Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


A HEDGEHOG IN THE HOUSE

Whenever the more envious or malicious of our personnel saw Cobi and me together, they would smile (or imperceptibly smirk or sneer) and whisper (or think): "The two geniuses." There was some truth in it. We were not quite Einsteins, but each of us was very talented and successful, while together, as our company's Research and Development team (Cobi was handling electronics and computers, and I, engineering) we were rather outstanding and unbeatable.
A few years ago Old Cohen, the managing director, with prewar degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, had decided that the company, then making slightly outdated automation gadgets, was in urgent need of new blood. Having interviewed a dozen likely young candidates, he finally lured Cobi and me from our previous jobs with prospects of higher salaries, free hand in research, and generally growing with the company. Since then, we have transformed the old place into something moving into international reputation, with corresponding markets and sales.
Cobi and I were also fairly good friends after working hours, dropping in on each other for coffee or dinner, and picnicking at a beach with our families.
Of course there is no dynamic and growing company without at least some rivalry and friction between department heads; but between Cobi and me it was minimal and well in control, even in view of Old Cohen's approaching retirement and the question of who would succeed him as managing director. Old Cohen looked and felt younger than his sixty-four years and, banning something unexpected, could have carried on for several more. But he has grown very fond of his little yacht and of the Greek islands, in his words, "just opposite the Tel-Aviv Marina", and had decided to retire on his sixty-fifth birthday sharp. He has not yet chosen, or at least formally appointed, his successor, and, in the meantime, seemed to be grooming both of us for the job. It was not teasing or indecision on his part. Cobi and I were equally suitable candidates, and whoever was chosen for the largely administrative position, the other could look forward to having all the research to himself. Old Cohen was probably letting us decide for ourselves between the ivory tower of research and the hustle and bustle of the top, but more administrative, job. But as the coaching and grooming was interesting and valuable, and the position of the managing director very tempting, neither of us was in any hurry to decide.
Cobi might have had a slight advantage over me. His main field, electronics and computers, was by its nature a little closer to administration than mine. He also had a rare gift, invaluable to an administrator: one of the most perfect, almost freakish, memories a human being can be born with. Mine was quite good too, but for things which interested me or were important to me. His was perfectly impartial; he remembered everything he ever read or heard or saw: hundreds of telephone numbers, thousands of scientific formulas, newspaper articles, the names of Napoleon's brothers and sisters, Greek mythology, Latin names of flowers and birds, and so on. Of course he had gone through school and college like a hot knife through butter, picking all the highest honours without any effort at all. On the other hand, he seemed to be slightly less creative than me, but that would not necessarily be a handicap on the predominantly administrative job.

The day we found the little hedgehogs it had been raining in the morning, clearing towards noon. Although our company did have a cafeteria on the premises, we often lunched at a roadside caf¨ which could be reached by crossing a large vacant lot, practically a field, with some trees and bushes, at the back of our factory. The food there was better and more varied, and there was also more privacy. The field belonged to the company and was earmarked for future expansion. In the meantime Old Yankel, our handyman and gardener, had set up a couple of beehives there.

Old Yankel has been with the company from the start. He could repair a leaking tap, fix a door lock, do simple electrical jobs, and even take care of the less sophisticated laboratory apparatus. But he had grown up in a village in Poland, long ago, and his first love had been the land. It hadn't taken him long to plant flowers in front of the offices, and, when not otherwise engaged, he could be found in the field at the back, pottering about his two beehives, or, in the rainy season, criscrossing the field for the few mushrooms that took it into their heads to sprout there. He could tell you eaxactly what birds nested in what trees and bushes, and what stage their young were in.

