Stupid Lessons of Wisdom
I woke sometime around three in the morning. My daughter was being pried from my arms. Without knowing what I was doing, I lunged forward to bite whoever or whatever was taking my treasure from me. I had lost enough already.
My teeth hit steel. Steel attached to lobster hide armor around the biggest mouse I had ever seen. Even bigger than Bigfat. Without moving my teeth, I looked up into the face of Stompy. She wasn't small to begin with, and she had grown.
"Wha ah oo doooih?" I asked. My teeth were clamped onto a quarter, one of two, somehow merged with the shoulder pieces of her armor. Great idea, that. I would have had to use dimes.
She smiled. "I am taking my tired friend to fighter practice," she said. "Squibette teaches the slingshot class."
Squibette looked back down at me and winked pridefully. I let go of Stompy's immense mountain of a shoulder and smiled back.
"Slingshot?" I said.
"MMM-hmmm," Stompy said.
My gaze of affection and pride in my daughter-knight said it all, I guess, because she kissed me on the cheek and said, "You weren't here to teach it, father. I had to step in."
"But who taught you?" I asked, getting up.
"I asked the First of the Knights to, but he said he sucked at it," she said. "He told me to do what you did. Live with it, practice every waking moment, and never let it out of my sight."
"And you did?" I asked.
"No," she grinned. "I actually prefer aikido and swordfighting, but I practiced alot. Enough to teach class."
"He he hehe," I laughed.
They giggled with me and I walked them to the practice fields. I did not speak the entire time, just looked at them. They were clearly fast friends, like Bigfat and I had been at the end. Stompy was his daughter, and I could see him in her - besides her weight, which she seemed to relish. I remember when she was small and first came to fighter practice alot of mice called her fatso and gave her trouble. At first she withdrew from mouse society - it seemed she would quit. She was worried no one liked her. I told her that it didn't matter, and that her father wouldn't have cared. She idolized me at that point, and asked me to tell her all about her dad, which I did. I taught her his favorite move, the mouse-bounce. She learned it in no time. The next night when she showed up for class and someone called her fatso, she walked calmly back several feet as if she were leaving, turned around suddenly, and charged. In all that space, the offending mouse didn't have time to dodge. I think everyone was stunned at how fast she could run with all that bulk behind her. What they didn't think about was how much power that mass had on impact at high speed. The heckler mouse must have gone three feet. No one made any comments after that. After that and the beating she gave Ghost, no one ever said anything ever again except compliments. After awhile, she stopped caring what others thought. She grew past her father.
You'd think she would have been grateful, but my wounded soul remembered her being with the group that was going to waylay me on One-Ear's advice. She just didn't seem to fit in. Of all those mice who I thought were my friends, I couldn't see Stompy doing such a stupid thing. My instinct told me I was wrong to be angry at her. I decided to test it.
"Master tells me One-Ear got put at the bottom of the totem pole for his stupid scheme to get me beat up," I said.
Stompy didn't miss the clue. She stopped, turned around, and said, "All the mice there felt real bad, Squibble. They were just spineless suckers. One-Ear had a sly tongue on him, he did."
"How did anyone even figure it out?" I asked.
"Your master figured it out," Stompy said. "After Scratchy beat everyone up."
"That was after Stompy beat the hell out of One-Ear," Squibette said.
"Eh?" I said, looking at Stompy.
She looked down. "I know why you left," she said. "Someone told you or you overheard us. I'm sorry for ever even being there. I went out of curiosity, mostly. I wondered why so many mice were listening to that lame brain."
I stared dumbly.
"One-Ear said something that made Stompy mad," Squibette said, "so she put the hurt on him."
"What was it?" I asked, gleeful that One-Ear had been stomped.
"He offended your honor," Stompy said. "I told him he had to go after you and bring you back to the safe house if he wanted to clear his name."
"He refused, of course," I said.
"Yeah, he's a coward, but that's what he called you for leaving," she said. I ground my teeth. Oh, how I hated One-Ear right then. "So I let him have it. No one insults one of the First."
I felt rage building in me for that pathetic troublemaker. Stompy saw it and put a hand on me. It was really big.
"No one calls a great hero a coward," she said, looking into my eyes with a serious face.
I felt a lifting of my spirit. At least some believed in me. It was enough to keep me going for awhile. I felt refreshed and good again. Then I thought of Favorite. I had to go to her. I had some apologies to make.
As I said goodbye to them, I went past Nemo's cage again. He was curled up on one of his big logs, asleep. He looked thin. His breath looked shallow. The Fields of Fate had cursed him, I could feel it. It had claimed my master's health, and Nemo's as well. Somehow, I just knew. He didn't look well.
