The Meet And Greet.
Hamelin is compact, belted by a city wall that will stand until Napoleon’s forces pull it down after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. In the previous decades the leading families, hugely enriched by the town belonging, as a minor member, to the Hanseatic League trading empire, had begun to build Renaissance-style mansions instead of the traditional tight-packed, half-timbered structures that dominate the inner city.
Drusilla’s parents had constructed a splendid residence just outside the main gate, anchoring a new fashionable district, more expansive and more securely segregated from the medieval center and the tumble-down precincts at the river’s edge, where wage-laborers live in grinding poverty. They’d leased their inherited digs, in a street of declining desirability due to encroaching vermin, to less fortunate cousins.
The eight foot thick, thirty foot high walls were built centuries back, in a more tumultuous time. All gates are bolted at sundown, but the north gate has a guardhouse manned through the night, allowing official traffic to pass after-hours. A thunderous knock to raise the dead, a password (which the Friefrau, a leading citizen, is privy to) growled through a peephole, and admittance is generally granted.
Before a sleepy sentry realizes it is not the chief magistrate tardy home, a child has rushed through the cracked gate and is beyond easy retrieval.
“It’s your town, kitten. Lead the way.”
“I’ll try,” says Dru, “but to my cousins and home is all I really know.”
“You don’t – I don’t know – belong to church groups, or something? You don’t get out? You don’t socialize?”
“Is that your choice, or your mother’s?”
“This town has grain on the brain, Mama says. She wants me to meet smart people. She can’t stand these small-minded burghers. She spends as little time in their society as she can decently do. And, we travel a lot. ”
“She owns considerable property, as I understand it. Her warehouses, where might they be?
“I can take you to a smart street with fine shops and that’s about it.”
“I don’t want to see smart streets and fine shops.”
“We have many not-smart streets.”
“That’s more like it.”
“And we have really nasty areas. I don’t go in there.”
“You will tonight.”
“That’s where the troublemakers live, who hate me.”
“You just said you don’t go there.”
“I visit my cousins in ______ Street. It used to be a safe neighborhood. Now rats out of Rat-Town hurl rocks at my coach.”
“Rocks?” The cat can’t help himself, he’s amused. “Rats might hurl pebbles, I suppose. Or kick them, like a soccer ball.”
“Not rat-rats, you fool. People-rats. No-goods.”
“Every chance they get.”
“A casual mischief, surely.”
“Not casual. They look for me.”
“I’m rich, in case you hadn’t noticed. I wear smart clothes. We pass my discards on to my cousins, who hand them on – to the help, I suppose, or maybe straight to the church poor box, where real scum get hold of them. Last summer I spied a wretch prancing in one of my cast-offs. I yelled at her – you little hussy, you defile that good gown. The sight of the strumpet in my once favorite dress made me want to throw up. Since then my coach is battered with rocks. A few hurl dog poo. Dogs are everywhere, there’s plenty poopie about. You keep an eye out, afoot in this town.”
“London is as bad, believe me.”
“Rogues came in, their special-trained hounds would fix our mess, guaranteed. Our town council, suckered again. Mama laughs her head off – what a bunch of pin-heads! Some of those dogs got loose. Their spawn own our streets. Packs of dogs run wild, another reason I keep to home. Fine with me. Who would I visit? My cousins? I hate my cousins, and they hate me. They love to annoy me – I saw your blue serge in the street, my dear, on a sweetheart of a beggar. My things should not pass along, to humiliate me on a strutting sauce. I told Mama, from now on my outgrown must be burned.”
“Why shouldn’t a poor girl have a pretty dress once in her life?”
“That’s her problem. I refuse to let it be mine.”
Sly changes the subject. “To the riverfront. Let’s go.”
The streets grow seedier, the closer they come to the wharves. Well-kept buildings are fewer and fewer, until close-to-slums prevail. They duck into an entry as a band of rowdies scoots by, hooting, jubilant over the evening’s tally of rodents. The town pays a bounty, per dozen. It’s an important revenue for any poor family.
“It hadn’t occurred to me until now,” says Drusilla, “Neat hair, clean dress, the thugs will be on me like flies on honey. I can’t do this.”
