A Day with Mrs. Figg
Ten-year-old Harry Potter ducked under Mrs. Figg's front porch, soaked to the skin from a summer rainstorm. He looked back just in time to see the Dursley's car disappearing around the corner, his cousin Dudley pulling faces in the back window.
Wiping water from his eyes, he hesitated before knocking on the door. He didn't come here often, only a few times a year, if that, but he enjoyed Mrs. Figg only just slightly more than the Dursleys. She always had him doing chores; heavy chores, not like simply washing the dishes, although there always seemed to be plenty of them, too. Last year, she'd made him help her turn the mattresses in every bedroom, even though Harry was pretty certain that she never had guests and no one had slept in any of the beds in years. The year before that, when he was eight, he'd helped her repair the fence in the back yard, his scrawny arms barely able to control the hammer. At least she wasn't mean, just weird; always puttering in her garden and talking to her cats as if they could understand. He wondered if it would be worth the trouble he'd be in if he just took off on one of his walks, but he was already hungry and his usual punishment was no dinner. He didn't have many privileges at the Dursley's house that could be taken away.
Knowing that she'd probably already spotted him through the curtains, Harry took a deep breath and knocked on the door. It was answered surprisingly fast by an old woman wearing a garish purple flowered dress and a large cast on her left leg. A sour cabbage smell followed her, wafting its way up his nose.
"Come on in out of the rain now, boy." Mrs. Figg held the door open with one crutch and tut-tutted, shaking water off Harry's oversized shirt. "Didn't think to grab an umbrella? Let's get you into something dry." She dashed off down the hallway, mumbling and shaking her head.
From where he stood dripping in the entryway, Harry could hear her digging around in one of the many rooms. He'd never been completely through Mrs. Figg's house; sometimes it seemed as if it were bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. A loud crash was followed by a shrill shout of "Eureka!" and Mrs. Figg appeared from the opposite side of the entryway.
"Here we are!" She held up a cozy looking but moth-eaten bathrobe, lime green with a big daisy pinned to the lapel. Paying no attention to Harry's look of dismay, Mrs. Figg flipped his shirt off, sending water splattering onto the walls and ceiling. She wrapped the robe around his skinny torso then tugged his pants off in one motion so quickly that Harry was sure he hadn't had to lift his feet. She tossed the wet things into a small basket. Harry felt very silly, standing there in that bathrobe, but as he followed Mrs. Figg into the sitting room a comforting warmth began to spread through the chenille. He climbed up into a soft overstuffed chair, not even trying to brush away the tabby, Mr. Paws, that sullenly agreed to share it with him, or the tabby's hair, which pretty much gave the chair it's color.
"Well, that was a quick shower," Mrs. Figg piped, pulling open the chintz curtains to reveal bright sunlight, gray clouds scudding off into the distance. "Summer is like that." Another cat, this one black, jumped into the window and meowed loudly. "Oh, you want out now, do you Tufty?" Mrs. Figg opened the window and the cat flew out. Two more came charging across the room from opposite directions, nearly toppling Mrs. Figg over in their bid for the window.
"Whew!" She gasped as she plopped onto a tattered striped sofa, dropping her crutches to the floor. "Wouldn't do to have another broken leg, would it? And how are you today, Harry? Your Aunt and Uncle are out for the day?"
"Yes, ma'am. They've gone to get Dudley a smelly uniform or something." (He knew very well it was a Smeltings uniform.) " Said I'd be too much trouble and just get in the way. It's just easier for everyone if I stay here." Harry realized that he was quoting his Aunt Petunia nearly verbatim.
