Today at fighter practice there was this new mouse. He was really small. Tiny. He looked kinda ragged, like he hadn't washed up. And the weird thing was everyone was whispering about him. They said he was crippled. I couldn't see anything wrong with him just sitting there, but when he moved he couldn't walk in a straight line. He would always turn in circles to the left. He got around that way, but it was bizarre. BJ was teaching him a special mouse fu that used only turning and spinning moves. The little guy was eager to learn and very determined, but he just couldn't fight. He didn't have any balance. Then someone said this little mouse was nobility. That meant he was one of my master's brothers!
I crawled closer to watch him. He kinda did look like my master. The pointed nose, the fur quality, the muscular build. But he looked disheveled (means messy) and he was half the size of a small normal mouse. I asked Ghost why he was like how he was, and Ghost said his hearing and balance were destroyed by a disease when he was just a baby. He had wanted more than anything to be a knight. My master let him join the program.
Now, I've never disagreed with my master on anything, but that little runt shouldn't even have the chance to be a squire. He just can't fight. He'll never hold his own against a real opponent. He just should give up and live what decent life he can until he dies. He'd die quick as a knight anyway, and probably get other people killed with him. I thought it was arrogant of the crippled mouse to assume he could cut it as a knight. More likely he'd need watching after. As determined as he was, he wasn't getting anything except a good beating in class. The others were going easy on him, so I didn't. I smacked him around good - even bit him a few times - to discourage him from throwing his life away on something he could never achieve. As I was doing it, I said to him, "Don't quit the day job, kid." The mouse didn't say anything back to me at all. The entire day, he didn't say anything. Weird mouse. He was the first one there that evening and the last one there that morning before we all went to bed.
Now, I really don't know why that bothered me so much, so I went to talk with Nemo about it. Nemo said that the mouse was deaf and dumb, on top of having his balance destroyed.
"Well, that's just stupid!" I chirped. "Why would anyone let him become a squire!?"
"He's not a squire," Nemo said. "He's trying to become one. It's all he wants in life. Surely you understand that."
"But he's crippled," I said. "No one will take him. No one even wants him. He should go away."
"You don't know any of that," Nemo said. "Why do you feel so hostile to the little guy, Squibble? He's aspiring to be like you. He adores you."
I looked up at the sapphire chinchilla, shocked. "No way. Don't tell me you saw that garbage with your powers?"
Nemo looked a little miffed. "No," he said. "Everyone knows it. Scratchy told us himself. He can read and write."
"How can he even hear BJ during lessons if he's deaf?" I asked.
"Your master taught him to read lips," Nemo said.
"That's just lame," I said, flustered. "How can a mouse that can't even walk straight read and write and read lips!"
"Why do you hate him so?" Asked Nemo. "What does he make you afraid of?"
"Nothin!" I said.
"He threatens you somehow. What is it? I've never seen you like this. You like everyone. And everyone likes you."
"He's one of the smartest mice in the house. He's never behaved in any manner short of perfect integrity and courtly manners. He learns faster than almost anyone in the science classes."
"Who needs that stuff anyway."
"You should be nice to him, Squibble. He really admires you."
"All I'm gonna do is beat it outta him," I growled.
Nemo loomed over me, and looked down at me from five times my height. "You won't do that," he said.
"An' whynot?" I quipped.
He rattled his bushy tail like a mouse sending challenge. "Because if you do, I'll come beat it out of you. No knight would ever beat on a crippled mouse doing his best."
My eyes got big. Nemo had never threatened anyone that I had ever heard of. He had the reputation of being very peaceful and Zen-like. But right then he looked pissed. I suddenly had to be elsewhere.
"Ummm...okay," I said. And I left.
I left the little runt alone after that in class. He'd fail on his own anyway.
I went and talked to my master about it, but my master obviously liked the half grown pawn. So I let it go and changed the subject.
"Master, why did the human put food into Aunt Spot's coffin?" I asked.
"For her journey," he answered as he was reading.
"Yeah, but...she's dead. It's not like she's gonna eat it. Or go anywhere, for that matter."
