Kamikaze Squirrels and Zinzi’s Cat

I drive through a quiet neighborhood on my way to work. This morning I was forced to drive it like a mad woman, dodging squirrels right and left that jumped out from the side of the road that ran across in front of me. They scooted by as my tires rolled through the leaves scudding across the road. One had dropped his nut right in the middle of the street. I did my best to avoid him, swerving to one side, and he worked hard to get his paws around the acorn and get it into his jaws. Just as I passed, he scampered off, his tail barely clearing my wheel.

The close encounters with furry woodland creatures put me in mind of one of my favorite memories: my introduction to Zinzi’s cat.

In May of 2001, I went on a Reformation Tour with my college. There were about twelve students, mostly girls, and the rest of our tour bus was filled with friends of the university—many of them senior citizens, quite a few retired naval officers. It was a quality combination that led to lots of entertaining encounters. But this story only includes the younger generation.

We spent our second night in Herrnhut, Germany, at a guesthouse run by the Moravians there. Technically, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf was not a part of reformation history, as he lived about a hundred years too late, but, since Herrnhut was a good stopping point between Prague (where we studied Jan Hus) and Luther’s territory, we paused there and learned a little bit of Moravian history.

The observation tower in the Herrnhut cemetery.
Aussichtsturm Hutbergaltan auf dem Hutberg, Herrnhut

We’d toured a large cemetery in the center of the village that afternoon and had seen the sarcophaguses of Zinzi (as we affectionately named the Count) and his family in the center of the main path. In addition, we’d seen a hill on the far side of the cemetery with a white observation tower above it. When it grew dark that night, we discovered that the stars were shining brilliantly—small towns like Herrnhut not having quite the light pollution of major cities—and someone got the bright idea to make our way to the hill and the observation tower to see what we could see.

Eight of the girls jumped on board with the idea, and Mike, as the conscientious brother that he was, decided that we could not go alone. So, the nine of us jauntily made our way from the guest house, along the path through the cemetery, and up the hill to the observatory. Upon arrival, we discovered the observatory tower itself was locked, so we were forced to stand about on the ground—still high above the town—and enjoy the sight of the night sky from there.

After half an hour or so of stargazing we turned back to the path down the hill on our way to return to the guesthouse, and all suddenly had a realization: it was pitch black, we had one flashlight, and we were about to walk through a cemetery.

Spooked, we each grabbed a buddy. I linked arms with Kate and we set ourselves second in line behind Emily and Crystal with the flashlight. Behind us Deanne and Claire paired up, and Mike, with Bekah on one arm and Jamie on the other, brought up the rear.

We navigated down the hill carefully. Emily and Crystal would spot a root across the path and whisper it back to the rest of us, “Root!” and the message would pass along. We’d hear “Turn!” at each bend and pass it on back, “Turn!” “Turn!”

All was well until we reached the sarcophagi in the middle of the main path. We’d skirted the path edge, giving them a wide birth as we went, and it was only when most of us were beyond them that Mike could hold it in no longer.

“Is it just me,” he asked, “or is that coffin opening?”

Simultaneously, in sepulchral whispers, eight girls said, “SHUT UP!” He was vigorously swatted by Jamie and Bekah as he laughed.

A few more minutes down the path, we could see the edge of the cemetery ahead and the comforting lights of our guesthouse across the road. The end was in sight, but something in the beam of the flashlight had caught Emily and Crystal’s attention. They slowed, peering ahead.

“What is it?” Kate and I asked.

“I think—” Emily moved the flashlight and dragged Crystal another step forward. “I think it’s a hedgehog!”

Delighted, we passed the word back, “Hedgehog!” “Hedgehog!” and we gathered closer to the tiny woodland creature. None of us had ever seen a hedgehog before, and they really are as adorable as they look in all the pictures. We’d formed a small clump around the edge of the path near him, traumatizing him and paralyzing him with fear as we trained our flashlight upon him and whispered our excitement.

“I’m going to take a picture of it!” said Kate. She reached for her camera, one arm still hooked in mine. She brought the camera to her eye, focused, and pressed the shutter.

As she did so, a white cat came flying out of the darkness, aiming for the small prey we’d so conveniently trained in a spotlight for him. Simultaneously, the flash of the camera went off, startling the humans, the cat, and the hedgehog equally and sending us all reeling away from the center point where the hedgehog had been. Terrified back to action, it went scurrying off in one direction. The cat, shocked by the sudden bright light, ran the opposite way. And all nine of us jumped back in alarum.

It became an emblem of our entire tour, that night did. We told and retold the tale. We dubbed Kate the “Savior of Furry Woodland Creatures” (though “furry” may not have been the best description for the hedgehog). We honored Mike for his bravery in bringing up the rear, and chastised him for his attempts to terrify us.

And in every city we entered for the next two weeks, we saw a white cat, Zinzi’s Cat, who followed us across Germany, haunting our steps until we would provide him with another snack.