Preparing to Leave Paradise
It's nearly spring. The air is warmer. The bees and ants know it already, and mice can sense it too. Every once in a while a field mouse will pop out of the grass and stare at us training out back of the house, but for the most part they are invisible. The field is full of them. Maybe millions. We'd never know it. They're stealthy as ghosts and ten times as fast. For some reason they revere us, often leaving gifts of grain or fluffy cotton. I guess its touching. Without their help we would never have made it to the house. I wish they were more friendly, but their lives are hard, and it makes them skittish.
Soon I will be leaving for my pilgrimage. I'm kinda scared. I took on too much maybe. Nobody else wanted to go to the city. It's very dangerous. A mouse can so easily get run over by a car, or eat poison (set out by humans to kill mice), or any number of other things. I remember the city from my youth, but back then there was a mouse kingdom underground. Everyone stuck together. Nowadays the city is an abyss of dangers for a lone mouse. Cats. Rats. Even other mice. But mostly people. People are scary. I hope I don't meet any people.
Now that's kinda silly, eh? Hoping I don't meet people in a human city, where I'm going to free mice from their tyranny. Yeah. Okay, Squibble.
Well, today a gnarly thing happened. Gnarly means intense. Fighter practice was happening just before dawn in the early light when out of the bushes jumped a feral cat! That's a cat that's gone wild. It was starving, and it devoured three mice before anyone could act. BJ grabbed several javelins and hurled them at the beast, but that just made it mad. It came for BJ but couldn't catch him. He yelled "Retreat! Run for the house!" as he kept the cat busy, but it was sure to spell the end for him. The king was going to die protecting his people, which I suppose would be glorious and all, but there were some there who wouldn't have it. Two of the knights who had announced their pilgrimage ran from the house, in full armor, and drew their swords. They engaged the cat to defend BJ, against his orders. One lost hard - he died. The other struck a mighty blow against the cats leg and stuck the plastic cocktail swords we use right into its ankle. Boy did that cat howl. Then it struck out with its claws. The second knight lived, thanks to his armor, but he won't be fighting anytime soon. Or going on his pilgrimage.
BJ hit the monster in the face with five lances, but it kept coming. The king was tiring, and the reinforcements from the house were going to be too slow. I was one of them. I was loading my slingshot and yelling for my master when I saw what happened.
Two streaks of gold and white shot past us. Shiva and Thor jumped upon the cat without hesitating even for a tenth of a second. The cat was surprised by the attack, but even more so at their ferocity. They fought like insane psychopaths. They tore that cat several new holes and took its eye. They wouldn't let go, or let down. They were certain to die eventually, but for BJ. The king ran under the cat, and while the rat twins were in mortal combat, he struck it a deadly blow to the side with a javelin. It screeched and ran away into the field. The rats dealt a few last blows and then ran back to the house, snatching up BJ on the way without missing a step. The king was exhausted. Everyone was.
That evening, for their heroism in combat against a mighty foe, and for saving the king's life, the rat twins got what they had wanted all their lives. They were knighted.
My master himself made them knights with the blessing of the king, to the cheers and homage of the entire household. Those two boys blushed so hard their golden hoods turned red. They were the heroes of the day, and instantly legends. They had not suffered one scratch from the cat. We all celebrated that night, and everyone had to call them Sir. Sir Thor. Sir Shiva. They loved it. Their momma immediately set to work on their armor suits, because in a week they were to be adopted out to a loving home in the city. The Kind Human had found them a good place to live, happy and carefree, for the rest of their days. No rodent could ask for more. It was paradise. We were all going to miss them. Especially me. They were like my own sons I never had.
But who would deny them a good life as a loved pet? Every rodent wants that, and so few of us get it. The Kind Human has requests all the time for rodents, but he says 99% of them are liars just looking for snake food. He screens people very carefully these days, and he'd never give any of us to anyone without being absolutely sure it was a safe, loving home we would go to.
It's funny how fragile he thinks we are. Mice are pretty tough, but he handles us like we're made of glass. And he's as tough as nails. I mean, nothing can take out a human. Especially this human. He's young, healthy, and big. He wears the black hides of other huge animals he's killed on his back and legs. He rides a gigantic horse thing called a Harley Davidson when he's not using his truck. Taming that Harley took some work I can tell you. It's really loud.
