“Do you want to enter the competition?” Peter asked Anna, as he reviewed the application form for the annual sidewalk art show to be held the following month in Harper, Maine.
Peter and Anna Wensleydale were seated at their dining room table, enjoying a cup of tea, while sorting through the day’s mail. It was an early afternoon in July, and the sliding glass doors leading from the inside of the house onto the planked deck outside were wide open, letting in fresh, warm air.
“What for?” Anna asked, “I never win anything.”
Curiously, it is true that, while Anna’s artwork sells very nicely, and over the years has developed some considerable following, it does not seem to do well in competitions. When pressed, Anna will respond to inquiries on the subject with some offhand observation, like “Contests are for amateurs. Professionals sell their work.” But everyone in the Wensleydale household knows that beneath that I-don’t-care exterior there lives one who, like the rest of us, would very much enjoy winning, at least every so often.
Anna has been painting off and on since she was a youngster, but it was not until she and Peter left the world, and came to Maine, that her art became a serious matter. Here, she took up her brushes not just for fun, but precisely in order that she and Peter might survive. Here, in Cranberry County, Anna Wensleydale became a professional artist. And it had not been easy, especially in the beginning.
But Peter and Anna were determined to succeed, for they were decided that neither of them should work away from home. “Never to go to the office again,” as Peter likes to put it. And, with the exception of a few, short periods when one or the other has had to take a job in a neighboring town, they have met that goal. Happily, Anna’s painting offered a natural place from which to start, and, as it happened, Peter’s experience in the diplomatic service had included some public relations work that he put to use in Maine to awaken a public interest in Anna and her art.
“We do not have to sell your paintings,” Peter insists to Anna regularly, “for they will do that themselves. All we have to do is get them seen.”
Thus, he is always alert for an opportunity to obtain mention of her in one of the local newspapers, or, better yet, on television, but mostly Peter and Anna go together, hat in hand, to galleries, restaurants, bookstores, clinics, and any other buildings or establishments open to the public where they might be able to convince the management to hang her work.
“Will you talk to them, Peter?” Anna will say, as they drive Simone, loaded with paintings, into the parking lot of yet another prospect, for, while Anna acknowledges the need to sell her work, she hates having to sell herself.
Anyway, that morning over tea, Peter was brimming with confidence.
“Mark my words,” he exclaimed. “Enter the competition this year, and you will win.”
He voiced the last three words with particular emphasis, as if he hoped they might take on an energy of their own. At the same time, he spoke a silent prayer, and then, just for insurance, out of Anna’s sight, he crossed his fingers.
As Peter intended, Anna did not observe his wishful gesture, but Tancredi did, for all this while the dog lay sprawled out on the floor beside the table, watching and listening, on his belly with his legs spread out, in sort of a four-way gymnast’s split, his head and jaw flat against the floorboards, his eyes and ears ever alert, although seemingly lost in the multiple folds of skin and fur pushed forward over his brow from the nape of his neck.
“Look at that dog,” Anna said to Peter, at which Tancredi’s tail began to wag slowly and rhythmically across the floor, like a dry mop. “How can he be comfortable in that position? His head has almost disappeared, and it looks like his legs have been dislocated at the hips and shoulders!”
His tail now wagging furiously, Tancredi got up, and walked over to where Anna was seated. She took the dog’s huge head between her hands, and gently pulled him toward her.
“Such a good boy,” Anna said, her abundant affection for the animal clearly showing.
As soon as Anna’s face was within range, Tancredi’s tongue landed on it, licking her repeatedly, slobbering over her mouth and nose, her cheeks and eyes. To avoid drowning in the flood of saliva, Anna turned her face aside even while she took the dog into her arms, and, laughing with joy, hugged him until he squirmed. Observing from across the table, and sharing in her good humor, Peter laughed, too.
“What’s going on here!” sounded a cheerful voice from beneath the table. It was Pilikia, drawn to join them by the happy noise.