"That's just as well; no need to subject yourself to unpleasantness. Besides, I've got some weeding and laundry to do, and you can give me a hand. Ground will be nice and soft now from that shower; easy to pull those little buggers out." She grunted as she pulled herself out of the chair. "And we've got to get your clothes dry. Grab the basket, and we'll hang them on the line." Harry picked up the basket and followed her through the kitchen and out the back door, grateful to leave the stuffy cabbage-cat smell behind. Her washing machine resided on the rickety back porch. It was a very old machine. Harry could see that Mrs. Figg had another, full basket of wet clothes; he sighed thankfully when he noted that they had already been sent through the wringer. He added his pants and shirt to the already full basket, grunting with the strain of picking it up.
The sun shone on a yard filled with all manner of growing things: Bright orange calendula shared space with airy lavender and pink poppies; sage, marjoram and rosemary filled the warming air with a comforting soup-scent which made Harry's stomach growl. Across the walkway, cabbages nestled with peas and squash, while bees buzzed happily from blossom to blossom.
Mrs. Figg headed toward the clothesline, Harry hot on her heels. Harry had been fascinated with the idea of hanging clothes in the sunshine to dry; The Dursleys, of course, had the latest electric clothes dryer, which seemed to be running constantly. "Ridiculously old-fashioned," Aunt Petunia had remarked about Mrs. Figg's clothesline. "An eyesore," Uncle Vernon had scowled.
Mrs. Figg flapped the wrinkles out of Harry's hand-me-down pants and affixed them to the clothesline with two wooden clothespins. "Not many folks use clotheslines these days, Harry. 'Takes too long,' they say, 'too much work.'" She snorted. "Most folks these days could use a little more hard work; they're too soft and lazy." She poked him in the stomach with one of her crutches. Harry chortled and handed Mrs. Figg his wet shirt, which she placed next to the pants.
"Now, you get on to pulling those weeds while I hang the rest of the clothes. You might want to use the trowel for the tough ones. And there's plenty of 'em, since I haven't been able to get at them in weeks, thank you Mr. Paws." She knocked on the cast that started somewhere under her voluminous skirt and ended in a pink striped sock. Harry obediently dashed into the little potting shed near the fence. The trowel hung just inside the door, but Harry took his time. The shed held a fascinating mish-mosh of old tools and gadgets. Things that looked like giant scissors, pokey things, prying things, all with a reddish hue of rust to them.
"Get a move on, boy," Mrs. Figg called from the yard. Harry snatched the trowel off the nail and headed back out to find Mrs. Figg elbow deep in the tomatoes.
"Oh, there you are. Seeing the sights, were you? The world doesn't wait for dawdlers." She straightened up, several joints cracking. "Checking for fruit. There's a couple of 'em, pretty small yet." The hem of her dress was wet from brushing the ground. "Oh, well," she harrumphed, brushing at her skirt. "A little mud never hurt anyone. Now, you can start over there, under the peppers. Make sure you only pull the weeds, mind you. I've got some marigolds just starting in there. You know what they look like, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," Harry responded to her stern look. She'd shown him the difference last year when he'd made a right mess of one of her beds, trying to be helpful. When he'd seen the look of disappointment on her face, Harry was crestfallen. But she'd just pursed her lips and said, "While I appreciate your eagerness, I do wish you'd waited 'til I could show you how to do it, but we all make mistakes. The key is to learn from them." Then she had gone into the shed, brought out a little bag of seeds, and she and Harry had replanted the bed. "There are not too many things that can't be made right again, with a little patience," she winked. "That goes for people as well as plants."
They worked steadily and quietly for a good part of the afternoon, Harry tossing the small weedlings into a wicker basket, Mrs. Figg snapping clothes and pinning them to the line. Every now and then Harry had to flip the belt of his bathrobe out of the dirt. The sun had got quite hot by now, and sweat dripped off Harry's nose. He delighted in the sensation of damp earth working its way under his nails. Aunt Petunia would have had a fit if he'd come into the house with even a hint of dirt on him or his clothes, but Mrs. Figg seemed quite happy to shove her own hands into the soft loam right along with Harry as she showed him how to use the trowel. She kept a little scrub brush and some strong smelling soap near the hose faucet for cleaning up dirty hands and knees.
