14. Putting It Together.
The cat’s back, having been longer away than he’d intended. His errand had not gone as planned.
Drusilla’s beaten him back. She’d been installed in her bed all of ten minutes when she’d up and dressed and slipped down the main stair and through the morning room, avoiding Magda’s interference. Dru’s sitting on the grass beside Reisig, stroking him, cooing, “Such a good boy. Oh, a very good boy. Very-very-very good, my sweetheart.” She’d grabbed a plate of sausages from the breakfast buffet – set up minus the eggs that are prepared to order – that he’s already scarfed down.1 He’s thinking along the lines of, have I died and gone to heaven?
Charmed by the scene, Sly’s upset melts away. The oopsie behind the cottage is a small setback. “Wait ’til you hear,” he tells them with a grin, “what an idiot I’ve been.”
“What’s wrong?” asks the girl.
“The pillowcase was an easy rend for sharp teeth. Gone-gone-gone, all but three dazed wee ones. Supports my theory. The sleep-draught hits the smallest hardest.”
“So we have three, four with Rosetta. What did you want them for anyway?”
“I’ve got hold of something. I want to poke it, see which way it jumps. The tailor arrives with bags and boxes. Fittings, usually fobbed off on an assistant in the shop, Herr Zitelmann handles himself, here. A hush-hush commission is given priority over all others. The bright spot is, one just into town has picked out Heinz as half the song-and-dance duo of a few days back. Unhappy timing placed your tutor on Zit’s premises just as the peddler made his call. The man has satisfied his commercial clients, but I understand he will not quit us until Kinderzeche,2 where he will take a stall. That gives me a month to fiddle. The Friefrau will certainly keep her great man under wraps until he moves on.
“Dru, m’dear, I will spend my afternoon with Dee, learning what I may. You take our remainders up with you and shower them with love, as you are doing so admirably with our Reisig. They’re in a bucket over behind the cottage.”
“Was it sitting under the worktable?”
“Under a workbench, yes.”
“Does it have a green lid with a hook catch?”
“You’ve loaded them into my snail pail. Dag added the locked lid at my direction. I tote grubs, worms, snails, insects – spiders, especially, are hard to hang on to – all that good stuff, up to my frogs, they get a healthy, balanced diet. I want all my creatures to eat well.” She smiles at Reisig.
The dog mutters, “Frogs? This piece of fluff keeps frogs?”
“She is a naturalist. I find it delightful, don’t you?”
He snorts. “Let me get this straight. This little chickadee, who keeps frogs, presumably caught with her own dainty hands, who also traps grubs, worms and insects, why on earth would she object to picking up rats after all that?”
“It’s prejudice, that blind prejudice we see all around us. Grubs and worms are wholesome improvers of the soil. Rats are filthy, nasty, evil, the same crap thrown at us cats. Reisig, sir, can I persuade you to bestir yourself? I have one simple task for you. Pick up a scent from the pillowcase. I want to know, where did the rats – Dru, doll, how many you figure we had? – where did they slink off to?”
“I had eight. I said to myself, eight is more than enough dammit. And there were the five under the bench. So we had thirteen – an unlucky number. Mama’s big on numerology.”
“Dee swears by it also, they have that in common. Cracked heads often admire the same cracked concepts. Sorry, Dru, I don’t mean to insult your Mama.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m with you all the way. Mama has some very peculiar ideas.”
Magda has dropped down to the cottage for a post-breakfast loll.
She’s sent Dag into the kitchen garden to see what’s ripe. He rushes back – on his bad knees, Lord love him – beans in his basket, horror on his face. “Rats!” he cries. “Mama! We have rats!”
“Guess we know where those suckers took themselves off to,” whispers Drusilla.
“We never had rats,” says Magda. “Rabbits aplenty. Rats? Not that I was aware of.”
“Quick! Fetch that pillowcase,” Sly tells Reisig. “Drop it at her feet. Make a fuss. Growl at it, paw at it.” Reisig retrieves the shredded case and presents it to Magda. He sniffs at it, snarls at it, for good measure, drools on it.
“Bring it to me, that’s a good boy,” encourages Drusilla. The item delivered into her hands, she examines it. Pretending to be infuriated, she squalls, “It’s a pillowcase! Those down-towns hate me. They throw rocks, call me names. Now they’ve filled a bag with rats and released them on us. A new way of tormenting me! This is why we need a guard dog.”