When I reached my cage, I snuck in and went to the corner. Favorite was there, trying to hold herself over the edge of the food bowl with one paw while eating with the other. It was sad. She wasn't doing a very good job. She couldn't stand up to take a piece of food, or bend over to hold it while eating. I came up, sifted through the food dish for a pumpkin seed, and handed it to her. She dropped it. Trying to eat the tasty morsel without her hands, she just pushed it into the bedding. I snatched it back up and held it for her while she ate it. No words passed between us as I held every piece of food she wanted to take in. I held her head for her over the water dish the kind human had placed in the cage while she drank. She couldn't reach the water bottle.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know." She nodded, silent. I saw deep depression and apathy in her. She had given up somewhere along the way. She was just waiting to die. I guess any mouse that had lost the use of half their body might expect the same. It wasn't supposed to happen. Mice wounded like that are eaten. Or they starve to death. No one lets them linger. But Favorite was lingering, and she hated it.
I sat with her awhile; she was still and quiet. I tried to make conversation, but it was like talking to a rock. I groomed her, and moved her to a better place inside the nest. I spent another hour gathering food for her and wrote a note to the kind human asking him to put the water dish right outside of the nest opening for her. I wondered if he was going to euthanize her. No one in the safe house had ever been euthanized, but mice spoke of it. No one even knew how it might happen, but everyone knew that it meant your life was over when it happened to you.
It looked like Favorite was waiting for that.
I couldn't take that for long, so finally I had to leave. Near dawn I went back to Nemo's cage. I saw the mice coming in from fighter practice through the window. The sky was a dark azure blue with deep space above it. So clear and bright. Not like in the city. I sat and admired it. I watched my master and BJ conversing with several other knights near a concrete block put there for the teachers to stand on. Stompy and my daughter were with them. She was a fine knight. A fine mouse. So pretty and so strong. I felt a pang of deep regret at missing her growing up. I missed everyone growing up.
When I shifted my stance lightly, Branch was standing in my peripheral vision. I spun.
"Don't do that!" I hissed. "Scary scary!"
"Sorry," he said. He had bags packed. Just two. A backpack and a side bag, like mine. He was wearing grey robes.
I felt another pang. "You're leaving?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. He looked around. "The kind human will take me to the airport on his way to work. I'll sneak aboard a plane to China. Once there, its many hundreds of miles to the temple, but I'll have the help of other mice who know the way."
I marveled at it. So dangerous. If anyone caught him on the plane, he'd be toast. He'd be done with a hundred times over if he got caught...anywhere. No mouse that anyone knew had ever crossed the ocean. Or ever been on a plane.
"Your own pilgrimage," I said.
He smiled. "Yeah, though I'm not a knight, I guess so."
"You're going because you miss mom here too much," I said without knowing why.
He looked down. He put a hand on my shoulder and I could feel the emotion in him. Heavy. Like a weight one has to carry for the rest of their lives. We shared that particular weight.
"You have great talent," he said. "Nemo will teach you how to use it, older brother."
"Yeah, maybe," I said. "Be careful, okay? That's such a gnarly journey."
"Father is worried sick," he said, "but he knows better than to tell me there's anything a mouse can't do." He took a last look around the house. "This is what I want."
"It's the path of your heart," I said. I had seen this moment before. In my dreams. Like the funeral.
"Yes," he said.
"Learn real magic," I said, and hugged him. I had known him too little, and now, like my mother, he was going beyond my reach.
"Fireballs and lightning bolts!" he exclaimed, raising a fist and shaking it. "Or bust!"
"Weather control!" I said, raising a fist also. "Prestidigitation is for the pleebs!"
"The pleebs!" he agreed.
A moment of silence fell between us.
"Take care of father," he said.
"I will," I said.
"His health is beginning to fail him. He wheezes during the day when he sleeps."
"I will always be there for him," I promised.
"I'll curse you if you aren't," he smiled.
"I know you will be," he said. "You always have been."
I nodded. He turned, hopped off the table, and skittered across the carpet toward the door. The human's alarm clock blared and he groggily turned over and slapped it. Rising, he saw me staring after Branch.
"Hello, Squib," he said. "Keeping strange hours, you are, little mouse."
You don't know the half of it, I thought. He gently scratched me behind the ears, which I tolerated, and then went to take a shower. When I finally looked back from the hallway where Branch had gone (it was the last I'd ever see of him, I was sure), Nemo was beside me. Those wizards. Always appearing all mysterious-like. Can't just walk in like normal. Noooooo...
"Glad to see you," he said.
