“I NOURISHED HIM TO HEALTH, USING THOSE VERY SAME BRICKS OF OVERDWELLER RATION AS I UNDERSTAND YOU WERE GIVEN.”
Septimus’s stomach grumbled at the mention. “Sorry,” he said.
Gwendolyn continued, “ONCE HE WAS HEALTHY ENOUGH TO TRAVEL, I BROUGHT HIM BEFORE THE MOLE COUNCIL. HE WAS TREMENDOUSLY THANKFUL FOR WHAT I’D DONE. I SUPPOSE I’D SAVED HIS LIFE. HE PROMISED TO REPAY THE MOLES IN KIND BY REBUILDING THE CITY, WHICH HAD BEEN REDUCED TO ALMOST COMPLETE RUBBLE BY THE SEVEN POOL EMPTYINGS WAR. HE SAID THAT HE’D DONE SIMILAR WORK IN THE OVERWORLD, THAT HE’D BUILT THINGS WITH HIS HANDS. AMAZING, BEAUTIFUL THINGS. AND WHILE HE’D BEEN DEPRIVED OF THE TWO TOOLS ON WHICH HE MOST DEPENDED, HIS VERY HANDS, HE THOUGHT HE COULD STILL MANAGE WITH THE AID OF THE MOLES. IT WAS TRUE: WHILE HE HAD NO HANDS, WE HAD NO EYES. TOGETHER, WE WORKED SYMBIOTICALLY.
“IN MY EXPLORATIONS, I’D FOUND A PASSAGE THAT, AFTER MANY WEEKS OF MOLE-TRAVEL, LED TO WHAT THE OVERDWELLERS CALL ‘SUNLIGHT.’ INDEED, TO THE OVERWORLD ITSELF—THOUGH FAR OFF TO THE EAST. I TOLD HIM OF THIS PASSAGE, AND HE BEGAN TO USE IT TO FORAGE FOR CASTOFF OVERDWELLER ITEMS. HE RAN LONG STRANDS OF ELECTRIC CABLE FROM THE OVERWORLD TO GIVE POWER TO THE LIGHTS THAT TODAY ILLUMINATE THE CHAMBER—THOUGH CERTAINLY OF NO USE TO THE MOLES. AND HE SET ABOUT REBUILDING OUR GREAT CITY. IT TOOK HIM MANY WEEKS. WE WORKED TIRELESSLY WITH HIM, BEING HIS HANDS. AND, IN A SINGLE EMPTYING AND REFILLING OF THE POOL, WE’D MANAGED TO NOT ONLY REBUILD THE CITY, BUT IMPROVE IT FAR MORE THAN ANYONE COULD’VE IMAGINED.
“IN OUR THANKS, THOUGH THE ARCHITECT INSISTED WE OWED HIM NONE, OUR BEST MOLE SMITHS CRAFTED TWO GOLDEN HOOKS THAT HE MIGHT USE IN PLACE OF HIS MISSING HANDS. NEEDLESS TO SAY, I COULD HEAR THE TEARS FALLING FROM HIS EYES WHEN HE BID US ADIEU. AND THEN HE WAS GONE. HE FOLLOWED THOSE POWER LINES THAT HE HAD LAID OUT INTO THE SUNLIGHT OF THE OVERWORLD, AND WE HAVEN’T HEARD FROM HIM SINCE.”
“Wow,” said Curtis. “What a story.” They’d arrived at the front gates of the City of Moles; Curtis was able to look at it in a completely different light. He started seeing the entirety of the amazing structure for what it was: a million little salvaged pieces, all meticulously crafted together to create a fluid, working whole.
Prue was chewing on her lower lip, which almost always meant that there was some bigger thought brewing in her mind. Curtis eyed her suspiciously. She then knelt down so as to be closer to the Sibyl when she asked, “Did he ever tell you what he had done to be exiled? From the Overworld?”
“HE DID, YES.”
“And what was it?”
“A STRANGE CASE, TO SAY THE LEAST. THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR OVERDWELLER FANCIES. AN OVERDWELLER QUEEN, GONE MAD, HAD COMMISSIONED HIM TO BUILD A MECHANICAL REPLICA OF HER DEAD SON.”
