20. Penmanship, Black Forest Cake,
And The Bear Went Over The Mountain.
Sly has nicknamed the three of them The Family.1
He says, you two are the kin I wish I’d had. They feel the same about him.
They’ve all missed out on a positive familial experience.
Reisig was taken from his Mama early and handed over to a scoundrel. You know the rest.
As a child, Sly was taunted for his absurd aspirations. He got no encouragement but from his Unk Dek, his Uncle Declan, who had never found the nerve to live his dream, to go to sea, and spent his days trading drunken2 lies with his circle of ex-ship’s cats.
Drusilla is a chess piece in her mother’s game of life. She lives under a cloud of expectations. She has no talent for social interaction. She is an angry, secretive child who feels it her right to be as obnoxious as she cares to be.
We haven’t seen her under full sail. Sly has been a comfort to her, her mother has been too busy with John Dee to care about what she’s been up to, and Henizie having declared a school holiday after the recent intense excursion, she hasn’t had to deal with him.
The rats are chowing down on an array of exotic offerings. Sly, Reis and Dru sit at a respectful distance, talking quietly.
“Tomorrow,” says Sly, “I check in with Dee, see what’s cooking over that campfire. My tonight concern is to get this bunch home. Dru, do you know a lad rock-solid dependable? After the rat drop-off, he must relay a note to the manager of one of your mother’s alternate facilities, something on the order of (he’s already got it word for word in his head):
“Sir: I require you to conceal two half barrels adjacent to my warehouse number one, filled, and kept filled, with grain from your own site. Place them hard by the north fencing, under the overhang. Say nothing of this to anyone on pain of dismissal.
“Can you possibly, he asks, forge your mother’s signature? You are familiar with it. I am not.”
“I do, and I can,” says Dru. “Item number one: On the next property is a boy I was friendly with. He’s perfect for the job.”
“Mother put a stop to it, he a gardener’s boy. I know where Rolf bunks. It’s not far. We’ll pay him, naturally.”
“Mama’s signature? It happens that Heinzie and I have practiced it. He pronounces it a superb example of fine penmanship, and encourages me to imitate it. I’ve mastered his scrawl as well. As a game, of course.”
Sly snickers. “A game? Ab-so-lute-ly!”
“Heinzie is Mama’s secretary besides my tutor. He pens stuff for her all the time. Two well-known handwritings, can’t beat that.”
Tilly has come looking for them. “Till, m’dear,” says Sly, “can I ask you to separate from your daughter after so brief a reunion? I need you to deliver a warning. Your clan is the target of a genocide.”
“Frankly, sir, this is our commonplace experience. There’s nothing to be done about it.”
“Yes. Sadly, as with many injustices, the world cares not a fig. Well, I care. Two brilliant minds, university men, are plotting your demise for their sole, selfish gain. I mean to intervene. You’ve trusted me thus far. Can you trust me a bit farther? Come morning a young hooligan, the very sort who does you dirt every chance, will carry you off. But this one will not harm you.”
“Rolf is not a hooligan,” objects Dru. “He’s a sweet boy. Here, why don’t I take them? I can do it. I won’t be afraid if I have Reisig with me.”
“A big no to that, my girl. The manager of Mercer-two-three-whatever will never buy that his wealthy employer has sent her daughter into Rat-Town on an errand. A neighbor boy who has done odd jobs for her? Very credible. I imagine that’s how you came to know each other.”
“We dug for worms together. He fished with his, I fed mine to my frogs.”
Willow joins them. “How goes the din-din?” asks Sly.
“They’re at it,” sighs Willow. “Crap, girl,” she says to Tilly. “They are at it.”
“I saw it coming,” declares Tilly. “That’s why I cleared out. I’m too old for that nonsense.”
“Merrily’s in the thick of it.”
“Ya, when is she not?”
“What’s up?” asks the cat. “Give me a clue.”
“Go see for yourself.”
“We must be mysterious for some reason,” sighs Sly. “Fine. Here are my instructions. Dru, renew your acquaintance with Rolf. Have him here first thing in the morning. Get going, so you make it back by the curfew. Tilly, Willow, sit tight, don’t wander off. Don’t make me go looking for you. Me, I retrieve Merrily.”
“What do I do?” asks Reisig.
“Keep our Mamas company, please, sir. Ladies! Cuddle with my pup. Your coward cohorts must see they have nothing to fear from him.”
Willow makes a face. “Cuddle this mutt-mountain? You can’t be serious.”
The cat has a lot on his mind. He’s curt with her. “Do it, damn it. Don’t give me a hard time. Just do it.”
Rats, dear hearts, like to eat. Shocker, right? They don’t have a lot of other interests, that I know of, in nature. Screwing, OK, but I’m not going to talk about that. Not now, anyway.
