The Rise of "Mustela sapiens" Mar 24, 2009 7:47:41 GMT -5
Post by huronna on Mar 24, 2009 7:47:41 GMT -5
CIVILISATION - THE RISE OF MUSTELA SAPIENS
Volume I: Europe
By Paul E. Jamison
Volume I: Europe
By Paul E. Jamison
Dec. 13, 1795
There are some that claim that it was a dark and stormy night. Indeed, some tend to go on about it for some length. In truth, it was a clear, cold Yorkshire night, only two days after a December storm. This is relevant for two reasons only: the occupants of the two coaches and the cart had a clear view of the fireball as it fell from the dark sky; and the dead grass in the fields did not catch fire after it hit the ground.
The two coaches had stopped along the road and the coachmen were trying to calm the horses down. Two gentlemen had gotten out of the coaches and had walked over to the small crater. The fire had gone out, but the object was still glowing red-hot; as cold as the night was, the two men could only approach to within a few feet.
They quietly stood and looked down at the object for a few moments. Finally, one turned to the other and said, “Your thoughts on what it might be, my dear Doctor?”
Doctor Siger Holmes carefully knelt down on the wet grass and looked more closely at the glowing rock. “I would say, Sir John, that this is a meteorite. A visitor from the heavens, if you will.”
Sir John Clayton, the third Duke of Greystoke, nodded. “I thought as much. We are fortunate, indeed, that our horses were as slow as they were. If we had arrived a few seconds sooner, this rock might have hit one of the coaches.”
“That is true. And the fellow ahead of us is more fortunate still. I would swear that the fireball passed directly over his cart!” He looked ahead of them along the road. A horse-drawn cart was stopped there, and a stocky little man had alit and was now fussing over several stacks of what looked like cages in the back. The Doctor and the Duke could hear faint chirping sounds.
Sir John said, “Chickens, do you think?”
Dr. Holmes shook his head. “It doesn’t sound quite right. Shall we go and see?”
“A fine idea.” They strolled up the road to the cart.
The cages were full of ferrets. The cartman was making clucking noises to soothe them down, and the chirping noises were easing somewhat when the two gentlemen came up.
The cartman turned to them and smiled a big gap-toothed grin. “Evenin’, gentle sirs! I hopes you came through the ordeal unharmed!”
The Duke replied, “Yes, we did, my good man, thank you for asking. Did any of these creatures receive any injuries?”
“Ah, no hurt done, sir. The poor dears were frightened, is all. Hardy animals, these are, and they calms down quickly. They got quite a show, though!”
Dr. Holmes said, “I am glad to hear it.” He looked over the cages. There were dozens of ferrets on the cart, many of them staring back at him with big, dark eyes. “Are you a ferreter, by chance?”
“Well spotted, sir!” The cartman bowed deeply. “Mr. Kirk, at your service! Best ratters in Yorkshire, if I do say so meself!”
The Duke looked at the cages more closely. “I can well believe it. These are fine looking animals, sir. I don’t think I’ve seen ferrets so big!”
Kirk beamed. “That’s the way I wants ‘em, gentlemen. I breeds me ferrets, you see, and I try to do right by the little ones. Some ferreters, you see, don’t feeds their animals the best of food. But, me –” Kirk tapped his nose. “– I know what the wild polecats eat. And I figure it stands to reason that domestic ferrets ought to eat the same. And in my eyes that means meat. Because polecats are – what is the word?”
The Doctor nodded. “Carnivores?”
Kirk snapped his fingers. “That’s the word! I’ve not got much schooling, but I know that one, at least.” He leaned forward and whispered. “I’ve got a stew I makes and cooks for them – my own recipe – and they do quite well on it, as you can well see.”
Sir John nodded. “It’s quite obvious. There are quite a few ferrets here, I see.”
“Me whole stock. Every blessed one. We’re on a journey across the country, we are, to Plymouth. These babies don’t know it, but some of them will be taking a voyage across the ocean! My brother is heading for Canada and wants to set up his own ferreting business there.”
“Really?” Dr. Holmes looked over the cages. “Are all of your ferrets going?”
“No, no, sir. I’ll be meeting me brother in Plymouth. We’ll sort through my whole stock, and he’ll choose the ones he wants. Once he’s gone, I’ll comes back here to Wold Newton with what I has left. I’ve gots plenty and can spare some breeding pairs for me brother.”
“Ah, I see.” Sir John looked back at the coaches. A young man on horseback had stopped by and was talking with the coachmen and pointing at the smoldering meteorite. “Doctor, I see your friend Noel has caught up. I feel we ought to be on our way. Mr. Kirk, I am glad that you and yours have come to no harm, and I for one was happy to hear about your animals. My house could use some ratters; I’ll have to return some time!”
