16

16. Back to the Garden.

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden – Joni Mitchell

Sly was New Age before New Age was a thing.

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“Hey, cutie,” whispers Sly. Rosetta is in Dru’s lap, held loosely, protected, but not restrained.

He’s speaking in a Mr. Rogers1 voice, soft, musical, and earnestly soothing. “Sweetheart! You are alarmed by my presence, and I don’t blame you. Sad experience has taught you a cat cannot be your friend. But I want to be your friend, if you let me. Did you have a lovely afternoon? This young lady informs me that you and she had a fine time.” Rosetta stares at him, sucking on her pale pink knuckles in consternation.

“She mistrusts me,” he tells Dru. “It could hardly be otherwise.”

“You should have seen her earlier,” says Dru. “Jumping around, digging into her piece of apple like she’d never had apple in her life. Adorable!”

“Got more?”

“No, but there’s a pear.”

“Cut off a sliver and wave it under her nose.”

Tiny fingers seize the bait. Tiny teeth nibble it to nothing in an instant.

“Good girl!” encourages the cat. “Was that yummy? I have more, but you must eat off a saucer on the table, the mannerly way to go at it. Here, I’ll relocate, so as not to be breathing down your neck. Dru, move my chair away, please.”

“To where?”

“Wait. Here’s a better idea. Shut me into that birdhouse. I can see her, I can talk to her, but I’ll be unable to assault her, if that were my underhanded intention, which it is not!” Sly blows a kiss to the tyke, jumps to the floor and backs away slowly, bowing respectfully with each step, as had been the protocol for taking leave of Queen Elizabeth. 

Dru sets Rosetta in front of half a pear, moves to the rear of the birdcage, and unlatches the double door. The cat jumps up and in. It is, of course, not truly secure. He could crank the simple lock open in a heartbeat, but Rosetta doesn’t know that.

“I’m in jail,” he cries, winking at Dru. “I’m here until you give permission for me to be sprung.” He inspects his prison. “This is marvelous in here,” he says. “There are swings! I love swings, don’t you? Do I dare to grab onto one? I wouldn’t like to break it. Maybe that rope ladder will hold me.” He claws his way up the mesh siding. “Yahoo!” he shrieks, as he reaches for a hemp walk hung with bells, setting off a clamor of tinkles. Rosetta does a nose-dive into the folds of Dru’s skirt.

“Dru,” he calls, tootle us a lively air. “I’m going to try something.”

Dru grabs up her flute and embarks on a __ __ __. Sly propels himself upside-down along a swaying walk, halts half-way, lets go, turns a mid-air somersault, and drops neatly to his feet. Dru misses it. Her eyes are on her lap. Her skirt has come alive. The rat-child is jigging her heart out to the bouncy melody.

“Guess what?” she cries. “Rosetta’s dancing up a storm between my legs.”

“Careful. She may be trying to escape.”

“No, she’s definitely reacting to the rhythm of the piece.”

“I want to see!” yells Sly. “Sit her back on the table where I can see.”

Rosetta is restored to the table, where the solid footing enables her to execute a fancy single-footed twirl.

“Go, pretty babeee!” he hoots. “Shake it, shake it, sugar-pie-ee! You are amazinggg!” Here again, he would have loved to have whistled his astonishment, but we’ve discussed that already, haven’t we?

“The mite,” he says, “has real stage presence. I could make something of her, if she’d let me. I don’t think we have to worry about our little whirly-gig. How are the others?”

“They took a bit of broth. They wouldn’t eat the apple, though I crushed it for them. I don’t think they’re onto solid food yet. They need mother’s milk.

Then I’ve got to get my butt back to that garden pronto. Let me grab a bite of dinner and I’m gone. Got an old hanky? Wrap up a slab of meat for our Reisig. And escort me out downstairs, I don’t shimmy down a trellis unless I have to.” He releases the latch on the cage and lets himself out, Rosetta watching uneasily.

“Girlie,” he scolds her, “Get this straight. I am your friend. I mean you no harm. I’m off to find your Ma for you. I’ll find all your Mamas. Now get back in that bird-roost and comfort your little companions.” Dru returns her to the sub-space, along with paper thin slices of the remainder of the pear in case the infants should crave something in their bellies during the night.

“Did you remember to give them fresh water?” he asks.

“Am I an idiot? Course I did. I take care of my own. Which is why I’m coming with you, to check on Reisig. I’m not filling a hanky, I’m taking the entire tureen. There’s a lot of good gravy here, and I don’t want him to miss out on it.”

“It’s edging onto nine. What about your curfew?”

“Screw my curfew.”

“That’s the spirit! Maahes is watching, don’t let him down.”

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“Reisig!” calls Dru quietly, so as not to betray her presence. Mag and Dag are in their cottage after the long work day.

“Where ye be, old man?” demands Sly, at the top of his lungs. The screech of a cat should attract no undue attention.

“Here!” Reisig is beyond the fence, warning off vandals.