That lunchtime, Cobi and I had started crossing the field at the risk of getting our shoes and the bottoms of our slacks wet because the grass was still damp from the morning rain. (Old Cohen was at some conference in town.) At first I thought I was seeing a rat nosing under a bush but then recognised it as a very young hedgehog and sealed my claim on it with a shout of :"Finders keepers! I saw him first!"
The hedgehog was slightly over ten centimeters long, still very young; but as he was alone and nosing for food (after a rain snails and earthworms come out, and it's a good time to see the usually nocturnal hedgehogs in broad daylight) it was reasonable to assume that he had already been weaned and could be taken home. Cobi stood there rather crestfallen because a baby hedgehog is a rare thing to bring home for one's children.
"Don't despair yet," I told him. "There's usually a litter, and the others can't be far away." (Old Yankel and I were our company's two top experts on wildlife.) And sure enough, within minutes we found another one, exactly like the first, in a nearby bush.
Carefully, taking care not to have our hands pricked, we put them in a large wooden box with a hinged lid under one of the trees (Old Yankel was thinking of fashioning another beehive out of it) and, returning from our lunch at the roadside cafe, brought them some scraps from the kitchen. They fell upon the scraps with great appetite and smacking of lips, dispelling any remaining doubts about their maturity as pets.
Old Yankel, who had showed up, was rather doubtful.
"Those things don't belong in the house," he said. "Ticks and fleas and diseases and what not. What are your wives going to say about it? Mine would kick me out of the house together with the thing."
We left the hedgehogs in the box for the rest of the afternoon. Before going home, I transferred mine to a cardboard box with breathing holes in the lid. (Cobi was staying late to finish some urgent job.) There were squeals of delight from the children when I unveiled the little hedgehog, and resigned tolerance on the part of my wife who only asked whether it could climb beds and whether our Siamese cat would manage peaceful coexistence with it. I reassured her on both counts just before we discovered that the little creature was absolutely infested with fleas, with a generous sprinkling of ticks as well. This, however, was no problem, as we had long kept a tin of flea powder for our cat, just in case, and have now used it liberally on the little hedgehog, taking care that none of it got into his eyes or mouth. As for the ticks, we knew enough not to remove them by force; the jaws may break off, remain in the skin, and cause infection. Instead, we put a drop of kerosene on each, and they withdrew of their own free will. The little hedgehog remained free of parasites for the rest of his stay with us.
Watching him at leisure, we were often struck by his resemblance - except, of course, for his size and spines - to a wild boar: the same shape of body, head, and snout; the same coarse fur; the same persistence, stubbornness, and uncouthness. He would smack his tongue loudly while eating, and left little piles of rather smelly shit wherever and whenever the urge took him; he could not be house-trained like a cat or a dog. He would also occasionally produce some frothy green spittle and, with agonised contortions, spread it all over his spines; a hedgehog behaviour unexplained, I think, to this day. And his spines were not as passively defensive as they looked; when one touched him, the hedgehog gave a sudden upward jerk, driving the tips into one's finger.
Yet, although not the sort of cuddly pet one took to bed, he remained cute and likeable. He had shiny black eyes, a mischievous face, and could be quite quick on his feet - a reminder that, in the wild, hedgehogs also caught frogs, mice, and even snakes - no prey for sluggards.
He would always cross the room, or, preferably, edge his way along a wall, with such concentrated determination that he seemed to have some very clear and important goal in mind at all times. (Tolstoy says somewhere, perhaps quoting a folk saying, that the fox knows many little things while the hedgehog knows one big thing.)
The little hedgehog's relations with Pussy the Siamese cat had crystallized with wonderful clarity from the very start: the hedgehog paid no attention to her, refused to recognize her existence, pretended not to notice that there was a cat in the house or perhaps even admit that there are cats in nature, giving rise to a scientific speculation among the children that perhaps hedgehogs were cat-blind. Pussy's initial attempts to befriend or at least investigate the newcomer led to those upward jerks; having had her nose pricked a couple of times she gave up and would stalk him timidly and without conviction from a safe distance, or watch him with sad resignation trail his big feet across the kitchen to help himself without as much as "I beg your pardon" to her saucer of milk and scraps, his spines peacefully laid back but the memory of what they could do uncomfortably there.
One could, if so inclined, see the relations between the hedgehog and the cat as symbolic: the soft, gentle, delicate and sheltered female, and the aggressive, prickly, coarse, and insensitive dark stranger from the wild. The children loved both of them; they have built a plywood enclosure on the balcony for the hedgehog to sleep in, and have lined it with old newspapers to make it comfortable and easier to clean.