The cat jumped up onto an empty chair, and from there to the tabletop. Pilikia knew she was not permitted there, but gambled that, in their joyful mood, neither Peter nor Anna would notice. She stood atop the table, staring at them, her eyes huge and wide as if she had been caught by surprise.
“Nothing’s going on,” Anna said. “Tancredi’s just being nice. And,” she added, “you’re getting off the table.”
With that, having released the dog, Anna lifted the cat from the table top into her lap.
“So, Anna,” Tancredi asked, shaking himself back into shape after so thorough a squeezing, “are you going to enter the competition?”
“What competition?” Pilikia pressed, excitedly. “Tell me, tell me!”
Ignoring the cat, Anna responded to the dog. “You’ve been listening to us,” she said.
“Not listening,” Tancredi explained, “just hearing. So, are you going to enter or not?”
“Enter what?” Pilikia wailed.
“The sidewalk art show in Harper next month …,” Peter began, answering Pilikia.
“… includes a competition,” Tancredi said, interrupting Peter, “in which each artist participating in the show is invited to enter a painting …”
“… and Anna can’t decide whether or not to …,” Peter continued, interrupting the dog, until he was himself interrupted again, this time by Pilikia.
“Oh, yes!” the cat shouted, with enthusiasm. “You must enter, Anna. Think of the fun we could have.”
“I do not believe what I am hearing,” Anna grumbled, interrupting all of them, frustration evident in her voice. “Listen to you! Pilikia, you don’t even know what we’re talking about. And Tancredi, I don’t see how any of this is any of your business. And as for you, Peter, you ought to …”
Suddenly, in mid-sentence, Anna stopped herself. She was silent for a long moment as the other three sat in silence, too, looking at her. Then, a tear forming in her eye, Anna spoke again.
“I didn’t mean that,” she said, apologetically, “any of it. It’s just this talk of the art show. You know how I hate them. The struggle to get my paintings into the car, and setting up once we get there, and then endlessly waiting for someone to come along, hoping they’ll like my work, and will want to buy it, and then having to haggle over the price. And now you expect me to enter the competition, which we all know I won’t win. Who needs it?” She paused for a moment, and sighed. “But I was wrong to take it out on you. Can you forgive me, each of you?”
Anna looked first to Pilikia, who had already nestled her warm, furry head into Anna’s chest, and was purring like a bubbling stream. Next, Anna reached out to Peter who took her hand in his, and kissed it. Then, turning to Tancredi, who was sitting on his haunches, staring intently into Anna’s eyes, she said, “Of course, this is your business. Everything that goes on in this house is your business.”
“So, are you going to enter the competition?” the dog asked.
Anna smiled. Tancredi had evidently forgotten, not to mention forgiven, the entire incident. Anna looked toward Peter, who remained expressionless, not wanting to influence her response. “Oh, why not?” she said.
Later that day, Tancredi and Pilikia were relaxing together on the lawn, taking a respite from playing their favorite game, which consists of Tancredi walking about the yard, or the living room, or anywhere else, with Pilikia walking along beneath him, inside the space defined by his four, moving legs. The two of them will perform like that endlessly, one within the other, like a couple of animated Chinese boxes. There seems to be no point whatsoever to the activity other than just to do it.
“You know what we’ve got to do, don’t you, Tancredi?” Pilikia asked her canine friend, as the two of them lay lazily in the grass.
“Do?” the dog asked. “Do about what?”
“The art show competition, of course,” Pilikia replied, a twinkle in her eye.
Tancredi turned to the cat, and said, “I know that tone of voice, Pilikia. What’re you cooking up?”
Before speaking again, Pilikia glanced about furtively for signs of others. “Not here,” she whispered. “Let’s adjourn to some place private.”
Feigning an innocent stroll on a summer’s day, the cat and dog wandered together to the back of the lawn, past the chicken house and the vegetable garden, over toward the edge of the woods, to a huge piece of granite left in place, like others of its kind throughout the area, by a passing glacier in the last ice age. Naturally balanced on what’s below, it will rock back and forth half an inch or so when given a gentle push. This ancient boulder marks Tancredi’s favorite place. “I can’t explain it,” he will say, if asked, “it just feels good to be here.”