I had a few lessons with Nemo over the last few days, learning some tricks with my breath, and how to do hypnosis. I practice it on the girls sometimes, but it doesn't work. I think it's a bunch of hogwash maybe. Nemo tells me about other things. Deep, wise things, but I don't really get it. I have a hard time sitting still and listening. It was the same in philosophy class.
I have lots of girlfriends. About...ummm...maybe a hundred. Most of them are just fun to be with for a little while, maybe chase them around...they squeak alot. It's fun. I don't really take 'em too seriously, but there's this one. She won't give up...she hangs around all the time, and she's really persistent. I have to tell her to go away in the morning, because she actually follows me to my cage! I'm like, "What do you want?" an' she says, "A nightcap." I go, "What's that?" an' she says, "I want to have your children." An' then I laugh. Nemo or master must have sent her to try to seduce me. He he he. Won't work on ol' Squibble. I make her go home each night. She's really pretty, and she likes me alot, but I've got better things to do with my life than be crawled on by little furballs. No thanks.
But she's really cute. And really nice to me. She even brings me cheese that she begs off the human. She doesn't eat it herself. She brings it to me. I don't know any mice that would do that. Kinda makes me wonder. I've taken to calling her Favorite, because she's my favorite of the giant horde of girls who are after me.
But no one's gonna get me!
Well, today it was time to say goodbye to Shiva and Thor. Everyone who was anyone was there to say goodbye. They were given their armor, weapons, and shields. The shields were blank. I told them they needed a crest - a symbol to represent their knighthood and what they believed in. They said they'd think about it. Maybe a picture of the house. Then they were gone, taken by the Kind Human in his truck to the city and their new home. I'm happy for them. They're getting what everyone dreams about. The Kind Human has only so much time, and he's real busy (like a mouse) all the time. He hardly has any time to hold us, even his favorites, every day. He often feels bad about it, but he's given us this perfect place. This paradise of our own. That's enough. But Shiva and Thor, they'll get personal attention every day from now until they're old and ready to die. It sure can't get any better than that. Nosir.
The masters and high-ups held a secret meeting then about something important. I snuck to the door (such a mousey thing to do!) and listened, but all I could hear was arguing and even heated words! More, they were coming from my master! Ohhh, boy...I'd never seen him mad, an' it scared me to think of it. So I left. Besides, I'd catch it for sure if I was caught. So I turned around to go and saw Scratchy right behind me, watching me.
Darned pest! He'd turn me in for sure. I got mad. I went up to him and stared down at him. I'm a small mouse, and he barely came up to my chest with both of us sitting up.
"You better not tell on me, twerp," I said threateningly, and rattled my tail.
He shook his head no and held up his practice shield. He was asking me to spar or challenging me to a fight, I couldn't tell which. I felt red hot rage boil up in my chest. I kicked him hard in the face. He squeaked and fell back, stunned. I jumped over him and shook my paw in his face.
"You little runt! You ever challenge me again an' I'll bite you so hard you'll feel it in a month!"
He started crying. I knew he couldn't take it. "You'll never be a knight!" I yelled as I turned my back on him and left. "Knights don't cry!"
Later that night I was hanging out with my master and his kids. They were crawling all over me (see? Told you!) but it was kinda fun. They were really cute. Little Branch and Percival really liked me. I figured Scratchy would tell for sure now, an' it bugged me so much that I couldn't help but let it out.
"So I was listening to the meeting, and then I kicked Scratchy!" I blurted suddenly.
My master stopped his reading and looked up sharply.
"What!" he exclaimed.
The kids scrabbled off me in a heartbeat. They sensed problems coming. They ran and hid in the nest.
"I was a sneaky mouse an' listened to your meeting a little bit...an' then Scratchy challenged me to a fight so I kicked the little turd," I said.
My master first looked angry, then concerned. "What did you hear, Squibble?" he asked. He took off his reading glasses. It was always serious when he did that. I felt scared in my gut. I knew it. I was in trouble.
"Nothing," I said.
"Really!?" he asked, and leaned forward to put his squinty voodoo eye on me. The look that I couldn't lie to even if I wanted to.
"Swear!" I said, and took the submission posture. "Just heard you yellin' 'bout somethin'. Couldn't tell words."
"Okay," he said. He seemed to relax a little. "Squib...I'm sorry we're keeping things from you. I can't explain why, but you must trust me that it's important. I wouldn't keep anything from you if it wasn't very, very important."