Dru unhooks the gate and swings it open. The mutt, so happy to see them, hesitates to step inside. “What if Dag sees me?” he whimpers. “I’ve been caned twice today.”

“Nonsense! Time for your break,” says Dru, depositing the tureen on the grass and removing the lid. “This is all for you! We’ve eaten.”

“Yowza!” The dog dives in, licks it cleans, down to the last mushroom.

The two watch, their hearts breaking. “My God,” cries Sly. “Haven’t you eaten all day? You’re a big fellow, you need fuel in your furnace.”

“He threw me something, couldn’t tell you what it was. It was gross.”

“This is unacceptable!” Dru, forgetting herself, is shouting. “From now on I’m in charge of your meals. Caned! What were you caned for?”

“He called me a stinky-diseased-rotting-carcass. Do I smell so very bad?”

“You’re not the flowers that bloom in the Spring tra-la,” she laughs. “But you don’t reek of death either. I asked Dag to give him a bath,” she explains to Sly.

“He refused to handle me. He brushed me, briefly. He hurt me. I growled at him. It popped out. I couldn’t help it.”

“I’m having a medical man look at you tomorrow. You’re certainly not diseased, it’s only festered wounds of the common sort.” Dru throws her arms around the dog. “That’s how much I think you’re a health risk.” Reisig rests his big head on her shoulder and sobs. She strokes him gently. “Do you hurt, you poor boy?”

“Never not,” he sighs.

“I’ll be present during the examination,” she tells Sly, “to ensure he’s shown respect. Dag will pay for this. I don’t know how, but Dag will pay.”

“Sweetie,” says the cat, “I can’t sit with Reisig, much as I’d like to. I have work to do. Can you bear to snub your feathers for a second night, sleep out here? This boy needs cuddling badly. And I want you here when Dag shows his asshole face in the morning, to give him a good tongue lashing. Now, what will make a tolerable bedding for you? I’ll extract something from somewhere.”

“I’ll catch hell over it,” moans the dog. “Another beating for sure.”

Sly, nose to nose with the pup, comforts him. “Reis, trust me. I can protect you. Will it shred your pride too terribly, to be beholden to a rascal cat?”

“I have no pride,” he mumbles. “Any pride I ever had was stripped away long ago.”

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“What’s your plan tonight?” asks Dru.

“We have nine rats out there. If I can get three on my side, I call it a huge success. I’ll begin with my original piece, An Ode To Peace and Understanding. It’s meant to be sung, but it also works as a recitation. I hope it strikes a chord. There are two, three, maybe four mamas in a panic right now, missing their babies. They’re my best bet.

“I wrote this during a period of personal turmoil. It was heartfelt. I hope that comes across.” He assumes an attitude consistent with a solemn exhortation:

O friends, no more contention! May we try,
though painfully estranged, to unify?

As go we forth by foot, or fin, or wing,
fierce overlord or mildest underling, live generously all.
Do not resent. A day a-sulk is a day sore misspent.
If you must rebuke, do not revile. No good comes of a nasty blast of bile.
Act always, as you judge it, for the best. I promise you, our narrow interest
is flourished by kind reciprocity.

Are we not branches of a single venerable tree?
Do we not dwell beneath the same vast, starry canopy?
Shall we not end our days too soon, belike in misery?

O ye millions! We are brothers!
I embrace you! Embrace me.

“Wise words,” says Dru. “Will they be understood?”

“I hope my serene frame of mind – this piece always calms me – speaks to them on an emotional level. And I’ll translate, off the cuff. Will they dismiss the unfashionable sentiment out of hand? Entirely possible. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You two drift off to Dreamland. I’m off.”

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Sly sides into a pompion patch, a mass of leafy vines. He rolls onto his back, intending to unwind with a spot of stargazing, one of his favorite things to do. But, he’d been going all day, not a single nap. He nods off.

He’s woken by a sharp exchange very near, several voices at once. “Don’t do it, Tilly! Are you out of your ever-loving mind? We don’t know that the devil has been rendered harmless. Come away, all, until we get a feel for the situation.”

“I have to know! I have to!” A rat, a very angry rat, scrambles onto his chest, looks him in the eye – another inch or two and she could spit in it – and shrieks, “Where’s my Merrily? What have you done with my Merrily?”

He tries to move, but can’t. He is restrained. His limbs, front and rear, are bound with yards of vines. These are not the soft, water-filled vines of the squash family, these are the slender but astonishingly tough vines that plague me in my own garden. I’m sure they had them way back then as well.

“Who’s Merrily?” he groans.

“You have her! You took her! I watched it. Willow! Get over here! You have missing!” She stands on her feet, balancing on Sly’s squirming, heaving chest. “How many others are lacking a loved one, left behind until we shook off that terrible fog we were in? What hit us? Strangest thing ever happened to me, awake, aware, but unable to move a muscle.”

“I have four of your young ‘uns in my keeping,” says Sly. “First, let me assure you, they are fine. Well, three extra-teeny-weenies definitely need their mamas. They’re not eating. That worries me.”

