Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Cat and Mouse War

Eric likes epic, multi-part bedtime stories.

He provides me with a prompt, and then I resist his efforts to micromanage the details.

This month has been pleasant because he has let me go my own way with minimal interference. Artistic control!

The prompt was "I want a story about some mice and cats having a war and there's an arms race where each side keeps getting more complicated."

"Ah," I said. "A war of escalation. Yes, I could manage that..."

I won't inflict all the details on you, but I do have some favorite excerpts from the fifteen-night story:

[Plot summary: a colony of mice who live in the exterior wall of an old farmhouse, realizing the kitchen cat is about to give birth to a new kitten, decide to better organize their food acquisition. Some strategic household raids yield a pile of paperclips, string, yarn, cloth, sewing needles, popsicle sticks, and other paraphernalia. Engineers work to design innovative technologies which will be tested while the cat is most exhausted in the immediate post-partum phase. They hope to become so expert at scavenging that they will continue to thrive even after two adult cats are on patrol. Finally, the kitten is born and they launch the second phase of their cunning plan...]

"Ladies and gentlemice, welcome to this historic event. The cat is asleep and it's a beautiful afternoon for a raid on the pantry. Our team look fresh and organized in their new gear, but will this innovative "paperclip armor" really work? The engineers swear -- Oh, and they're off! I must say, I had my doubts about those rag "sock skates," but they really seem to be working! The mice have reached the cheese and -- Oh no! The cat's awake! She's chasing after number three, but he passes the cheese to number five. It looks like the carpenters may need to adjust the stick shape; the shot looked wide and number five is having trouble handling the cheese. The cat sees his difficulty and is pursuing! Number five is concentrating too hard to notice the danger...The captain calls out an order...Aha! Numbers two and three are teasing the cat. Great interference there by number three, I love the faces he's making...and it looks like number five has things back under control and is heading for the mousehole...the cat realizes her mistake and sprints after him...number five lines up his shot and...score!!! The cheese is in the goal! I repeat, the cheese is in the goal!!! [The mouse spectators erupt in cheers.]

"What a success that was, ladies and gentlemen, enough food for two days, by the looks of it, but it remains to be seen how our brave team will fare...the team captain has called the evacuation order, but the cat is blocking the hole...And the Team Captain sacrifices himself to let his men escape! He's running in circles...he's taunting the cat like crazy! What courage! What skill! He takes off running...will the cat...yes, she does! She's chasing him across the kitchen!!! Oh MY, those skates are fast on the polished hardwood floor! But the cat's legs are longer...she's gaining on him...the rest of the team are home free!...[The crowd cheers again]...and now the cat has pounced the captain! [Gasps] She takes a bite...[Breathless silence]...I can't see much...and SHE SPITS HIM OUT!! He's moving! He's ALIVE!!!! The armor worked!! [Cat calls] Let's hear it for our dedicated engineers and craftsmice! [Applause] He'll have a nasty bruise...hopefully nothing is broken...the cat looks furious, but is holding her mouth. Could one of her teeth have broken?...She's still distracted...he's limping away...and our captain is home! A TOTAL SUCCESS!!! DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES...???" [The mice roar.]

[Soon the cat retaliates with a large magnet and captures a hostage. The mice stage a daring raid wherein they rescue the hostage and capture the kitten instead. The exchange of ransom notes is complicated by the lack of a shared language. The mouse linguist does her best to translate, but her limited data set led to numorous errors in the subsequent negotiations...]

#1 Mice to cat, actual message:
"During communion argue beneath a flag of truancy, zombify the suitcase shall."

Intended message: "While we're debating your conditions of surrender, we'd like to come under a flag of truce to feed the hostage."

#2 Mice to cat, actual message:
"We plinkle your vocabulary! Craven flea-vermin books! Was undead vampire cargo resussitated! Sock, sock. Small boy goddess former cash time very fat annoying we crooked ate."

Intended message: We reject your terms. Mouse liberty! We rescued our hostage. (Taunt, taunt, mock, mock.) If you want to see your kitten alive again, you must agree to allow us perpetual access to the larder."

#4 Mouse linguist to cat, actual message:
"You-pejorative goddess, bad sin possess. I your network-count learn lightning. More romantic courtship-outings assist it I. Send us dictators! We your Tom own. Dance/assumption prey we always and it back you purchase. Empty it."

Intended message: You, cat, have a bad temper. I am trying to learn your language as quickly as possible. It would help if I had more data. Could you send us a dictionary? We have your small boy cat/Tom/Rice wine. Promise us food forever and then you can have him back. He's getting hungry.

[Alas, the linguist was reasonably competent. As her data set grew, she made fewer errors. The final peace treaty was mostly readable. To give you an idea of how she suffered, though, I share her raw translation notes from a reply message the cat sent...]

#3 Mouse linguist's very raw notes:
"You-form mod'd mice are modifier(?) very(?) bad. I-form mod'd hate [three emphasis modifiers] you(?)! [Untranslateable cat onamotopeia.] You(?) are so hunchbacked(?) [idiom evil?] I-form owe(?) you future form fair/equitable two paw beneath. [Idiom??? Work on this.] Conj.(?)/but(?) I-form mod'd own try conj(?)  for ??? [suffix] rice wine?? You-form mod'd possessive final messy? Create-past no smell. Try again to insult. [Primitive anthropological territorial marking.]"