My master turned to me, took off his glasses, and smiled. "It's an Egyptian thing, Squibble. They believe the soul makes a journey after death, to whatever lies beyond."
"Oh," I said. "So the food goes with her?"
"Oh. Okay. It wasn't very much."
"She'd find more on her own," he said. "Between here and wherever she believes she's going."
"Where is she going?" I asked. I thought it was a really smart question. I suddenly wanted to be very smart.
"I think mice go wherever they believe they'll go," my master said. "I think all beings do. I could be wrong."
"Oh." I paused. "Where do you think I'll go, master?"
He chuckled. I loved that. "Wherever you want to, Squibble."
"I'll go wherever you want me to, master!" I said eagerly.
He looked a bit troubled.
"Squibble, you're a grown mouse. And a knight in your own right. But you act like the squire you once were. Are you okay?"
I looked myself over. "Yeah, I think so," I said.
"I mean upstairs," he said. "I worry about you sometimes."
Puzzled, I looked at him. "You think I'm a loon?" I asked.
"No, no," he laughed. "I just wonder why you aren't out creating this greatness for yourself that you want so badly. Doing great things, accomplishing great missions, all that. Pretty soon all your friends are going to be adopted out to good homes, and you're still here."
"But master," I said, inching toward him, feeling kinda sick, "I don't want to leave you. I like it here."
He put his arm around me and I felt better instantly. "Kiddo," he smiled, "you never have to leave. No one is going to kick you out. I love having you here. You're my best friend."
"Really!?" I beamed. I was on top of the world.
"Yes, squirt," he said, and knuckled my head. "I love you dearly. But I figured you'd want to be on your own and make a name for yourself someday. You could help so many mice. You could be greater than I am."
"Nah..." I said.
"As long as you think like that, you'll never ever try for it, Squib. Have some faith in yourself. Many other mice are trying harder than you are. You're naturally good, and your status here puts you way up on the pecking order. You don't really have to try. But you want to, don't you?"
"Yes," I said truthfully.
"Well, to do that, you have to leave the nest sooner or later."
"You mean my pilgrimage," I said, feeling afraid. I didn't know why.
"Like that," he said. "Many other mice have already gone on their pilgrimages and some have even already returned. They're the envy of every mouse. But even besides that, don't you have anything you really like to do, or want to accomplish? I mean, you have very unique and powerful gifts."
"Ummm..." I decided I could tell him. He was my beloved master. "I like to write. And I like to draw."
"Why, that's great, Squib! Can I see?"
I was suddenly very ashamed and scared. I couldn't say no to my master, but what if he laughed at me? I might never write or draw again. I felt trapped.
"Maybe later? I don't have them right now..." I squibbed.
"Oh, yeah, okay. Sure, Squibble. I'd love to see them! Anytime at all, you can interrupt whatever I'm doing. Just come by my cage and bring your awesome stuff. I'm sure it's really good!"
"Ummm...Okay." I muttered.
"That's a very worthy goal, Squibble. Better than taking huge risks and rescuing a few mice at a time. The pen is mightier than the sword."
"Way. Believe me."
"I do master." Then as I was going to leave, I turned around at the edge of his cage. "Master?"
"Yes, Sir Squibble?" he said cheerfully.
"Where do you plan on going when you die?" I paused, shuffling about a little. "You know, so I can go there too."
He thought about it.
"Well, when King Arthur died, the fates came in their ship to take him away to paradise for all his hard work," he said. "I guess I'd make my way to the shore - that place I came to on the beach when I was little - and wait for them at dusk. Either that or maybe I'd like to come back as a mouse and live a normal, responsibility-free rodent life."
"Ha ha ha ha!" I giggled. "Like you'd ever get away with that, great master!"
"Oooo, don't curse it, Squib!" he winced. "I really would like to go to paradise, check it out, then maybe come back here and just hang out. No big destiny, no giant task to do."
"But you're...the Mouse Knight. The Mousegod appointed you."
"Well, maybe he'll consider it a job well done when I die and give me a vacation. Could you ask him for me, Squib?"
