Branch II

Branch II: Predator and prey…

Leaf I: Let’s keep it between us…

There was a reason for Badger’s books staying safe and secure on the tall study shelves, as well as dust-free. In fact, there were several reasons: all of them rather small.

The Mole – who had long since lost the description of timid (probably somewhere in the Toad’s banqueting-hall: but he had never thought about it enough to go back and look) – had fallen into the same trap as those who could not see past his slightly shy, slightly bumbling, slightly muttering-to-himself exterior: assuming that the wood-mice who loved and looked after him (as saviour, friend, and a sort of great – in size, as well as generosity of heart and mind – uncle) were as timorous (“PusillaniMOUSE! Oh, amn’t I a clever, clever Mole!”) and nervous as he had been, before the Water Rat and the Badger had helped him find what he now – mostly – thought of as his “courageous core” (although, sometimes, it felt as solid and enduring as the pinkest, wobbliest blancmange).

Partly it came from numbers; but mostly it came from knowledge, habit and necessity. In a world that was changing faster than the seasons, they had soon determined the exigency of their – and of all the other animals they knew (whether they cared for them, or not) – situation. Something had to be done; and, having discovered the large blueprints in the study, they knew that these held the key. But the Mole was correct in one regard: they understood the significance of these large sheets of heavy paper; but not their detail. And, yes, they were frightened by the scale of change: but this did not mean that they would not face it full on, given the chance. One mouse may not be very strong – although containing more concentrated fortitude than you could possibly imagine – but multiply their courage by the hundreds of kindred groups scattered throughout the shrinking meadows and dwindling copses, and there you have an army: as determined as any mole, water rat or badger; and with as big a united heart.

These tiny, almost hidden foot-soldiers – only visible to most others when they desired – were, in reality, as ever-present as early-morning spring dew and fledgling love; common as sudden summer thunder and cowslips; pervasive as autumn rust and squirrelled nuts; ubiquitous as frosty days and cutting winter’s winds. And, therefore, wherever you stood – from here in the newly-tamed Wild Wood to where the river had swept wide and languorous from before recorded times to the day that man’s greed had vanquished it (exiled, temporarily, to never-fading memories and perennial hand-me-down bedtime tales) – you were never far from one of their extended family groups: be it of tiny harvest-mice, or larger field- or wood-mice (some of whom had beautiful golden collars); and, consequently, always close by one of their numerous discreet dwellings and ancestral byways – linking cousin to cousin, uncle to nephew, aunt to niece, sister to brother, parent to child. Secretive as these creatures could be – often moving quickly from place to place – their expansive labyrinth was, nonetheless, the most efficient way any animal knew of moving significant news and notices around – sometimes seemingly faster than the original thought had taken to form; and so much more reliable than the whispering, rumorous breeze!

Their urge to keep their conspirations hidden from the Mole, for the moment, though, had clashed with their instinctive compulsion to keep his inherited home spick and span; and by leaving the plans subsequently unswept of dust, whilst applying their usual conscientiousness to the rest of the study (where they should not have been, of course), they had almost – through too much supposition and deliberation – drawn attention to their machinations. Luckily, every time the Mole entered this room, he was intent on one thing, and one thing only: solving the riddle that those drawings represented, so that they could never come to fruition; or, if they did, then be wiped from the face of the meadows they had so desecrated. He knew something didn’t quite add up, when he looked around his workspace – hence the umming and head-scratching – but those parts of his brain involved in adducing, deducing and inducing were too brimful of unresolved ideas and blind alleys for that particular something to register.

When the Badger had made his first appeal, under the old lime tree, it was therefore to the mice that he had turned to spread the word; sharing the heavier part of the burden with the rabbits: who were also scattered near and far; and who, it appeared – although only they knew the true extent, of course – had a similar network of extensive paths and burrows. The problem was – or, the problems were – the Twisted Pair of weasels: who had easily persuaded all these malleable “fluffy bunnies” that they were on a between-you-me-and-the-gatepost mission of the Badger’s; not helped, in turn, by the young, almost-minuscule-as-a-mouse rabbit recruit to the committee being both innnately gullible and readily intimidated – unnerved not only by its own shadow, but everyone-else’s: especially when larger, and in larger numbers (than one). Thus it was that the Chief Weasel so thoroughly usurped the Badger’s powers: dividing the animals into long-forgotten – once-traditional, perhaps – rôles of predator and prey.