Cat's actual message: "You (pejorative, plural) craven flea-vermin are very, very bad. I HATE you! Hiss! You are so stupid, I doubt you will even understand this, but I have to try for Tom's sake. Your last message made no sense. Try again, idiots." [Smelly urine stain/signature marking]

[The council of elders, who had been breathing down her neck demanding real-time translation, glared at her, appalled when she tried reading her first-pass notes aloud to them. (Bad as it is to read them, imagine only hearing "You form modded mice are modifier.") "That's complete gibberish!" they complained, after which she snapped. "Yes! I know! Go away and let me do some real translation in peace!" Subsequent attempts to nag her resulted in her meeowing fiercely at them, apparently so absorbed in "cat" she didn't realize she was speaking it. Taken aback, they decided to give her some space and wait patiently, lest she start clawing at them as well...]

Other highlights from the epic conflict:

*The mice had a "Ransom of Redchief" moment when they realized the kitten would only drink milk and also needed his diapers changed frequently. Rather dangerous when the "baby" is larger than you are, hungry, tired, cranky, yowling so loudly no one can hear, and keeps trying to disembowl his caregivers.

*A bunch of mice tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to milk a cow. Part of the problem was they approached her from the right, not left, side. A lashing tail, well-aimed kick, and strategic stomp dislodged the mice, knocked over the stool, and broke the milk bottle. The children loved the image of a mouse hanging on the cow's teat for dear life, first trying to squeeze milk out frantically, and then slipping inexorably to his doom...(the other mice broke his fall before they all scrambled away)...

*A three-person mouse commando team raided the garage, hoping to steal back the magnet which had rendered their armor unusable. The farmer's wife, who had a phobia for mice, saw them and attacked them insanely with a live chainsaw. In the subsequent melee, she scratched the hood of her car, hacked the leg off the workbench, shattered the overhead light, knocked over a can of bright green paint (which covered and temporarily blinded her), chopped down an overhead storage shelf, and did a few thousand dollars worth of damage to the tractor.

--This inspired the mice to write a war ditty called "Three Commando Mice," in which they terrorize the poor blind farmer's wife. Hardly great poetry, but the kids loved the parody.

The final peace treaty was signed a few nights ago. Eric keeps asking for sequel "hockey games," but I insist that a wise author knows when to let the story end.

He has accepted that and moved on. Last night he asked for a story about Sammy leading a bunch of babies on a daring raid to sneak inside an unspecified but secure facility. I had Sammy and two other Leander Ward babies infiltrate the Library of Congress.

When Brother Woodbury heard this, he asked first if Sammy had gotten in trouble. ("Of course not," I answered. "He flirted with the librarian who found him and she melted completely, then reluctantly remanded him to the custody of his concerned mama.") Then he said, very generously, that he would bail Sammy out of jail any time.

For tonight, Eric is muttering about having the same team get into a really top-secret secure facility. I foolishly suggested Cheyenne Mountain. Oy. How does a nice Mama like me end up in crazy situations like this? Still, I think bedtime stories are one of the very best parts of Mommyhood. I wouldn't trade it for anything. :)

*A minor linguistic note: Cat language has many minute gradations of importance. Imagine the subtleties of Japanese bows and you'll get the idea. The cat keeps using the most pejorative form of "you" while using a very superior form of "I" when writing to the mice. The distinction is much more obvious in spoken cat, where higher and lower pitches indicate the level of respect intended. Anyway, the mice, only seeing the "you" and "I" sent by the cat, have no way of knowing what other forms of the pronouns exist, so they keep sending back very insulting messages wherein they unintentionally claim status akin to godhood and address the cat as though she were the lowest possible life form on the pronoun ladder. This drives the cat CRAZY, since, to her, she honored the mice just by elevating them from "ignore completely" onto the pronoun ladder in the first place.


Brian Thomas said...

Poor kitty! I'd love to hear this epic retold from the cat's perspective.

Anonymous said...

Have you considered reinterpreting this tale as an allegory for the 2012 race for the presidentialnominations?
Grandma Homer

Jon said...

These were some awesome bedtime stories. If any of you ever get a chance to visit or have her visit with the kids, you've got to get her to tell bedtime stories.

Each night before bedtime stories, she was sitting at her computer with a pencil and paper planning the messages that they would write back and forth and how they would be translated.

Gail said...

@ Brian -- I'm afraid the cat wasn't a very sympathetic character. Other than her concern when her baby disappeared, and her chagrin when she rescued him and he would only oink and grunt like a pig, there weren't many chances to feel sorry for her.

@ Mom -- I hadn't thought of that, no. If the current candidate list is all the Republicans can field, I could possibly work out an analogy, but hardly a successful "The Mouse Who Roared" one, given the lack of a sympathetic protagonist and the unlikelihood of victory.

@ Jon -- thanks, sweetie.

Some of the translation errors (like "zombify the suitcase" were completely random to reflect the chaotic false cognates of widely disparate languages.

The Mock => sock thing I explained as a brushstroke problem, since the mouse linguist was "painting" on such a large canvas to make it legible.

I particularly enjoyed "English" puns which wouldn't actually "work" in a real mouse/cat translation, though, like "language" => LAN gauge => network count. Or "understand" => beneath two-paws, which the mouse linguist ultimately guessed, with a high uncertainty factor, was an idiom for "I'm planning to crush you."

Highly improbable that English words would actually translate that way, of course. In a weird way, "zombify the suitcase" is actually a more "realistic" example of what would likely happen. But my way was still fun!

Jon said...

So Cat is a phonetic and not a symbolic language?