I smiled. I wasn't busted after all. "Oh, I know, master! I trust you totally!"
He smiled back. "Thank you, Squibble. Are you preparing for your pilgrimage? You have to pack yet. Your mom and I have some things for you...Hey. Did you say Scratchy challenged you?"
"Oh yeah," I said, "But I kicked him for his insolence. He's not even a squire! Challenging a knight to a fight! The pleeb!"
"What was he doing when he challenged you, Squib?"
"He brought me his shield. A practice shield from fighter school. All he's got since he didn't make it to squire, he he he."
My master lowered his head and shook it sadly.
"Squibble, he wasn't challenging you. He was asking you to teach him. A challenge would have been a sword."
I felt a pang of guilt. "Oh."
My master put his paw on me. "I know you feel jealous of him..."
"Do not!" I blurted.
"Squibble!" he quipped.
"I know you have strong feelings about Scratchy, but understand he idolized you. You can break his heart without even trying. He grew up wanting to be you, Squibble."
"Well, that's stupid," I said. Only I can be me.
"No, it's not," master said. "Many, many mice want to be you. Only he had the courage to actually try. He's crippled for life, and he had the guts to actually enter fighter school, and try for squirehood. He was offered the title before he even graduated, you know."
"No way!" I said, shocked.
"Way," master said. "Four different knights offered him squirehood. All of them asked to take him as soon as he graduated. He really was very good at the techniques BJ taught him. You should see him fight."
"Why didn't he take the title?" I said, perplexed.
My master smiled. "He told us, not in so many words, that he would take no one as a master except you, Squibble."
I lowered my head. That was intense. I'd never seen a mouse so determined. Maybe I had been a butthead. Nah.
"I don't want him!" I said.
"Your loss," my master said. "And sadly, his too."
"Yeah," I said vehemently.
"You're going to have to deal with those issues someday, Squib," he said.
"Or what, master?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Or they'll come get you, like demons!" he said, laughing. I knew he meant it, but he was funny. He leapt upon me playfully. He gently bit my neck. "Demons!" he chirped. "Get 'em before they get you, Squib! Always take the first blow against demons! Ha ha ha ha ha!" He wrestled me around and we had a great time of it. I squeaked and laughed and cried when he tickled me.
Oh, how I love him. And I feel so loved because of him. What would I ever do without my master?
I woke up the next evening and found that Shiva and Thor were gone. I'd had a disturbing dream about them but I couldn't remember what it was. I was really bothered about that for a moment - that I couldn't remember my dreams. Then I realized that my two favorite rats were gone and I'd probably never see them again. I was sad.
Oh, it's nonsense, though. I could go see them anytime I want. Just get a ride into the city from the Kind Human, and ask him to take me to see Shiva and Thor. He'd probably do it. I know he goes to school in the city somewhere after work, and on weekends. He could drop me off, I'd play with the boys, and he could pick me up after. Yeah. I worry alot for nothing.
So I was walking around, going to check out the field and the battle practice (it's hard not going anymore - now I'm supposed to go to the masters' classes, but I don't really feel like a master, so I sometimes don't go). I came down into the basement by one of the many mousey backways (holes chewed in the walls and floors) and heard some mice talking in hushed tones.
"Shiva and Thor would tear us to pieces," a mouse said. His voice sounded familiar.
"But they aren't here anymore to protect him."
"Nemo is, and so is 'the master' himself."
"But someone needs to teach that arrogant little jerk that he isn't all that special. I hate it how he parades around."
"He doesn't contribute anything."
"He throws attitude around like it's three-week-old bedding."
"If anyone can teach him a lesson it's you, Stompy."
"Yeah. If any of us challenged him it's just a bunch of peasants challenging the "mighty knight." But you could floor him with one punch, the skinny stick mouse."
I figured they were talking about Scratchy. I'm kinda dense sometimes. I was about to step out and lecture them on it, despite how much I resented the little twerp. But as I stuck my head around the corner I saw how many there were. Maybe forty mice! Mostly familiar faces, mice I had trained with, even mice I had taught. I pulled myself back. My heart was beating fast.
"He's not a poor fighter, you know," Stompy's voice said. "I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that sword or slingshot!"
"We'll take his sword and slingshot away, then you nail him! It'll be funny." I knew the voice of that mouse. I had called him a friend. I had taught him to use a bow.
I felt a pang of something bitter in my tummy. It felt awful.