"Ready for your lesson?" he asked. "I seem to have lost my previous apprentice."
"Is he ready?" I said. "Ready to go all that way?"
"Oh yes," Nemo smiled toward the dark hallway. "Branch learned the ways of enlightenment as fast as his brother Percival learned the ways of the warrior."
"Yeah. Well, okay, I'm ready...I guess, unless you have more shocking news, or maybe you're going to tell me I grew a fifth leg while I wasn't looking or something. Are we done with the nasty shocks?"
"You didn't like meeting your daughter?" he asked.
"Yes!" I answered immediately. "But learning that the rest of my family died horribly and knowing I wasn't here to prevent it sucked!"
"You would rather have remained oblivious?" he said.
"Nah," I confessed.
"Okay then. The answer is yes."
"To your question. Do I have more shocking news. More unpleasant surprises. Most definitely. And the universe has a thousand times more than I do for you."
I just stared at the big chinchilla, aghast.
"Well, why are you looking at me like that?" he said. "Did you expect life to be a smooth, easy ride? Did you expect the trouble demons to leave you when you came here to this place?"
I pretended to think about it, looking down and then up, with a paw to my chin. "Ummm... yeah."
"Yes, I know you did," he said, sounding deep. "That's why this all hits you harder than it hits others, Squibble. You were a very optimistic mouse. And you're very sensitive."
"Nah," I said.
"Oh, you were doing so good there for a minute," he said.
"Wheee," I said.
"Difficult mouse?" he said.
"Yeah," I folded my arms. "Now impress me."
"Okay dokey," he said, and slapped me right off the table. I thudded down on the carpet below and snapped upright, gazing at him in shock.
I rushed up there to beat his sapphire ass, but he wasn't there.
"How was that supposed to impress me!" I shouted. "Anyone can do that!"
"Well that's the problem," he said from above me. "Anyone can make you mad." He was sitting on the top of his cage. A good four foot leap from his previous place. Great act of dexterity, but I was not so easily impressed.
"So what!" I chirped. "If they do, they'll suffer my wrath!"
"OooooOO," he said. "Mouse wrath!"
"Yeah! That's right!"
He stepped off the edge and vanished.
I blinked. Prestidigitation again. But a second later he came hopping around the corner of the hallway into the bedroom. The kind human steeped over him coming out of the shower, walking into the living room.
No way could he have made it so quick. Not even him.
"Hmmmm..." I mused, as he hopped back up onto the table beside me. "What was that?" I said.
"Teleportation," he said. "Are you impressed?"
"Uhhh...nope. Nuh-uh." I was though. Way impressed. I fought actually believing it, but I was impressed.
"Good," he said. "Because I want you to be impressed by everyday, normal things from now on," he said.
"Like?" I said, tilting my head smarmily.
"Like your daughter," he said.
I snapped my head back and my ears went straight up (as if I'd suddenly heard something!) - and I froze like that. For a few seconds he let it sink in. It did. I had been very impressed with my daughter. More than I had ever been by anything. Maybe even...my master.
Without moving his lips, I heard his voice in my head.
So can we get over the idea of being impressed by powers and flash? he said. No sound did my ears hear. It was telepathy.
I didn't really wanna get over the cool stuff, and he knew it.
"Powers and flash are only symptoms of the real power," he said, "of wisdom and spirituality. They come and go, kind of like colors as fire gets hotter or cooler."
"Fire gets hot or cool?" I asked, amazed.
"Yes," he said, and raised his paw. It caught fire. I yelped and shrank back. Mice no like fire.
As I watched, the fire became orange, then red, then dark red, then went out. I had almost breathed a sigh of relief when it returned with a bright flash, blue and sharp. I could feel the heat from seven inches away, but his hand wasn't burning! The fire became a brilliant light, a blazing ball of sun. Then I couldn't see anything anymore, and when my sight returned, he was sitting there like nothing had happened, grinning.
"Witch!" I cried.
"That would be warlock," he said. "I'm male. But anyway, how would you prove it? What if I just did those things... in your head?"
"Maybe way," he said. "Maybe I did them on the spirit plane and made you see it there with your gift. Maybe it didn't happen at all."
"I felt the heat!" I said.
"You thought you did," he said, and touched me with the paw that had been on fire. It was cool. Almost too cool.
"Ahhh... was it there or not!" I squeaked, desperately wanting to know.
"When you can tell me," he said, "then maybe you can begin doing it yourself. Until then, let's start with wisdom, shall we?"
I nodded, feeling out of my league. Which I'm sure was the point. It had worked.
"Okay, but don't mess with my head, okay?" I said.
"Sure. Haven't yet," he said, and hopped over by the side of his cage to get a book.
