Tears streamed down Chrissy's face as she took the soft mouse into her hands. Carefully she picked up each little baby and placed them with their mother. She was ever so gentle, for they were made of things more delicate than glass. She struggled with her hands that they did not tremble. Once all ten of the babies were snuggled with their mother, Chrissy took them carefully to her mom. Her face was pleading with all the emotion she could summon.
"Mom... Please... please let me keep them. They'll die without me." she said.
Her mothers face was stone. "They'll be all right," she said. "They're mice. They'll find a way to survive. That's what they do. Go on now. If your father sees those babies he'll be mad."
Chrissy felt as if her heart were being torn out of her chest. She sobbed and looked down at her helpless mouse, named Trillie. Trillie seemed to look up at her like she had just looked at her mother. Pleading.
After an hour of sitting on the back porch petting her poor mouse, she went into the chaparral of the rural neighborhood they lived in and found a soft patch of grass near water. She left Trillie a box, some food, and a small blanket. She set the mom and her babies down near the box.
"I'm sorry," she cried. "I'm so sorry, Trillie. You depended on me and I can't keep you. I'm so sorry."
Without looking back, she abandoned her pet, leaving teardrops as the only evidence she had ever been there.
Trillie was not all right. She did not find a way to survive. She found the water, ate the food, and tried to care for her babies in the harsh environment. But when the food was gone, she had to forage farther and farther from the nest to find more. She was terrified and lonely. To her credit, she did better than most mothers in her place would have, but she had been doomed the moment she was abandoned by her owner. Domestic mice could never survive in the wild. Five of the babies died of exposure to the cold while she was out looking for food. Two others were being eaten by a snake when Trillie came back to the nest. She threw herself in all her starved fury at the snake, not caring what it was, indeed, not knowing what it could do. And Trillie died.
The snake, full now, went on its way, wearing a new scar across its forehead for the rest of its life as the only sign that Trillie had ever existed.
The last three babies sat there alone, cold and starving for 24 hours and wondering where their mother was. One of them had seen what happened, though he didn't understand it. It haunted him in his hungry dreams over those next long hours. So very long for a tiny mouse.
One of the mice died sometime the next night. The last two clung to each other for dear life. Freezing, starving, and without a hope in the world.
But hope came anyway. For every million stories like this one, once in a great while, all does not end in tragedy. A new mother mouse, a field mouse, spied the children and cautiously came crawling to them.
It was forbidden to take domestic mice in. But her heart was kind and good, and the tiny pinkies were starving. She could not leave them to whatever fate took their mother. So the field mouse took one of the babies by the scruff of his neck, and speedily carried it back to her own nest, far away.
When she came back for the other, it was gone.
Her husband was furious.
"You brought a white mouse into our community!" he chirped. "Do you know what you've done? This starved little creature of human mistakes wont live - and might bring the predators on all of us! There is good reason for the few laws that we have, you know!"
In response she sat back and cradled the tiny thing with her other five children, for in fact, the strange baby was already dear to her. Her husband could see its tiny face. It squeaked at him.
He sighed. It was the cutest mouse he had ever seen in all his time, and he was not a young mouse. In fact, he happened to be one of the leaders of his mouse community in the field. Not for long, he guessed, but he could not turn the baby away now that it was here. To do so would be... human.
He read the face of his beloved well, as mice are so good at doing. She would do anything, even suffer banishment, to keep this mouse. For some reason she loved it greatly. It was amazing the tiny thing was still alive.
The mouse chief said as much when the baby was presented to the tribe, a few days later.
"Why isn't it dead?" he asked. "No domestic mice live in the wild."
The community crowded around the mother and father, both of whom had numerous bites on their backs and tails from disapproving members of the community. They had endangered everyone by bringing this outcast into their home. Both parents were pretty roughly beaten up by the time the chief had arrived. The only reason they weren't killed was that the father mouse had always been a strong warrior in the tribe. He was best friends with the chief, and now that posed a problem.
"He has a strong spirit," the father said, in submission. "He struggled back to life - you should have seen it. He can be one of us, if any of them could."
"He will always be slow and clumsy," the chief said. "And he is white! The owls can spot us in the darkest night from two hundred feet in the air! What do you think he will look like to them?"
"He will never go out," the mother said in defense of her precious child. "We will keep him in."
"Ha ha ha ha!" laughed the mouse Chief. "You cannot keep any mouse in, much less him!" and he pointed to the squirming little rodent who at that very minute was trying to wring itself loose of his mother's grip (which was a bit uncomfortable because she was afraid of losing him).
There were murmurs and unpleasant noises that came from the crowd. The mother looked at her husband with desperation. He met her gaze, sighed, and stepped close to his friend the chief.
"Sir," he said. "This mouse is special. I know he will do something good for us. He is strong. If it pleases the community, I will go in his place - so that he may stay. Such is the law."
The chief's eyes went wide. He looked hard at his friend.
"You know what this would mean, old friend? You would probably not live long."
The mother gasped. The entire crowd stood still in stunned silence.
"I have faith in this tiny mouse," he said with confidence. "I will go to the house of the human and plead his case with the Mouse Knights. They will know what to do with him, and what he might be able to do for us. Until then, allow him to be raised here and learn our ways."
