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Freddy and the Popinjay
By Walter R. Brooks, Kurt Wiese
The Overlook PressCopyright © 1945 Walter R. Brooks
All rights reserved.
Out in the field Mr. Bean was cutting the hay. He was riding up and down on the mowing machine behind Hank, the old white horse. Every little while he would stop and take off his big straw hat, and then he would pull out a large handkerchief, which was red with white polka dots, and wipe his forehead. Then he would replace the hat on his head and the handkerchief in his pocket, and say: "Giddap!" And Hank would move on again.
It was hot out there in the sun, but in the shadow of the stone wall it was cool. Even on the hottest days a little trickle of breeze flowed down along the wall. The animals knew this, and sometimes if they were too lazy to go up to the duck pond for a swim, they would go over on to the shady side of the wall and take a bath in the current of cool air.
Freddy, the pig, had been there most of the afternoon. He was lying on his stomach in the long grass, and he had a pencil and paper in front of him, and he was writing a poem. It was called: "Oh, For a Waggable Tail," and it was a subject to which Freddy had given much thought. The poem went like this:
The dog can wag his tail and bark
To show what he thinks of you;
And the cat can purr when you smooth his fur,
But what can the poor pig do?
He knows no stunts, and his piggish grunts,
And his loud and murderous squeals
Don't really express true happiness,
Or tell you how he feels.
His voice, when low, is a groan of woe,
When loud, a despairing wail.
'Twouldn't be so bad if he only had
A decently waggable tail.
A waggable tail, with which to hail
His friends, with which to greet
In a dignified way, with a flourish gay,
Those whom he chanced to meet.
A tail to wave in a manner grave—
Graceful, stately and slow,
Would, I quite expect, command respect That the tailless seldom know.
If Freddy hadn't fallen asleep when he got this far, the poem would have been a great deal longer. In fact, it might well have gone on forever, for Freddy was like a good many other poets—he never could seem to find a good stopping place. Even when he had nothing more to say, it seemed always as if the last stanza he had written didn't really make the right kind of ending, so he would start another. But of course, sooner or later, he would fall asleep, and as it was usually "sooner" in Freddy's case, none of his poems are very long ones.
But his nap wasn't a very long one either. Maybe five minutes had passed when all at once his eyes flew open, and with one of the loud and murderous squeals he had just described, he leaped nearly two feet in the air. "Eeeeee-yow!" he yelled. "My tail! Oh, my tail!" And he whirled around several times, trying to get a look at his tail. But Freddy was pretty plump, and his tail always turned the corner just before he got a look at it. But it was still there, for he had seen it each time out of the corner of his eye, disappearing.
And then he became aware of a large robin who was standing just about where his tail had been when he jumped up.
The robin had been standing there with his eyes down, looking guilty and rather scared, but when Freddy noticed him, he looked up.
"Oh, sir," he said earnestly. "I am sincerely sorry. I wouldn't for the world have disturbed you. I can't think how it happened—"
"How what happened?" Freddy asked sharply. "You been playing tricks on me?"
"Oh no, sir. Not tricks. I wouldn't presume.... It's my eyes. They're getting dreadfully bad; you wouldn't believe it, but only yesterday I wanted to take the children—you know, a little something extra for their supper, and what do you think I took them? You'll never guess—"
"I don't intend to," said Freddy. "Get to the point, will you? What do you mean by attacking me? You won't deny that you did attack me, I suppose?"
"Oh, not intentionally, I do assure you," said the robin. "You see, my eyes are so bad; I didn't see you at all, or if I did, I just took you for a rock—you were so still. I was looking for worms, and there was your tail, all curled up in the grass, and I—well sir, I—"
"You grabbed it," said Freddy severely. "And I suppose if it had come off—and it pretty nearly did, too, my friend, I can tell you, the tug you gave it—if it had come off, you'd have had it for supper, eh?"
"I—I'm afraid we would," said the robin, dropping his eyes in embarrassment.
"A fine thing!" said Freddy. "A fine thing that a law-abiding pig can't take a nap on this farm without having a bodyguard along to look after his belongings! A fine laughingstock you'd have made of me! Look nice in the paper, wouldn't it? PIG LOSES TAIL IN TUG OF WAR WITH ROBIN. What's your name?"
"J. J. Pomeroy."
"Oh yes," said Freddy. "You live in the elm, out by the gate. Yes, I knew your grandfather. A fine old bird; came back every spring as regular as clockwork. And now you're living there. Hm, well, Mr. Pomeroy, don't be upset about this. Aside from scaring me out of a year's growth, there's no harm done." He smiled reassuringly. "But about your eyes, now. You'll have to do something about that. Can't have you going round pulling the tails off all the animals on the farm. Aside from the fact that maybe some of them wouldn't be as pleasant about it as me. Ever been to an oculist?"
"Why should I?" said the robin. "I don't need anyone to tell me I'm nearsighted."