Sly is annoyed, though mostly with himself. A valid point, he ought to have anticipated it. And he had perhaps expected too much of her in terms of derring-do. He takes his irritation with himself out on the girl. “And where did you expect to hunt rats, now, in the cathedral?” he asks, his exasperation plain. “You’re right, I should have left you behind. You wait here. I’m going on. I’ll be back by for you in a few hours.”
“You leave me here alone?”
“Of course alone, what else?”
“Take me home.”
“Sorry, cutie. We’re here. I do not waste this opportunity.”
Tough words to a child on the verge of tears. The cat softens his stance. “Look, over there, under that oak tree, I make out a fellow who may be persuaded to sit with you.
He approaches an individual who’s been studying them, whether with good or ill intentions is impossible to say. He’s a tough, battered, with open sores, the horrific badges of life on the streets. Sly addresses him cautiously. “Sir! I can offer you a good meal for an easy employ. Baby-sit that dumpling for me while I attend to my business. She has a nice mess of mutton in her sack that she will be happy to share with you. Keep her safe in my absence and you are welcome to follow us home at dawn, where you will receive a big bone in addition.”
The fellow answers with a smirking snarl. “Why should I? I’ll have the eats on my own terms and neither of you will be able to stop me.” He grins, showing off sharp canines.
Sly grins an equally unpleasant grin right back. “You won’t, for this reason – there’s more where that came from, and you’re bright enough to realize it. Look, I’ll sweeten the deal. You’ll have a bone in the morning to carry away, after you’ve gorged on roast beef, perhaps, or a thick wedge of ham. Our kitchen is full of lovely stuffs.”
A huge, ugly dog, mouth dripping drool like a leaky bucket, bounds to the girl’s side, sniffs at the pillowcase, gives her excited, sloppy kisses on her face and neck, and plants dirty paw prints all over her clean skirt.
“Never mind,” she shrieks, “I changed my mind. I’m coming along. Horrid thing! Look at him! Never had a bath in his life! He may be rabid!” The dog responds to the criticism by pushing her to the ground and slapping her about the head and shoulders with a dirty, delighted tail. Her hairdress is now thoroughly disarranged.
“Splendid!” cries Sly. “No need to worry now. You’re as fine a ragamuffin as I’ve ever seen. You’re going with me, and that’s that. You may learn a lesson this evening. Let me tell you something, dearie. You’ve been a charmer, up to now. I suddenly see a side to you that I don’t care for at all. I was one of them you disdain for having made the wrong choice of parents. I was a rascal boy myself, but, gifted with a good brain, I managed to lift myself up. I don’t put it beyond the reach of any of these villains to do the same. I hope Maahes isn’t hearing you right now, he wouldn’t go for this garbage one bit.”
He turns to the canine, who’s attacking the mutton with heart-rending grunts of appreciation. “Poor thing,” he says. “You’ve had a few bad breaks in life, am I right?”
The dog, too busy eating to speak, makes a beetle brow, as if to say, have I ever!
“What’s your name there, pal?”
The dog chokes out “Riesig!” between mouthfuls.
“The name fits you like a glove. You are huge, no two ways about it. Be that as it may, might I make a suggestion? I would call you Reisig, if you don’t mind.”1
The dog’s eyes narrow. “Creep,” he growls, “I know I’m a sight, I don’t need it shoved in my face. I am a bag of bones, but I can still snatch you up and shake the breath out of you in a split second.”
“No, sir. No! Let me explain. In olden days the word signified a knight, a warrior, in other words, a hero. Be our hero tonight. Underneath your gross exterior I sense a battered but still kicking dignity. I feel I am in the presence of one with a good heart, don’t ask me how, but I do. Serve us well tonight and I promise you will be pleased by our response. Reisig, sir, you are a daunting sight. Your looks alone will keep blackguards at bay. The flip side of that coin is, I’m sure they also frighten off any who might be kind to you. My heart goes out to you. Do you have a master? Why doesn’t he feed you? Huh! I can guess. He’s close to starved himself.”
“I had a master. One thrash too many, I handed him a serious remonstrance, then beat it to the street. People are nasty. Her sort,” he sneers at the girl, “don’t trust them.”
“How do you get by?”
“I eat what’s to eat. In this town, that would be rat.”
