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From the Pen of Inky Quill

Chapter Text

“Mister Quill?”

I confess that I did not readily place the voice that afternoon. It turned out to be that of a new friend, the lovely Aemilia Vole. She was just outside the entrance to my den.

“Miss Vole, please, do come in,” I urged. “How nice to see you.”

Upon crossing the threshold, she dispensed with the unusual pleasantries and spoke quite frankly for a rodent of her years and station.

“Mister Quill, I am here because I am disturbed by a poet.”

“It is the poet Shelley? He disturbs me greatly.”

She blinked and I could tell by her bewildered shake of the head that there was a swell of strong emotion just beneath the calm exterior.

“Forgive me, my dear,” I said quickly. “Please explain. Who is this bard that disturbs you?”

“He’s an owl.”

I hummed thoughtfully. “An owl? I know no troubadours among the Strigiforme order. Pray begin your tale at the beginning.”

“A few days of the week, I visit the shop of a certain human milliner who, how shall I say, has gone down in the world. She works by the river, amidst laundresses and seamstresses and tailors in similar situations. Her eyesight is failing her, the dear. Sometimes I help her, and, well, many times she leaves behind the most wonderful scraps of felt and silk and velvet.”

“Which you use to craft your own hats,” I remarked.

“Yes. Well, yesterday evening I was at the shop, collecting scraps, when in swooped an owl. Such a large, imposing creature as I’d never seen before, at least not so close! And, well, you know their appetites, so I very well trembled for my life.”

“And very right you were, my dear.”

“But he didn’t want to eat me.”

“No?”

“He wanted me to make him a hat, a top hat.”

“A top hat for an owl? Curious.”

“His request seemed a genuine one, and I have the materials required at paw. Of course, it makes me quite anxious to even be near him, but it is more than that.”

“Yes?”

“He proposes to pay me in verse!”

I laughed. “Is that a viable currency these days? I had no idea! My fortune is made!”

“Is he joking, Mister Quill? Is it a mere jest or is it something more sinister, say, a trick? Or a trap? I’ve read a few of Doctor Watson’s stories and it seems that some humans are forever getting themselves into circumstances such as this one, or much worse, as a result of carelessness and an odd willful disregard for common sense!”

“True, but you mustn’t think too harshly of them, we have advantages that the humans lack and there are exemplar specimens, such as Mister Holmes—”

“Oh, and Inspector Lestrade!”

“Oh? Yes, well, I suppose. What I mean to say is, there are a few humans who have virtues in abundance, like logic, respect for sound literary composition—“

“And kindness and chivalry,” she added, dreamily.

“Right. Back to your problem. What did you say to the owl?”

“I told him that I would consider his offer and asked him to return this evening. He agreed. If I reject his offer, he might eat me. If I accept, well, what then? Business is business, but one can’t consume a poem or trade it for something comestible, can one? Oh, Mister Quill, what shall I do?”

“First, you shan’t meet him alone. I will go with you and perhaps it would be best to bring someone of a higher predator class, just in case.”

But as it turned out, the Ocelot was in an important editorial meeting with Sloth so we were stuck with Ferret, who just so happened to be wearing an unusual pair of close-fitting trousers. Two thick, paw-sized gloves dangled from his neck by a string.

“I suppose if distraction is the only defence needed, we’ll be fine,” I muttered as we followed Aemilia down to the river. “Ferret, what is that costume? You’re not a boxer!”

“And that’s where you’re wrong, Inky. Mister Holmes was just giving me some instruction. Pow! Pow!”

He jabbed at the air.

“Indeed.”

With Ferret, it was sometimes all one could say.


“I dislike being kept waiting, Miss Vole.”

Oh, my.

I stopped in my tracks.

Aemilia had been right: quite an imposing figure.

The owl was an enormous mountain of feathers, black and dark brown with rare patches of white peeking through. A pair of curled horn-like plumes crowned his head and bestowed a harsh solemnity upon his expression. His eyes and beak were dark and razor-sharp, perhaps a bit too small for his voluminous body, but nevertheless, his was the clearly countenance of a sovereign, not a vassal. His claws gave me pause as did the scratches, both healed and raw, on one of his legs; I swallowed at the fates of the fellow rodents who’d fought, and no doubt failed, to wrench free of that unyielding grasp.

“Hullo,” stammered Aemilia. “This is my friend.” She gestured to me. “He’s a poet, too.”

“A poet?” the owl spat. “Unlikely.”

Well, now.