"Ah, nothing like spending a little time knee-deep in Mother Earth, is there, boy?" She declared, slapping him hard on the back. "It's good to remember where we all come from, and where we're all going to end up, sooner or later! Makes the future look not so bleak." She nudged the basket of pulled weeds. "Take these over to the compost pile now and bury them in the center where it's good and hot. I'll go inside and start us up a pot of tea, maybe dig up some cake."
Harry jumped up and walked briskly to the steaming compost heap, where he dug a hole in the center and plopped in the weeds then covered them up. He imagined them cooking like steamed turnip greens, which reminded him how hungry he was.
As he turned and headed for the house and the promised tea (and maybe cake) he heard a rustling behind the compost. Curious, he stopped to see if it would repeat. It did, this time accompanied by a faint, breathy sounding squeak. Cautiously, Harry peaked around the side of the pile. He spotted a long black tail with a tuft on the end, then a sleek black body, then a leg covered in blood. "Aagh!" Harry jumped back and ran toward the house. "Mrs. Figg! Mrs. Figg! Come quickly!" As he reached the door it slammed open and Mrs. Figg poked her head out.
"Hush, child! Why the shouting?"
"A cat; I think it's Tufty," Harry panted, pointing toward the compost. "I think he's hurt bad."
"Oh dear." Mrs. Figg dried her hands on a kitchen towel and lumbered down the path. "Kittykittykitty," she trilled. A weak mew answered her from behind the pile. "Ooh, poor baby," she whispered as she leaned over the injured cat. "What kind of mischief have you gotten yourself into?" Harry watched squeamishly as she softly patted Tufty, checking for other injuries. "Seems to be just the leg; a nasty cut. Now, how did you do that? Been harassing the neighbor's dog again? I told you he was going to catch you one day." As she spoke she gingerly gathered up the cat in the same towel she'd dried her hands on and headed briskly back to the house, Harry following close behind.
As they reached the door, Mrs. Figg turned to Harry. "I need you to find me some things from the garden. Bring me feverfew, garlic and stinging nettle; best be careful with that one. You remember what they look like?"
Harry thought for a second then nodded his head. "Will Tufty be alright?" He asked.
"Oh, I'm sure he will be," answered Mrs. Figg. "I think he may be milking this a little for the attention. He is a cat, after all. Shoo, now, and bring me those herbs."
Harry turned and ran down the path. He spotted the tiny daisy-like blooms of feverfew and snatched several from their stems. Nearby he found the garlic; he grabbed the long green leaves and pulled a bulb out of the ground and jammed it into his pocket. The stinging nettle was a large bush up against the shed. He'd come up against this plant before; it's tiny spines hadn't started to sting until they'd settled firmly into his fingertips. He made a detour into the shed and found Mrs. Figg's pruning shears and her cotton garden gloves. With these he dashed back to the bush and cut off a few sprigs. Then he headed back to the house.
As he entered the kitchen, Mrs. Figg was nowhere to be found. Just as Harry was drawing a breath to call her, her voice came from . . . somewhere. "Right here, Harry. Just off the sitting room. Hurry it up." Harry followed the sound of her voice down the hall and found her in a tiny room, not much larger than a linen closet. "There you are," she said as she took the leaves and blossoms. She looked over what Harry had brought her. "Good job, Harry." She pulled a clove off the garlic. "I'll save the rest for some good, stout cabbage soup." Harry hid his grimace.
Tufty was sitting up on a tall table, looking quite put upon. Harry noticed that the small room was lit with green candles. He edged toward the back to stay out of the way of her crutches, but made sure he could still see what was going on. Mrs. Figg stripped the bud and leaves off the nettle with her calloused fingertips and dropped them into a small bowl where she began mashing them with a pestle. She added the garlic and feverfew blossoms then mashed them some more.
"Oh, I've forgotten the cloth for the poultice!" she realized aloud.
