from The Mole and Other Very Short Animal Stories

A. L. Snijders

Artwork by Yohei Oishi

The Mole

When the mole is there, I switch over into oracle-speak. I call him king of the darkness, friend of the maggot, worm and grub, traveler in the underworld, connoisseur of the soles of my feet. About that last, I have to laugh, he knows very well that my soles are above his head, but he can't see them, he can't be a connoisseur, he is blind. When a pyramid of earth appeared on my lawn for the first time, long ago, I ran wide-eyed and with open hands to my neighbor, the farmer, and cried out: the earth, neighbor! what's happening to the earth? My neighbor laughed, showed me the mole-trap and explained how I should position it. But I never did that, I turned out to have an innate reverence for the mole, master of the parallel world. I have never—and that is very difficult—seen a mole. Via language, certainly, I have certainly heard him described, but I have never seen him, in my life the mole is a creature that is never seen, like the crab that lives eight kilometers deep in the Indian Ocean and that no one has ever seen, not even my neighbor. I have adapted my view of the garden to the behavior of the mysterious, blind guest under the ground. Sometimes I stumble over a heavy tile in the garden path which has been tipped straight up like an iceberg in the night by the mole, but I don't curse, I have schooled myself in longsuffering. The mole has probably come to symbolize, for me, what can never be understood—and what you therefore do not have to attempt to trap.


Although in the '60's I studied with Hellinga, the greatest expert ever in Reynaert the Fox, I had never yet seen a fox in the wild. (Because I studied with Hellinga, the greatest expert ever in Reynaert the Fox, I had never yet seen a fox in the wild.)

Now within a short time I have seen two foxes. The first was a scrawny creature in our garden. I was standing in front of the window, he walked calmly past two meters away. I cried out in agitation and yelled in a loud voice: "A fox, a fox."  Actually, I had already known he must be there—a couple of weeks earlier three chickens had been killed and one rooster mutilated—but to see is different from to know. Some time after that, one morning, I looked out my bedroom window and saw a handsome specimen with a large tail running tranquilly back and forth at the edge of the woods, nose to the ground, looking for mice. When, a bit later, I went towards him with the dogs (one loose, one on a leash), he saw me. He did not run away, he went and sat down and looked at us, his ears pricked. At the distance that his nature dictated to him, he turned around and walked slowly to the edge of the cornfield. There he went and sat behind the first row, clearly visible. Only then did I understand why he has become such a prominent figure in world literature.


The Croissanterie Jennifer is in Raadhuisstraat. There I buy two pistolet rolls with ossenworst — ox sausage. The shopkeeper takes the rolls out of their little basket using a napkin. Even when he's spreading butter on them, he does not touch the bread with his hands. He cuts the ox sausage in thick slices, which he lays in place with a fork. This is done carefully, he takes his time. I read on the blackboard that here it's ossoworst. He asks if I'll be eating it here. I say I use the car for that. The man was not born in the Netherlands, there is an air of refinement about him. I'm guessing that he's from Egypt. I hesitate as to whether I should say anything, there are so many possibilities—condescension, pedantry, socialism, pro-Wilders sentiment, humility, pride, compassion. I say:  "It's called ossenworst, it's worst (sausage) from an os (ox), do you think it's wrong of me to say that?" He says:  "No, I think it's nice when the Dutch concern themselves with me." The sentence is like a sharp knife. He says: "What is an ox?"  I say: "A castrated bull." A veil hangs over his eyes. I make graphic motions with my hands: balls off, no longer male. He thanks me. I pay up: 5 euros 40.


A mouse inside a shoe is not a primal fear, not a trauma, but I do pay attention, all the same. It's because of the open roofs. I have a house with three tile roofs. They used to be haylofts, they were not timbered, the wind had to be allowed to blow through freely, against the heat and damp. Time and objectives change, I timbered one roof, gas was installed, the electricity went underground, drainage pipes were laid, but the mice stayed. The house is in the fields, there are mice everywhere. A rare owl has been spotted in our country, it comes from Germany, where there is a shortage of food (for owls), there are too few mice there. We live in the midst of great movement, oil, energy, mice, people, water. You can see it on television, you can't understand it, or at least the half of it, but you can see it. I have two lodgers, cats belonging to my daughter, who is driving around Sicily in a rented car. Every morning there are dead mice lying in the guest room, the cats are young and diligent. Soon I will have to fight the battle alone again, the vacation will be over and they will be back in Amsterdam, where there are almost no mice. Yesterday in a forgotten cupboard I found two pairs of shoes. I recognized them, old, but still useable. First I hold them by the tips, and I shake them—to be absolutely sure, I even poke them with a little piece of wood. Then I put them on; once my feet are inside them, I feel ten years younger, but that doesn't help, I'm still thinking about the oil, the energy, the mice, the people and the water.