“I am a poet,” I said. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m—“

The owl flapped his wings and seemed to double in size as he advanced towards me, not halting until he was almost looming overhead. He opened his beak to speak and when he did, there was not a single doubt in my poet’s mind, that he was, in fact, reciting:

"Well, well, well.

Interesting words compel

Zephyrs curl then swell

Every idle tongue, each burst of hot air

Needs a pinch, a twist of winch

How have you, prickly pear, so much breath to spare?

Understand every verse has a flaw to undo it and

Every choice has a fool who will rue it and

Tell me, kind sir, how is it you’re unaware my name’s Sir Wizen Huet?"

Yes, he was a poet, a poet with an amusing name, Sir Wizen Huet.

When no guffaw or heckle or misguided display of pugilistic bravado issued from behind me, I knew that my mustelid friend had abandoned me. A quick pivot confirmed my suspicion.

Ferret was gone.

The tips of Aemilia’s quivering whiskers peeked out from a half-finished poke bonnet.

When I turned back, the owl huffed.

“Poet? No.”

Well, really!

I met his beady gaze and returned fire.

"I don’t suppose

No, sir, save your prose

Keep us in throes with

Your suspense.

Quiet words, mine, belie

Under wit, razors, sharp vie

If you only will

Let me extend my frill

Let me introduce my humble self--do you not know it by now?—the name’s Inky, Inky Quill."

The owl blinked.

“Inky Quill? Ridiculous name.”

Oh, oh!

I took a step forward, and a voice behind me said,

“Well, it is a nome de plume.”

As was ever his custom, the Ocelot made his entrance with a silent majesty, and in the distance, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a dog cart belonging to His Majesty’s Zoological Garden being drawn in fierce haste.

Hurrah! Sloth was on the way!

Ferret had returned, it seemed, with that bravado I’d anticipated earlier on his face and the two boxing gloves now decorating his front paws.

“These are my friends,” I said to the owl. “And we are all friends of Miss Vole, whom you propose to pay for a top hat in verse.”

“Yes. I am willing to overlook the fact that value of the compensation far exceeds the cost of the good and labour.”

This did provoke a guffaw.

The owl fixed Ferret with a hard stare.

What arrogance! What hubris! This bird needed plucking! And I was just the one to do it!

I announced in a loud voice, 

“Upon the breeze, the buzzes sway.

A-fuzz the bees with petal spray.

Sun’s ray lights way home-comb to stay."

“What’s he doing?” Ferret whispered.

“He’s issuing a challenge. It’s like a duel, a poet’s duel” said Sloth. “The particular form is known as—“

“Beeswing,” supplied the Ocelot. “Short, but with a few challenging rules regarding rhyme.”

I waited, and after a long moment of silence, Sir Wizen responded, 

“The raptor’s gaze, a net that swings.

The raptor’s stealth, a trap that springs.

Come silent wings, snap rings, crack stings.”

His voice dripped with menace, and he spared only one breath before launching a counterattack.

“The obelisk of Greeks ¦ the tekhenu of old

The tip, a deadly spire ¦ that casts a shadow bold.”

“Oh!” breathed Ocelot and Sloth.

“What?” asked Ferret.

Oh, he would not win!

He would not!

I replied,

An Alexandrian! ¦ Who knew the Nile so vast?

From queenly lake, it flows ¦ to bungalow down-caste.

Sir Wizen’s feathers ruffled. “Any wordsmith can forge two or three lines,” said he. “But a serious form?”

“I will trounce you in any form, and you will admit defeat. And my victor’s spoils will be two: the top hat and your permanent disappearance from Miss Vole’s life.”

I was not so blinded by my anger that I had forgot my original purpose or my friend’s plight.

“Very well,” said Sir Wizen. “Tomorrow. At this hour. And the form is barzelleta.”

“Wonderful. No, wait. Two forms. One of your choosing, one of mine.”

I spoke. There were gasps behind me. “There should be an impartial judge,” I added. “I suggest Doctor John Watson.”

“Another friend,” sneered the owl. “Hardly impartial.”

“He’s an author, physician, representative from the uppermost order of the Animal kingdom, decorated defender of Queen and country.”

“Fine. Until the morrow.” And with that, Sir Wizen hopped clumsily towards the window and disappeared into the night.

“Inky,” moaned Sloth with a stricken face. “Why, Inky?”

“I had no choice; he insulted me!”

“No, why did you choose a villanelle?” asked Ocelot, with a slightly furrowed brow, a gesture which indicated ‘stricken’ in his world. “You hate villanelles.”