"Would you like me to get it for you?" Harry offered.
"On, no. I doubt you could find it. I'll get it; you crush this some more." And she handed Harry the bowl of herbs. "Mind, stir it clockwise and make a good paste." She bustled out of the room and out of sight.
As Harry dutifully crushed the pungent mass clockwise, he glanced up at Tufty. The cat was watching him intently, twitching his tail and favoring his paw. Harry could see that Mrs. Figg had cleaned the wound; it was an inch long gash, oozing just a little blood now.
"Mrs. Figg really cares about you, doesn't she?" Harry said to the cat. "It must be nice to have someone who loves you." The cat twitched it's ears in Harry's direction. "I wonder if anyone will ever love me?"
"Talking to the cat, boy?" Mrs. Figg barged into the cubbyhole with a bundle of fabric. "Did he answer?"
Harry twitched, embarrassed. "Erm, no. Of course not; cats can't speak." He hoped she hadn't heard what he'd said to Tufty.
"Ah, but they can communicate, can't they?" She scratched Tufty behind the ears with one hand while taking the bowl of herbs from Harry. She sniffed at it and rubbed some between her fingers. "Good job. Now, hold that piece of cheesecloth flat on the table while I spread this on." Harry did as he was told, while Tufty watched his every move. "You know, Harry, there are more things here on Earth than most of us can imagine. I'm sure you'll find out soon enough." She gave him a knowing look. Harry smiled back, not quite sure what she meant.
The poultice was ready. Mrs. Figg picked it up, careful not to spill the gooey ingredients. "Now, you hold Tufty still while I wrap this around his leg. Mind, don't let him go if he makes to jump."
"Me? Hold Tufty?" Harry's eyes widened. This cat spit had spit at him more than once.
"This is no time to get squeamish, boy. Do as you're told; you've got someone depending on you." Mrs. Figg held up the poultice expectantly and nodded toward the Tufty.
Harry looked at the cat, who chose this moment to yawn widely, displaying two sets of teeth that looked ready for ripping. Harry set his jaw, took a deep breath and reached his hand out to Tufty.
As he had expected, the cat spat at him and he jerked his hand back.
"These herbs aren't going to wait all day, young man." Mrs. Figg hefted the wrapping.
Harry looked Tufty right in the eye. "You behave, now," he said firmly, and he reached over and grasped the cat firmly around its shoulders. Tufty blinked sleepily.
"That's a good boy," Mrs. Figg murmured as she wrapped the poultice around Tufty's leg. Harry wasn't sure if she was talking to him or the cat. She began to mumble a little tune, more like a chant as she settled the cloth into place. Her voice drifted off and she stood calmly, her eyes half closed. Harry barely breathed so as to not break the spell.
"Well, that's it then!" Mrs. Figg exclaimed and Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. Tufty wasn't too happy about it, either. They exchanged a sympathetic glance. Mrs. Figg carefully lifted the cat off the table and carried him into the sitting room where she nestled him into the big, cushiony chair. "You have a bit of a rest, then. You'll be fine." She patted the cat on the head and turned to Harry. "He's getting on a bit in years. He's nearly eleven, you know."
Harry gasped. "I'll be eleven next week."
"Now, isn't that a coincidence! You two have a little something in common. You know, I'm sure we were getting ready for tea, before all this excitement. I'm feeling quite peckish," she said. Harry realized that he'd forgotten how hungry he was, too. "Come help me make tea, Harry." He followed Mrs. Figg as she headed into the kitchen.
"Check the bread box. I'm pretty sure there's some cake left in there. Too bad I've run out of muffins and jam. That's a good boy." Mrs. Figg had the kettle whistling in no time, and Harry had pulled out some cake of dubious age and some small plates, forks and cups.
"Good job," Mrs. Figg said as she eased herself down into her chair, leaning her crutches against the side of the table. She filled two tea balls from a jar of dried leaves and tiny white blossoms. As the boiling water filled the cups, the sweet smell covered the usual stench of cabbage.
