June 28th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Animals Behaving Typically (i.e. Badly): Part Six (Colic, Wind and the Ten-Foot Long Caterpillar)

(to recap: we'd moved to France and ticks had moved onto Gypsy - our giant puppy - and given her pyroplasm. Now comes the episode that people said couldn't be true. But it is. Behold the ten-foot long caterpillar!)

Tick checks were intensified after that. We couldn't keep Gypsy out of the long grass entirely but at least we could check her coat when she came back. And our jeans - ticks, apparently, being quite partial to denim.

And we turned more and more towards the roads for our daily dog walks. At least tarmac was safe from ticks.

But not from dogs.

The average French farmhouse, we have found, is garrisoned by four dogs. The first of which is typically a terrier - or some other small and fiery breed - who's job it is to race outside at the first hint of an intruder and raise the alarm.

Usually they take one look at Gypsy, gauge her size, and then retreat behind the advancing second wave; who are either border collies or various hunting breeds - spaniels, setters and assorted flop-eared hounds. Their job is to hold the intruder at bay until the arrival of the ultimate deterrent - the gardien de vache - who always lumbers in last due to its enormous bulk.

And probably because it takes a while to put all its weight-training equipment away.

The gardien is always of indeterminate breed – normally a cross between a small cow and the Hound of the Baskervilles. And its job is to protect the herd - against anything from a pack of wild dogs to a couple of German panzer divisions.

We usually hasten our step at that point and look the other way. Hoping that an English couple and their dog are hardly worth bothering with.

It was coming back from one of these late morning walks one day when Shelagh noticed Rhiannon rolling in her paddock and pawing at the ground. She recognised the symptoms immediately. Colic!

It was Rhiannon’s turn to meet the vet.

He arrived within the hour, examined her for a few minutes and pronounced in almost perfect English, "it's zer wind."

"Yes, colic." we agreed.

"Non, wind," he insisted.

"Colic?" I repeated, trying a different pronunciation this time, making it rhyme somewhat tunefully with eek.

"Oui, Colique. Mais ... zer wind." And he emphasised his point by pursing his lips and blowing.

The wind? We were confused. What had the wind got to do with anything?

But we should have realised. Any country that has a wind that can turn people mad - strange but true: 'the mistral drove me mad' has been used successfully in a French court to escape imprisonment in a murder trial - can certainly find room for one that gives horses colic.

We listened, amazed. There was a wind, he told us, a very rare wind, but when it blew off the Mediterranean, it left horses writhing in its wake. He'd had several cases already that morning.

Shelagh cast a look in my direction. It was a look of blame. Not only had I been hiding all the articles on pyroplasm but I'd neglected to mention the wind they called Horsekiller.

And, of course, we couldn't have anything as simple as a mere colic-inducing wind sweeping over our fields. We had to have complications. Rhiannon had a strange rash on her shoulder. Was that anything to do with this wind? We'd never noticed a rash associated with colic before.

It's one of the disadvantages of our keyword method of translation that occasionally you hear something only too well - like the phrase 'ten-foot long caterpillar' - and whatever words you pad the rest of the sentence with, nothing can produce anything you'd like to hear.

I looked at Shelagh, had I misheard?

I hadn't. I could tell by the mouthed, "ten foot long caterpillar?" that she'd arrived at the same translation.

Then the vet pointed at a fir tree behind us.

"Là," he said.

When someone introduces a ten-foot long caterpillar into the conversation and then points at a tree above your head, you do not take that action lightly. Nor do you stand underneath said tree for long.

We leapt.

I could feel the imminent grip of the ten-foot long killer insect as it reached down from its lair in the trees. But I tried to disguise my panic by mutating the scream in my throat into a strangled cough.

Safely standing behind the vet, we looked back towards the tree.

It must have been an invisible ten-foot long caterpillar.

"Where is it?"

" ... zer nest."

I could see several balls of white filament dotted amongst the branches. Were they nests? Surely they were too small to accommodate the arboreal cousin of the Loch Ness monster?

"Processionnaire," he continued, struggling in a mixture of French and English. "Many chenille."

The dictionary was quickly consulted. Apparently it was not one ten-foot long caterpillar but a ten foot long line of processionary caterpillars joined head to tail, contact with which could cause skin irritations.

And of all the places to roll when struck with colic, Rhiannon had chosen the one piece of ground currently being traversed by a ten-foot long string of orange and black hairy beasties.

Luckily it wasn't serious. Except for the caterpillars - who suffer far more than skin irritation when brought into unexpected contact with half a ton of horse.

(next instalment: Where not to ride your horse)