We studied all that day. We studied poetry. It was the beginning of my lessons in power with Nemo, and I remember it well. I remember hating it with all my heart. It was the most boring thing I had ever tolerated. I wanted to be anywhere but there. Watching TV, playing, sparring, writing, drawing...even chewing my own leg off. He even threw in English lessons for me on how to write better. The proper dos and don'ts of writing, or at least the basics. I asked him if he'd ever seen my writing, and he said no. I then asked him how he knew I had any problems with my English, and he said because he'd seen my writing. OOOOOOOO...I was ready to flatten someone by the time I was through. The lesson only lasted an hour, but that's a long time to a mouse, okay? If I were human, that would have been two days!
Stalking away in frustration, I decided I had learned nothing at all and told him so. He said that didn't matter, that I'd remember it anyway. He had a way about him of making me angry.
Of course, everyone did.
On the way back to my cage I passed by my master's cage. I had been staying up all day of late, and I saw little of him. He was sleeping in his nest-house alone. He looked sad. I could hear him wheezing, just like Branch had said. In all the time we had lived here, I had never seen him alone. My momma had always been with him, sleeping on him or curled up with him, or under him. Like happy mice.
It seemed the happiness of our magical palace was fleeting. I wondered what he was dreaming of now, but I knew. He was dreaming of my mother, like I did. When they were good dreams, waking was agony, realizing she was dead. When they were bad dreams, waking was still agony. I had both kinds. I hoped he did better.
I wrote a little note, and snuck in to put it beside his nest-house porch. It said "I love you, master." I didn't sign it. I didn't need to.
I wanted to go back to my nest, but Favorite was there. I should have gone back and gone to sleep, but the thought of her depression and despair frightened me. I knew I should have been there to comfort her. Her waiting for death terrified me. I didn't know why. I couldn't make myself go. Instead, I went to the kind human's desk, loaded up on drawing equipment, and drew. I drew and wrote the rest of the day, in a dark corner of the house, all alone. I got lost in it, I loved it so. Time passed quickly in that trance state, and before I knew it, it was dusk. I was tired. I went back to my cage. Maybe I'd sleep in one of the tower-toys.
Squibette was in the nest, sleeping with her momma. I was relieved, but still felt shame at avoiding her just because she was crippled. It was an ugly emotion, and something within myself I didn't want to admit, much less face. It was cowardly.
I dug some treats out of the food bowl and put them at the entrance to the nest box. Squibette woke up, saw me. She took a Cheerio in her mouth and smiled at me around it. Then she offered it to her momma, who woke up groggily only to turn it down.
How had things come to this, I wondered.
I turned to see Scratchy staring at me from the other side of the glass of my cage. I stared back and he vanished.
Squibette came out of the house finally. We made our way to one of the tower toys. There was room for two in there.
"I'll go back and sleep with mom," she said. "After a bit."
"Yeah," I said.
"She's really depressed."
"I know. Does that little runt come around here looking for me often?"
She looked confused. "Runt?"
Now she looked shocked. "He had a bad ear infection at birth," she said. "He almost died. It's not his fault..."
"He's a pest," I remarked.
Now she looked mad. And disappointed. It hit me in the gut like a hammer.
"That runt was coming to see my momma," she said.
"Whatever for?" I said, worried about saying something wrong now.
"He visits her, brings her his treats, makes sure she's as happy as she can be."
I made a circular motion with my hand like, go on...
She sighed. "The runt was the one that saved my life," she said. "He took many mortal blows to carry me to safety, and almost died from them. When he finally collapsed, he fell over me, that I might be missed by the enemy. Or at least they'd have to go through him to get me. It took everything Nemo had to save him, he was so badly hurt."
I was speechless. My stomach shrank. My heart was trying to sink through me while beating against my insides like a fist.
"The runt was the one that saved her too," she gestured with her nose back to the nest. "He was the last warrior. The few friends he had all died in the fight. They were only there when the attack came because he spent every day guarding your home while you were gone. He told his friends it was the most noble job in the whole world."
My eyes were huge. I didn't know what to say. I imagined Nemo towering over me saying "See? You stupid, petty mouse. I told you so."
"He almost died...saving both of you," I said. I swallowed. "Why wasn't he knighted for that?" That was something my master or BJ definitely would have knighted a mouse for. No doubt about it.
"He refused it," she said, and left the tower toy. I followed, pressing the subject.
"Why!" I said. "Why would he do that? It's all he ever wanted."
She turned to look at me before going into the nest box to comfort her poor mother.
"Because he wants to be knighted by you."
With that, she left me in my shame, alone.