"He could make you some glasses," said Freddy.
J. J. Pomeroy didn't think much of the suggestion. Nobody would ever make glasses for a robin.
"How do you know?" said Freddy. "Look here; I've got to go over to Centerboro tomorrow morning. I'll go down early and you meet me on the corner by the bank. At nine. We'll go to see Mr. Watt, the eye man. If anybody can fix you up, he can."
"Well," said the robin doubtfully, "if you think so. It's pretty nice of you, Freddy, to take all that trouble for me."
"Pooh," said Freddy; "I'm just protecting myself. You might get my ear next time."
"Well, I certainly am grateful to you," J. J. Pomeroy said; "and if there's ever anything I can do to repay you, just call on me." He looked down at the paper and pencil. "But dear me, I mustn't bother you any more. I'm interrupting your literary work."
"Oh—that!" Freddy said. "Nothing important. Just a little verse I was dashing off.—Would you like to hear it?" he asked. And without waiting for the robin's reply, he read the poem.
J. J. Pomeroy listened carefully, nodding his head to the rhythm, and when Freddy had finished he said, "Charming! Very fine!"
"Oh it's—it's nothing, really," Freddy murmured.
"You're too modest," said the robin. "'A decently waggable tail'—beautifully put. A very arresting thought, profoundly arresting."
Even Freddy realized that neither the idea nor the verses were worthy of such high praise. "I'm afraid it's not as good as all that," he said. "It's just that I've been thinking a good deal about it lately. In fact, I've been taking wagging lessons from Georgie, our little brown dog. But I don't think I'm making much progress. Trouble is, I can't see my tail, so when I try, I don't know whether it's wagging or not. Just watch it for a minute, will you, while I try to wag it?"
J. J. Pomeroy watched with interest. Freddy put on an expression of intense concentration, then took it off again and said hopefully, "Well?"
"Well," said the robin, "it seemed to me that it did move. A little."
"But not a wag, eh?"
"Oh, definitely not a wag. No. More a—a sort of tremble."
Freddy shook his head in discouragement. "Just as I feared. A tremble! You can't express friendship with a tremble, now can you? Confound the thing!" he broke out. "What use is it? You birds use your tails to balance you and to steer with when you fly, and cows and horses switch their tails to keep flies off, and cats can curl their tails around them to keep their toes warm. But a pig's tail—what use is it? I'd be better off without it."
"Oh, I don't agree with you there," said J. J. Pomeroy. "I think you take far too gloomy a view."
"I don't take any view," said Freddy. "I can't even see the thing."
"That's just it," said the robin. "If you could see it, you'd realize how very stylish it is. That little curl at the end of you—it sort of finishes you off, don't you know. Like a ... like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence; it makes it twice as important."
"Goodness, do you think so?" said Freddy. "I hadn't thought of it that way before."
"That's the only way to look at it," said the robin. "Why, you're the only animal on the farm that has a tail that he doesn't have to use for something or other—a tail that's just for show. You ought to be pretty proud of it."
"Dear me," said Freddy, "I—well, I guess I am." He looked down at his poem. "I guess I'd better tear these verses up."
J. J. Pomeroy said it would be a pity to do that; they were so nice.
"I'm glad you liked them," said Freddy. "Perhaps you'd care to come down to my study, and I'll read you some of my other things. There's a long one on friendship I've just finished...."
"Oh, thank you," said the robin hastily; "I'm afraid I haven't time today. You see I'm supposed to be getting something for the children's supper, and their mother will be getting anxious."
"Well, another time then," Freddy said. "But don't forget tomorrow at nine."
"Indeed I won't. On the corner by the bank. Thank you, Freddy." And J. J. Pomeroy spread his wings and flew off.CHAPTER 2
Bright and early the next morning Freddy set out for Centerboro. There were a number of things he would have to bring back with him—many more than he could manage just in his mouth, and so he wore an old coat of Mr. Bean's into the pockets of which he could stuff his various purchases. He made this trip to Centerboro once a week, for as editor of the animal newspaper, The Bean Home News, he had to prepare a weekly summary of all the interesting things that had happened and take it in to the printer.
He usually included a poem or two in each issue, and he had intended to put in this week's number the one about the waggable tail. But since talking to J. J. Pomeroy he had begun to feel that perhaps a waggable tail wasn't so desirable after all. He decided to leave that poem out. He could write another on the way to town.
So he began making up a rhyme as he trotted along.
A lesson which we all must learn
Is this: without complaint
To be ourselves, and not to yearn
To be that which we ain't.
"That's pretty awful grammar," Freddy said to himself, "but there won't be time to fix it up. If I use it, I won't sign my name." He went on.
If cats had wings, and cows had claws
And pigs had shaggy pelts,
You'd never know your friends, because
They'd look like someone else.
