The Vintage ExplorerAlgernon picked his way among the casks, ears swiveling and whiskers alert. It was here somewhere, the source of the new and intriguing smell that had tormented him all day. He’d been lying up in his nest, trying to sleep, and all day his nose had kept twitching. It was no good going out in the day, though. Even if he didn't get stepped on or have a cask dropped on him, someone might see him. Then they would set out traps for him to stumble into, or even bring in a cat!
Dreadful things, cats. A cat might appear to be a big ball of sleeping fur, but in an instant it would become all sharp teeth and sharper claws. No, Algernon was too wise a mouse to go out in the day time. It wasn't as though he needed light to find his way around the cellar. He waited patiently until all the large bumbling humans went away before he stuck so much as a whisker out of his hole.
Algernon's nose led him down among the great casks. Those all smelled as usual. Nothing interesting about the wine in them—until he reached the small cask at the end of the row. There, his nose twitched more fiercely than ever. This was the one.
The humans had been agitated about it all day. There had been much coming and going up and down the line of casks, every crashing passage of tramping feet awakening Algernon in his nest. He was safe in his home inside the wall but he couldn't sleep on account of the noise. And the scent.
Algernon gave a great yawn. Then he walked around the small cask, sniffing as he went. This one might do. It really might. The humans had seemed somehow distressed about it. They could tell that it wasn't going in quite the usual way. But they were too senseless, poor creatures with great useless noses, to notice what Algernon did. This was the wine he'd been seeking all his cellar-exploring life.
At that moment, Algernon heard footsteps approaching, and he had just enough time to hide under the wooden walkway before the door opened and a blinding light came on. Two humans came down the walkway.
“This is the one, Boss,” said the human in a shirt that stood open at the neck. “We were trying for something that would go well with some of the new cheeses from the dairy.” He shrugged. “But sometimes experiments just don't work out.”
“I’m disappointed, Charlie, but I understand. After all, that's why we experiment in smaller quantities.” The man wearing a suit and tie pried open the top of the cask and sniffed. “It's not awful,” he said.
The other man unhooked a small cup from his belt and dipped it carefully in the liquid. “Taste it. You'll see.”
The suit sipped, swirled the drink about in his mouth, and spat onto the floor, to the evident distress of the other man. Algernon was shocked. What kind of person would spit in the very place where the most amazing wines were made? Who would spit out that heavenly brew in the small cask? Surely even humans were better than that! The spattered liquid spread the smell more strongly than ever. Algernon held his breath and kept listening.
“Take it and dump it tomorrow,” Suit ordered. “You'll probably have to burn the cask. You'll never get that cheesy overtone out of the oak.”
Dump it? Get rid of the best wine they'd ever made, and destroy the oak for a cheesy overtone? Algernon stiffened in shock.
“Right, Boss,” Charlie answered, tapping the lid back in place on the cask. As they walked away, he cast one look back, and shrugged. He turned off the light and closed the door behind him.
Algernon came out of his hiding place. He took one final sniff at the keg, and the wine that had been spattered on the floor, and flicked his tail in satisfaction. Then he ran to the far end of the cellar, crept into a large hole, sat back on his haunches and gave a mighty squeak.
A veritable battalion of mice appeared from all directions. Working quickly at Algernon’s direction, they tipped the cask carefully on its side, rolled it the dozen or so feet to the hole, which several mice were quickly enlarging by removing several loose planks, and rolled the cask down a long passage into a surprisingly large room in the heart of a wall built to look like the thick wall of a castle. Setting the cask carefully upright on a small dais, the stepped back. Another team of mice appeared from the other direction, rolling a pair of immense wheels of cheese.
“The humans rejected these. They said these cheeses smelled too strongly of cheese!” All the mice laughed. Humans were weird.
“Roll them right here up next to the wine,” Algernon ordered. “And let the feast begin!”
“Three cheers for the explorer of the best vintages!” called an old mouse, and the room filled with enthusiastic squeaks.
“Hey, Charlie, didn’t you say to haul that experimental keg off this morning?” A worker called across the room.
“Yeah, the boss said to get rid of it.”
“It ain’t here.”
Algernon sat up feet thudding past his hole, making his head ache worse than ever.
“Huh. Boss must’ve sent someone down earlier to make sure. Fine, less work for us. Though you know, I kind of liked the stuff,” Sam said under his breath, casting a glance around the room.
Algernon lay back down with a smile. Once again they had outwitted the humans. The mice would party for a year on that cask.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014