"Squibble's just a lazy mouse, full of talk and hot air. He rattles his tail everywhere and thinks he knows everything. He's just a useless runt."
"I don't know..." Stompy said.
"Oh, come on," another mouse said. "Everybody hates him. He thinks he's loved and adored. What a joke. Everyone knows what an immature waste of food he is. He'd be dead by now if it weren't for his 'precious master' and Nemo."
They were talking about me! I felt my stomach sink into the floor. I felt sick.
"I've had a hundred mice ready to take out that weakling before, but no one wants to for fear of the masters."
"Squibble is a master," Stompy said.
"AHH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!" The other mice laughed. There were alot of them! Way too many. "That'll be the day! He's a momma's boy at five months old! He's a joke!"
"His very presence humiliates the masters," said another mouse who I knew. Another one I had thought was my friend. He always bowed when I went by and called me master. Now I knew he had been mocking me the entire time.
I hung my head down and tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted to go kill them - tear them apart. But I felt weak and sick. I felt a mortal blow had been dealt to my spirit by this stab in the back. I had no idea everyone hated me. I really thought everyone liked me. At least that's how they acted to my face. Even the instigating mouse - I recognized his voice. He was a fighter in my graduating class. He had lost his ear to a fight with one of my master's other brothers. He was a stupid, mischief making, gossiping freak, and it shouldn't have bothered me that he started all this trouble.
But it did. I thought I had friends, and the ugly truth was too much to bear. I turned and ran away.
"If you do it we'll give you all our treats for a week!" was the last thing I heard.
I ran and ran, back to my cage. I threw myself into my bedding and cried bitterly. I felt wounded so deeply that nothing would fix it. I hated those mice. Hated them! I imagined terrible things happening to them for their black betrayal. I thrashed around. I bit things. I tore things up. I whipped out my plastic cocktail sword and slammed it into the wooden toy I always played on until the blade snapped (that takes alot of effort!). Then I turned around to get another and noticed Favorite was behind me, in the shadows. My favorite girlfriend. My face was caked with tears. I was panting and sobbing at the same time. I expected her to be terrified, but no. She just looked at me with...compassion.
I went over to her and she held me. She groomed my fur as I cried. She made me feel better. She was kind and gentle to me, and it felt good. It eased my pain somewhat. She really was a cool mouse. Pretty, strong, confident. Not afraid. I liked her lots.
I was so appreciative that I wanted to give her something in return, and I only knew of one thing she really wanted. So I did that. Maybe it would give her what she wanted, maybe not. Anyway, it felt good, and I didn't care much anymore. She'd make a good momma if that happened. I'd never know either way.
Afterward I left while she slept in my nest. I guess she could keep it.
I guess I should have gone to my master, or my momma. Or Nemo. But I didn't. I wandered far out into the hills, into the fields of fate. It was a dangerous, reckless thing to do. Owls and snakes and other nameless horrors lurked out there, waiting for their chance to catch and eat a field mouse. I was twenty times slower, and my coat was so light it glowed by comparison. I was just a sitting duck. But I didn't care. Right then I didn't care if I died.
I hated that one eared mouse for what he had said. And all behind my back! He was nothing but a coward and a troublemaker. A proper knight would go and soundly thrash him in front of everyone. Maybe even kill him for insulting his honor.
Except...what honor? I had my entire reputation on something no one had ever seen, not even really my own master (who was out cold the entire time). I really hadn't done anything for the mouse community. The stupid gossipmonger was right. I was worthless. I was a momma's boy, and five months old. For a human, that was 25 or 30. Time to leave the nest.
I felt terror grip my heart. I didn't want to leave. And I didn't want to grow up. It meant being unhappy and depressed. It meant fighting (for real!) and growing old. In the end, it meant dying. I was suddenly petrified. In that moment, for only one second, I realized I was going to die. Someday. And what then? Nobody knew. Nobody really knew. Maybe all my visions had been delirious hallucinations. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Bigfat didn't exist anymore, and my messed up brain that can't accept loss just made me see him because I couldn't handle it. Maybe I'm a loon.
Then the moment passed. I was very glad for it. I realized how whacked that all sounded. Those dreams I can't remember must be driving me totally crazy. I gotta do something.
I gotta leave.
I gotta take my pilgrimage. Show these mice what I'm made of. Show them I can contribute.... heck, I'll show them! I'll make the biggest contribution ever to mouse kind! I'll even beat what my master did!