“I may be able to help you out in that regard. Take it from me, this is a good kid here, with a few snot ideas. Ignore her guff, she’s led a sheltered life. Do as I say and at dawn you’ll have the best breakfast you ever had in your life. After that, all I can promise is, I’ll do what I can for you. Why did your master beat you? You seem an entirely amiable animal, and I don’t say that about too many dogs. Here you sit, holding a polite conversation rather than chasing me up a tree. Remarkable.”
“I’m astonished by it myself. I am not fond of cats, it’s true. My mood has gentled in the last few days. I’m more relaxed. I’m sleeping soundly, which I never did. I can’t account for it, except that maybe it’s I’m not so frantic about where my next meal comes from. Hungry, you’re on edge, always. I used to stalk, never sure if I’d eat that night or not. Suddenly, rats shuffle out of their safe holes and keel over at my feet, sweet as you please.”
“Ain’t this a kick in the head!” Sly cries to Drusilla. She doesn’t have an idea in the world what he means, he and the mutt have been speaking a pidgin mix of German and dog. He wants to dash in close and give the brute a big hug, around a front leg probably, all he could get arms around. He does not follow through on his impulse, they are not yet on an intimate footing. The fellow might take the gesture as an attack. “Interesting indeed,” he says calmly. “Tell me more, sir.”
“Started two days ago, this business. Rats, collapsing right in front of me.”
“They may be diseased, my friend. Has that occurred to you? Don’t you worry about it?”
“Do I worry if I catch my death? My miserable existence, let it be done with. Day after day, where does the next mouthful come from? I think about throwing myself in the river sometimes. It would have to be off a boat, way out, so I couldn’t fight my way back to shore. For I’d lose my nerve, I’m a coward. That’s why my master beat me. I’m stupid too. And I’m clumsy, another of his slams. Well, no doubt about that. Those rats have it all over me in terms of agility. I don’t pounce – Bam! Gotcha! – like you do. And I sure can’t slink low through the grass, creep up on them. I am such a loser!”
“You know,” says Sly, “as down and out as I’ve ever been, I never gave up on myself. You’re not stupid, I see that immediately. And you’re not a coward, I refuse to accept that either. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know that I do. You’re just trying to get me on your side. But I want to. Maybe it’s I need to believe.”
“We all need to believe. The rage, of course, is to believe in odd elements in, as they say, the Hereafter. Even John Dee, a serious man, goes for that. Ha! Goes overboard. He has a solid dozen deities looking after him. Me, I choose to believe in myself. Listen, your former master, he’s the loser, not you.”
“I was sold to him as a hunter. Whatever instincts in that direction my sires had didn’t pass to me. Maybe my bloodline was shiftless, my owner got rooked. At any rate, he expected a killer. That ain’t me, not by a long shot. In his eyes I was a worthless piece of shit, flawed in every way.”
“Are not we all flawed? No one of us is perfect.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. My worst flaw, as I see it, is mindless loyalty. I admire you cats for your independence. Human companionship, you take it or leave it. I say, more power to you. We dumb dogs don’t seem to have it in us. We grovel for a pat on the head. I am addicted to approval. It’s been bred into me, damn the monsters. I accepted – accepted, mind you, his right to give, my lot to get – endless abuse. I felt guilty for not being the dog he wanted me to be, until, finally, I snapped. You cats have the right idea. You don’t sell your soul for a kind word.”
“I look forward, says Sly, “to continuing this talk in the morning. Let’s get a move on. Show me the site you mentioned. I may know what’s what there. If I’m correct, you can rest easy. Those rats aren’t diseased. You won’t expire from ingesting them.”
“More’s the pity.”
“Buck up, old son. Cat as I be, you’ve found yourself a friend. Don’t forget it after you’ve reverted to your former cat-despising self. And you will. I make that prediction with almost complete confidence. Now, those open sores on your legs, we have a medical man at home who may be able to heal them up.”
“Rat bites, from the nightly scramble to feed my worthless carcass.”
“Have faith, sir. All that, all of it, is about to change.”
- Reisig (Ree-zig) in modern German means huge. Riesig (Rye-zig) means twigs. In Middle German it meant: armed for war; also, honorable.