January 2014


OF MOUSE & WOMAN

 

For Woody
By
Charles P. Whitin

 

 

Woody was a big, red, longhaired wiener-dog. Four feet from nose to tail and weighing a lean forty-two pounds, he was one whale of a dachshund. In many ways he was an awful dog, but he loved Dave and his owner loved him back equally. It was that simple. Like many of his breed, Woody was territorial, with a bad case of what dog shrinks label “fear-aggressive.” He detested other dogs, except for his mother, Cosi, who also lived with Dave. Were it not for the fact that Dave kept him imprisoned in the yard with an electric collar or else on a leash at all times, Woody would have fought them all. Every once and a while he would escape, and inevitably there would be trouble. He could also be destructive. Once Woody ate the inside of Dave’s Mercedes while it was parked at the local vegetable stand. Woody, desperate to get at the trucks whizzing past on the road, out of reach beyond the windshield glass, probably thought they were bigger dogs. Whatever his failings, Woody taught Dave many things.

Woody loved the rocky shore below Dave’s house, where, since it was isolated, it was relatively safe to let him run free. Summer or winter, Woody’s first calling was to wade into the water over his head, paddle around, circle back, and sit for a few moments, covered to his neck, looking out to sea. He seemed delighted to do this. If he could have spoken, Woody might have said, “Awesome!” And then, after rolling in the sand or better yet, if he could find it, something exceptionally stinky-dead and rank, he would follow his astounding nose, zigzagging wildly between the high tide line and the berm of the beach, where it turned steep, covered with impenetrable patches of fragrant rosa ragosa, sea grapes, and often as not with red, gold oil glistening poison ivy. It was an amazing thing to watch him energized, tail whipping like a metronome gone berserk, oblivious to the pain from the thorns. At first, it made no sense to Dave when Woody would stop by some large rock, circle, claw and scratch around it, biting stones and sending them catapulting out beneath, beside and behind him with his paws, yelping. Thus engaged, there was no distracting him, a hound on a mission.

Early on in his existence—now many years ago—Dave decided to help Woody with his quest by lifting the bigger rocks for him under which, very much to Dave’s surprise, there would always be a nesting mouse or several mice, disturbed and scurrying in every direction, with Woody frantic to catch them. At first, Woody was inefficient, snapping at all and catching none, but after a few tries, Woody mastered the art, and thence forward, they worked together as a team. Normally cautious about anyone near his food, the dachshund evidently trusted Dave as the Alpha; it was useful to have him perform the heavy lifting and besides, he always ‘shared’ the mice he caught. Gobbling them as fast as he could eat, a gourmet candy treat for dogs, sometimes swallowing entire families at a time. Many times things happened so quickly that all Dave would see was a mouse-tail disappearing down the carnivore’s mouth. This game went on every time they walked on the beach. Game is a misnomer, really, as for Woody this was serious business and for the mice, especially, the playing was entirely for keeps.

Every summer people rented Dave’s beach house for a month or two. One summer, a strange couple came to stay, and they returned year after year. They were strangely ordinary, yet they were really strange. Although there was silverware and nice china in the closet, for example, they always arrived with a month’s worth of paper plates and cups, plastic knives, forks and spoons because the wife did not want to wash dishes. She was kind of doughy in physique and complexion, with smallish, bird-like features, and was often sighted wandering around in frumpy clothes, aimless and complaining. Her husband was an exceptionally tall pathologist. Nearly bald, he wore gold-rimmed glasses and he looked down his nose at everyone, as though they were specimens under his microscope. Whenever he said something, his wife echoed it, and whatever he did, she would copy him, as best she could. She complained before they went anywhere, “Do we really have to do this?” timid and always preferring to stay at home. At restaurants, it was “I’ll have the same thing that he ordered,” and in bed at night she munched on salted sunflower seeds and dried currants. Oftentimes she was so flatulent that her husband slept elsewhere.

Her name was Jill. His name was Kurt. Kurt was bored with Jill and felt harassed in her company 24/7, and on vacation he would go off running and bicycling for hours. “What on earth were you doing all that time?” Jill inevitably asked him upon his return, somehow managing to undermine Kurt’s hard work, magic of endorphins and the miracle of separation every time. Looking down his long nose, Kurt often wished that Jill would just disappear. “Shut up!” he thought, lips unmoving. “Be gone!” he wished.