“Villanelle? Is that what I chose?” Now my face was surely as stricken as theirs.

“Yes!” they cried.

“Why?” I asked weakly. “Why?”

“Inky, I have another question,” said the Ocelot, his brow slightly less furrowed. “Just what kind of owl is Sir Wizen?”

“A damnable one, obviously!” I turned to Sloth. “Do you think Mother Sloth might provision me with a carafe—or ten—of that warm, invigorating, ambrosial nectar of hers that I had the good fortune to imbibe at last Sunday’s delectable luncheon?

“You mean, the chicory coffee? Yes, of course. We’ll send a supply ‘round to your den.”

“Splendid! Will one of you brief Doctor Watson on his role?”

“Yes, of course,” said the Ocelot

“Inky,” said Aemilia. “You are very brave.”

“Or foolish. Tomorrow will tell which. Now I must fly home and cleave to my Muse’s side.”


I did not sleep, of course.

I wrote. And rewrote.

And the next day when I reached the milliner’s shop, I realised that I was not alone.

Not at all.

Doctor Watson was there, looking more ill at ease than I’d ever seen him, which was perhaps because he was the only human in a throng of animals.

“Oh, he’s here!” someone whispered.

The crowd parted.

“Ocelot?” I asked, looking at all the faces; a few were familiar—Awesome Possum was hanging upside down from the rafters; he paused his smacking to give me a lewd wink—but most of those present were wholly unknown to me.

“Word travels fast,” said the Ocelot. “The Whiskers & Words Society are what can only be described as all a-titter. Ferret’s selling snacks—and taking subscriptions for transcripts of the proceedings.”

“Oh, my word.”

“Well, it’s for his show, you know.”

Aemilia gave me a shy smile. Mouselet, I was told later, was hiding in a boot, Sir Wizen being far too formidable for her to reveal herself.

I spied Ferret once or twice. He was difficult to miss, not for the little bags of nuts and seeds he carried, but rather because he had costumed one half of himself as Cleopatra and the other half of himself as Marc Anthony and had a puppet Julius Ceasar bobbing on his tail. It was for the afore mentioned one-rodent show, which is a story for another day.

My opponent, however, was the story of this day or evening rather; he was on his platform perch, looking as imperial, as imposing, as predatory, as ever.

No matter. I was ready for him.

“Good evening, ladies and, uh, gentle-beasts,” said Doctor Watson. “Will the poets take their places?”

I made my way to a small platform opposite Sir Wizen.

“The form is a barzelleta. Sir Wizen, you will go first.”

He flapped his wings, then began. 

Awake at dusk, we noble owls

ascend to air in search of prey.

We spy the shudders in the grey

and bend, well-cloaked in feathered cowls.

 

We note each tremour, twitch, and tell.

We swoop and snatch without a sound.

Held fast are you in clawed spell

as we return to hallowed ground,

cathedrals skies with starlight crowned,

majestic stage of winged-mage prowls.

 

We spy the shudders in the grey

and bend, well-cloaked in feathered cowls.

 

A treetop feast, below fears quell

too late, again, a-hunt, abound

a thirst to quench, draw deep at well

until the dark tide ebbs, unwound

the clock that ticks, the hearts that pound.

At dawn, we turn from day that fouls.

 

Awake at dusk, we noble owls

ascend once more in search of prey.

 

The crowd, and I, clapped.

“Mister Quill,” said Doctor Watson. “Your turn.”

I nodded.

The sea is no fast friend of mine.

Upon it I was thrust, out-cast

From home, my soul was thrown, unasked

upon it, chained, in floating shrine.

As Noah’s captive, I rolled, pitched

as waves whack-smacked the prison-ship

The sea and wind were both bewitched.

Foul storm erased the chartered trip,

The boat, my destiny both slip

from mortal course to myst’ry divine.

 

From home, my soul was thrown, unasked

upon it, chained, in floating shrine.

 

For liberty, my tired soul itched.

A-float atop a makeshift skip

of ship-wrecked crate, my fate was hitched

to currents, tides, the watery drip

of sandless hourglass, whose tip

upturned, for me, tolled London time.

 

The sea is no fast friend of mine.

Upon it I was thrust, out-cast.

 

The crowd clapped. Sir Wizen stood stoic.

“A difficult call, but the first round goes to Sir Wizen,” said Doctor Watson.

The crowd murmured, then hushed when the good doctor held out his hand.

“Round Two. Villanelle. Sir Wizen, you may begin.”

