THINGS THAT WENT BUMP IN THE NIGHT
Those must be mice up in the attic, I said to my wife, calmly. Large mice, to be sure — by the sound of their stomping, they must have weighed 2kg each. But this was the Dordogne, after all — a nutritional wonderland. These mice had been raised on walnuts and truffles and foie gras. It stood to reason that they were a bit curvy. We were staying in a converted stone barn in a hamlet south of SainteFoy-la-Grande, the holiday home of my British cousin, who had warned us of the teeming natural hazards of the Dordogne in high summer. “Wasps!” he said. “Bees! Ants! Toads!” We nodded and chortled. We’re from South Africa, boet. We’ll eat your wasps on a bladdy croissant.
But on arrival, we had to admit the French southwest is indeed a bit hardcore on the bug front. And the toad front. And the mouse front.
Night after night, our host family of lard-arsed mice danced on the ceiling all night. They galloped and squeaked and boogied until dawn. But we slept fine, on one condition: that they were mice and nothing else.
One morning, my wife spotted four fierce amber eyes staring out at her from the gloom of a coal scuttle on the verandah. On closer inspection, she found they belonged to two owl chicks — who had clearly been moved overnight from their nest in the attic by their parents. The chicks were each the size of a pigeon — fluffy, flightless and solemn.
To complicate matters, a large, dead rat was sprawled in a tragic pose over the rim of the coal scuttle. The parents must have left the rat as breakfast for the chicks, who didn’t look at all thrilled. You wouldn’t call them picky eaters if you had seen the rat in question.
But this was now a tricky situation. Had the parents abandoned their kids? Had our noisy presence in the cottage thrown their life cycle out of whack? Who could care for these orphaned owls, if they were indeed orphans?
We consulted Madame Feyroux around the corner, who was our guide in practical matters. Being a tough and inscrutable native, born and raised in the Dordogne wilderness, she didn’t seem worried about the fate of the chicks. But she did Google the number of a bird-rescue centre in Bordeaux, and I called it.
The best-case scenario, we thought, was that the centre would send a helicopter escorted by a squadron of Mirages, and President Emmanuel Macron would join the mission as a publicity stunt. For our services to French biodiversity, our family would be given a small hilltop chateau.
Next problem: explaining the crisis to the bird centre in Bordeaux. My command of French is equivalent to that of a French two-year-old: my pronunciation is deceptively good, but my syntax and vocab give people the impression that I am living with a devastating cognitive impairment.
Never mind. With the help of Google Translate, I managed to tell a garbled tale: we are South Africans who are trying to care for a pair of abandoned young hiboux (owls). The vet listened patiently, then suggested I take the chicks to the nearest bird-rescue centre in South Africa.
No, no, no! These owls are French, I said. They’re as French as Charlotte Gainsbourg. They are practically firing up Gitanes and playing petanque on our driveway. We are staying in a barn near St Foy-la-Grande.
“Aha!” she said. “D’accord!”
The vet proceeded to give her advice, and we followed it precisely. We nestled the chicks in an open cardboard box, and nestled the box in the crook of an apricot tree in the garden. We nestled the dead rat in the box too.
Then we went to a wine farm for the morning. We reasoned that the parents should rescue their kids in peace. When we returned, hours later, the rat was still in the box. The chicks were gone.
But not completely gone. That night, a family of owls danced in the attic.