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Drosselmeier

Now you already know that in their long quest for the nut Krakatuk, Drosselmeier and his friend the astronomer faced many perils, few more deadly than the twisted bargain of the rat Longtail and his pawn the Pistachio Queen. They escaped that trap, with luck and clockwork and a little knowledge of the minds of vermin–though it left them ragged, penniless and footsore in the Kingdom of Dates. It would be nearly a year before they managed to unearth another clue.

So do you know what Drosselmeier was doing on his eleventh Christmas searching abroad?

Well, then, I’ll tell you.

Drosselmeier

He was enjoying the hospitality of the Horticultural Society of Acornshausen, and he was deeply puzzled.

“You say Krakatuk was stolen from its museum pedestal by night, and neither night-guard nor gatekeeper saw a thing?” he frowned.

“We would hand it to you directly, if only we could!” said Professor Buffalop, Chair of the Department of Kernel Studies. “We are certain of only one thing–the scoundrel was one of our own faculty.”

“Then we are twice obligated to help roust him out,” said Drosselmeier.

“We’ll begin immediately,” said the astronomer. “Professor, if I may ask, what is your sign?”

Drosselmeier

The astronomer and Drosselmeier cast horoscopes for all the Society faculty, with particular emphasis on the position of Mercury, god of thieves. It took a week of hard work in the high tower of Acornshausen, but in the end they had winnowed the suspects to four: Professors Nussbaum, Durchdrehn, Brocken, and Buffalop himself.

“See here,” they each huffed in various states of eye-pop and apoplexy, “I am clearly above suspicion–”

“Of course, of course,” said Drosselmeier, “we seek only evidence to defend your good name.”

“For which purposes,” said the astronomer, “you won’t mind detailing your whereabouts of Thursday last?”

Drosselmeier

“Brocken and Buffalop provide each other’s alibi,” frowned the astronomer. “This may be problematic.”

“The horoscope tells us that they will have a falling out in March,” said Drosselmeier. “The consequence of a heist whose loot they cannot sell?”

“You suspect Krakatuk is still in Acornshausen?”

“The roads are bad in winter, and it cannot be trusted to a messenger,” said Drosselmeier. “An accomplice would help hide the nut until spring.”

“Buffalop and Brocken together,” said the astronomer, “or Durchdrehn and a protégé? His stars show a dependence on admirers.”

“But our Professor Nussbaum,” said Drosselmeier, “has no friends at all.”

Drosselmeier

“The search must be accomplished tonight,” said Drosselmeier.

“We have arranged a diversion,” the astronomer said. “The quarters will be empty when the bell tolls nine.”

“Such villainy! Such daring!” said the professor. “Yes, yes, of course I will aid you in ferreting out the nut.”

“You’ll need to begin the search yourself,” said Drosselmeier. “Perhaps if you go early and hide in an alcove nearby…”

“We’ll be along shortly,” said the astronomer.

“I knew it all along,” said the professor, eyes cold with vindiction.

“Oh yes,” they told Durchdrehn, Brocken, Buffalop and Nussbaum, each in their turn. “So did we.”

Drosselmeier

Drosselmeier and the astronomer swept their gazes across the faces of the faculty. They’d used up their reservoirs of bluster now, and silence had slowly pushed them into shame.

On the table between them were four nuts: one large, one small, one silver, one stone. Each had been purportedly found hidden, by one professor, in another’s chambers.

“Shall we now produce a sledgehammer,” asked the astronomer, “to verify that none of these are truly the unbreakable Krakatuk?”

One by one, the professors shook their heads.

“You can’t all have stolen the thing,” frowned the astronomer.

“Oh yes,” said Drosselmeier, “they can.”

Drosselmeier

“I stole it last year,” said Nussbaum, her young face strained.

“But I stole it three years before that,” said Brocken.

“I believe Professor Durchdrehn stole it almost a decade hence,” said Drosselmeier, “and Professor Buffalop still longer ago, a year before his tenure.”

Buffalop’s eyes had widened. “But if Durchdrehn just got my decoy, then who’s to say the one I took was–”

“Surely you can’t have believed you were the first to have this idea?” said Drosselmeier sadly. “A dusty and obscure article, of startling value to the right collector, guarded by a cheap lock: it practically stole itself.”

Nussbaum

In the end, they found the latest ersatz Kratatuk the way one finds truffles and earthquakes: with a pig. The Society’s cook looked on with fond sourness as, snuffling and clattering, it dragged Nussbaum down the stairs to the corner bed of a servant girl named Senf.

“I wasn’t going to keep it,” she said, when they plunged into her cubicle. She clutched the shards of a varnished walnut. “But I barely tapped it and it wasn’t unbreakable, it wasn’t!”

“So many things fall open, if you hit them hard enough,” panted Nussbaum, who might have had a friend after all.

Drosselmeier

“We are yet no closer to Krakatuk,” the astronomer reminded Drosselmeier, as they left Acornshausen on a borrowed sledge.

“This may be so,” said Drosselmeier.

“We have solved a mystery and found everyone guilty,” said the astronomer, “but none of them face punishment.”

“Indeed.”

“And yet we grin like wooden dolls.”

“Must all crimes be penalized?” said Drosselmeier. “Who is to blame, in truth, for stealing something that was never there?”

“The calculus of the law does not allow for the softness of human variables.”

“Then we must stick to horoscopes, my friend,” said Drosselmeier, “because sometimes theft enriches us all.”

Senf

Senf didn’t understand the late hour or the heavy cloak, but it was made for her size, of soft, rich fabric. So she followed them to the cave and the bonfire, and listened to their cunning stories. Then she stood up and took pride in the cleverness of how she’d stolen the nut herself.

To the museum with a new nut: gilded, with characters down one side. They replaced it in the case and locked it. They nodded, chanted, giggled, and parted.

The Order of Thieving Squirrels was born in warmth and daring, of conspirators, at the dawn of the year.

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