“My three,” cries Willow. “Merrily was tending them for me. She’s a good little Mama. My babies love her.”

“Everyone loves Merrily. She’s a treasure.” Variations of this tribute are voiced  from several locations.

“I have to think,” says Sly, “that Merrily is the tot we’ve named Rosetta. Does Merrily love to dance?”

“Does she! Give her a tune, her toes start tapping, she’s up, doing her jiggles and kicks.”

“I hate to have to tell you,” says Sly, “but my four may be the lone left of your youngest. Get word back to your homefolk, eat no more from that Mercer facility.”

“What means Mercer?”

“Where I plucked you up. Where I found you.”

“Ah! We call it New Roeselare. New Roeselare is the land-grant awarded us in the treaty of The Great Migration War. It’s ours for generations. Our original homeland in Zeeland eaten by the sea, our clan, learning of a rich area with the rodent population severely declined, ventured forth on coastal vessels, sending word back of unheard of abundance. Our arrival in numbers sparked a savage turf war. We were eventually handed ownership of one site, and we are still resented for it, still, after two centuries. We keep to us, they keep to them. If we can’t eat out of our own holding, where do we eat? To encroach elsewhere, all hell would break loose.”

Sly has an answer. “There are several Mercer facilities. I’ll see that safe feed is available in a specific apart location. Pass the word, eat nowhere else. Your tribe has the bad luck to be the first impacted by a despicable scam. But, do you know the phrase, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good?

“Do not we all hope for a better life for our children and grandchildren? Any who can find it in them to trust me and my vision, you will be the founders of a brave new tomorrow. When my assistant joins me, step up to her, bow politely, climb into her apron, and you will be carried away to a safe room, to be groomed for delightful things. Not everyone will have what it takes. Some will be unable to adjust to new ways. Hidebound is a trait that plagues every species. I can’t save every last one of you, but I can perhaps make the world a little better for all. Your ancestors made a clean break with the past. You have adventure in your blood. Do you like being hounded? There are other possibilities available to you. Now, will someone please gnaw through these vines and turn me loose?”

A big bruiser objects. “Not so fast. You haven’t given specifics. What is your proposal, exactly?”

“I intend to create an attraction featuring singers, dancers, musicians, strongmen, acrobats, jugglers. Rats! All rats! I will exploit the notoriety that Hameln has accrued over the centuries. The incident of two hundred years ago is talked of all over Europe. I will present The Rat City Revels. It will be a boon to the whole town. I masterminded an economic miracle back in Haute-Navarre, I can do it here.2

“Merrily is a major-major talent. I intend to build a production around her. She is a natural, but I don’t doubt that many of you can be trained to turns of one sort or another. Those of no useful skill can wear funny hats and ride in the clown-buggy. Don’t rush your decision. Mull it over. I don’t have every detail nailed down yet.”

“I’m in,” whispers Tilly as she chews trough his bindings. “You can count on me. And I’ll work on the others, never you fear.”

“Ma’am! Can you convince your shy friend to allow herself to be transported upstairs? Her babies are not eating. I fear for their survival.” Sly’s feet are free, and his neck. His head had been pinned down also, which is how Tilly had dared to approach his mobile mouth. She’s working on his front paws now.

“Willow,” Till squeals, between chaws on the vine. “Don’t you go wringing your hands like you always do. We accompany this fellow and that’s that. No guts, that one,” she whispers to Sly. “But I have guts for both of us.”

“Your daughter has spirit,” he says. “I see where she gets it. My dear! I have a job for you! I will be holding auditions. Talk it up to your community. And, scout for me. Who has unusual agility? Who has a delightful sense of humor? I must be here, there, and everywhere, selecting and training players, designing and supervising, recruiting extras. I need all the help I can get.

“I do not charge admission to the show, an impossibility, it will be an open-air affair. Besides, the more who see us, the more is our reputation spread, so that foreigners resolve to stop in Hameln if they are anywhere in the vicinity. I tell you up front, the children of Hameln are essential to my story. I mean for the rag-tags of Rat-Town to participate in the fun, and in the fruits thereof. You will be partners in the venture. Contributions will be solicited toward your, and their, support.

“Come up to the big house. Observe your darling daughter happy and healthy. I will have you back to New Roeselare this very night. Do you have a governing board? Notify them of a presentation I will give a week from now. Also, this is crucial, warn of tainted grain, and advise that safe feed will be made available shortly.”

He turns to Willow. “You, dear, will spend the day with us treated like a queen, after which I hope you will recommend me to these few here. Advertise a breakfast to be served in the lane tomorrow, with tastes of every good thing in Magda’s larder, as a preview of what they may expect once the show kicks off and the money rolls in. I will be on hand to meet and greet in more relaxed conditions than what we have just experienced.”

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Chapter Notes
  1. Mr. Rogers hosted a popular children’s show in the late sixties and seventies. Find him on YouTube.
  2. Sly had staged a hugely successful fake visitation by the Virgin Mary in his adopted homeland of Haute-Navarre.