“Ye’re most welcome to look me up when you comes through again, sir! I lives in a small cottage outside of the village; just ask anyone and they’ll gives you directions! Have a pleasant journey, good sirs!”
The ferreter gave a final glance over the cages and climbed back into the cart. He gave a cluck to his horse and was soon moving on down the road.
Shortly the two coaches and the horseman passed the cart, and the riders waved at the ferreter and passed on. As it was, Kirk did not meet any of the people in the coaches again. As time went on, the families represented in the two coaches would intermarry, and members of the succeeding generations – marked with distinct grey eyes – would make their marks on the world. But this story is not about them.
This story is about those ferrets.
Kirk spent several days in Plymouth dickering with his brother about which ferrets he could spare and which he wanted to keep. Finally, he saw his brother sail off to Canada with about half of his breeders safely tucked away in cages, and he soon returned with the remainder to his cottage outside Wold Newton.
As ferreters go, Kirk had been doing well for himself. He charged what he considered reasonable prices for his services. He wasn’t wealthy, but then he didn’t deal all that much in cash. Barter was much more acceptable in Yorkshire. He’d bring one of his best ratters to someone’s home to deal with rats in the grain or mice in the children’s bedroom, and in return he’d be sure to receive a fine brace of hares or pheasants for his larder, or repair services for his clothing or his cottage.
The cottage was a fine thatched one made of strong stone. It had previously belonged to a school teacher who had left the village rather urgently one night, just before the nature of his attentions to a local farmer’s young daughter were about to come to light. The teacher had been in such a hurry, in fact, that he had left behind all of his property, including furniture and books. That particular winter had been a hard one, and many vermin had sought shelter indoors. Kirk had therefore been very busy around the village. Wold Newton owed him quite a bit for his services, and it had been generally agreed that the cottage – furnishings and all – was proper payment. So he had moved in.
Kirk liked the cottage very much. It was cool in summer and warm in winter. The kitchen was excellent. Especially nice was a large attached shed that became a ferret room. On the other hand, there were all those books.
Now Kirk was not an educated man. He could read a bit, and do some simple sums, but that was about it. And now he owned an entire large room with shelf after shelf of books. There was a set of primers for teaching young pupils the alphabet, but he only glanced through this before deciding that it wasn’t worth his trouble. The other books – collections of poetry, histories, the inevitable collection of Plutarch – he didn’t even bother with. Still, he didn’t want to get rid of them. He thought that they looked nice on the shelves, and occasionally he actually considered the idea of bettering himself; stranger things had happened.
What he particularly liked about his newly acquired property was an extensive collection of alcoholic spirits. The school teacher apparently had other vices besides an appreciation for young women. Kirk liked his liquor, but he prided himself on being a moderate drinker. He figured that the stock of whiskeys and gin would last him a long time. All in all, he was well set up.
Kirk didn’t think any more about the meteorite fall. For a brief time Wold Newton became a popular destination for men of science and for tourists. Kirk didn’t care about any of this. He just went about his business. Then came the first of the pregnancies.
It was only a few weeks after his return that Gertrude showed the first signs. The jill didn’t go into heat at her regular time, and she began to eat a lot more. Kirk isolated her from her mate, and soon she looked like she’d swallowed a grapefruit.
It wasn’t the proper season for birthing, but Kirk wasn’t bothered; these things happened. He still wasn’t alarmed when another jill became pregnant, and another and another. Kirk was thinking how much a good ratter would fetch on the market. And a lot of ratters would obviously fetch a lot on the market. Kirk didn’t try to figure how much; that was beyond his math skills.
Gertrude, as the first to get pregnant, was the first to exhibit nesting behavior. Then, one night in the spring, Kirk walked into the ferret room and heard unmistakable peeping sounds. He knelt down to look in the jill’s box and saw her curled up and calmly nursing a squirming group of tiny, red creatures.
Kirk was overjoyed. “Ah, Gertrude, me lass, you’ve blessed us with a fine litter of wee ones!” He looked over the newborns. There were no less than eight of them. Better still, they all looked healthy; normally there was a runt in a litter that likely wouldn’t survive, but none in this lot. Indeed, they all looked rather large for kits.
Kirk opened the cage door and carefully picked up one. Gertrude made no objections; she trusted him. The baby, blind and deaf and completely unaware of the world around him, squawked and complained as Kirk held him close to inspect him.
“Yes, a good, healthy one you are. You shall make a fine ratter –"
Kirk frowned and looked more closely at the tiny front paws. Strange – the toes looked longer than normal. And stranger still, there seemed to be more than one joint in each toe.
