I started the water heating. “So, why are you trying to get passage into the dead space of this apartment building?”
“We’re always looking for discreet entry onto the surface. This building is a nice location for us.” He took a cookie as I lay down the plateful, and described the gardens, shops, and dumpsters around that were fruitful for them. I poured his tea and set it in front of him.
“You could let yourselves be known and walk around freely. We live in very enlightened times, you know.”
“No, no,” he said. For the first time he seemed nervous. “We could never live by surface rules.”
He rubbed his fingers together. “I don’t want to say.”
“We’re sharing cookies and tea. That gives us an irrevocable bond of friendship. You can tell me.”
“You’re governors are insane,” he said.
I almost spit up my tea, but managed to swallow.
“They think they honor diverse people, but they only honor them if they forsake what they are and become like them.” Borrian shoved his lower lip over his upper. “Everyone must think like them, which means no one is allowed to think like their true peoples. The most frightening thing is that they don’t even know it.”
“You’re not making sense to me,” I said.
“Trust me, friend. They would destroy us.”
My discomfort was rising. “Well, I was never one much for politics. You’re secret’s safe with me.” I finally took a cookie myself. “Where are you from? Did you ship in from Ireland?”
“Very funny,” he said. “We came up from Oklahoma. The fracking rattled the dickens out of us.”
“Oh!” Cookie crumbles fell from my mouth. “I didn’t realize.”
“We don’t hold it against them,” he said. “How are they to know? We’ll adjust for the sake of privacy.”
“Wow.” I felt bad for them, but the romantic idea of being in on such a marvelous secret overtook me. “I’m happy to let you people use my place for surface access.”
“What do you mean, ‘you people?’”
“Oh! I’m so sorry.”
Borrian rasped a laugh.
“Now you’re busting my chops!” I said.
“Yes. I thank you, good friend. We will respect your domicile to our best ability.”
It’s not like I saw them very often, but for the rest of my time there I would bump into them and sometimes share a meal. Their root pie was meaty, earthy goodness. The perspective you get from befriending and knowing a noble culture completely isolated from the rest of the world is magnificently enlightening—but not at all in the way you would expect. In that year I grew fiercely protective of them and helped them any way I could.
It was with great sadness that my company transferred me to Des Moines, and I had to leave them all behind. We patched up the cement by the water heater and said our goodbyes with one last meal.
Borrian gave me the recipe for their root pie. I make one every Saturday and set it on my front porch bench with a note: ‘Please enjoy.’ It always disappears.
It’s possible the vagrants living in the nearby woods take it. Or even the neighborhood kids. But I like to think it’s one of the mole people, and someday maybe, just maybe, they will stop by for tea.