“We’ll be alone now,” Pilikia assured the dog, as the two of them settled into hiding behind the big rock. But no sooner had the cat spoken than Selene appeared.
“Okay,” she began, pointedly, “what are you two getting into?”
“Who says we’re getting into anything?” Pilikia responded, a little too defensively.
“If either of you thinks you ever fool anyone with that supposedly casual strolling of yours,” Selene said, “you are sadly mistaken. You might as well be wearing a neon sign that reads, ‘PLEASE DON’T NOTICE US’!”
As Selene was speaking, Cantachiaro flew over to them, landing on the rock above.
“What’s happening?” he asked. Then, jumping down to the ground beside the others, he said to Pilikia and Tancredi, “You are up to something, aren’t you?”
“Not you, too,” Tancredi moaned.
“Well,” the rooster explained, almost apologetically, “when I saw the way the two of you were faking that casual stroll across the yard, I just naturally thought …”
“What did I tell you?” Selene insisted, interrupting Cantachiaro.
“All right,” Pilikia admitted, “if you must know, maybe Tancredi and I are up to something. Or about to be.” Even though she regretted getting caught, Pilikia’s pleasure in these proceedings was increasing with every complication. The more tangled matters get, the more this Persian cat enjoys them.
Tancredi told Selene and Cantachiaro about Peter’s and Anna’s conversation in the dining room, and he shared with all three of them what he knew about the Harper sidewalk art show, for he alone among the animals had ever accompanied the Wensleydales to any art shows. He particularly described the competition, stressing Anna’s unwillingness to participate. “But in the end,” he concluded, “she acceded.”
“Yes,” Pilikia reminded him, “but only very reluctantly.”
“Because she’s afraid she won’t win?” Cantachiaro asked, pleased that he had evidently followed along perfectly.
“Obviously,” Selene said, a little perfunctorily. “And this is where we come to your scheme, isn’t it, Pilikia?”
Pilikia nodded, anxious finally to be able to lay her plot before the others, but Selene spoke again before the other could open her mouth. “You’re looking to fix the competition, aren’t you? Yes,” Selene went on, answering her own question as her enthusiasm for the idea gained momentum. “Of course you are. And why not?”
“Fix the competition?” Cantachiaro asked, confused. “Is it broken?”
“Not broken, my friend, just not sufficiently predictable,” Pilikia replied. “And that’s why we’re going to fix it, so Anna will be certain to win!”
“Do you think it can be done?” the rooster asked, catching the fever.
“Certainly it can be done,” Selene affirmed. “If humans can put it together, we can take it apart.”
“It’s a perfect plot,” Pilikia purred. “It’s meddlesome, it’s difficult, and it’s risky. All the right ingredients.”
As the others continued to consider the matter, Tancredi listened silently. Finally, he voiced a concern. “I’m thinking about the rest of the artists,” he explained, “particularly the one who would have won were we not to interfere. Are we being fair to them?”
“Let them get their own animals,” Selene replied, without emotion. “We have our duty.”
With that, the deal was on. Now, the animals set about developing a strategy. Tancredi explained that the panel of judges at the competition consists of five people chosen from among well known members of the Harper community, and may include merchants, professional people, town officials, and the like.
“Are their names made public before the date of the show?” Pilikia asked.
“Oh, yes,” Tancredi replied. “The list will be in the Harper newspaper.”
“Then all we have to do,” Pilikia said, “is get to them in advance of the show.”
“Get to them?” Selene asked.
“Sure,” Pilikia said. “We’ll approach each of them individually, and bribe them to vote for Anna’s painting.”
“Bribe them,” Selene repeated, straight-faced. “With what, a bag of kitty litter?”
Pilikia thought for a moment, and then said, “Okay, maybe we won’t bribe them.”