The mice, however, had wisdom beyond their diminutive size – and this, too, came from their propensity to share, and always discuss matters of import amongst themselves, before reaching any decision with their collective circumspection: a custom that had served them well many, many times. (Proof that the Mole’s views on committees weren’t always correct!) It helped that they had never trusted the weasels and their collaborators, though: knowing them to be, in such matters, false prophets. Thus they had helped the Badger undermine the equivocating stoats and weasels – but, sadly, only so far as to convince those who were already on the Badger’s side. And not for long enough.

Leaf II: Walk out in the rain…

And one young mouse was so much braver than the rest; although only just as wise. However, what drove him to such courage, currently, was so much more than a need to protect his brethren – he was in love! Every week, therefore, he left his country burrow behind, and trekked the miles – so very far, for such tiny legs – to the nearest village, to ply his favours. But such distance only added fuel to his avidity: and he always reached his destination stronger, and more vital. (“Oh, to have a BUSHY tail!” he exclaimed, one day, upon arrival.) The long walk home seemed dreary in comparison.

Until one day, after his habitual trudge through the fields, roadside ditches, and then back gardens, he had been rewarded, not just with the embrace from his beloved, but her leading him by the paw to a room not unlike the Mole’s study – only on a much grander scale. “Why have you brought me HERE?” he asked, impatiently. “Well,” she responded: “wouldn’t YOU like to know!”

And soon he did. For on the circular table that filled the room lay the same heavy, dark-blue sheets that decorated the Mole’s desk – but plastered with stuck-on notes in a squiggly script that was, as yet, hard to unravel. “We haven’t got long. The Master will be back, soon. I just wanted you to see them; and see if they could help.”

He held her harder and longer than ever before, leaving her cheeks a becoming shade of rosy perfection. “What a wonderful, wonderful mouse you are!” he almost sang. “A genius above ALL other mouses… – as well as the most BEAUTIFUL, of course…” he added, hurriedly. “Why, I could…” – and then they perceived, over the tapping of the rain on the window, which wanted to come in and share the warmth with them, the sound of heavy boots, slightly muffled by the thick wooden door and threadbare kitchen rug, growing, growing, until the handle of the door was turned, and a slightly round, authoritative-looking giant of a man entered, with a mug of steaming coffee in one hand. By which time, of course, they had concealed themselves hurriedly in a dark corner of the room, under a tired, leather, tub-shaped chair.

“I must go home and tell Mister Mole”, whispered the young mouse, torn between staying and going, going and staying. “This might be important….” His already quiet voice faded, as he realized the sacrifice he must make. But he knew his partner’s discovery was BEYOND important. “Come with me. PLEASE…” he pleaded: holding her fading face in his outstretched paws. “I can’t. But you’ll be back soon. You HAVE to be. For me; and for the sake of your home.”

He knew she was right. And sooner than soon, he was deep in the Wild Wood, yoyoing up and down on that familiar bell-pull with all the might he had left, both feet well off the ground, listening to the deep-toned knell responding far, far away. This was no time to be sneaking in through the back, that was for sure.

“Not AGAIN,” said a weary and suspicious voice. And the heavy door creaked open, slowly, followed by the appearance of a stern-looking cudgel (not that there are many friendly ones), and then a sleepy-looking, shimmering, candlelit Mole, in his oversized dressing-gown and shuffling slippers.

“What, Mouse, my dear little fellow!” exclaimed the Mole, now brighter and awakening.“What ARE you doing in such foul weather? You look EXHAUSTED – and look at the state of your feet, all muddy and sore. Well I never! Ratty – it’s MOUSE!” he called, down the long corridor. “Come in with you,” he encouraged his young visitor, turning back to face the doorway. “Come IN with you; and have a wash and a warm-up. And then you must tell us why you are out on such a HORRID night. Ratty – put a pan of water on, won’t you, good fellow; and see what we have to eat…!”