Cobi's hedgehog, however, had escaped on the very first night.
Cobi told me that he had checked his garden for any possibility of escape before releasing his hedgehog there and hadn't found any; the wall was smooth and shoulder-high and there was no possibility of digging under the wall or the gate; and yet the little hedgehog wasn't there the next morning. Hedgehogs were notorious masters of escape, but he still couldn't figure out how this particular one got away.
Two days later, on my way back from the little roadside cafe (both Cobi and Old Cohen were in town that day) I stopped to talk to Old Yankel who had just extracted some honeycombs from one of his beehives. He offered me a chunk and we stood there watching the bees, munching on the honeycombs, spitting out the wax, getting our fingers sticky, and discussing nature in general. At some point I mentioned Cobi's hedgehog's escape. Old Yankel looked puzzled.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I saw him release it in this field, just before going home, the same day you caught them. He worked overtime that evening, didn't he? It was almost dark, and I was at the other end of the field so he didn't see me. He tipped that box on its side and I am sure I saw the hedgehog walk out and into the bush."
"You're sure he didn't put it into a smaller cardboard box?"
"As sure as my name is Yankel. I mean it was getting dark but not that dark, and my eyes are still good."
"It must be my mistake," I said;"I must have misunderstood something. Please don't mention any of this to him."
"All right, I won't," he said, still puzzled.
I assumed that Cobi had changed his mind at the last moment, having decided it would be too much introducing a hedgehog to a household with two children, a wife pregnant with a third, a cat, and a dog, the wife furthermore a delicate city girl with no interest in wildlife in general and a hedgehog under the piano in particular. The little lie, I thought, was unnecessary; but I kept Old Yankel's story to myself and didn't mention it to anyone, not even to my wife.

One evening, Maurice (Maniek) Goldman dropped in for a cup of coffee. He is practically an uncle, having been an old friend of my parents in Poland before the war, and, in spite of the generation gap, is always a welcome and most interesting guest. He works in an insurance office, but has also gained a certain renown as the author or realistic and competently written stories about the life of Polish Jews before and during the war, sometimes following a survivor's fortunes into present-day Israel. He has also always been interested in folklore, both Jewish and Polish, with a strong Gypsy sideline. Unlike most Jews, he remembers the mass murder not only of his own people but also, for similar racial reasons, that of half a million Gypsies.
No sooner were the children put to bed and coffee served than the little hedgehog appeared from under the sofa and made his way across the carpet to sniff at Goldman's shoes.
"Well, well," said Goldman," look who's here. You're lucky there are no Gypsies around; they eat hedgehogs, you know."
"They do?" my wife asked.
"And how; they're considered a delicacy. I even heard about a Gypsy restaurant in Paris where you can order a roast hedgehog; and, in my time, in Europe, boyscouts were being taught how to prepare one over a campfire if it ever came to survival in the forest."
Goldman always had interesting things about Gypsies to tell.

"They don't have much of a collective memory, you know," he would say with regret. "They don't keep chronicles or diaries, just the old oral tradition, mainly the language and customs; not like us Jews at all. For example, during the war they had a song about the death camps, something with "We went in through the gate and left through the chimney" in it. After the war, shortly before coming to Israel, I took a vacation and visited a few Gypsy camps, looking, among other things, for the lyrics of the song. And while the tune was still there, the words have already changed, to those of a simple prison song, without any chimneys anywhere. When you consider that every Passover the Jews recite that passage about each of us having to consider himself personally as having been a slave in Egypt, and that the Orthodox ones observe to this day the anathema cast on Spain five centuries ago because of the Inquisition and the expulsion, it makes you think, doesn't it?"

One evening, a couple of weeks after the little hedgehog joined our household, I called on Cobi to discuss something about a conference that was to take place the next morning. He was out but due to return soon, and in the meantime his wife made me a cup of coffee. While she was in the kitchen I looked at some books on the shelves in their living room; the walls of their cottage were lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, the standing joke being that with that memory of his Cobi only read each book once and then never needed to take it down again.
Three shelves held books on natural history, and something Old Yankel had said made me take out one called "Contagious Diseases of Animals" and look up the index for "Hedgehogs". They were there allright, associated with leptospirosis, a disease spread by the urine of rodents and cattle, and communicable to man. Hedgehogs were on the list because, in the wild, they might come into contact with the urine of those animals; the excreted leptospires could survive in fresh water or moisture for several weeks. They could be transferred to a human through a scratch in the skin or through mucuous membranes; then there was an incubation period of about one week, followed by fever, weakness, and pains in the legs, back, and abdominal muscles, sometimes accompanied by jaundice. Death rate: approximately thirty percent in severely ill patients. I replaced the book before anyone saw me with it and did not mention hedgehogs during that evening or afterwards; but an awful double gloom was settling over me,
First, of course, came the fear of the disease, unlikely as it was in the case of our particular hedgehog. There were few rodents, and no cattle at all, in the field behind our factory; the hedgehog was very young when I took him home, not having had much time to pick anything up; two weeks have passed since then and he still looked in perfect health. Releasing him if he was not infected would be a pity; and if he was, it might be too late, with the disease already incubating in someone in the family. One coould give a sample of the hedgehog's urine to a suitable laboratory for analysis and I decided to attend to it the very next morning.