One day, upon returning from his morning run, red-faced and reeking from the stench of old running clothes commingled with copious amounts of accrued sweat, Kurt looked at Jill, thinking the usual dismissive thoughts, and she shrank. Literally. Shocked down to his toes, Kurt could hardly believe what had occurred. Stunned, he realized the connection between thought and deed, and over the next few minutes, every time Kurt looked at her, he reduced Jill further, awed by his newfound power. Where had it come from? He was a scientist, after all, and this made no sense. He gaped at Jill, by now the size of an albino eggplant or a fifth of gin. He thought, “Enough. I’ll make her big again,” but to no avail. Kurt became increasingly alarmed, having no clue of how to reverse the bizarre process. Overwhelmed for once, Kurt did not know what to do.

Understandably upset with her diminution, Jill complained bitterly, more irritating than ever. “What is happening to me?” she squealed. Flummoxed, not ready to admit his complicity, or powerlessness to resolving the dilemma, Kurt decided to put Jill into the kitchen cupboard, where she was out of sight behind its wooden doors. Chilled and afraid of the dark, Jill did not like any of this and made a clatter as she crashed around the pots and pans, huddling in the nest of ill-fitting clothes that had fallen off her decimated self, wanting to get out. When Kurt moved from the kitchen back into the living room, he could not hear her anymore, which he found to be a good thing. Kurt needed time to think. Just for starters, he pondered: how could he possibly explain this to anyone? And even if he tried, who would believe him when he told them he had a mysterious power to wish a person smaller and make it happen? How could he possibly account for her absence, were Jill to disappear?

It was precisely at this moment that Dave and Woody, returning from their walk upon the beach, drove in the driveway to check up on the house, and make sure everything was in order for the tenants. Prepared for the worst from prior experience, Dave knew how these people were messy and not domestically inclined. They could not seem to change a light bulb by themselves or at least they had never bothered. Dave also knew that they either did not understand recycling or else they were unwilling to sort their trash, so he always had to sift through it for them after they left, or the town’s one-armed trash collector would refuse to pick it up. Just the summer before, he forgot to do this, and their uncollected detritus had rotted for weeks, unseparated and growing maggots.

Dave knocked on the back door, and hearing no reply, he walked into the kitchen, Woody close upon his heels. Remnants of Kurt’s culinary efforts over the previous several days littered the counter tops along with dozens of crusty, disposable paper dishes and unwashed pots and pans. Even knowing what to expect, Dave was taken aback, amazed to see how such privileged people as Jill and Kurt chose to live. “Oh well,” he rationalized, it could all be cleaned up after they left in a few weeks. After all, they had paid him a fat rent for the privilege of living like slobs in his house.

There was an odd sound across the room. Dave noticed Woody cock his head to one side inquisitively, pricking up his ears, immediately on alert. Unusual noises emanated from the corner of the kitchen, and dog and man both zeroed in on the probable source. Woody pointed, transfixed and rigid, and quivering with excitement. Dave reached over and opened the cabinet door, where, to his amazement he spied a pink, rodent-sized, nearly hairless creature clambering among the pans, seemingly quite out of sorts. He was startled even more when the humanoid had demanded “Get—me—out—of—here!” in an imperious, pipsqueak staccato. Suddenly things got out of hand. Woody, watching everything, and so much quicker than Dave, or for that matter, any man, lunged for the thing, scattering the pots and pans. Before Dave could possibly stop him, Woody had seized the bizarre creature by the neck, shaking it like a rag doll, and in the next, horrifying blink of an eye, Woody swallowed it whole. The feet were the last thing Dave saw going down.

“Oh—my—God!” were the only words that Dave could summon. What had he seen? This, he knew, was going to be impossible to explain, and for anyone else to absorb.

Hearing the commotion in the kitchen, Kurt walked in from the dining room, “Oh Dave, it’s you. What’s all the ruckus?” he inquired. Dave stood there in the middle of the kitchen, chin palmed in both hands, forefinger covering his lips, for the moment speechless. Kurt looked at Dave, and then down at the dachshund, and the open cabinet door.

Dave told Kurt he had come over to check up on things, and make sure everything was alright, and—it had all happened so quickly—about how Woody heard an odd noise in the cabinet, and that he had opened it, finding a strange-looking, hairless mouse-like rodent, and that Woody had eaten it whole, in one bite. Woody wagging his tail, looked at his master expectantly. Dave could not believe what he thought he might have seen, while Kurt stared at the dog. “Then,” Dave told him, “I guess there’s nothing much to worry about.”

“Oh, Woody,” Kurt said.