"The journey is far," said the chief with foreboding.
The father mouse held his chin up. "He is my son," he said. His wife's eyes welled up with tears.
No more needed to be said.
So, with brokenhearted goodbyes and heavy souls, the father mouse departed to the legendary home of the Mouse Knights, not knowing the way. It was the end of fall, and the weather was already very cold. Most felt he would never make it. But go he did, and within a short time was lost to view.
It was weeks later and the little mouse, just having grown his full hair, was playing with his brother, whom he loved to be with. Of all the mice in the community, not many were nice to him. His mother, the chief, his brother... and a few others. Most felt he was a curse. Far too slow, and clumsy. Any of the other boys could take him in a fight, and often did. He had many bites and bruises to show for it every day.
Despite this, he was a cheerful, happy mouse. He was friendly and kind to all. He loved his momma, and his brother clearly had bonded with him from the day he arrived. They shared the same bruises because the young field mouse would not let anyone pick on his little white brother. And in stark contrast to his sibling, that particular brown mouse happened to be the very fastest mouse in all the community! Everyone understood that to challenge the domestic mouse was to incur the wrath of the speedster - and the rest of the family. Even the chief would pounce upon those who threatened his friend's son. So the white mouse felt loved and accepted by his family, despite the communities widely shared view of him. He did wish, however, with all his heart, that he were faster and more sure of foot... so that he didn't shame his family. To this end, he participated in every mouse game that the young boys played, always losing and often getting beat up for his efforts. But he would not quit. Like it was said of him at his beginning, he was a determined mouse. More so than any of them put together. No matter how many times he lost, he was back the next night, trying again with all his heart. Each morning his momma would wash his wounds, and his brothers, and tell them they were the very finest mice in all the land - and that someday, they would make everybody proud. Then she would tell them fantastic stories like all good mothers do - stories of brave Knights and magnificent glory - and they would be put to bed.
Each day the little mouse got a bit faster, a bit more sure in his movements. He was young and adaptable. He was obsessed on being equal to his peers, and he ate three times as much food as any mouse his age. But even with all the willpower in the world, he was still not a field mouse. He could not keep up with the others. Still, he resolved not to give up. He would not quit.
But, chipper attitude and all, the white mouse began to doubt. Much sacrifice had been made for him, and, despite all his effort, he was turning out to be a worthless, slow mouse in a field where that marked you for death or worse. He decided that he would not endanger his family. When it came time, if he had not earned the speed of the field, he would go quietly away to his doom, and not let his brother or mother die defending him, as they surely would. Not many would miss him, and his death would just be one of many - nothing special. The only reason he didn't go right away was his old standard. He wouldn't quit until the very last second. He knew he still had time. He was only two weeks old.
When he mentioned it to his brother, his brother told him he would not get away with it. Wherever he went, his brother said, he would never be without his brother's aid. If he ran, the field mouse would follow, and there was no way the white mouse could stop him.
The little white mouse made fun of him with a face and playfully bit him as fast as he could, then dashed off toward the nest.
His brother let the bite land, though he could have dodged it a hundred times. And he counted to ten before he started after his dearest friend and sibling.
He still beat the poor mouse back.
Over the next few weeks, the white mouse did nothing but train, sleep and eat. He was putting forth the effort of ten mice - trying a hundred times harder than any of the boys did - and still never won. His brother and family would often set it up for him to win - which was easy for his lightning quick siblings to do, for, sadly, he had the fastest family of all the field mice. This only added to his shame, that they would need to do that for him. He still lost. Sometimes because he refused to partake of a fixed game, but mostly because he was simply not quick enough. The difference between he and his genetically gifted brothers was strikingly clear as time went on. For as they rose to the top of the ranks, he fell to the very bottom, even though every day he got a little faster. There was no denying that he simply didn't belong. He wished that he was like the mice in the stories, heroic and strong. Loved by all. That would be as good as a mouse could ever have it, he knew.
When his time was up, he stood in line with the other mice, on the event horizon of their first night hunting. The Ritual of Gathering - they would all go forth and prove themselves as able mice. They would gather the harvest that might sustain the colony through the hard winter. Many would not come back. Each generation this took place, but this one was important - it fell just before the long cold that many mice did not live through. The entire tribe depended on the performance of this batch of young mice. He would never be accepted if he didn't go. If he did, he was sure not to return. And his brother, who was always at his side, would surely die defending him from some terrible night predator. His mind raced as the chief gave the last minute speech. Something about bringing his family honor and glory. He would have laughed had he not felt so nervous and terrified. He had to find a way to leave his brother behind. He had to! Panic set in as the chief's speech drew to a close. Any second now the race would be on - and mice who were clumsy or slow would die in the teeth of the waiting predators in the night. Of his death he was sure. He would never outrun an owl or a hawk. But his noble brother deserved all the glory the tribe could give, instead of a stupid death defending his klutz of a brother.
He looked sideways at his brother and knew he wouldn't fool him. His field mouse sibling stared right back with eyes that said "You're not going anywhere without me, my friend."
"So with great honor I send you forth..." The chief bellowed. Any second now.