The next morning little Raffi had a fever.
I was badly scared but kept a straight face and a cheerful manner. I had not told my wife anything about leptospirosis, especially since bringing the hedgehog into the house was my idea. And the fever did look like just a bout of common cold; Raffi even had a slightly running nose. Knowing that my wife had some urgent things to attend to that morning, I volunteered to take Raffi to the doctor myself. It would speed things up, I said, because the doctor only made his home calls in the afternoon, and I could phone the office and say I would be an hour or two late. My wife accepted gladly.
Enjoying himself as usual when he was ill, Raffi stuck his tongue out at the doctor, said "Aaaah", and breathed deeply while the doctor listened to his chest with a stethoscope.
"We have a cold," the doctor finally announced. " A couple of days in bed, plenty of hot drink, and also these pills and syrup I am prescribing. Chocolate is allowed, but remember what your dentist says."
"It's all right," said Raffi."I'11 brush my teeth after every bar."
We smiled. Then I asked Raffi to wait outside a moment and asked the doctor:
"Look, can we be sure this has nothing to do with leptospirosis?"
He gave me a puzzled look, so I explained about the hedgehog and what I found in the book. Still looking doubtful, he took a volume out of his own library, read a part of a page, called Raffi back in, looked at his eyes, pressed his stomach, and asked a few additional questions before sending him back to the waiting room.
"No," he said. "Not a trace of it."
"Is there anything in the early stages that might pass unnoticed in an office examination?"
"Look," he said,"I could send him for a blood and urine test, right here in our laboratory, if you could talk him into having his finger pricked, but I would be doing it more for your peace of mind than out of any real suspicion."
"All right, just for my peace of mind."
Raffi made pipi into a small jar and bore the finger prick bravely. I bought him a bar of chocolate on our way home and then put him to bed. The results of the test would not be ready till the next morning.

That evening, I watched the little hedgehog with new eyes. Have I trespassed on something, crossed some forbidden line, by bringing him home? Could a baby hedgehog be one of the hundred disguises of death? We had cut down Nature's primeval forests, killed off her wild beasts, tamed her lightning and floods, learned to fly, and were finding cures for one after another of her diseases. To balance this, she had planted something in our brains which led to wars, revolutions, mass murders, road accidents, and suicides. But smuggling leptospirosis into a home using a little hedgehog was something else.
Or could she by any chance have had a human helper in this particular case?
Because the second part of my dark mood, murkier than simple fear of disease, was the suspicion that Cobi knew and kept quiet about it, a silent accomplice to what might happen. I was clutching at the possibility that Cobi had not read that particular passage in the book; but if he did, he was bound to remember it. Was Old Cohen's job so important that he was ready to indirectly kill me, or throw me off balance through a death in the family, so long as nothing could be proved against him?
I decided that whatever happened I would give him the benefit of the doubt and never mention the book in his library. I would do for our friendship what many people did for their marriage: leave a suspicion uninvestigated.
The test results came through the next morning and there was no trace of leptospirosis. It was a simple cold and Raffi got over it within a couple of days.

The little hedgehog stayed with us for the rest of the summer, eating heartily, quickly growing to his full size, with the output of piss, shit, and smell growing in proportion. Twice as big as when he first arrived, he had lost something of his cuteness and grew even more pushy and cheeky. Pussy was rather miserable with him in the house. The children still liked him but the novelty has worn off and they were beginning to talk about a puppy. Gradually, a short mention at a time, we explained to them that the hedgehog was now grown up; that he needed natural environment and food; that he might want to hibernate in winter; and, last but not least, that he would want to meet a lady hedgehog and start a family. If we released him, I might meet, and borrow again for a summer, one of his children. They finally agreed, and, one morning, after a luxury breakfast and tender farewells, I put the hedgehog into another cardboard box with breathing holes in the lid and took him back to the field where he was born. When I opened the box and put it on its side, the hedgehog walked out of it and into a bush and busily started nosing under last year's leaves as if he had been at it without interruption since the day I first saw him.
I regretted that I was not a poet because we had spent a part of our lives together and the occasion called for a farewell poem or something of the sort. Finally I settled for an inspired speech, and, making sure that Old Yankel was not within earshot, said to the little hedgehog:
"All right, here is your freedom, little thing. You are now going back to fleas and ticks, but also to hunting; to hunger but also to females; to the risk of leptospirosis and the cold of winter - be glad there are no Gypsies around here - but also to the full moon over the trees at night. And will you discover the one big thing Tolstoy is talking about? The best of luck to you, little hedgehog; farewell."

# # #

ę1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it


feedbackmain story menu

feedback | main story menu