Listen to the story

Some years back Pierre had found himself unexpectedly adrift in Central Africa, and his wandering in search of a ride back to France had taken him to a small city whose name itself posed a serious public health risk to its population. No, it wasn’t called anything like Ebola-ville or Malaria-central. It was called a name that was so amusing that whenever people said the name aloud, they tended to die laughing. You can imagine that it took all of Pierre’s wits and adroit adaptiveness to rescue the city and its residents from its unfortunate name. As Pierre had lifted away from the city using the only transport he was able to organize on short notice (a flock of buzzards looped together with silken threads, with a single chair hanging below), he had vowed to himself, “Mon dieu, this is a place I will never return to!” And with a few “Sacre Bleus” he lofted into the air towards the mountains to the west.

Well, in this adventure we find Pierre on his way in a shipping container to none other than — B-B-B-B! Now this predicament leads to several hard questions — why a shipping container? Why this laughable destination? And did he think to bring his special bag of tricks, disguises, and machines that make rude noises? So let me go back two weeks, to a quiet summer afternoon just off the Jardins de Luxembourg near Pierre’s home. His Maman and Papa were napping in the apartment in their overstuffed chairs, and Pierre was bored. So he decided that a short walk in the Jardins was just what the peacock ordered. (Yes, Pierre sometimes had some unusual metaphors when he thought to himself!)

The day was warm and Pierre was dressed casually in a pair of khaki shorts, a Dortmund football shirt, and a sturdy pair of trainers (or what we in America call running shoes). But because Pierre had learned years ago that even a walk in the park can lead to unexpected adventure and danger, he also had a few items in his large pockets: a ball of stout string, a flashlight with a super-duper battery, a Woodsman tool-knife (you’ve seen them, haven’t you, with all their mysterious tools folded into the handle?), and a half-kilo piece of Spanish sausage. (As you see, in those days Paris was a convenient place to gather international supplies for your adventures, though Pierre had never found a source for a proper Australian boomerang or an Argentine bolo.) Thus laden, Pierre slipped out the window and descended to the street. (Whenever possible, Pierre liked to practice his “exit” skills by descending the water drain from the apartment. You never knew when these skills would be needed!)

Pierre sauntered along Rue de St Boris and entered the gardens, just in time to hear a loud squawking. Looking across the small pond, he saw a man trying to stuff a full grown goose into a sack, and of course the goose was no pushover. There are lots of children in the park who like to tease the geese, and believe me, the geese have learned to give as good as they get! So things were not going well for the goose thief. Nonetheless, Pierre felt that the goose could use some help, so he ran around the pond and grabbed the assailant by the sleeve. “Excusez-moi, monsieur, but you must leave the goose alone.” The fellow gave Pierre an evil startled look and started to slap him away, but in a comedy of errors he slipped on the muddy bank of the pond, fell on his face in the nasty water, and splashed away to make his escape.

Pierre was baffled — why had the man tried to goose-nap the poor bird? But as he pondered, he notices that the ruffian had dropped an envelope as he had fallen into the pond. Picking it up, he found a slip of paper with one word: HMS Seau-rouille. (I know, that’s technically more than a single word.) What did it mean? But Pierre was rather experienced at searching for clues, and when he sniffed the paper he caught an unmistakeable odor of sardines and salt air. Putting two and two together, he concluded that the man had come straight from the docks in Marseille, and the word on the paper was the name of the ship that he was intending to return to with his captive bird. Further, because sardines are a well-known food for large birds on long ocean voyages, he deduced that this particular goose-napping was simply the little finger of the gorilla — there was much more to this conspiracy than a simple bird-napping. (A less inventive child might have said “tip of the iceburg” but there you have it — Pierre was nothing if not inventive!)

So Pierre thought it was necessary to look into this caper more closely. There was not a minute to lose — it was already 4 in the afternoon, and ships generally sail from Marseille at about 8 pm.

So you can imagine what happened next — Pierre rushed to the Metro, caught the last train from Gare de Lyons, and made his way to the docks — just in time to see the great dark freighter Seau-rouille slipping out of the harbor. Pierre had missed the boat! He was not flustered, however, and whistled up a water taxi. To the startled pilot he said, “Follow that ship!”, and in a few minutes he was silently clambering up the anchor chain 10 meters to the deck of the Seau-rouille.

On board he found a great confusion. There were dozens of cargo containers, there were evil-looking ship crew members — none of whom looked as though he had bathed in quite a while — and there were at least a thousand large European geese honking and jabbering, scattered all over the deck.

But what kind of caper could this be? Who would steal an enormous flock of geese and transport them — somewhere? And where in the world was this ship going, anyway?

By peculiar coincidence the first member of the crew to notice Pierre was — the very man whom he had seen in the Jardin. And even worse — that man recognized Pierre as the boy who had caused his disastrous fall into the stinking pond! In a flash the ruffian caught Pierre by the arm, lifted him in the air, and tossed him into one of the containers to be dealt with later.

But this is where Pierre’s well-known luck and resourcefulness once again came to his aid. By the time the ruffian returned — let’s call him Frederic, or Freddy — he had forgotten which of the containers he had used as a temporary prison for his captive. He and the other member of the crew went from one container to the next, pounding on the sides and yelling, “Are you there? We have some nice baguette to share with you!” But of course Pierre was too smart for that simpleton’s ruse. He remained quiet, and eventually the crew, almost comically stupid, forgot what they were looking for. (I think that Ulysses had an adventure something like this on his trip to Alexandria.)

