Note: Written for Erin/Posting Mod for the 2017 Summer SSHG Promptfest on LiveJournal based on the prompt, "An elderly Crookshanks, knowing his time is near, leads a fuzzy family to the safety of Hermione and Severus' home." As this is a finished work that was written for a specific recipient and prompt, concrit is not being solicited.
©2017 Mundungus42. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior permission from the author. Permission may be obtained by emailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com. This is an amateur, non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by any lawful holders.
Thank you so much for your owl and the lovely drawing of Crookshanks, which has been given a place of honour near the stove so we see it whenever we make tea. I'm also so grateful for your kind condolences—we do miss him terribly, but seeing him rendered in crayon in all his bottle-brushy glory makes us smile, even the Professor when he thinks I'm not looking.
In your note, you asked where Crookshanks has gone, and I'm afraid there's no short or easy answer to that, other than that no-one can say for certain. What I can tell you is that he's not physically here with us, and he won't be coming back. This makes us very sad as well, even though, as I'm sure your parents have told you, we have new pets now that we adore, and I can't wait for you to meet them.
Of course, Crookshanks' departure and our new pets' arrival are related, thanks to the Stone Barn Council. That's where everything was decided, and as a member of the family, I think you should know just what happened there.
Now, many dogs believe that at the ends of their lives, they go to a place where there is eternal sniffing. But in that place, love is the predominant smell, and those creatures who loved or who were loved by the same creature, even if their lives never intersected, smell that love on one another, and they become part of the greater pack, and the love comforts them as they wait for their other companions to join them.
On the other hand, cats believe that they are led by a spirit kitten to a land of silver moonlight and dappled shadows, where they may hunt and nap as they please. The air is filled with songs of their great deeds, and fish regularly fall from the sky. Or that is what a few of them have whispered into sympathetic ears, but they are a secretive folk and fond of mischief, so what they say and what they believe may be very different things.
Crookshanks was our beloved cat, but he was also part Kneazle, and Kneazles have the gift of seeing what is hidden to most, including what lies beyond life's borders. He lived with us a great many years longer than any domestic cat could have, but when summer faded into autumn, he felt the other world drawing closer, and knew that he had to act to ensure that those he left behind would be well-cared for.
That also includes you, Sweeting.
So it was that Crookshanks summoned the Stone Barn Council, which was comprised of all the friendly creatures in the neighbourhood, as well as a number of Kneazles from further afield who also sensed that Crookshanks's time was near and came to aid him and bear witness, for he was well-known in both feline and Kneazle circles.
You might not know that Crookshanks was famous long before I met him in Diagon Alley. That's when they started calling him Crooks for short, since he helped his Auror friend break up a group who was stealing Sphinx hatchlings and trading them illegally. But she eventually passed away, and Crookshanks didn't much like her husband, so he went off in search of a new home. Fortunately, the owner of Magical Menagerie knew it was pointless to argue with a part-Kneazle who had decided to wait in her store for the right sort of person, because Kneazles are very particular. But I digress.
The night of the Stone Barn Council was unusually warm, and a full moon could be seen through the holes in the old barn's roof.
Crookshanks called the meeting to order, though of course order is a relative term in a room filled with creatures who are natural enemies to one another. And while Crookshanks had no gavel, he was in possession of a fine singing voice. So he leapt up on a crossbeam and sang them this song:
Welcome, O council of neighbours and friends,
And my thanks for this fragile détente
Between enemies, vermin, and pets, which portends,
That some creatures will get what they want.
Intercede, O Black Rabbit and Silvering Owl,
Lord Hedgehog and Heavenly Stoat,
Guide Kitten, Great Dog, feyest creatures and fowl,
Valiant Vixen, and witness our vote.
For the prize to be won is a treasure beyond
All accounting—the right shall prevail
And forge with my household a powerful bond,
For soon shall end Crookshanks's tale.
My friends, I am grateful you chose to take part
To give counsel to council at will.
Discussions like this call for stoutest of heart
For my pawprints aren't easy to fill.
My family's not of the regular kind,
For they live in their cottage alone.
To fancy society they're disinclined,
And their offspring are all of them grown.
But do not mistake my Professor and Friend
For old homebodies hidden away.
Because of their bravery, battles did end;
We all have had peace since that day.
While warriors both, battle-tested and true,
Not a Spartan existence have they:
Their garden abounds with both roses and rue,
A space both for work and for play.
A house that encompasses silence and din,
With two or with numerous filled,
Needs loyal companions through thick and the thin,
Both the strong and the flexibly-willed.