...Oh. That just can't be done. But I'll come close!
Like it or not, it was time. I had to go do this unpleasant, lonely thing that I'd been putting off and dreading. I hated it. I hated one-ear for it. I hated all the mice who didn't have the common decency to tell me they were upset at me so I might apologize or fix it. No. They just chattered away behind my back like a bunch of shrews. A bunch of cowards. There's no worse word in the knightly language. Cowards deserve to die.
I hated Scratchy. I hated myself. In that moment, I'm not sure I didn't hate the whole stinking world for being so cruel and unfair to mice. We never did one thing to deserve it! Not one thing. Someone outta do something about that.
I had known even back with Favorite. I had known I was going to leave. Sometimes...you ever just know something? Like, with no rational explanation? You just know something is going to be a certain way or happen just like this or that? Well I do. Often. It usually doesn't suck. This time it did. Yeah.
So the next day, at dawn, when the human was waking up to go to work, I was waiting at the front door. With my armor, my slingshot, my sword (and a few extras), my backpack full of cool stuff, my cloak, my shield, and my helmet. Everyone else was asleep. I had written a note for the human asking him to take me to the farthest part of the city he could find. No one would be the wiser.
Except that they were.
My master and my momma were not only up, they were waiting for me. They came out from behind the curtains. They each had a small bag of stuff.
"Sir Squibble," my master said. He smiled sadly, knowingly.
"That's Squire Squibble to you, master," I said.
"Oh," he said, pondering. "I recall making you a knight. But if you don't want the title, I guess that's okay."
I shifted my feet, deeply disturbed.
"You're going on your pilgrimage then?" my momma said, sounding as disturbed as I was.
"Yeah," I said, "An' I might not come back."
My momma gasped and clutched her chest.
"That would be a great loss to all mousekind," master said.
"Not really," I said.
"You may do what you wish, Sir Squibble," master said. "But you're always welcome here."
"You so sure about that?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "It would break your mother's heart and mine to never see you again, Squib. I'd spend the rest of my life wondering what had happened to you."
I felt myself aching to cry. I couldn't do it. Knights don't cry. Squire's shouldn't either, for that matter.
"Well, I'm goin! An' until I do something great, I'm not even thinking of coming back. So don't wait up for me."
My momma started crying then, and my master was clearly upset. I wanted to comfort her, to stop my pilgrimage, to not go. I didn't want to grow up! No no no! But if I caved in now, it was the end of my self respect. It was the end of everything.
The human came striding down the hall in his motorcycle boots and saved me from breaking. He picked me up and looked at the note. Then he looked at me. My master and momma scrabbled up his leg and onto his arm with me.
"You sure you want to go this far away from our normal drop-off point, little one? That's more than eight miles!" The human said.
I nodded vehemently.
"Squibble, what are you doing?" my master hissed. He read the note. "That's the worst side of town. It's not even a little safe for mice!"
I ignored him. I looked right at the human.
"Well, okay, I guess the Knights know best," he said. "Any pickup time?"
I shook my head no. My momma gasped and ran to me, putting her arms around me. I almost broke right then. It was so close.
"Squibble, come to your senses, man!" my master ordered. Except that I already had, I was pretty sure. He saw that in my eyes when I looked at him. I think he saw alot of things then.
"This...this is some stuff for you, dear son," my momma said. She put the two bags she and my master had been carrying into my backpack. They were heavy. "For your journey." She kissed me on the top of my head tenderly. "You're a grown mouse and you make your own way now, as all mice do. I pray you know what you're doing. I will think of you everyday."
"You've got the new kids to worry about momma," I said, almost in tears. "You don't need me anymore."
"I love you," she said.
"As do I," my master said. "A very old, wise mouse once told me: 'Do right - and fear not.' I have always lived by that."
The saying struck me as deeply profound, even as upset as I was. I immediately wanted to know who said it to him, because we didn't know any wise old mice. Maybe it had been King Arnold back in the Old Kingdom. Ah, it didn't matter now.
The human set my master and momma down on the edge of their cage, then turned around and opened the giant front door. Cold wind blew in from the morning mountains. My master and momma looked up at me with forlorn eyes and faces painted with sadness. I felt sudden panic. I was about to see them for the last time maybe. Very possibly the last time.
I wanted to tell them I loved them too, I really did. But if I had, I would never have stayed in the human's hand as he closed the door behind us.