There was nothing for it. He was going to have to outrun his brother. Into the night. He had grown lean and fast, and still he seriously doubted he could do it - he knew he probably couldn't. But maybe fate would smile on him and his brother would trip... or something. Yeah right. Maybe all the predators of the field would take the night off too. Never give up. Never give up....
"Bringing back the stuff of life which is food..."
His heart raced. Adrenaline shot through him and he trembled. Everyone looked the same, but with the others it was excitement. No one knew what he was going through. They were eager... he was scared to death. He bent down with the others, ready to run, and stole a last glance at his brother.
His brother looked back at him and frowned, shaking his head side to side.
"...And prove yourselves as..."
"Hail the village!"
The entire community jumped and squeaked in surprise. A cloaked figure of a mouse had come upon them in the middle of their ceremony - and caught everyone with their guard down. The sheer fact of it shook every mouse to their bones. Why hadn't the scouts detected the stranger?
The chief stared at the old, bent mouse in blue green robes and squinted to see his face under the hood. A mouse wearing clothing could only mean one thing. As if answering the chief's silent question, the stranger slowly took his hood down. His fur was a soft beige, with the silver tips of great age. He smiled with the glow of enlightenment, as if he knew a great secret that no other possessed. He had large, soft eyes that spoke of a deep happiness, despite the fact that they had obviously seen much sadness. His ears were enormous, and still retained a tinge of the perk of youth, though they carried many scars from many battles. He was no field mouse. This would have been enough to inspire awe and respect, but there were glints of metal underneath his cloak and garments. And his walking pole was something wrapped in dark leaves. Not a stick.
But the old mouse with his bright eyes lowered his tail to show respect for the community. He had been passing through, he said softly. It seemed an innocent thing that he blundered upon the ritual. His smile was warm and friendly.
The chief eyed the stranger warily and the village did not move. The youngsters stood rooted to the spot for a long pause until the stranger finally asked, "May I enter?"
The chief nodded.
The old mouse hobbled slowly into town, and stopped before the chief. "Hail the field lord," the mouse said.
Then the chief knew, as everyone did. He replied properly, and with great respect, bowing low. "Hail, defender of the weak and champion of the just."
The children dropped their jaws. The males of the tribe shifted their tails to submission. Silence descended over the field.
Before the chief could ask, the old mouse said, "just passing by on one last quest," as he glanced over the young initiates. His eyes stopped on the white mouse. His eyelids widened, then narrowed. He hobbled forward to stand before the terrified youngster. Everyone stared unbelieving as the tall mouse squatted painfully down to lock eyes with the scared child. Long moments of intensity followed, and the white mouse could swear the old one was looking right through him. His heart felt as though it would burst. The old one gazed up at the sky... and all around... looking at the dusk and the clouds. His eyes seemed glazed over.
At long last, after minutes, he smiled. His smile carried nothing but warmth, compassion, and the little mouse could swear he felt... deep love. Even admiration. He put his hand on the little albino mouse and whispered, so that only he could hear.
Confusion set in on the youngster as the old mouse stood. It did not escape his wary eye the two brothers looking at each other and communicating by facial expression alone. His old eye caught all of it, and more. His gentle smile never left his face.
He took his walking stick and hobbled over to the chief, who bowed his head when the aged one came near.
Loud enough for everyone to hear, and very serious, he said, "The little one is now named Kippy."
Stunned gasps and cries of shock burst out among the mice. Even the chief looked shocked. Named! The tiny, shunned mouse had been named in an age when names could only be earned over a lifetime! It was unheard of.
When it had quieted down, the elder mouse added with a grin, "and his guardian brother is named Fleeter".
The crowd doubled their noises.
Kippy did not see his brother's astonished expression. He was staring at the old mouse, who was looking right back at him the entire time.
"When he comes of age," continued the old one, "Let Kippy come to the house and represent your tribe by trying out for service."
Kippy heard his brother, and several others, exclaim their awe out loud. Nobody could help it. No one was ever invited to join the legendary ranks...
"And... if he makes it," added the elder, "give him this."
He handed his heavy walking stick to the chief, who accepted it numbly. "But tell him to hurry," said the aged one. "They will have a need of him soon."
He gazed with affection into the astonished eyes of Kippy one last, long time, and then turned into the fading light and walked slowly into the distance. "The faithful are rewarded," he said. Then, in front of everyone, his figure swam like a mirage and vanished from sight. As if he were never there.
The community as a single mind did not move for long minutes after the stranger was gone.
The chief was staring down at the solid object in his hands.
Finally, one of the older warrior mice of the tribe managed to squeak out,
"Is that who it looked like?" And all eyes turned to the chief. He, in turn, stared out after the path of the old mouse that had changed their lives forever with a few moments of his presence alone.
Fleeter could stand it no longer. He had to know.
"Was that a Mouse Knight??!" he asked out loud.
The chief turned slowly to look at him and Kippy.
"It would have been enough if it had been," he told the line of young mice. "But that was The Prophet."
Kippy chirped in shock, "The Prophet... you mean like the bedtime stories?"
"Yes," said the chief. "That was Squibble himself."