The recompense, friends, you will just have to see
For yourselves, though as Kneazle and cat,
I solemnly swear that I judge it to be
A superlative pet habitat.
While the food is abundant and reasonably good
And the comforts are pleasant to see,
It's the warmth of the love, thoroughly understood,
That felicitous life guarantees.
I ask: who among you would dare take my place
In that family of valour and heart?
The other side beckons, its call I embrace,
As my knowledge to you I impart.
Present yourselves, animals, each in your turn,
To your qualifications give voice.
This council and I will decide who will earn
Both the burden and honour: my choice.
By the end of Crookshanks's invocation, the different factions had settled into relatively orderly camps, and the guest Kneazles joined him on the crossbeam, gazing down in silent judgement.
"I sincerely hope you're not only going to listen to that lot," squeaked a hedgehog, hoisting himself atop the flat tire of a rusted-out tractor. "We're the ones who'll have to live with whomever it is."
There was a murmur of agreement from the neighbourhood animals, and loud jabbering from the Garden Gnomes and Bowtruckles.
One Kneazle, who went by the name of Catastrophe, cleared her throat. "You needn't be afraid, friends," she said. "Our presence here is observational. We will offer opinions if they are solicited, but otherwise, I suggest that you pretend we're not here."
"Fat chance of that," muttered a small mongrel in the back whose scruffy coat was covered with hay.
"If you doubt the impartiality and wisdom of this council, there is no need for you to participate," said Crookshanks to the dog, his eyes flashing. "Your kind are well-enough represented."
The dog blew dismissively through his flews at the assortment of sheepdogs and retrievers glaring at him, deliberately turned around, and curled up where he sat.
Crookshanks ignored him. "Let us hear the first candidate," he declared in stentorian tones.
A tortoiseshell cat of impressive weight leapt delicately on the bonnet of the tractor and washed herself nonchalantly behind her ears.
"What is your name?" asked Crookshanks.
"I am called Wormcrusher."
"Crushing's a waste of perfectly good worms, if you ask me," muttered the hedgehog.
"Nobody did," said a stoat from the shadows behind a wooden crate.
"Where do you come from?" asked Crookshanks.
"The library in the village."
"Do they feed you there?" asked Crookshanks.
"Of course, and the library patrons bring me treats. I'm not interested in this position because I don't already have one," said Wormcrusher archly.
The mongrel, at whom her comment had been aimed, bared his teeth at her but said nothing.
"State your case," said Crookshanks.
The Library Cat's Song
I am not named for crushing worms
Who in the garden turn the soil,
But those whose occupance confirms
A book's destruction, thus my toil.
I do not capture silver fish
Who flicker in the limpid stream,
But rather those whose dearest wish
Is shelves of tomes on which to teem.
The moths I have been known to mash,
Which might on antique bindings dine,
And boorish boring beetles bash,
And trample termites asinine.
Yet in my innermost of hearts,
I do not vermin-hunt to live.
My passion is in greater parts
For what my charges have to give.
My claws shall never pierce a page,
Nor pad besmirch or binding crack,
For books the woes of life assuage,
From folio to paperback.
When nightly vermin are rebuffed,
I curl up in the window-seat.
The readers there are often chuffed,
My purring is a special treat.
So with the readers I do roam
Through jungle and on mountain-top,
By sailing ships we ford the foam,
On loves and enemies eavesdrop.
So how could I, who only know
Of heroes from the things I read,
Neglect to show portfolio
To you and then my case to plead?
Your family, who also love
Their library, which I'd protect
And share your peoples' joy thereof,
Are worthy of my deep respect.
Their grandchildren I'll introduce
To new and strange fantastic lands.
For adults with their works abstruse,
I'll purr beneath their stroking hands.
New books and friends, new pests to fight,
It's all a thrill to comprehend
And whet Wormcrusher's appetite,
Though sad to see my tenure's end.
I hope I've reached receptive ears
Who might this post to me assign,
I'd love new books in coming years,
Since I have finished all of mine!
There was a smattering of polite applause and the rabbits began to murmur amongst themselves.
"Thank you, Wormcrusher," said Crookshanks. "We will announce our decision after we've heard the other petitions."
"Well, so much for that," said the hedgehog. "She's got the job, hasn't she?"
"Hush," said a border collie. "She's not the only one speaking tonight."
"Let the next candidate step forward," said Crookshanks.
There was a loud clanking and clattering from above, and a handful of coins and shiny metal baubles fell from the eaves as a small creature scurried down one of the support posts.
"Sorry! Sorry!" he said. "I was saving those, but I wanted to throw my hat into the ring. Or," he said, holding aloft a golden hoop earring, "my ring into the hat? Ha ha!"