An hour or so later, the Mole was lying back in his snug chair, next to the revivified fire, still chuckling at the appearance of their young guest; and the Water Rat and the Mouse were together on one of the settles in front of it, scarfing down the remains of some hastily assembled cheese, chutney and gherkin sandwiches, crumbs flying everywhere. The Mouse had not taken well to the proffered whisky: coughing like a dying steam train; and, therefore, a cooling mug of half-finished hot chocolate sat next to him, adding to the interlinked and overlapping circles branded into the ancient varnish: evidence of many previous toe-toasting callers in many previous storms.

“So, what brings you here, on such a terrible night?” asked the Rat, turning to his young friend, his eyes glistening with the reflected flames. “It’s the plans, sir; the PLANS.”

As the lightbulb switched on inside the Mole’s head – with remembrances of absent dust and thoughts of present tidiness – its glow emerged in his eyes as a bright tickled twinkle. “The PLANS?” he proclaimed, raising himself up a tad, and trying to sound as stentorian as possible for such a small furry animal (“and one with creaking bones”, he thought) – whilst looking a great deal less serious than he had intended: as that twinkle spread to his whole face, and the corners of his mouth began to curl. “The PLANS? WHAT plans?”

“Oh, sir, sir, just like the ones in your study, sir….” The Mouse’s voice faded as his shoulders drooped: realizing what he had revealed. But the Mole was desperately trying to stay in character, and thoroughly enjoying the sensation of power. “Do you mean to say – young Mouse – that YOU have been in MY study?”

But it was all too much: and, catching sight of the Rat – almost bent double, trying to suppress the shaking that comes with deep-seated laughter, then looking up, with tears of joy streaming down his face – the Mole let go of the last vestiges of pretence, and both he and the Rat exploded with paroxysms of shared merriment.

Knowing that he had been found out, and that this was Not A Bad Thing, the Mouse finally relaxed; and, when they had all wiped their faces of tears, and their small earthquakes of glee had subsided – and after being told never to call either of them “sir”, ever again, or to suffer the extremely ill-defined consequences – the Mouse explained – his words and phrases tumbling over each other in his haste to get the story out – how his family had been cleaning Mister Mole’s study (“we couldn’t ENDURE leaving it…”); found the blueprints; realized their significance; then their mistake in cleaning them; then their mistake in leaving them dusty; then seeing the same plans (“the same numbers in the corner, Mister Mole; the same strange shapes…”) at the old man’s house (“…and he’s as hairless as a newborn!”), where he had been visiting his umpteenth cousin, so many times removed; how very clever she had been; and how he had realized this was important, as well; and that maybe the two of them had chanced upon some sort of help, or ally; and then that he had rushed here to tell them. Immediately. Of course.

“Except I don’t remember anything between leaving her, and ringing the doorbell,” said the Mouse, bemused. “It didn’t even go by in a rush, like sometimes. One moment I was there; next, I was here. All I could think of was Mister Mole. I didn’t know YOU were back, sir… – sorry, Mister Water Rat, sir, Mister Rat, Mister RAT…. I’m sorry if I woke you both up…. But… did I do the right thing?”

“Of COURSE you did,” replied the Rat, soothingly, placing his paw gently on the young animal’s shoulder, and a big comforting grin on his own increasingly happy face. “You did BRILLIANTLY!”

“Although I’m not quite sure”, pondered the Mole, stroking his chin, “what to make of it all. A little cogitation; a little more sleep; and, when the sun rises, maybe it will shed a little light on it all. We… shall… see….”

