Imitating Goethe!

Recently I decided to go back and revisit Goethe’s “Faust”. It is a story that I have read several times in my life. In reading the introduction to my 1901 edition of the story, I discovered that Goethe worked on the story for the better part of life: editing and adding to it over thirty to forty years.

This is heartening for me because I am back working on the “mill mouse” story. I first wrote this story in 1997 and last visited it in 2015—see my entry for June 26, 2015 in this journal—then I was distracted by beginning work on a memoir. It is good to see that Faust did not roll from the pen of Goethe in six weeks!

So how did I rekindle my passion for this story that I now call “Of Mice and Mills”? It came from Nancy pointing out an article in the newspaper about our local Canal Museum developing an affiliation with the Smithsonian in Washington. This reminded me that I had shared the mill mouse story with the historian at the Canal Museum in 2015. She liked the story, but shared two pages of historical facts that did not fit my story. At the time I became distracted with the memoir and did not respond to her criticism.

This brings up the conflict between historians and storytellers. I am willing to rewrite my story to fit history if it does not destroy the guts of a good story to tell. I will share an example of this conflict in “Of Mice and Mills”. It comes in an incidental story about a mouse called Alexander Fartolfling. The story is called “The Dancing Church Cat”. The story takes place in an historic church. The historian does not think the church had an organ or partial basement as I put in my story. The church is no longer standing. There are no definitive records to prove the historian right. So I choose to have my organ and partial basement in my story. Here is my story. You can judge of importance of these elements to the story.

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There are many more tales about the iron mill near Biery’s Port, as I said before, but I do have a favorite, one called ‘The Dancing Church Cat’. From the day that Sam rescued Alexander from the workman’s shovel their inter-species friendship grew. When Sam came to visit his father’s mill, he always stopped at the waterwheel. Alexander seemed to know when the boy was about to arrive and he was always waiting for him, ready for a new adventure.

One day Alexander found Sam by the waterwheel in the early morning. He was dressed in fancy linen trousers and a jacket, and there were shoes on his feet— Sam usually did not wear shoes when he came to the canal to fish and spend time with Alexander.

“Good morning, Quick Whip,” said Sam. The human boy made up this name because Alexander’s tail reminded him of the whip used by the canal boatmen to encourage their mules. He did not understand that we use our tails to communicate just as humans use their bodies to communicate.

“We’re going to church this morning,” said the human to the mouse. “I don’t suppose you’ll enjoy the sermon any more than me, but there will be lots of other things to see and do in church.” Alexander understood little of this spoken communication, but he trusted his friend.

Sam picked him up and stroked his back— this affection Alexander understood— then gently slipped him into his pocket. “Papa and Mama are about ready to walk up the hill to church. We’d better hurry or we’ll be left behind.” Sam’s jacket pocket was large enough for Alexander to move around and even offered the possibility to peek his head out from under the flap.

Sam Thomas ran up the path from the canal as his father emerged from the house followed by his mother, two brothers and two sisters.

“Hurry up Samuel”, called his father, “Your mother does not like to be late for church.” As he ran, Sam put his hand into his pocket to protect Alexander.

“Samuel”, called his mother, “what do you have in your pocket? It better not be another mouse!”

“No, Mother,” said Sam, “it’s just a present I have for a friend.”

“What friend?” asked his mother.

“Uh… um… it’s a girl,” said Sam.

“David, did you hear this? Your son has a girlfriend,” Mrs. Thomas teased as she nudged her husband.

Mr. Thomas smiled. “Well, my dear, our son is nearly a man. There comes a time when it is proper to notice our opposites.”

Poor Alexander was being jostled about as Sam ran to catch up to the others. When Sam slowed to a walking pace, Alexander was able to poke his nose out of the pocket without being seen by Sam’s mother.

The Thomas family entered the Presbyterian Church and filled a pew near the front of the sanctuary. For some time Alexander was content with his hiding place inside Sam’s pocket, but the service was long and he grew bored when the singing was replaced by a long sermon.

Restless and curious about this new place, Alexander poked his head out of the boy’s pocket. Sam had his eyes closed and seemed asleep. Alexander quietly slipped out of his pocket and on to the pew seat. Sam was sitting on the end of the pew next to the center aisle of the church. Alexander was able to hop down to the floor without being seen.