Go on YouTube, you see them flipping, and climbing little jungle-jims, and cavorting in exercise wheels. In the wild, who knows, maybe they run rat marathons. No fancy equipment needed for that. Maybe they stargaze. They’re nocturnal beasties, why not? Can they see the stars? I looked that up. I consulted sites connected to MIT, Harvard. Couldn’t make head nor tail of none of it. I read up on cones, receptors, all kinda eye stuff, I still can’t tell you if rats see stars.
Doesn’t matter, we’re not talking stars, we’re talking about eating.
Rats like to eat, and they like to play with their food, no big deal with grain, hurl it, you don’t make too much of a mess. Throw fistfuls of blackberry jam, it’s a whole different story.
Sly has crept his way through the grass toward the scene of raucous whoops, squeals, and chittering a mile a minute. He pokes his head up and – bam! – takes a hit – yuk!, of goo – dead center between the eyes. It’s jam. Some of it’s splattered into his eyes. He’s not seeing too good.
He’s cleaning off, eyes pinched shut. Someone approaches. “Try this,” she tells him. Ha! It’s Merrily! “Chocolate,” she whispers. “I hid it aside for you.” She shoves a cherry-filled chocolate into his paw.
“You like the stuff?”
“Just adore it,” says she.
“You eat it. I tried it in London. Never again. Hey, what’s with these fools?” he asks.
“They had a hard night last night. They’re cutting loose. Can you blame them?”
“If I try to say a few words will they fling a custard at me?”
“The good stuff is long gone. The Black Forest Cake lasted five minutes.3 The jam, you took the last of it.”
“Glory Hallelujah to that. Herd those creeps into a row. And I want to see their hands in front of them.”
He should try to be polite, but he’s too annoyed. “Listen up, you blockheads. You’ve had a taste of the good life tonight. You want more, you get your butts down to Rat-Town and recruit for me. I am an impresario. Know what that is? I stage shows. I’m planning a spectacle that will put this town on the map as a destination. Tourists will pour in, spending dough that will go to feeding you mugs high and hearty. Best of all, you’ll be an asset to this burg, a protected asset. You won’t go in fear for your life as you do now. I need top, top talent. Dancers, acrobats. I’ll be holding auditions. Spread the word. That’s it. I’ve said my say. Hasta la vista, you idiots.”
“You got us here,” yells a big brute, name of Werner. “You get us home.”
“It’s done,” says Sly. “It’s arranged. A coach awaits. The lid is popped. It will be snapped shut at daybreak. You have to dawn to board. Merrily! Come! We leave these jokers to their ruminations.”
Reisig is accounted for, but Dru has not returned, and nine p.m. is coming on fast. Tilly and Willow are nowhere around, after he’d warned them not to wander. “Damn those two,” he spits.
“Why?” asks the dog.
“Where the hell are they?”
“Take it easy, they’re right here.”
Two heads, merry-eyed, poke up from behind the mutt-mountain. They’d been hiding, as a joke. They start to sing. “The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain . . .” They clamber up the rocky spine to the broad head, then scoot back down, harmonizing all the way. (Down in New Roeselare, they belong to an a cappella group of rodent songsters.) “To see what he could see . . . to see what he could see . . .”
Sly, delighted, joins in. “And all that he could see . . . and all that he could see . . . the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the moun-tainnnnn . . . was all that he could see.”4
The circle is unbroken. Dru is back, with good news. “Rolf’s in.”
“Terrific! Let’s go up. Willow, your babies are crying for you. Dru, you need to get reacquainted with your bed. Reis, I’d stay with you, but there are things I need to take care of upstairs. Sorry, old man, see you in the morning. You got water? Dru, check if he has water.”
“Dag filled my water a bit ago, and brought me a big bone with plenty of juicy chews on it.”
“Mysterious!” says Sly. “Dru, your doing? You put him to it?”
She shakes her head no. “Not me.”
“It comes to me! Got it! Thank you Maahes!” he yowls at the void, the beyond, Ever-Ever-Land. “My guardian angel, it seems, is back with us, back on the job. Frankly, Drusie, I’ve been expecting him.”
- Relax, these three are not going to turn out to be murdering maniacs.
- On catnip (usually).
- During this time, chocolate was first integrated into cakes and cookies. Black Forest Cake was already a celebrated desert.
- Folklorist Don Yoder postulates that the song may have its origins in Germanic traditions similar to Grundsaudaag, or Groundhog Day. In some German-speaking areas foxes or bears were seen as the weather prognosticators. The belief was that the bear would come out of his lair to check whether he could see “over the mountain.” If the weather was clear, he would end his hibernation. If not, he would return to his sleep for six more weeks.