“We could threaten them,” Cantachiaro offered.
“That’s it,” Pilikia agreed. “We’ll threaten to snatch their children, and give them to the aliens.”
“That could work,” Cantachiaro observed.
Selene was unimpressed. “Give it a rest, you two,” she snapped.
Again, Tancredi remained silent during this part of the conversation, but its direction clearly disturbed him, and finally he spoke up. “I really believe we ought to rule out any kind of violence,” he said.
“Pay no attention to them, Tancredi,” Selene reassured the dog. “That’s just their imitation of creative thought. In a moment or two, they’ll have worn themselves out.” That said, she assumed control of the meeting. “Now, listen to me, all of you,” Selene commanded. “First, there is no need for us to concern ourselves with how the judges vote.”
“But I thought …,” Pilikia began, and then instantly quieted herself as Selene’s disapproving gaze bore into her.
Selene continued, “Tancredi, you said that the way the competition works is that each of the judges examines all the entries, and then gives his or her decision to one of the officials, who tallies the votes, and records the winner. Is that right?”
“That’s the way they did it last year,” Tancredi replied.
“Then they’ll do it that way this year. Humans love consistency,” Selene said. Then, she went on, “Records it on what?”
“You mean, the winner’s name?” Tancredi asked. Selene nodded. “There was a form of some kind,” the dog said, “and the name was written on that.”
“Of course, a form,” Selene observed. “There’s always a form for everything. Then what happened?”
“The official announced the winner to the public,” Tancredi answered.
“The same official who tallied the votes?” Selene asked. Before Tancredi could reply, Selene added, strongly, “Think carefully, Tancredi. This is important.”
Tancredi flexed his long snout, and wiggled the end of his nose. Much of his memory is scent, and he was recreating the odors from last summer’s Harper art show. “Now that you mention it,” he recalled, “it was a different person. One wrote the winner’s name, and another read it.”
“You’re sure?” Selene pressed him.
“I may not always be right,” Tancredi responded, “but my nose is never wrong. I’m positive.”
“Then that’s our point of entry,” Selene replied, with certainty. “We’ve got a plan.”
Selene explained that there was no need for them to bother with the judging process, the vote tallying, or even the recording of the final decision. “We can let all of that proceed as it will,” she said. “But just as soon as the form has been filled in with the winner’s name, we must act. At that point, we replace their sheet of paper with ours, so that when the second official announces the winner’s name, he or she will be reading from our form, not theirs.”
“Our form which will already have Anna’s name written on it!” Cantachiaro proclaimed.
“Exactly,” Selene said, pleased with the simplicity of her plan.
“It’s brilliant,” Tancredi announced.
“Selene, I have to admit it, you’ve done it again,” Pilikia agreed, with evident admiration.
Acknowledging their applause, Selene tipped her head ever so slightly, but not so low that it might be mistaken for a bow. Selene bowed to no one, not even in victory. Then, she went right back to business.
“It’s not over yet,” Selene told the others. “If the plan is to work, we must acquire a document that will pass for the official form, and we need someone who will write Anna’s name on it for us, someone whose handwriting looks too good to question.”
“Beatrice Marlowe,” croaked a voice from a branch overhead.
“The schoolteacher,” echoed another just like it.
The four conspirators seated on the ground below looked up to see their friends Billy and Billie, the downy woodpeckers, perched amongst the green leaves of a yellow birch.
“What’re you doing there?” Cantachiaro asked.
“Well, when we heard at the birdfeeder about the way Tancredi and Pilikia walked over here …,” Billie began.
“… we thought we’d come by to find out what you were up to,” Billy concluded.
Tancredi and Pilikia exchanged a pained look, then shrugged, while Selene made no effort to disguise her what’d-I-tell-you expression.
“And very welcome you are,” Cantachiaro said to the two woodpeckers, and then, to the others, he observed, “Billie and Billy are right, Beatrice Marlowe the schoolteacher is the answer.”
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