Leaf III: New morning…

It was very late the next morning when the Mole awoke – startled to find himself actually in bed for once! The seduction of the now head-shaped, indented goose-feather pillow; the snug mattress with just-enough give; and the embracing eiderdown he had cocooned perfectly around himself, almost smothered his natural instinct to rise. But then, as his whiskery nose slowly started to twitch – entertained by a streel of smoked bacon, a babble of buttered toasted teacakes, and a cascade of coffee, severally wiggling energetically under his bedroom door, before linking arms for a feisty, literally in-your-face collective smiting – the piquant temptation pull of a full, and filling, brunchfast, quickly waxed utterly irrepressible. (“The lure of Morpheus wanes; and smitten I most certainly am by the sweet-and-savoury odours of Tantalus!”) It therefore did not take long for him to shamble unthinkingly into his slippers, before interleaving what remained with the dressing-gown dangling from the door-peg. Lifting the latch, those persuasive pungencies were completed by all the necessary sizzles, frizzles, spits, sputters, hisses and crackles that should always accompany the assembling of the model first meal of the day: food fit for fighting whatever it has to fling at you.

In the kitchen stood the Mouse: intent on prodding, stirring, checking, tasting, brewing, frying, grilling, buttering, pouring… – but, above all, singing!

Oh to be a mouse,
In a loverlee house,
By the kitchen stove,
With a pan, by Jove!

Oh to be a mouse,
With tons of nous,
A side of ham,
And pots of jam!

Oh to be a mouse,
And not a louse,

Oh to be a mouse…

For a moment, all the prodding, etc. stopped. “What ELSE rhymes with mouse?” he implored, looking to the ceiling for inspiration; and scratching his head with the wrong end of a wooden spoon (well, the right end for scratching, considering the other right end had been used to stir a pan of warming milk). “Howzabout ‘grouse’?” chuckled the Mole, quietly into his ear: causing the poor, startled Mouse to drop the spoon on his foot. “But THAT will have to wait for dinner!”

“Oh, Mister Mole, sir: I didn’t know you were there!” “I’m not – I’m HERE!” he replied, mischievously, taking a couple of steps back. “And ready for all of that FANTASTIC food! Well, when I say ALL, what I mean is that I’ll have a little bit of EVERYTHING, please!” And with that, he wandered over to the rarely-used dining table – which, today, pulled away from its usual resting place next to the wall, and both leaves extended, groaned with cutlery and crockery; pots of homemade raspberry jam and ginger marmalade; and piles of toast and currant teacakes – and dropped into a chair, after plumping up its gingham cushion. “But where’s Ratty?” he asked, looking at the two other chairs. “He NEVER misses breakfast, brunchfast, OR brunch.”

“I’m HERE!” came the distant reply. And a hint of an echo was joined by a crescendoing squelching and sprinkling of drips and drops: as the Water Rat – true to his name – made his way in from the passage that led to the front door in his stockinged feet, carrying a very muddy pair of Wellington boots in one paw, and a beading Stetson in the other. Water drizzled from his overcoat onto the stone slabs. “I take it that it’s still raining, then!” chortled the Mole, absentmindedly spreading his sleeve with butter.

Leaf IV: A hard rain’s a-gonna fall…

Mister Mole’s bacon and marmalade toasted sandwiches

1. Two thick slices of your favourite bread
2. A pot of best orange (preferably with ginger) marmalade
3. Freshly-churned butter
4. Four to six rashers (at least) of streaky bacon
5. Freshly-ground black pepper (optional)

Grill (or fry) the bacon until crispy on both sides. Meanwhile, toast the bread lightly; spread one side of each slice with lashings of butter (whilst the toast is hot); and then – once the butter has melted – add dollops of marmalade (and black pepper), to taste. Layer the crispy bacon immediately on the bottom slice; add the top slice; and, if feeling cowardly, or delicate, cut into two – and let munchings proceed whilst still hot! (It is advisable to have a very large napkin tucked into the top of your pyjamas: as butter will inevitably dribble down your greedy chin; and you will frequently need to wipe your paws!) Repeat as necessary!

“Everything’s stopped,” said the Water Rat, mysteriously, taking one of the tea-towels from the rail in front of the stove; and with a mixture of bemusement and happiness painted on his wind- and rainswept face; his whiskers still dripping; his clothes starting to steam with the heat of cooking, like frost emerging from shade on a sunny winter’s day. “EVERYTHING!”