Septimus hiccuped, loudly. Prue nearly fell over.
“WHEN HE’D FINISHED, THE OVERDWELLER QUEEN HAD HIM EXILED SO HE WOULD NEVER REVEAL THE SECRET OF THE BOY’S EXISTENCE TO THE OVERWORLD. AND, SO THAT HE COULD NEVER CRAFT ANOTHER PIECE TO RIVAL IT, SHE HAD THE ARCHITECT’S HANDS CHOPPED OFF.”
“Oh my God,” said Prue, a look of sudden realization lighting her face. Septimus was still hiccuping. Curtis, absorbed in the Sibyl’s words, told her to continue.
“THAT’S NOT THE WORST OF IT,” said the Sibyl, shaking her head at the folly of the Overdwellers. “THERE WAS A SECOND MAKER; HE AND THE ARCHITECT WORKED TOGETHER TO CRAFT THE BOY. THIS ONE WAS EXILED AS WELL. BUT THIS ONE, THE QUEEN FIRST HAD HIM BLINDED. BOTH EYES. POPPED OUT.”
The noise of the banquet could be heard within the city walls. Someone was singing a high, lonesome tune, to which the gathered revelers were hollering along. The Sibyl was still shaking her head. “BLIND,” she said, “AS A MOLE.”
Carol’s eyes were on the kitchen table. Elsie was staring at them, strangely mystified. She poked at one with a nearby butter knife; it wobbled a little on the wooden surface. For some reason, they continued to gross her out. Not because they were a prosthetic for the old man’s missing eyes—she’d been around enough people with synthetic limbs—but because they seemed so puppetlike. And she always felt like they were looking at her, suspiciously.
Morning had come; the sun had again risen on the in-between world, though by Elsie’s reckoning it must still be the same as the day before. Her head spun as it tried to grapple with the idea that, while the days and nights tumbled one into another, the hours never actually shifted forward in time. It didn’t seem to have an effect on her body yet, though there was this strange twinge in her mind, a quiet shake, that told her things were not as they should be. And the eyes were still staring at her.
“Good morning!” came a voice behind her. It was Carol.
“Hi, Carol,” said Elsie. “You left these here. On the table.”
She grabbed his arm and led his hand to the pair of eyes. “Ah,” he said. “Thanks. Was wonderin what I’d did with those.” He gamely popped them back into the twin cavities on either side of his red, ruddy nose. They swiveled there a moment before settling, and the old man smiled. “There we go. Ready for the day.”
“Can you, like, see better?” Elsie kicked herself as soon as the words came out. Of course he couldn’t see better. He was blind.
Thankfully, the old man took her question in stride. “Not that I can tell,” he said, laughing. “Maybe I just feel a little more—I don’t know—complete with ’em in. How’d you sleep, hon?”
Elsie felt at a sore shoulder. “Okay, I guess,” she said. The bed assigned her was one of the drawers of a wardrobe in the dining room. She wasn’t the only one in the wardrobe—she had upstairs and downstairs neighbors in the other drawers. As a consequence, they all had to sleep with their drawers pushed in, which gave the arrangement a fairly coffinlike feel. “How about you?”
“Can’t complain,” said Carol. Rachel appeared at the top of the stairs. She was in the process of flattening the rat’s nest that was her hair; she was using a brush made out of pine needles, and it didn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job.
“You guys ready?” she asked as she arrived in the kitchen.
“As we’ll ever be,” proclaimed Carol. “And I’d be awfully appreciative if I could count on the steady arms of two such lovely girls as you.” He proffered his elbows. Elsie and Rachel each took one. “All right then,” he said. “Let’s go see the great Mehlberg Road.”
On the porch, Michael and Cynthia were waiting, leaning up against the opposing posts on either side of the steps. Martha was there too, her goggles gamely set on her forehead.
“What are you up to?” asked Rachel as she and her sister eased the blind man out onto the planks of the porch. It was still very early; only the first shimmers of dawn were making their way through the trees.
“Coming along. I want to see this road,” said Martha.
Michael and Cynthia exchanged glances; Elsie spoke up. “I thought no one was supposed to know about this. What about the little ones …?”