"What are you?" asked one of the sheepdogs.
"Rude!" exclaimed the strange creature, tucking the earring and several coins into an invisible pouch on his underside. "You asked the cat what her name was."
"Niffler," said Crookshanks in a scornful voice, "what do you call yourself, then?"
"My name is Digg Silverburrow," said the Niffler with dignity.
"Where do you come from?" asked Crookshanks.
"Oh, here and there."
"Is there a living in that?"
"Oh yes, a tidy one," said the Niffler absently, collecting the trinkets he'd dropped. "But my wandering days are over. It's my dearest wish to settle down, and I quite like the neighbourhood."
"State your case," said Crookshanks, slowly hoisting a leg and licking himself.
The Niffler's Song
My name is Digg,
And in the wold,
Or stores where things
Are bought and sold,
I search for things
Fine to behold,
I find them then,
I steal the—
The Niffler cleared his throat. "—opportunity to ensure that anything lost is returned to its owner," he finished, lamely.
The Kneazles looked at one another, frowning, but Crookshanks' face was impassive.
Encouraged, the Niffler began to sing again.
I have explored
The river Thames
Beneath all rocks
And ladies' hems.
Though I ignore
The flowers' stems,
I might just make
Off with some—
The Niffler ran a paw over the top of his head and his black eyes darted from side to side. "—some grand ideas for keeping one's valuables safe," he said at last.
By this time, a number of the sheepdogs who moonlighted as guard dogs were beginning to growl. The Niffler scurried up on top of the tractor's bonnet and produced a tiny hat and cane which it began to wave in time to its song as it danced.
And I can pick
From groups of girls
The one who'll dance
With merry twirls
Which makes me see
Like opal swirls
The shining from
Her string of—
"Pearls," said a fox from somewhere in the back.
"—bad decisions that will lead her to no good," said the Niffler loudly.
Several of the rabbits began to boo, and they were quickly joined by the hedgehogs.
"Have you more to say?" asked Crookshanks.
The Niffler looked more than a bit chagrined that his song was going over so poorly. "I still have to tell you why I want the position!"
Crookshanks sighed. "Very well. Continue."
But in a house
I deeply feel
Will I find joy
And tasty meal.
I have great zeal,
And once I'm there,
"STEAL!" sang the animals in unison.
"—appreciate and respect as I would my own," said the Niffler, nervously stuffing the hat and cane back into his pouch.
And now my song
To all of you
And my salute.
I hope you will
This Digg recruit
To be your friend,
Who loves to—
"Root?" asked a badger from the shadows.
"Toot?" suggested a hedgehog, giggling.
"Scoot?" said a rabbit.
"Loot, you cretins," said a German Shepherd, whose hackles were raised impressively.
"—be part of a respectable household that has far more Orders of Merlin than any family could reasonably use," whined the Niffler.
One of the rabbits sent a gnawed bit of old potato sailing at the Niffler, which was followed by other bits of detritus from the stoats. Catastrophe the Kneazle yowled for order, which was re-established once the Niffler had retreated up into the shadowy rafters, where he could hardly be seen.
"Thank you for that most unusual song," said Crookshanks, who appeared more amused than insulted. "We have other candidates to hear, but I doubt any will be quite so memorable."
Several birds on the eaves chattered in a scandalised way until silenced by a warning hoot from one of the village post owls.
Crookshanks ambled over to one of the Kneazles and began to speak quietly in her ear.
"Perhaps this is rude of me to say, but I don't think he really wants the job," remarked the largest rabbit to the others. "I think he just wants Crookshanks to let him in so he can ransack the place."
"Deplorable," replied one rabbit with sandy fur. "The worst kind of cynicism."
"I thought you were planning to do the same thing for access to their vegetable garden," remarked a doe.
"That may be so," said the sandy rabbit, twitching his whiskers. "But I'd have been much less obvious about it. Ah well, nothing for it. I suppose one felonious candidate is enough for them, and I can still steal from the garden even as a wild rabbit. You may have my place in line," he said to a badger, who was shifting her weight from foot to foot to foot to foot, as if uncertain if or when to step forward.
"That's very kind of you," said the badger.
Crookshanks finished his private conversation and sat back down on the beam. "We're ready to hear the next candidate."
"I am she," said the badger, hoisting herself awkwardly atop a wooden crate near the panel of Kneazles.
"What is your name?"
"Beetroot Understood," she said.
A few of the less terrified animals snickered.
"She's Miss Understood," said a robin. "Fancy that!"
"Those are human words, not a proper name" said Crookshanks.
The badger looked somewhat taken aback. "I prefer being called Beetroot," she said firmly.