Before the Mole or the Mouse had a chance to ask what-in-the-Wild-Wood he was gibbering on about, the Rat’s expression quickly changed to one of complete bliss, as his shiny nose began to quiver, and his eyes to sparkle: “Ooh, brunchfast! My FAVOURITE!” And, before the others even had a chance to say porridge-bacon-butter-teacakes-toast-jam-marmalade-and-coffee, he had dropped his soused hat, boots and coat onto the floor, and was sitting at the heavily-laden table, grasping his knife and fork, and banging the ends of their poor old ivory handles happily on its deeply-patinated, ancient wooden top; the tea-towel tucked under his chin. “A little bit of EVERYTHING, please, Mister Mouse. SIR!”

Once the Water Rat had greedily broken his fast, and been satiated with enough scrumptiousness to make some sort of sense – and whilst waiting for a helping of thirds from the Mouse, humming happily back at the stove – the Mole – filling all three mugs with yet more deep, dark, thick, almost treacly, piping coffee – started to squeeze the Rat’s morning story from him, raindrop by raindrop.

“It’s deserted,” spluttered the Rat: his voice slightly slurred by the fact he was talking into his mug, rather than to his colleagues. “Deserted. And the whole place has turned to sludge; with that big, awful machine up to its knees – if it HAD knees – in the stuff. I knew SOMETHING had happened: because it was the first morning I’d woken up, since returning, not being continually thumped in the back. So I went out to investigate. And what a foul morning I found… – even for ME! Le Rat D’eau; M’sieur Campagnol Amphibie; le grand Campagnol Aquatique!”

“So what time did you go out?” asked the Mole, wiping his extremely puzzled face (and trying to ignore this very peculiar outburst). “I didn’t hear you at all. But, without that infernal banging, I slept sounder than sound. A log amongst logs.”

“I bet THIS won’t have hurt, either,” chipped in a cheeky voice from the direction of yet more sizzling and frizzling – and in-between extemporizing hums of both activity and song – brandishing the empty bottle high above his head. “It certainly didn’t,” grinned the Mole. “But what ELSE did you find, Ratty? Why has it all suddenly ground to a halt?”

“I couldn’t get back to sleep,” yawned the Rat: “so I lay there, wondering if I should – could be bothered to, really – go out and watch the sun rise. But it’s probably as dark now as it was in the middle of the night. I’ve never seen such weather; such thick, dark clouds. If it carries on like this, the River will be back. Soon….” The momentary silence in the room was accompanied by an evanescent expression of dreaminess deep within the Water Rat’s moistening eyes. “But we all know that’s NEVER going to happen. Don’t we…?” Even the spits and sputters sensibly hushed for that moment; and the Mole and the Mouse looked at each other, and then the Rat, with an ineffable sympathy for their friend.

“Anyhoo,” he continued, composing himself: “Once I’d realized just how tranquil everything was; and this old hooter of mine had also come to, and discerned just how very damp it was, outside; I KNEW I had to drag myself out. What I wasn’t prepared for was all that mud. Everywhere – it’s everywhere. It can’t have stopped raining since YOU turned up, last night, Mouse. (Another bacon butty? Oh, yes PLEASE!) Protected by all these trees, it’s fine, here. But once you get to the edge of the Wild Wood, it’s a mire of utter muddy mayhem: as if a herd of giant pigs had spent the night trampling and rolling around in the meadows… – where the meadows used to be, I mean. That’s why everything’s stopped. Apart from the rain. But I’m not really sure what it all signifies. It’s probably only temporary, isn’t it? And it’ll all start up again once the sun comes out. But wouldn’t it be marvellous if it wasn’t; if it didn’t? And the River returned….”

Brunchfast – although it was near-enough lunchtime – thus finished in silence (although there was much self-restrained slurping, chomping, and soft smacking of lips): as the Mole and the Mouse ruminated on the Water Rat’s report. Was it good news, or bad? Who would know?

The Rat, though, dreamed of burblings and rushing eddies; the rhythmic creaking of boats moored by riverbanks, tickled by the coolness and gentleness of enveloping currents on a summer’s day. And a small, essential, central part of him – which he had believed was locked away for ever, deep and forgotten – rose within; and opened up the remote possibilities of a life lived out to its rightful conclusion: ending where it had begun, by and in the water that still flowed through his very veins.