"I will!" I chirped, "And I'll be waiting there for you when you die, to greet you an all that, with Bigfat, an' Mike!"
My master looked seriously at me. "Squibble, you have to outlive me. My work is done. Yours has yet to begin."
"Noway," I stated as fact.
"Yes," he said. "It is most likely I'm going to be waiting for you when you cross the Rainbow Bridge, Squibble. I'm older than you -"
"By like two months!"
"-And my health isn't what it was. That bad cold I got on the last part of the quest - that was Mycoplasma pulmonis."
I felt a tinge of fear - a stab of adrenaline to my gut that told me something bad was in the air. That name had an awful ring to it - one I could not justify. I hated it. I cocked my head to let my master know that I didn't understand.
"It's a disease," he said. "A bad one. There is no cure."
"But I didn't get it," I whined, suddenly very afraid.
He smiled. "You were stronger than me."
"I didn't get picked up and smashed by a hawk several times, either!" I protested.
"Okay," he gave in. "But I have this cough that won't go away now, and I can't run like I used to. I'm weaker than I was, my faithful friend. That disease took something out of me. You'll probably outlive me."
"But...you got over it, master."
"One never gets over mycoplasma, Squib. It stays there, forever. Waiting to come back."
"But if there's no cure, then..." I swallowed, eyes bugging out.
He looked back at his books. "It's fatal," he said softly. "Eventually."
I threw myself into his fur. "Oh, oh master!" I choked on my words, and felt a huge lump of something really heavy in my tummy. "Don't leave me!"
He held me tight. "I won't Squibble, not yet. The Kind Human has medicine. He takes us to a vet if we're really sick. I'm not kicking off anytime soon. All I'm saying is that you're probably going to live a long time, my young, strong, brave mouse. If you don't die doing something amazingly courageous and stupid, that is. Someday you're going to have to deal with it. Someday, we all do."
"Noway!" I chirped. "No way no chance no way!" And I trotted off, pretending to be very happy.
"Love you, Squib," he called after me, sounding very amused.
It was only afterward that I thought about our talk and realized a few things.
By unique and powerful gifts, he had probably meant my weird ability to see the spirit world when I'm whacked out. He probably wasn't talking about my art or writing. He hadn't seen it. Nobody had.
Knowing my master was sick, and would someday die, was the very beginning of a long road. The rest of this story, really. It was the beginning of my childhood's end. I hated it. I felt unsafe. Like a mouse out during the day without cover.
I realized some other things too.
He liked that little crippled mouse because the runt was trying to do something great with his life, against all odds. Just like my master did. Then a horrible thought hit me. What if my master took him as a squire? He's the only one that might. I'd be a laughing stock. He might too. Oh, I hoped that wouldn't happen.
But Nemo's words really stuck with me. They always did. Why did that little mouse worry me so? It wasn't like he could hurt me. Even if some idiot did take him as a squire, what did it really matter? The midget would get killed in the first real fight he came across. What was it to me?
Nothing, I thought. So I tried to forget about it.
But it bugged me really bad. Why wasn't I accomplishing great things? Why wasn't I living up to my potential? I knew I could be great. I knew I was meant to be great. I just knew it. It was all I wanted in the whole world. I mean, I love drawing and writing, but...but that was meant to tell stories. Maybe stories of being great. Yeah.
But meanwhile I was treading water like a loser.
But...I was a happy loser. I liked my life as it was. Why did it have to change?
If I'm gonna do something great, stupid, I said to myself, it's gotta change. I knew it was true.
I would have to get over my fears. The idea scared me, isn't that funny? I would be done with fighter practice in a few weeks. I was going to graduate. Right after that, I'd be expected to go on my pilgrimage. That's when all the other knights went. Every month at least one or two went off in some direction, searching for their true path.
That's what a pilgrimage is for. To find your true destiny.
I wondered as I was falling asleep what mine would be. And as I drifted off, the last thing that came to me was that my master really did love me. He truly did.
And that made me sleep like a baby.