"That may be true," he said thoughtfully, "but it would be awfully interesting if they changed around. My goodness, the same old faces day after day—you do get tired of them." But he went on with the poem.
Then be content with what you've got
And do not weep and wail,
For the leopard cannot change his spots
Nor the pig his curly tail.
Now this wasn't a specially fine poem, but there was one good thing about it: the idea and the verses had come out even. Usually when Freddy started a poem, he began with an idea, something he wanted to say. Then he took his idea and fitted verses to it. It was a good deal like eating bread and jam and trying to make them come out even. Sometimes when he got through about the third verse, there would be part of the idea left over. Then he would start another verse. But maybe there wouldn't be enough idea left for a whole verse. You can't cut a verse in two, as you can a slice of bread, so Freddy would spread the idea over it very thin. Sometimes he would spread it so thin over the whole last half of the poem that you could hardly see it. It was very easy for Freddy to write verses, but not so easy to get good ideas. It was as if he had lots and lots of bread, but not very much jam. That is the trouble with a good many poets. They make very nice verses, but you can hardly taste the jam in them at all.
Freddy repeated this poem to himself, and as always, he thought that maybe there was enough idea left over to make some more. So he began:
For pigs are pigs, and dogs are dogs,
And never the twain shall meet ...
"Dear me," he said, "that's an awfully good line, but it seems to me I've heard it somewhere before. I guess I'd better change it." And he was beginning again when something went Zzzzzip! across in front of his nose, and a little puff of dust shot up at the side of the road.
The sound was such as a wasp might have made, flying fast, but no wasp would knock up dust from the road. And then it came again, behind him—Zzip! with a sort of smack at the end of it, and Freddy felt a sharp sting in his left hip. A wasp would sting like that, but no wasp ever made a smack when he hit you. Freddy had given a loud yip when he felt the sting, and although his forelegs continued to trot along the road, his hind legs jumped into the air, so that he looked a little as if he had suddenly tried to stand on his head. When he had his hind legs under control again he stopped and called out: "Hey, you! Quit that!"
There was a cackle of laughter behind some bushes at the side of the road, and a freckled face appeared among the leaves. It was a boy's face, and it wouldn't have been bad looking if it hadn't worn such an impudent expression.
"Hi, pig!" said the boy. "Gee, did you look funny! Go on, will you? I want to see you do that again." And he stepped out into the road and aimed a slingshot at Freddy.
Freddy was mad anyway, and he was extra mad because he knew that he had looked pretty silly with his hind legs nearly jumping over his front ones. He wasn't any coward, either. One time, several years ago, he had led a charge right up to the muzzle of the shotgun that was pointed at him from one of the windows of the Grimby house. Of course he had known that the gun wasn't loaded, but still it was a brave thing to do. But to charge on a boy with a slingshot wasn't brave, it was just foolhardy. So he choked down his anger and said: "What do you shoot in that thing, BB shot?"
The boy said disgustedly: "Naw. Pop won't give me any money to buy BB shot. I just got stones." Then he grinned. "Why? You think maybe a BB shot wouldn't sting as much?"
Freddy knew this boy. He was Jimmy, the son of tight-fisted old Zenas Witherspoon who had the farm just over the hill from, and adjoining, the Bean farm. Jimmy had never in his life had a decent suit of clothes. He wore patched overalls and a ragged shirt, week in and week out, and usually went barefoot, even to school, so that all the other children made fun of him and wouldn't have anything to do with him. It wasn't his fault. Freddy remembered how Jerry, Mr. Witherspoon's horse, had had to borrow money from the First Animal Bank to buy himself a new set of shoes, because Zenas was too tight to buy them for him. And Mrs. Witherspoon hadn't been out of the house in years, because Zenas said he wasn't going to have her traipsin' around the country, wearing out good shoe leather. Folks said that she hadn't written to her sister in Ohio in twenty years, because Zenas wouldn't buy her a postcard.
The Bean animals had been sorry for Mrs. Witherspoon, and for Jerry, and for Eunice, the Witherspoon cow, and all their other animals. Though there wasn't anything they could do about it. But they had begun to see that they would have to do something about Jimmy. For Jimmy was getting to be a nuisance. Having no friends, and no books to read, and no money to buy candy or go to the movies with, he just rambled over the fields and through the woods with his slingshot, shooting at everything that moved. And as the Bean animals moved around pretty freely, they got hit pretty frequently.
But of course Freddy knew he couldn't do anything now, except get away as quickly as possible. He said: "I could bring you back some shot from Centerboro. If you'd promise not to shoot at me, or at any other animals and birds with it."
"I'd promise not to shoot you," said Jimmy, "but not anybody else. What's the good of having BB shot if you can't shoot at anything?"
"You could shoot at a mark," Freddy said.
"Pooh, what fun is that?"
Excerpted from Freddy and the Popinjay by Walter R. Brooks, Kurt Wiese. Copyright © 1945 Walter R. Brooks. Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
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