Leaf V: Lone pilgrim…

Unlike most of the local creatures – who never ventured far from where they were born, throughout their lives – the Badger (at night) and the Water Rat (of a day) had both been keen explorers: the Badger knowing every copse, hedgerow, track, bump and lump, for miles around; and the Rat being acquainted with every inch of every stream, brook, source, and, of course, the River itself – the waters’ heights in every season; the currents that would catch others out; whether they were good to drink, swim or sail in; or just suitable for a good paddle!

The Mole, he felt, proudly, had been getting there gradually – not bad for someone who had spent most of his existence happily underground, before… – becoming an able navigator on land and by rowing boat; and being able to work his way back to most places from all the other ones: albeit sometimes by unexpected, but happy, diversions. The trees – should you spend long enough with them: learning their names, and their distinctive shapes; their histories… – were the most amenable guides: and he would often spend hours, resting against their trunks, between habituated, enfolding roots, reading; or lying flat beneath their summer shade, doing nothing much other than the occasional bit of thinking, or humming, or snoozing, of course; occasionally sketching the most distinctive ones – the pollarded willows, reinforcing the River’s banks; the stools of coppiced ash, just inside the Wild Wood; the stag-headed field-oaks – or just an individual leaf, twig, branch or fruit. “Not forgetting Badger’s small-leaved lime,” whispered the Mole, sadly.

Thus, they became his friends, as well as companion couriers; his protectors – from sudden rainstorms, and especially those squalls of uninvited guests: rending the boscage around his new home confounding and minatory to those who they knew would be unwelcome visitors. Thus, those few leviathans that had perished – now passed on, no longer sentient; their expansive, useful lives faded into dark, eternal sleep – happily gave up lumber and kindling to keep the Mole warm in winter, too. But he still would thank them, as he stacked their logs in the hearth; or loaded them into the stove, or onto the open fire: their spirits now free to roam; their acorns, berries, seedpods, mast, or conkers, long having given rise to the fresh, green lives of sapling successors.

Along with the River, so many, many of those trees had their lives cruelly cut short. Uprooted, then towed away, unceremoniously, through the churned mire, with none of the due respect paid to them, all that remained was contained in the Mole’s deep mind; and in his deft drawings. He closed his eyes: reliving his favourite perambulation, up, away from the the Wild Wood, and beyond the River, to the small ridge of new plantations full of young upstarts reaching for the sky through the interwoven thickets; stretching, with extended trunks, shaking each other’s branches heartily as they flourished in the cool, rising air. Recently thinned, the scrub had been replaced by yet more mud – but, at least, the large proportion of these adolescents still clung on.

It was the ancient waymarkers – “every single last one of the poor things”, sighed the Mole – which had been taken. “It wasn’t enough that all the elms had withered; but they had to grub out the thriving ash, too; the gentle birch, the rare limes, the whispering beeches; and the grand, old, statesman oaks – so much older than memory or myth,” he muttered, dabbing at his face with the edge of his dressing-gown.

He lowered his misted eyelids once more; and traced the hedgerows: plucking at the ripe, purple berries scambling over the happy, gurgling, welcome spring; appraising the varied textures, rough and smooth, of each familiar trunk, as he lingered; resting on the fallen, bent arm of the wild service tree, still attached, still alive with spotted chequers, guarding the entrance to a diminishing group of its wizened intimates – “a remnant of Badger’s ancient forest, no doubt…” – creaking amiably, as it reacquainted itself with his weight.

The wind called; the boughs responded. The birds sang, too: hidden in roost or nest. The light shone warm on his face. Across the glimmering River was home, and the Wild Wood, threaded with clearing wisps – the souls of those long gone, clinging, still, to their wonted haunts. Alone, he might be; but not lonely. Not here; not now.

A log shifted in the grate: the whiff of woodsmoke tickling the Mole’s nose, and waking him with its remembrances of reckless savagery, of brutal, unnecessary, destruction. “Blast!” he bawled, determinedly. “Blast! Blast! BLAST!”

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