"You were a great help today, Harry," she said briskly. "I appreciate a person who's not afraid of hard work. And you were very brave, helping me with Tufty."
Harry looked surprised. "I was?" He'd been so frightened when he'd found the injured cat, he thought he might throw up.
"Of course you were," Mrs. Figg snorted. " I could tell how afraid you were, yet you kept your wits about you and did everything I asked of you. You got right in there and did what needed to be done. That takes strength."
"Strength?" Harry repeated, nearly choking on a bite of the dry cake. "But, I'm not strong. Uncle Dursley calls me a runt." He looked down at the brown crumbs on his plate.
"There are different strengths, Harry. Muscles are just one aspect. There is an inner strength that people have, but most don't know how to use it. You found yours today."
Harry gazed into Mrs. Figgs' face. "Aunt Petunia says I'll never amount to anything. That I'm … common."
Mrs. Figg made a raspberry. "It's a weak man who lives his life based on what others think of him."
Harry thought really hard. "Sometimes I feel worthless. But then I think, I'm just a boy; how can I prove otherwise?"
Mrs. Figg said gruffly, "You'll not be a boy forever, Harry; no sense using that as an excuse. You stay on the right track; you may find a chance to prove yourself soon enough. The world doesn't wait for you to be ready." She looked thoughtful, and said more softly than any way she had ever talked to Harry before, "You of all people."
At that moment, Tufty came limping into the kitchen. He sat in front of the table and gave a strong, "Meaow!"
Mrs. Figg cleared her throat loudly and looked at the cat suspiciously. "Hmmm, think you're deserving of a snack after all that folderol?" She began to shove her chair back to get the cat a treat.
"Wait, let me do it," Harry said, hopping out of his chair.
"I'll not argue with you," she waved a hand and settled back down. "There's a plate of kippers on the second shelf of the refrigerator. I think Tufty deserves one, don't you?" Harry nodded and pulled out the plate. Tufty was immediately under Harry's feet, yowling for the treat. Harry laughed as he slid a small fish onto the cat's plate and set it on the floor. Tufty rushed to the plate, then stopped short.
Harry scowled. "What, you don't like kippers? Is it the cream sauce, then?"
Tufty looked at the plate, then at Harry.
"What in the world?" Mrs. Figg asked curiously.
Then Tufty walked up to Harry and rubbed against his leg.
"I think he likes me," he gasped. Tufty looked up at Harry with squinted eyes. "Okay, that's pushing things a bit. How about, 'you're welcome?'"
Tufty blinked, rubbed Harry's leg one more time, then went to his plate and tucked into the fish.
"Well, look at that," Mrs. Figg interrupted, peering out the kitchen window. "I can see your Uncle's car coming up the road now. No need to hurry, though, is there?" She gave Harry a surprisingly sympathetic look. "I don't think your clothes are quite dry yet. How about a little television before you head back? Wouldn't do to have your cousin seeing you dressed like that now, would it?"
"Sure," Harry responded, relieved. Mrs. Figg had already turned on the TV and, as so often happened here, it was right at the beginning of one of Harry's favorite programs.
As he settled onto the couch, he could hear Mrs. Figg puttering around in the kitchen, hopefully not making cabbage soup. An odd feeling of comfort came over him as he snuggled deeper into the bathrobe. He dozed off.
"Hop on up, boy." Mrs. Figg was waving Harry's clothes at him. "Time to get dressed. Sleeping the afternoon away! It's nearly dark; time you were getting on home."
Harry rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, took the clothes and hid in the bathroom to dress. When he came out, Mrs. Figg met him at the door with a small bundle. "Here's some more cake to tide you over 'til dinner."
"Thanks," Harry said, and immediately began to plan where to dump it.
"And Harry," Mrs. Figg called, "If I don't see you next week, have a happy birthday."