The church floor was a forest of shoes and boots. Some were rooted to the floor like great oaks, while others shifted back and forth as if driven by a stormy wind, and some were working up and down like the blowing cylinder of the iron furnace. Alexander’s destination was the wall some distance away. He made it half way there before a shifting boot caught him solid on the side and he let out an unintended squeak. No one cried out, but several people saw him. One nudged his friend and another pointed to the floor. Before the whole church was disturbed, Alexander made it to the wall and followed it until he came to a partially opened door that offered an escape route.

The room was dark except for the light coming through the sanctuary door. For some time Alexander remained motionless as his eyes adjusted to the blackness. When they finally did, he saw two big, yellow-green eyes staring back at him. There was an unmistakable smell. A big yellow tomcat was sitting quietly across the dark room. The cat saw him, but made no movement. Alexander reasoned that it perhaps had something to do with the church and all of the humans in it.

Suddenly from the sanctuary came a burst of music. The church organ was on the other side of the wall from the dark room. The sound surged through the wall and vibrated every board of the wood floor. Alexander felt the vibrations in his feet and watched in amazement as the cat started to sway back and forth to the beat of the music. Then slowly the tomcat’s feet started to move and he stepped lightly around the room, raising and lowering his head. The church cat danced around Alexander, bowing and smiling broadly as he passed in front of him.

Mesmerized by the dance, Alexander was starting to sway to the music himself when he heard another sound. “Psst, psst, psst, you mouse, better get out of there!” It was a little church mouse calling to him from a hole in the wall. “Old Tom loves to dance, but he is always hungry when the music is finished. Come with me.”

Alexander heeded the church mouse’s warning: though when he told the story in later times, he said the music so enchanted him that he was ready to dance with Old Tom. He scooted through the hole after him to safety. Alexander followed the mouse between two boards and along a narrow passage until they came to a closet at the side of sanctuary. There they were greeted by a whole family of church mice.

One called to Alexander in a hushed voice, “Did you see the serpent? Have you come to save us?”

“No, no, this one knows nothing about the serpent,” said the mouse that saved Alexander from Old Tom. “He came from among the humans.”

“Then he must be very wise and powerful if he lives among them,” said another.

“I think not,” said the first mouse. “He was ready to dance with Old Tom.”

There was a buzz of laugher and conversation until Alexander interrupted, “Cats and serpents? What is this all about?”

All at once the chatter ended, but no mouse answered. The distant sound of the humans still singing to the organ music was the only sound for a long time. Finally, one mouse spoke. “The serpent is very powerful and he lives in the underworld. He has terrorized our family for many generations.”

“Have you seen this serpent?” asked Alexander.

“Ha,” said one, “you see him and you are good as dead. Some call him Death!”

“Then none of you have seen the serpent,” said Alexander.

“I have seen him in my dreams,” piped up another. “He is very big. He crouches close to the ground. Sometimes he is dark as the midnight pulpit. Sometimes he is light as the midday sun in the belfry, and still other times, he is red as the sunlight through the church window.”

“But none of you have ever seen the serpent, eye to eye?” asked Alexander as he looked from mouse to mouse. Every face showed the fear that grows in an imagination fed by ignorance.

“Can you help us?” called a voice from the back of the group. “Can you save us from this evil?”

Alexander did not answer the plea. He saw the consternation on their faces. With a look of determination he turned from the family of church mice and retraced his path back to the room where he met the cat. As he made his way he thought of his family’s stories. He thought of his father, Vasiley, standing bravely against an army of wharf rats. He remembered the story of his mother, Doodle, taking on the challenge to make the Great Journey. He thought of Grandpa Darius’s raft trip down the Severn River to find the mill at Ironbridge. Facing terror and finding a rational response was part of his family’s tradition.

Alexander reasoned that the source of anxiety and fear for this family of church mice was likely no more than a black snake living in the church basement. How could he eliminate the snake? He sensed that the solution was tied to the other denizen of the Presbyterian Church, the dancing cat, Old Tom.

When Alexander came out the hole and into the organ room at the side of church sanctuary, the service had ended and the humans had all left the church. This meant that Sam Thomas and his family could not return him to the mill. Alexander regretted that he was going to causes his parents more anxiety, but that could not be helped. He had an adventure before him and a problem to solve.

The church cat was just finishing the meal left for him by the lady who played the church organ. Alexander was not sure how to approach this delicate and potentially dangerous relationship. He decided to begin by showing great respect for the cat.

“Excuse me, Reverend Sir…” said Alexander politely in the common language.

The yellow tom looked up from his meal. Slowly he rolled his pink tongue up and over his whiskers. His eyes were different now; they looked more yellow-brown in color, more a look of contentment than the rapture of dancing.

“What’s your problem, church mouse?”