“He gets his chance,” replies Dag, “unpromising as he is. In the garden, days. In the lane, nights, to discourage lurkers. He earns his keep. No more fancy helpings, he feeds off rat.”
“No need to go that far. He will hunt, it’s his nature.”
“Let’s make damn good and certain, eh? I want to see a dead rat by day’s end or – how much fairer can I be? – end of day tomorrow. This invasion has got to be nipped, before they multiply. Yes, we have rabbits. Yes, we have mice. Rats are another thing. Your mama is terrified of them. She grew up on the doorstep of Rat-Town. A story goes, she was bitten in the cradle. The rats must disappear. If your animal can’t do it, another can. This lug – look at him, all he’s done is sit in the one spot all morning – this is no ratter here. A wiry terrier is what’s needed. I’m for sending him on his way right now.”
Dru’s kicking Dag in the shins, screaming “No – no – no!”
Hmmm. Could this be one of the reasons for his bad knees?
Sly pulls her aside. “Keep calm, chickadee,” he tells her. “Dee’s first fitting will proceed without me. I am needed here. Rats are very intelligent creatures, I bet you didn’t know that. I did a stint in a street show at one point.”
“A street show! Oh, I’d adore to be in a street show! When, and where?”
“I’ll tell you over dinner. Right now, we need to trap our truants. If I could lock them down, they forced to hear me out, I’d reason with them: Folks! Do you like being hunted, not knowing if you’ll be alive one day to the next? I can give you the skills that will have you acclaimed instead of reviled. And you’ll be doing your kind – and your children, don’t we all want a better life for our children? – a good deed, remaking the abysmal reputation of your species. Dogs are universally adored. What do dogs have over you? You’re every bit as smart, I’ve seen it.3 Your problems, my friends – I hope you can find it in your heart to address me friend – are twofold. One, you’ve never learned to suck up to the humans. How could you? You’ve been persecuted in every age, everywhere. Two, you aren’t thought cute. But cute is in the eye of the beholder. Do silly tricks, you’ll be pronounced cute, I promise you.
“Dru, I see a chance to do good, all-round good. Dee, his better sense took leave of him years ago. Heinzie’s either an idiot or a flat-out scoundrel. If one or the other gets his hands on a chunk of dough, he’ll take the money and run. We have two dumb-ass ideas on the boil. I insist upon my right to make my contribution to the silly-stew. I have as much right to be a moron as those two, probably more. My intention is to crawl into the leafy-green and pitch my message to anyone within earshot.”
“Yeah, what then?”
“Long about sundown, you swing by in your pinafore with the big double pocket. I’ll tell them, if you like what you’ve heard, climb into the child’s apron. You’ll be carried upstairs, to be groomed for big things.”
“They’ll jump into my arms? I doubt it.”
“How does a carnival huckster operate? You have to persuade people to do what doesn’t make sense to them. I have a lifetime of experience at it. We get to sun-up tomorrow and no results, I have something more up my sleeve. Dru, take our three upstairs, charm them. You’re a Mayfly, it comes naturally to you. Reisig, on your feet, make a show of harassing rodents, but not really. I’ll slip into the veggies, whisper a few preliminary words. Then I go find Dee, see what’s doing there.
“Dru, hon, smuggle out another yummy for our boy, and bestow it piecemeal in the green-growth. Reisig, you look away, no peeking. Work a little, find your treats with your nose. Dag will think you’re hot at the hunt. A cute trick, if you two should end up best buddies.
“Ya, here’s the better idea – check in with Dee, gather information. I’ve faced many a tough sell in my time, but never like this. It will require all my powers of persuasion. An interesting exercise indeed.”
- We know the word scarf as slang, meaning to consume greedily. The Collins English Dictionary says: The word is perhaps from a dialectal survival of Old English sceorfan “to gnaw, bite.”
- ‘Children’s Party‘ – an annual festival held not in Hameln but in in Dinkelsbühl, begun some fifty years after my time, but . . . all together now . . . what the hell. (My German husband says die zeche is a group, presumably a rowdy group, sitting in a bar, running up a tab. I’m going to keep that in mind.)
- Way smarter, in fact. Sly won’t out and say it, he doesn’t want to hurt Reisig’s fragile ego.