The duck in our back yard used to put on frolics with a brown rabbit who appeared out of nowhere at dusk. The routine consisted of meditations and athletic events -- jumps, wingflapping -- and ended with a chase during the most frenzied portion of which the rabbit would vanish. That winter when the duck suffered a paralysis we trailed lettuce leaves in the bathwater before her, luring her to swim therapeutic laps. Members of the family spelled each other at the task. Curious performances, we thought -- from the animals, from us.
Author Era Zistel, too, is conscious of the ludicrous figure she cuts sitting on a burlap sack in the snow with a cat. Yet, the conference is part of a ritual which she -- as well as a grieving goat, a chipmunk and a skittish cat -- is determined to keep intact. These four, the "Good Companions" of her title, are the central figures of an unpretentious, slight but pleasing story.
Zistel's materials are observations drawn from encounters with the animals outside her Catskills cabin windows. She also exhibits a nicely balanced, not unkind, not proud view of herself. There is a minimum of plot; a comradely network develops, flourishes, finishes. Suspense exists at less than Hitchcock pitch: Can an oversized goat, twice afflicted by stroke, reach once more the pasture of remembered clover bliss? "Good Companions" works -- delightfully -- for its scant 100 pages. Some wise hand stopped it there, banned photographs, knew better than to wreck a good scrap with padding.
The story centers on the summer when Zistel "traveled with three oddly assorted companions and everything was good including the weather." By traveled she means they went to the fenced pasture or they ventured to the wood lot across a brook. There, while the chipmunk Pest is erratically keeping company like a windblown leaf, the goat Pixie lips in shoots, saplings and patches of Quaker lady and the pacifist cat Squeak seeks out smells and sunlight. The author cuts here firewood -- content with her approximation of wilderness.
From the text we see this not-young sometime librarian as comfortable, reserved, ready to be surprised by good fortune, not expecting it. Wet jackets hang on her chairs. Through sleet and blow she slogs about on chores, trims hooves, mends her fence, administers hot-water bottles and vodka in the barn as needed. She gets the joke in being sideswiped (for unbecoming conduct) and sent sprawling by a 260-pound goat, and she takes no offense at grazings through her hair even though mouthfuls of it are removed. To a degree that readers will enjoy she is sensitive to ice storms and high waters. Her spirits sink during periods of protracted wet weather or when the toilet overflows or mail brings rejected manuscripts. She proposes to faint if a spider touches her. "Good Companions" is preceded by 10 other Zistel animal books, several of them -- on a skunk family, an orphan raccoon, a lost dog -- for children. "The Gentle People," long out of print, is a first-person account of the move to the country from New York City with her freelance-writer husband and the already too many cats. A matter-of-fact passage mentions the husband's suicide following a stroke which left him aphasic.
The new book borrows outright its cast of eccentric housekeeper chipmunks from "The Gentle People" but it is better in every way -- spare, a deal funnier, more focused. That odd procession in which an aged goat, assisted by slings around neck and hips, heaves itself up to lurch toward Arcadia is a reminder of Thoreau's kind of walking -- which "is nothing akin to taking exercise by swinging dumbbells or chairs" but "is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day."