“Please forgive me, Reverend Sir. I’m not a church mouse, I’m a mill mouse.”

“Mill mouse, church mouse–who cares? You all look alike anyway. Just cut the polite “reverend” crap! What do you want from me?”

Friends, please forgive me for pausing in the telling of our story at this critical time, but I want to make a point about the evolution of thinking in the Fartolfling family. The Presbyterian church mice in Alexander’s story were limited by what I call ‘dream thinking’. They lived an imagined reality that was not leavened by ‘direct thinking’. Alexander, I would argue, had learned from his family’s stories a different approach to reality. He thought of it as facing his fear, but it was also about clear and direct thinking. Standing in front of Old Tom, Alexander did a bit of direct thinking.

The big yellow tomcat had lost stature in the community of animals who lived in and around the church. Eating the food put out for him by the humans and dancing to their music had made him soft in the eyes of the church mice. And now they feared another more than him.

Alexander paused to consider Old Tom’s question, and then he repeated it out loud: “What do I want from you? Maybe it is better to ask what I can do for you. First, let’s talk about the evil serpent that lives in the underworld. Have you considered that the church mice fear him more than they fear you?”

Now, for mice, tomcats are the most feared creature of any household or church other than humans. Old Tom recognized that his position had been usurped by the black snake that had come to live in the basement. He was not happy about this loss of stature in the church. But what could be done?

Alexander watched Old Tom pondering the dilemma for a few moments, then continued. “If you help me chase the black snake from the basement, your stature as the most feared citizen of the community will be established again.”

“Oh, all right,” sighed Old Tom as he turned and started out of the organ room. “Follow me. We will see how brave and smart you are.” Old Tom led the way into the now empty sanctuary of the church, and Alexander followed behind. They made their way to the narthex at the back of the church. There was a small door at the side of the room. Old Tom shouldered it open and motioned to Alexander. “Show your stuff, mill mouse!”

A musty odor, redolent of coal, rose up from the dark basement. Alexander hesitated only a moment before hopping down the first step into the basement. There he paused and waited for his eyes to adjust and his nose to tell him where the black snake was hiding. With his nose raised, Alexander sniffed the air as he turned from one direction to the other, smelling and looking at the same time.

The church basement was not the size of the whole church. It was dug out just large enough to hold the furnace, a coal bin and a small storage area; and it was deep enough for humans to stand-up as they worked. Under the rest of the church there was a crawl space no more than two feet high. The level of the crawl space provided a way for a small creature— like a cat, or a mouse— to circle the basement without going down to the work area where the snake lived.

Alexander carefully took in all of these details as he considered a plan. A small opening for bringing coal into the bin allowed a little light into the dark basement. Near the opening was a wood board that sat on the edge of the upper crawl space level, and on top of the board was a bucket of paint.

The clever mill mouse remembered the havoc caused by the cat jumping on to the board over the basket in the bedroom of the Thomas boys. He turned to Old Tom and whispered his plan to create a little havoc in the world of the black snake; then Alexander descended the last steps into the floor of the basement.

As you probably know, all mice emit a shrill cry when they are injured. So Alexander began sounding a fake cry of pain. “Keel, keel, kkeeel!” he wailed. As he calculated, it was not long before the snake slithered out of the coal bin where he lived. Silently the creature moved, his head turning back and forth as he searched for the smell of blood from a wounded animal. Alexander cried even louder. “ KEEL, KEEL, KKEELL!”

When the snake came under the board with the paint bucket on it, Old Tom made a sudden run across the crawl space to the paint bucket sitting on the board. With all of his weight, he jumped on the board that was balanced precariously above the snake. The board flipped into the air with the bucket of paint, the lid came off, a flume of white paint rose up and then dropped down with a flop on the back of the snake! Old Tom let out a shriek as the paint flew and he danced safely out of harm’s way. And Alexander retreated back up the steps to safety. As for the black snake, he found himself the owner of a bright coat of white paint and an odor that exposed his presences to all. The myth of the “evil serpent of the underworld” was debunked. He had no choice but to leave the confines of the church to satisfy his hunger elsewhere.

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The original purpose for the mouse story was my wish to create a story that shared the history of the industrial revolution with children in way that was interesting for them. I wanted to share the story of how iron and steel are made and how they were first used to build bridges. I wanted to share the story of transportation in the early part of the nineteenth century; traveling by sailing ships to America from Europe and carrying heavy equipment to the first iron mills in Pennsylvania.As I worked on the mouse story, I soon came to realize that it was also my philosophy of life—how I have tried to live my life

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