"Got something to hide, have you?" asked the half-hidden stoat.
"Of course not," said the badger, with a touch of pride, "but Gunnor of the Red Teeth is a bit grand for everyday use."
There were squeals of terror from the hedgehogs and several of the rabbits fainted dead away, since badgers of the Red Teeth clan had terrorised their families for generations.
The badger sighed. "And that's why I chose the name Beetroot."
"Very well, Beetroot," said Crookshanks. "Where do you come from?"
"The primrose sett on the far side of the field," said Beetroot. "But I've struck out on my own of late."
"You are a wild badger who wishes to live in a human household?" asked Crookshanks.
"I am, and I do," said Beetroot.
"I object!" shouted a hysterical rabbit. "She just wants access to my warren south of the vegetable patch! Our pups will be devoured in their sleep!"
Beetroot bowed her head. "I don't blame you for believing that, but that's not the reason."
"Very well," said Crookshanks. "State your case."
The Misunderstood Badger's Song
My ancestors were trapped, and gassed, and forced to fight,
By which we learned to hone our wits and build our might,
In sett to share our wisdom and our strength restore,
That Badgerkind be solitary nevermore.
The Red Teeth Clan is mightiest of mighty setts:
My father, Hormun, shredder of all snares and nets,
My mother, Ingarl, digger-out of burrowed prey,
My brother, Hargeth, interlopers all does slay,
My sister, Angorn, peerless poison-sniffer saved
My younger siblings, all for whom the path was paved
To acts of valour passing all that came before,
That Badgerkind be solitary nevermore.
Our stripes became synonymous with violence
But from the first I viewed such things with reticence,
And when their claws gleamed red from eating foraged meats,
I found the food I craved the most was humble beets.
And when my family espied my nightly raid
Of worms and insects under rocks within the glade,
Their mockery and rudeness shook me to my core;
Those Badgers kind to me were, sadly, nevermore.
There was an audible sniffle from the direction of the rabbits. Beetroot's haunches relaxed slightly, and she continued her song.
One night I followed rabbits to the humans' fence,
Bewitched by wond'rous smells that emanated thence.
And digging into apple tree with mighty claw,
I climbed into the branches, which is where I saw
The splendid garden laid before me, every patch
Did shimmer silver in the moonlight, without match;
The vines and shrubs were heavy with great things to eat,
Including rows and rows of my beloved beet.
As glorious as this appeared at first to me,
The garden's bounty wasn't all there was to see.
Beyond it rose a giant hill that filled my sight,
And from it emanated squares of golden light.
A sett so massive it could hardly be conceived
By Badgerkind, a "house" they call it, I believe,
And through the openings within its doughty walls,
I saw such wonders, and the sight held me in thrall.
For there I saw, observing all with frank delight,
Two humans looking outward, their expressions bright.
I feared the humans meant the raiding rabbits harm,
And so I nearly raised a bellowing alarm.
But I stayed silent when I saw them raise their wands
And levitated carrot stumps and leafy fronds
And dropped them in the leafy shadows of the hedge,
Where all the hungry rabbits foraged for their veg.
I knew then these were humans that I wished to know,
To whom we garden scavengers brought joy, not woe;
Upon whose family I wanted to attend,
And whose enormous sett I needed to defend.
I do not know if they shall need my claws to dig
New chambers for their home, as it's already big,
But when I curl up by the fire or on the rugs,
I'll happily apportion them fair shares of bugs.
A couple of the domestic cats sniggered nastily.
"I didn't know humans were so civilized as to eat bugs," said a hedgehog.
"They aren't," said a Labrador. "Thank goodness."
This was met with additional sniggers from the audience as the joke spread throughout the barn.
Beetroot appeared to shrink, apparently distressed by the gaffe, but when one of the foxes gave a loud guffaw, she snarled and struck the surface of the wooden crate upon which she stood, leaving deep gouges in the wood.
Misunderstood am I, but you must understand
Respect of all within my sett I will demand.
Unto my final breath, this Beetroot will bequeath
Defence of all I bring into the Clan Red Teeth.
I do not know precisely what will lie ahead,
Or where a weary human likes to make her bed,
But this my vow which only fools would dare ignore:
This Badger will be solitary nevermore.
Beetroot clasped her claws and bowed her head to signal the end of her song.
The smaller creatures were still frozen with fear, but the stoats and foxes made up for their silence with enthusiastic applause.
"Wouldn't have thought that they'd have much use for someone who'd eat their young without a second thought," commented a merlin to a kestrel.
"If Beetroot goes to the house, that's one less badger for them to worry about meeting on a dark night," said the kestrel.