Summer, autumn, winter, spring, seasons change, but not I.

Earth and sun, cheek to cheek, dance their dance, lean and sway.

Tilt and twirl matter not, far above, by the by.

 

Summer brings currents warm, gliding soft, soar, swirl, fly.

Down below, feast aplenty scurries, does not stray.

Summer, autumn, winter, spring, seasons change, but not I.

 

Autumn cracks, crisp and clipped, drowsy sun bids good-bye.

Plump delights, bound aground, winter’s stores, tucked away.

Tilt and twirl matter not, far above, by the by.

 

Winter frosts, downy snow, feathers quilt, grey sky.

Few astir, outlines dark, silhouette, steps betray.

Summer, autumn, winter, spring, seasons change, but not I.

 

Spring uncurls, breaks forth out, shells and swells, flutter shy.

Morsels choice, find their voice, so do I, hoo-hooray!

Tilt and twirl matter not, far above, by the by.

 

Naught escapes, instincts keen, hearing sharp, and an eye

Ever-gold, ever-op’ed, e’er-awatch, every way.

Summer, autumn, winter, spring, seasons change, but not I.

Tilt and twirl matter not, far above, by the by.

There was some clapping, but I overheard Ocelot’s whispering and his thoughts echoed mine.

“He’s played it too safe.”

“He wants to intimidate, threaten but it’s too much,” replied Sloth. “Tiresome.”

Yes, I was tired of this bird.

“Mister Quill, your turn,” said Doctor Watson.

Shed not your tears of grief forlorn

for this reposed discarded hide.

The poet dies to be reborn.

 

At first demise ‘twas none to mourn

when word-fount sprang from beast tongue-tied

Shed not your tears of grief forlorn

for what I was. Pray, save your scorn

for cruel trader, foul trade plied.

The poet dies to be reborn.

 

From watery grave to pit earth-worn

for days, beneath, did I reside.

Shed not your tears of grief forlorn;

once hid from enemies forsworn,

I rose, foe felled with friends at side.

The poet dies to be reborn.

 

Fret not, dear friends, if from you torn

In memory, words, I abide.

Shed not your tears of grief forlorn.

The poet dies to be reborn!

 

I bore into Sir Wizen with an unflinching gaze and roared the final line.

First, there was a moment of silence, save for the laundress next door throwing wet linen upon the drying racks, and then the milliner’s shop erupted in cheers and applause.

I got a ‘Well done’ from the Ocelot and a ‘Give ‘em the Yank squawk fuckin’ ‘ell, Quill!’ from the rafters and a smile and a nod from Doctor Watson.

“Second round goes to Mister Quill.”

More cheers, but my heart leapt not.

Now what?

“Tie-breaker tomorrow?” suggested Doctor Watson.

I nodded, so did Sir Wizen.

“The hat will be ready then, too, sirs,” said Aemilia.

“Perfect. And the form will be English sonnet,” said Doctor Watson. “Good luck.”

I lumbered home, buoyed by the excited chatter, but when I finally reached my den, I stared at my books and my papers.

And promptly fell asleep.


“Are you still sleeping?”

It is a wonder how a mother’s voice—even if it is not your own mother’s voice—will provoke a reaction. I was, indeed, still asleep the instant before I heard Mother Sloth’s disapproving cry.

“I’m here to collect the carafes,” she said. “But shouldn’t you be getting ready?”

I looked outside.

Oh, no! It could not be afternoon!

I’d slept a whole day!

I’d nothing!

Nothing!

“Are you troubled, Inky, about that old owl?”

“Yes, yes!” I cried in a panic.

“I remember an old story about an owl and a squirrel. Let’s me see, how did it go…”


“Welcome back, ladies and gentle-beasts. The final round.”

The milliner’s shop was even more crowded than the previous day.

“Sir Wizen, you may begin.”

 At lauds, an exaltation heralds sweet

the dawn. The larks a-bough chirr-up their song.

The morning star is theirs to welcome, greet;

they wake the flocks to whom prime t’none belong.

 

The day is filled with hosts and quarrels loud,

with charms in copse, with skeins and rafts on pond.

A-swim the fowl while sparrows nip and crowd

the finches, quick to flee to garden frond.

 

At vespers, lamps celestial are lit

as firmament dims, as watches watch.

Blue nightingales a-stir begin to knit

and purl their even-croon sans cough or troche.

 

At matins, coos that wake the sleeping Frere

convene a parliament most chevalier.

 

Oh, no.

I gulped.

The applause was strong.