So now Pierre was safe, for the time being at least. But how was he to survive the trip locked in a shipping container? What would he eat and drink? Water was the first necessity — a person can’t go longer than a day without water. So he searched the dark container on his hands and knees and found a number of interesting things. There was a set of encyclopedias — apparently printed in Arabic; there were twenty barrels of two-penny nails; there was a crate of racing goggles; and — there was a chemistry set! Now Pierre was a whiz with chemistry, if only he could find a light. But fortunately he had his flashlight in his pocket. He opened the chemistry set and immediately saw that he could make a water condenser that would extract moisture from the air into a beaker. All he had to do was to mix chemical X with reagent Y, which instantly created a very cold compound Z; place the compound into a metallic beaker; and watch as the water droplets formed. Over eight hours the rig would produce two liters of water — plenty for his needs. And of course he had a half-kilo of sausage. So he would be fine for food and drink in the container. But what then? And where on earth were they heading?

You might imagine that being locked in a steel container would be a particularly bad place for making any navigational observations. But Pierre had a few clues. First, the engines were throbbing loudly, and he could deduce that they were going at about 14 knots. That’s not fast, but it’s not dawdling either. They had been traveling about two hours, so if he could keep track of the time he could estimate how far they had traveled. But second, he could hear some of the sounds around the ship — sea gulls, waves slapping the hull, and even the up and down of the swells of the sea. The swells give you some sense of direction of travel, and the birds make different sounds depending on how far you are from shore. From all of these clues he deduced that they were exiting the Mediterranean and had turned to the south — along the west coast of Africa! From here there were only a couple of likely possibilities. One was a long run the whole length of Africa to Jo-Burg. But the shorter trip was to Ostabuca, where there was a great river. He would know in only eight hours which kind of voyage he was on.

Sure enough, in about eight hours the sounds of the ship’s engine changed. It was slowing, and he could feel the ship turning the the port side — into a harbor! From his knowledge of African geography he guessed it was Ostabuca — and if they continued on, they were traveling up the great Ostabuca river. But what city could they be heading for? Suddenly he remembered his adventure in the city in Central Africa where even speaking the name raised the possibility of dying laughing — let’s call it “B-B-B-B” for short. And furthermore, he now saw the whole outline of the plot as clearly as you might see the Big Dipper in the night sky. The people of this city liked all kinds of food. But they particularly liked a treat they called G-burgers — or what we might more fully call “Goose-burgers”. This cargo of stolen geese was destined for the illicit goose burger market of B-B-B-B!

Now Pierre could make his plans. Subduing the crew would not be a problem — he had an idea about how to do that already. Releasing the geese and allowing them to find their way back to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany, and all the other places in Europe from which they had been stolen would also be fairly easy. But how to make his own escape? And here he came to the most brilliant part of the whole episode. If he could only select the dozen geese that had been stolen from the Jardin de Luxembourg, he could use the same ruse he had used the last time he had escaped from B-B-B-B. If only he could find some silk thread, the rest of the story would flow like clockwork. (And not one of your stupid Bulgarian clocks that runs like the digestive tract of an elderly cow, but a fine Swiss clock with a 24-jewel mechanism!)

Well, where can you find silk on a ship? Anywhere there are spiders. And there were plenty of spiders in the container — nice, small, inconspicuous, non-biting kinds of spiders. So all Pierre had to do was to carefully harvest about five kilometers of spider webs and he would be all set.

His plan was brilliant. The engines stopped, and the crew members suddenly remembered there was an intruder on board. They began opening every container, determined to find Pierre and throw him overboard. But when they opened the hatch to his container, Pierre was all ready for them. First he made a very short speech that included a couple of good jokes. The bad crew members started giggling and wanted more. Then Pierre shouted out with all his strength, three choruses of “Buwani-Buwani-Buwani-Bufani!”. The crew members got into the mood and started chanting along with him, their giggles turned to chortles and then full-bodied laughs — and then, one by one, they began to drop in their tracks. Sure enough, the old magic still worked. The name of this city can still make you die laughing!

Fortunately for the crew, they did not die — they were incapacitated for some days, and were then turned over to Interpol on Pierre’s evidence that they had goose-napped from all the fancy parks in Europe. Eventually they were sentenced to long terms on a prison island in the Atlantic Ocean, and worst of all — they heard loud bird honking from morning to night, every day throughout their sentence! Never a minute’s peace! And Pierre was able to find twelve strong geese from the Jardin based on the peculiar green water marks on their feathers — the pond really was rather dirty. Using the small harnesses Pierre had crafted from the spider webs and securing them to a small deck chair on the Seau-rouille, Pierre was wafted into the air as easily as a seal slipping off an ice flow. And these great migratory fowl made their way across Africa, across the Atlas Mountains, across the Mediterranean Sea, across France, and directly to the Jardin and its stinking pond. Honking like crazy birds, they made their descent. Pierre scrambled from his deck chair, stretched his legs, gave one quiet chant of “Buwani etc.”, and hurried home in the setting sun.

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