"Thank you, Beetroot," said Crookshanks. "Who's next?"
"I am," said a sepulchral voice from the shadows.
The still-nervous hedgehogs reflexively curled up into spiny balls as a Kneazle with a magnificent silver coat approached the council, walking delicately along the edge of a long-empty stall and twitching the tuft of his lion-like tail.
Several of the Kneazles exchanged glances.
"What's Shredder doing here?" a black Kneazle whispered to Catastrophe.
"I haven't the foggiest," she said, shrugging elegantly.
"Name?" asked Crookshanks.
"Shroudshredder," said the silver Kneazle, "as you know."
"Where do you come from?"
"The churchyard down the lane, as you know."
"I do not know," said Crookshanks. "I thought you were haunting graveyards in Gloucestershire."
"I desired a change of scenery," said Shroudshredder.
The panel of Kneazles had grown unnaturally still, and Crookshanks and Shroudshredder were looking intently at one another, as if having a silent conversation.
At last, Crookshanks broke eye contact, raised his bottle-brush tail, and began to knead his paws into the wooden beam upon which he and the other Kneazles were sitting.
"Very well. State your case, Great One."
A surprised buzz went up from the animals to hear Crookshanks name Shroudshredder as a direct descendent of the First Kneazles.
"Well, that's torn it," said a hedgehog. "He's got the job. We might as well go back to our holes now."
"Do shut up," said a fox. "I want to listen."
Shroudshredder raised his eyes to the roof of the barn and began to sing.
Elegy of the Graveyard Kneazle
O Melody Spinner, please favour my song,
With notes both concordant and sweet;
And Tiger the Wise, make my argument strong
And my mouth for its melody fleet!
Give me pureness of heart, Aphroditia White,
Do the same to all creatures who hear!
And give comfort to all who may quail the night,
Thou Black Kitten, companion so dear!
"I do hope he's not going through the entire pantheon," said a hedgehog, yawning and relaxing slightly from his curled-up posture.
The attendant Kneazles hissed at him so emphatically that he squeaked and tucked himself back into a ball. Shroudshredder appeared unfazed by the interruption and continued his song.
Like the rest of my kind, I am close to the veil
That divides realms of living and dead,
And this knowledge I often am known to avail
Of the mourning whose grief is unsaid.
Though we Kneazles may know when our lives near their ends
Our dear human companions do not.
What we do for ourselves we cannot for our friends,
Though we comfort them when they're distraught.
Which is why in each graveyard I seek out the grave
That has been the most recently dug
Seeking loneliness—mourners who try to be brave
When they've none with to weep or to hug.
It is often the soul of the lately deceased
Is at hand just beyond human ken,
And of all I could do, guiding them is the least,
For the living can feel them again.
The bereaved in my churchyard are often agog
When they notice me there at their feet,
And invariably, then begins dialogue—
They instinctively know I'm discreet.
Through my stillness, they feel their departed nearby
Through my closeness, the dead feel the same,
As they whisper confessions, I purr and I sigh.
I absolve them of sorrow and shame.
When the tears of the living have dried on their cheeks
And the earth of the grave they have blessed,
Then the spirit departed my comfort will seek,
As I usher them back into their rest.
The barn was completely silent. Even the wild rats, who officially disdained the gathering, had gone still, eyes glittering, mesmerised by Shroudshredder's mellifluous voice.
Noble Crookshanks, your family knows well the pain
That accompanies great sacrifice,
And you know that in life they shall see it again,
So I ask you to take my advice:
Help your master atone for his guilt and his shame,
And your mistress let go of her pain.
Through your steadfastness, much of this they overcame,
But through me will their healing sustain.
For the scars of their battles long past are still felt
By relations, themselves, and their friends.
And while they must play with the cards that were dealt,
I can guide them in making amends.
While their memories painful will not go away,
I can lessen the strength of their sting,
Their regret and their guilt I can somewhat allay
When of mysteries great I will sing.
For the dead rarely linger like ghosts of the past
And I find that I relish the task
Of banishing suffering that's unsurpassed;
So allow me to try it, I ask.
The gathered animals were now swaying in time to Shroudshredder's song, their eyelids drooping, even the Kneazles. Only Crookshanks appeared to be fully awake and listening with an impartial ear.
Requiescat in pace, in peace may they rest.
Et perpetua lux luceat
Eis Requiem dona, with peace be we blessed,
In our time in pace requiescat.
Shroudshredder let the final words of his song ring from the barn's stone walls and bowed his head.
One by one, the animals came back to themselves, except for the Niffler, who was dangling off a rafter and snoring loudly.