Kirk placed the kit back and picked up another one. Its front paws were the same way. He’d never seen the like in ferrets before. They almost looked like the hands of a newborn human baby. Were they all that way?
He shrugged and put the second newborn back. It was unusual, but he couldn’t see the harm in it. Indeed, it might mean that they would make better diggers than normal. Who knows? Maybe it was something he could breed for.
Three days later, another jill gave birth. Her babies had the same long paws, as did those of the next litter. Kirk was surprised, but pleased overall.
Time went on, and more babies came, and they grew just like other ferrets. Within days, the newborns were covered with soft, grey fur. This fur soon showed the expected faint markings. Sable, White, Cinnamon, Blaze, Silver Mitt – Kirk was pleased to see such a variety.
The tiny kits were raising all sorts of a ruckus, peeping away. This soon gave way to an almost continuous “Ma… Ma… Ma…” Kirk didn’t notice when this changed to “Ma-ma… Ma-ma… Ma-ma…”
After some weeks, it was time for Kirk to cook up his special weaning stew. The little ones were still blind, and they attacked the dishes of stew with sloppy gusto. Their faces were soon covered with goo that their mothers were only too glad to clean off. Kirk smiled; these babies were growing fast.
Soon their eyes opened, and it seemed that whenever he came into the ferret room with their daily meal, all those little eyes were riveted on him. They had quieted down quite a bit and didn’t make much noise as they watched him open the cages and ladle out the stew.
One day, Kirk breezed into the cage room, carrying the stew pot and booming, “Meal time, me children!” He went around the room, unlatching each cage door and dipping out a generous portion of stew into each pan. “Come along, dear ones! Eat up and fill your bellies!” The kits rushed to the pan and were already wolfing down the stew while he was relocking the cage.
He finally latched the top door on the last cage and set the now empty pot on the floor. He settled down on his haunches and watched the kits eating with gusto. This was Gertrude’s litter – the first of this batch of births. One of them, showing the markings of a Sable, stopped eating and looked up at Kirk.
The human smiled and said, “And you, my lad. Why stop to pay any attention to this old ratter? Aren’t you hungry?”
The kit looked right back at him, and in a tiny voice said, “I hungry!”
Kirk fell back on his seat and stared at the young ferret. The kit went back to eating.
The human scrabbled for his stew pot and somehow got to his feet. He ran through the door and slammed it behind him.
Kirk opened a bottle of brandy and took a long draw. He shook his head vigorously as the liquor burned his throat on the way down. Kirk gasped and took another swig. And a third.
Kirk woke up with a raging headache. He was in his rough little bed, fully clothed, and the afternoon sun was shining through his bedroom window. He had no memory at all of how he’d gotten there.
It took a few moments for the pain behind his eyes to die down enough for him to think, and he tried to remember what had happened. His last memory was feeding the kits –
No. It couldn’t have been. He couldn’t have heard what he thought he had. He rolled over on to what turned out to be an empty brandy bottle. He’d gotten drunk. That was it. He’d gotten drunk enough that he thought he’d heard…
But that wasn’t the way he was remembering it. He’d heard the little ferret… speak - and then he’d come back into the main house and reached for the liquor. But ferrets don’t talk, so that couldn’t be right.
No. No. He’d begun drinking before he fed the ferrets. That had to be it. There was no other explanation. Now that he thought of it, he did remember taking a swig from the brandy just before he’d started to cook the stew. Sure he did. Drinking before he cared for his furred children – Kirk had never done that before. That was bad. He’d have to make sure he never did that again.
Speaking of which, it was feeding time for the ferrets. He’d drunk so much that he’d lost a day. Oh, well, that couldn’t be helped now. He sat up and managed to crawl out of bed. The headache was still there, as was a churning in his stomach. But the ferrets came first. He managed to stumble to the fireplace and get the fire going.
As he stirred together his special stew, he gradually convinced himself that it had been the drink that had done it. He now distinctly recalled taking up the bottle before feeding time.
Soon he had a nice, large batch of stew. He lifted the pot from the fireplace and carried it out to the ferret room.
They were all quiet today. They simply sat in their cages and watched him as he walked through the door.
Kirk smiled at the ferrets. “I must have given you a fright yesterday, my lovelies.” He bent over and unlatched the first cage. “I’ll make sure it don’t happen again.”
One of the kits looked up at him and said, “I sorry I scare you, mister.”
Kirk dropped the pot, and the stew spilled out onto the floor. The cage door banged down as he backed away, staring at the ferret. Then Kirk made a bolt for the door.
To be continued…