When I go out to the chickens in the morning, I don't see a single one. They have walked through the thick privet hedge and are sitting at the edge of my neighbor's meadow. In the sun! Which is hanging in its winter guise just above the horizon. The chickens are enjoying the little bit of warmth. Although I take pleasure in the scene (I have walked around and I'm watching them from the pasture), I suddenly understand where my resentment comes from: I find them ungrateful. They run free, their surroundings are varied, I give them an abundance of food, I don't mistreat them, but they offer nothing in return. That is ungrateful. I could also deceive them with lifelong imprisonment, a light-clock and artificial warmth, I could subject them to the economics of Jan Kalff, and then they would thank me with a daily egg.  But now I treat them well, I suffer for it. The source of my resentment is my thoroughly humanistic outlook on nature.


I'm raking piles and piles of leaves in the garden. Eight chickens are walking around me, pecking up worms and larvae.  This makes no impression. What makes an impression is when I stand at the stern of a ship and watch the seagulls flying along.  That's how it should be.

translated from the Dutch by Lydia Davis

Read the original in Dutch

Read translator’s note

A. L. Snijders was born in 1937 in Amsterdam. In 1971, he moved to Achterhoek, a quiet, wooded region in the east of the Netherlands where many of his animal stories are set.

In the 1980s, Snijders began writing newspaper columns, and in 2006, his first collection of zkv's ("zeer korte verhalen" or "very short stories"—a term he invented) was published by AFdH Uitgevers, bringing the writer quickly to public attention. Several collections followed, including the volume from which the present stories are taken, De Mol en andere dierenzkv's (The Mole and Other Very Short Animal Stories, AFdH, 2009).

In November 2010, Snijders was awarded the Constantijn Huygens Prize, one of the three most important literary prizes in Holland, in recognition of his work as a whole and especially his zkv's. Snijders has by now written approximately 1,500 zkv's.

Lydia Davis is the author, most recently, of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) and a new translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (Viking, 2010). Her "Ten Stories from Flaubert" and "Some Notes on Translation" appeared in recent issues of The Paris Review. She has just lately begun translating from the Dutch, and she is grateful for the careful editorial eye and hand of the Dutch editor Vincent Merjenberg.

I have translated from languages other than French, including some I really didn't know at all, such as Swedish. In each case it has been an adventure. I had not thought of translating from the Dutch until I visited Amsterdam last May. A book of my own had just come out there, published by Atlas. I was very pleased by the whole experience—the visit and the book—and thought I would like to offer something in return by attempting to translate some work from Dutch. Preferably short-short stories, since that form was so natural for me, and preferably not too difficult, since I had no previous acquaintance with the language. I asked for recommendations, and A.L. Snijders—well known there as both newspaper columnist and writer of very short stories—was immediately suggested. I did my best to read some of his work, using the tiny, yellow, stained travel dictionary that had found its way onto my shelf of foreign language dictionaries, probably brought back from a trip of my parents' to Amsterdam long ago.  I liked what I read very much—the modesty of the scope of each piece, the concreteness of the narration, the good humor, the wit, the thoughtful conclusions. And for a beginner in the language, Snijders's style was just right—as he himself has confessed, he does not like long sentences, is perhaps even incapable of writing them. Since I do know some German, I did not find most of the pieces impossible, and some were quite accessible. My little dictionary was somewhat useful, and the internet more so, especially for references to places in Amsterdam or to literary and political figures. I had a good time. When a respectable version existed in English, I asked a Dutch friend, as well as Snijders himself, to read over each translation, and with their help, correcting some blunders and shifting some nuances, I arrived at finished versions of these very satisfying little portraits from Snijders's life.