The fox's tail bristled when he realised what had happened. "Peace is all very well and good for humans," he said, "but what about those of us whose survival depends on our wits? If this fellow chooses to sing us to sleep when we must hunt or forage, we and our families will go hungry."
"And we'll be sitting ducks if we go into a trance out in the open," said the hedgehog. "No offence intended," he said, nodding to the gathered ducks, who were settled comfortably on a stack of hay bales.
There was a murmur of agreement from both predators and prey.
"I hear your concerns," said Crookshanks. "They will be considered when the final decision is made."
There was a low growl from the mongrel in the back. "Save your breath, fox," he said, baring his teeth at the row of Kneazles. "Everybody knows Kneazles keep to their own and don't give a rat's arse for the rest of us."
The Kneazles' faces and limbs did not move, but the fur on their backs and necks rose at the dog's aggressive words, making them appear even more like miniature lions.
"For the love of all that's rancid, will you keep your peace?" came a piercing voice from near the mongrel, who jumped, startled.
"Hear, hear!" said one of the rabbits, who looked quite pleased with herself for speaking up.
To the council's amazement, the hay bale next to the mongrel began to move, and from it emerged a female dog, whose two tails proclaimed her to be at least part Crup, and whose swollen teats indicated that she had recently birthed a litter. From inside the hay bale where she and the pups had been concealed came a chorus of whimpers.
"Apologies for my mate, learned council," she said, giving the huffy Kneazles a brief bow. "These are our first pups, and this change in the neighbourhood comes at a precarious time for us."
"I see," said Crookshanks stiffly. "Thank you for your explanation. What are you called?"
"I'm Jenny Two-Tails. My mate is Toby Barktongue, and our pups haven't reached their name days yet, but they are four girls and three boys."
"A lucky number of pups," said Crookshanks. "Where are you from?"
"The human who was my family passed away, and since she had no family, I began to wander. I met Toby on the road, and we've been together ever since."
Toby said nothing, but shook himself, which sent hay flying. "I ran away from my old family, and I'm happier being free, all on my own. With Jenny and the pups, of course," he amended at Jenny's growl.
"Have you been living here in the barn?" asked Crookshanks.
Jenny's ears drooped, and one of her tails went between her legs. "Only since the pups were born. We'll be moving on when they're big enough to travel. We're not causing any harm."
"What have you been eating?"
"The butcher in the village likes me," said Toby proudly. "He gives me scraps and I bring them back here."
"That's quite a distance," said Crookshanks, leaping down from the crossbeam and approaching the dogs.
"I'm willing to work hard for my family," said Toby, eyeing Crookshanks warily.
Crookshanks stepped into Toby's space and began to sniff the side of his face, then proceeded sniffing down his neck, his flank, all the way to the tip of his tail.
"I say," protested Toby feebly.
"You know what your mate gets up to in the village," Crookshanks said to Jenny.
"Of course I do. I'm not nose-blind," said Jenny.
Toby made a noise of outraged protest, which was ignored.
"You're not jealous?"
"I am," said Jenny. "But I have pups to take care of, and he brings back food. I can't waste energy on things I can't change."
There were sounds of disapproval and tutting from the gathered animals, and Toby let out a whine.
"It's not what you think! I deserve a chance to explain myself."
"Very well," said Crookshanks, leaping up to his place amidst the Kneazles. "State your case."
The Cur's Confession
I'm my own dog, a lone dog, my human family
Were a rude bunch, a crude bunch, how they mistreated me!
They would trick me, and kick me, I hated their abode,
So I left them, bereft them. I hit the open road.
But in the night my thoughts would drift
To that young boy whose pup I was
Who left for school and me behind
With siblings who were never kind,
His belly rubs gave me a lift,
But I ignored such thoughts because
I'm own dog, a lone dog, but then I met my mate,
Lovely she-dog, a free dog, whose cleverness was great.
So we wandered, and fonder of one another grew,
Without owners, two loners, from people we withdrew.
But in the night I missed the hands
That gently stroked belly fur,
While Jenny carried seven pups
The perfect mix of curs and Crups,
My belly issued its demands,
And I ignored it, since we were
Our own two dogs, lone two dogs. When Jenny reached her time
We then sheltered, and sweltered, and met our pups sublime.
I was worried, and hurried, for nothing guaranteed
Health for Jenny, with many new little mouths to feed.
And so that night I went in search
Of sustenance for my dear mate
Through field and town I wandered round
Until at sunset there I found
The butcher's near the ruined church
I felt on me the hand of fate
For the owner, meat donor, held out a bit of steak
And so inside, I hid pride, a spectacle I'd make.