It was a good poem. A very good poem. The better poem.

“Mister Quill, your turn,” said Doctor Watson.

There was silence.

It is a horrible feeling, knowing that you are going to disappoint a room full of friends and admirers, but I am no coward.

Once more, into the fray.

One golden autumn morn, a fleet of eight

set sail for Isle of Owl ‘cross glassy lake.

To gather nuts, their aim, a harvest great

of autumn’s stores, for winter’s fast to break.

 

They came on tiny rafts to Brown Owl’s oak

to ask leave, all but one, a proper guest.

They came, but one, with finest gifts bespoke

that one, the host’s goodwill did sorely test.

 

He bore no gift nor did he gather nuts.

He sang of riddles, jests, and silly rhymes.

He danced and pranced about in idle struts.

At last, a judgement swift for petty crimes.

 

Held high, aloft, for skinning, he did wail.

Then—snap!—set free was he by halved a tail.

Then—snap!—set free, as we, by half a tale!

 

It is an even more horrible feeling to know that you have disappointed a room full of friends and admirers. There were some murmurings and a bit of weak applause, but I knew that I had been bested.

Sir Wizen twisted his head from one side to the other, looking very smug.

Doctor Watson cleared his throat and said, “Miss Vole, the prize?”

Aemilia shuffled to the centre of the shop with the hat, a gorgeous piece of work, which, rightfully, provoked quite a few gasps from the spectators.

But Sir Wizen wasn’t looking at the hat.

He was looking at Aemilia.

And the light in his eyes was one that no rodent could afford to misunderstand.

Aemilia quivered and her fear was telegraphed quickly about the room to everyone.

Everyone but Doctor Watson.

“And the winner is…”

“GOTCHA!”

From the window, a net shot into the room, just missing Sir Wizen’s perch. He flapped, heading across the room towards the open door.

The crowd dispersed at once, squeaking and shouting. Doctor Watson’s voice boomed about the chaos.

“Lestrade! What are you doing here?”

“It’s the inspector!” cried Aemilia when the Yarder crawled through the window.

“I’m doing a favour for a chum at the Zoo,” said Lestrade quickly as he hurried after Sir Wizen. Doctor Watson and I and many others followed. We saw Lestrade throw his net once more.

It caught Sir Wizen’s foot just as a laundress appeared in a window opposite and emptied an enormous basin of dirty water into the alley.

And onto Sir Wizen.

The owl gave a strangled cry as Lestrade pounced.

“Look!” shouted the Ocelot.

The creature in Lestrade’s net was a tiny bird, much more vassal than sovereign. A mound of black and brown feathers and a black puddle decorated ground.

“I knew it,” said the Ocelot. “He looked big, but he smelled small. He’s a common barn owl, not a great-horned or a Eurasian. A disguise. What part wasn’t false feathers was black paint. His own beak and feathers are white.”

“A costume,” said Ferret, nodding. Then he set about collecting all the discarded feathers, which were enough to costume several runs of a one-rodent Icarus and Daedalus.

“Watson, I owe you. Or my friend at the Zoo does,” said Lestrade. “This little fellow’s one of the Zoo’s rarest birds, but he keeps escaping, gnawing off his tag and biting through his cage. Seems he doesn’t like his medicine. Ah, well. Who does?” He smiled at Sir Wizen. “Back home with you, mate, where you’ll be safe and well-cared for.”

We all watched as Lestrade exited the alley, but Sir Wizen never once looked back.

“The inspector saved me again!” sighed Aemilia. “He is such a hero.”

“Indeed,” I said without conviction.


I found him, of course, in the Zoo’s bird infirmary.

I read to him.

My poems. His poems. Shelley’s poems.

Literature. Newspapers.

I told him about how I was captured in an American forest and put on a boat by Jamrach. I told him about the storm and the shipwreck and how I drifted into London on a crate. I told him how I found 221 Baker Street and Mouselet. I told him about fighting a tiger to save Mother Sloth and about the Hound of the Baskervilles.

I told him story after story.

He sat on his perch in his cage with his eyes closed and said nothing.

He never turned his head or opened his eyes or made one noise of recognition.

I encouraged my friends to visit him.

A few did.

He never spoke to them either. Not one hoot.

Upon my fourth attempt, I discovered his cage empty.

No one would say what had happened.

I’ve not seen him since then, but I think about him often.

And the hat?

Oh, everyone knows that The Importance of Being Ferret is doing quite well in the West End, and so I remain your humble servant,

Inky Quill