So I begged him and pegged him a sucker for my charm
But he petted, I fretted, my fear he did disarm.
I found myself upon the floor
As butcher gave my tum a rub,
My feet were waving in the air,
As passing people stopped to stare,
I found myself demanding more,
Both belly rubs and meaty grub.
So to my mate, though quite late, I carried home a feast.
We both ate it, I hate it, and the humans that I fleeced.
But I burn to return to the village and the shop
Shine or raining, explaining: for rubs I cannot stop!
I worry that one day they'll find
Me tied up in a barren yard
Infested with my shame and fleas
Such horrible indignities
And choose to leave me there behind
For I grow soft and not as hard
As the lone dog, my own dog, that I aspired be,
So grieve me and leave me, with cruel humanity.
I'm deserving of serving, the pups must never know.
Sweetest Jenny, how many more days until I go?
Toby's final whine was truly pitiful. His ears drooped, and his tail was tucked between his legs.
In the silence that followed, a few snickers could be heard from the working dogs, but they were all domesticated and understood too well the lure of belly rubs. All their eyes were on Jenny Two-Tails to judge her reaction to her mate's admission.
Jenny, whose head had been cocked to the side as she listened, looked down from her perch on the hay bale to where her wretched mate sat. As Toby's head drooped further, one of Jenny's tails began to wag, and then the other.
She leapt daintily down from the hay bale and firmly knocked her mate on to his back with a firm butt of her head and began to nuzzle his belly.
Toby began to flail so that he might recover from his rather undignified position, but when he realised what Jenny was doing, his wrinkled forehead relaxed, and his tail was soon wagging as well.
The animals breathed a sigh of relief, though there was an audible gagging noise coming from the stoats' corner.
"I will never understand dogs," remarked a fox, when Jenny licked Toby's ear and he rose to his feet.
"Nor I," said the hedgehog. "But I trust it was a moving narrative."
"Thank you," said Crookshanks, looking down his flat nose at the assembly. "I trust the council is satisfied as to the character of our heckler. Now, are there any more candidates?"
No additional animals stepped forward to plead their cases, and Crookshanks bowed his head in acceptance. He gestured for several of the neighbourhood animals to approach the Kneazles; a border collie, a handsome striped tabby, the chief rabbit, the sarcastic stoat, a barn owl from the Post Office, and a pair of doves.
While they conferred, the other animals fell into hushed conversation while Jenny burrowed back inside the hay bale and Toby followed her. The Niffler had managed to wedge himself under the bonnet of the rusty tractor and was clanking about noisily inside. One of the braver rabbits had struck up a conversation with Beetroot and they were comparing notes on foraging grounds.
Before long, Crookshanks dismissed them, which sent a buzz of anticipation running through the barn.
"The council has made a decision," announced Crookshanks. "Thank you all for attending and making your voices heard. The decision will be shared with those whom it affects, and when the time comes, a plan will be in place to ensure a smooth transition for both household and neighbourhood."
"That's it?" asked the hedgehog. "We've made a decision and now the rest of you can clear off and hope not to be dug out of your burrows and eaten? What were the rest of us here for, entertainment?"
"It's true," said the stoat, stroking her whiskers in a supercilious way. "Some of you were remarkably entertaining."
"We felines are not hard of hearing," said Crookshanks. "Your input, such as it was, was most certainly received."
"Oh," said the hedgehog, whose brown cheeks grew a slightly browner shade. "That's good. I'll see you around, then."
The animals departed and went their separate ways, but for the Kneazles who gathered around Crookshanks and rubbed their faces against his. He accepted the gestures of respect with relatively good grace.
"Thank you all for the honour of your presence," said Crookshanks, inclining his head slightly.
"It was our honour to witness," said Catastrophe, to general agreement. "May we walk with you this night?"
Crookshanks shook his head. "I'm afraid the appointed time is nearly here. Where I walk now, only one Kneazle may walk with me."
Catastrophe bowed her head. "We will sing of this night."
"You are kind," said Crookshanks, leaping delicately down from the crossbeam. "I have one more errand, tonight," he said, looking into a deep shadow.
"I understand." Shroudshredder's voice was gentle. "I shall be waiting."
The Kneazles twitched their tails in unison, a superstitious gesture as old as Kneazles themselves, and melted away into the night.
Crookshanks stepped out of the stone barn and into the moonlight that turned the world into a fantasy of silver and shadow. His gait was stiff but purposeful as he walked the distance from the stone barn to the house where he had lived with his family for many years. There was a light in the library window, and when he slid through his cat flap, he found me and the Professor in the library in companionable silence. He was reading in his chair, and I was still listening by the open window through which we had both overheard the council.
He gave a piteous mew, and we both looked at him.
"What's the matter, sweet boy?" I asked.
He answered with a more insistent meow, and he turned to go, giving us both pointed looks over his shoulder. The Professor and I had lived with Crookshanks a great many years, and we knew there was nothing to be gained by ignoring him.
It was so warm for Autumn, and the night was beautiful in the moonlight. I only wish I'd thought to gather him up and kiss his head one last time, but I had no way of knowing that it would be my last opportunity.
We followed him to the barn, where he led us to a bale of hay from which the most extraordinary sounds were emanating. A black nose emerged from the bale, and suddenly a small dog leapt out, growling and bristling.
The Professor and I were taken aback until Crookshanks batted the dog across the nose with his paw, and he quieted.
"What have we here?" asked the Professor, casting a Revealing spell on the bale with his wand, which outlined the unmistakable outline of a nursing mother dog and seven puppies.
"Aren't you clever?" I asked Crookshanks and turned to stroke him, but he was gone.
I didn't think much of it at the time, since I assumed he'd shown us what he wished us to see.
Chastened by Crookshanks's swat, Toby didn't even growl as the Professor and I gently levitated the bale of hay containing Jenny and the pups back to the house and into the garden, where they would be safe behind the fence and could explore safely. Toby was just the right size to enter the house by Crookshanks's cat flap, and he very quickly sussed out that the dog bed I transfigured from a piece of firewood was for him, if he wished to sleep in the kitchen.
Poor Toby, he seemed almost confused to be given bowls of food and water, and he looked a bit lost until the Professor bent down and began to stroke his back and scratch him behind the ears.
It was as though a switch had been flipped. Toby's tail began to wag, first tentatively, and then in earnest, and he plunked his forepaws up on the Professor's knee and began to lick his face.
Jenny and the pups were wakened by the noise, and she and Toby gently carried them through the cat flap and settled them on the bed. I knew she'd be tired and brought her a treat as the blind pups clambered over one another in search of nourishment. Both her tails thumped tiredly, and she licked my hand in thanks.
She knew she was home.
That night, when the Professor and I went to bed, I noticed that Crookshanks still hadn't come home, which wasn't so unusual an occurrence, and I looked out the window to see what mischief he was getting into.
The moon was setting, but I saw him, Sweeting, walking companionably down the lane alongside a great silver Kneazle. I fancy he looked back at me over his shoulder, switched his bottle-brush tail at me one last time, and followed the Kneazle off in the direction of the churchyard.
The next morning, I found that the spot next to the small of my back where Crookshanks curled up nightly was empty, and I began to fully understand the Graveyard Kneazle's participation in the council the night before.
Yes, I cried. But Toby and Jenny were there to kiss away my tears. And to my surprise, I later found a strange tortoiseshell cat on the sill of the library window, looking very much at home. I was about to look at her collar to see to whom she belonged, but the Professor called me into the garden where a dauntless badger had unearthed a beet and was trotting back to the hedge with it.
Though I had cried much of the morning, seeing the fearless creature made me laugh and resolve to leave treats for Beetroot in the future and the library window open for Wormcrusher, and perhaps even piles of shiny bits and bobs for Digg. And of course, today I will gather flowers to leave in the churchyard for Shroudshredder, who so kindly and gently escorted my beloved Crookshanks through the veil to adventures beyond.
And now, Sweeting, you understand how much trouble Crookshanks went through to see that all of us were not only taken care of, but surrounded by loving new friends of all sorts. I will be happy to introduce you to all of them the next time you visit, and of course we are aware that you have a birthday next month, so be sure to let me know if any of the puppies is your especial favourite.
As all of us who love animals eventually discover, it is never easy to say goodbye to a sweet, furry soul who has been your dear companion. But knowing there are other creatures who can ease the aching void, and that there are other kind people like you and the Professor to share the sorrow of the loss and the comfort of memory, all of that helps me understand a bit better how we can be worthy of their trust and love.
All my love,
Notes: enormous thanks to JS for last minute and amazing beta-reading, to A and D for letting me bounce ideas off them, to Shiv5468 for Brit-picking, and most of all, to Erin/Posting Mod for such a beautiful prompt that I didn't realize I needed to write until I saw it.
It may not surprise you to know that this was written in the wake of losing my beloved dog. This one's for you, little buddy. Miss you every day.
T.S. Eliot, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats"
Richard Adams, "Watership Down"
poems_for_your_sprog, "i lik the bred"
Irene Rutherford MacLeod, "The Lone Dog"