Two snow days into the school year and still no classes - so I thought I'd upload this story, since I've been meaning to for a while. This was written as a present for some very young friends, the oldest of whom wasn't quite four. I think the reading level is much higher than a story for the average four-year-old, and there's a part toward the end that's kind of intense, so read to children at your own discretion. I know the recipients enjoyed it as a bedtime story.
This is dedicated to my DLF's, Red and Ruby. :)
A Mouse Story
"No cats," said the mouse king. "And no traps, and no poisoned bait."
I was inclined to agree – although that might have been due to waking up on the basement floor, tied up with my own shoelaces and surrounded by four-inch-tall angry fur balls. I had just moved into the house two days ago; the real estate agent hadn't said a word about this.
"Alright, alright!" I said. "I haven't done any of those things! Let me go!"
"The last family who lived here did all of those things and worse," the mouse king said sternly. "Our tribe lived in fear for eight years. That's twelve mouse kings!"
"Okay, I'll leave you alone," I said. The king waved his scepter and several mice scampered over me and nibbled through the knots. I cringed until they were gone. "Just leave me alone," I said as I got up. "And please be a bad dream."
"Don't get your hopes up about that last one," the mouse king said.
For several weeks I hardly saw the mice. In fact, I might have forgotten about them entirely, except that I came down into the kitchen one day to find my shopping list turned over, with the words "Remember – No Traps!" written in green crayon. I guess the mouse king was still nervous.
After I'd been in the house for three weeks, I went down into the basement. I knew I would find the mice there; all the time I'd been unpacking I'd seen their little black eyes watching me from inside the insulation. I went to the darkest corner and called out:
"I'd like an audience with the king, please."
I heard a rustling of tiny feet, then quick as I could blink, the whole corner was full of mice, perched on boxes and shelves, staring at me. The king climbed up on a stack of boxes to be at my eye level.
"This is hardly the proper form for a meeting," he sniffed.
"Well, neither is taking me out of my bed in the middle of the night and tying me up," I pointed out. "Anyway, I thought you ought to know, I'm planting a garden out back. And I'm renting a rototiller, so you all might want to stay inside for the next few days."
The king's whiskers twitched. "Alright."
"And another thing: stay out of the vegetable patch. I don't want you pilfering my tomatoes."
"What?!" The king hopped up on his hind feet. "You can't expect us to do that! We get our food from the yard! And you're going to dig up half of it and declare it off limits? Where are we supposed to get our food?"
"I don't know," I shrugged. "Somewhere else."
"There are dogs in the next three yards," he said. "We can't go there. You'll have to bring us something if you want us to stay out of the garden."
"You mean pay you to leave me alone?"
The mouse king was thinking. "A new jar of peanut butter every week, open and left at the foot of the stairs," he said at last. "That's our price."
I rolled my eyes. "Do you like crunchy or creamy?"
"We're not particular." The mouse king waived a paw loftily. "You bring us the peanut butter as agreed, and not a whisker or tail shall you see in the vegetable garden."
I went back upstairs not sure if I was actually pleased with myself or not. I didn't like being bossed around by mice, but I had pretty easily convinced them to stay away from my plants, so I really couldn't complain. Also, they had tied me up in the basement once, and if I broke the deal they could probably do it again.
I went out and got the rototiller and a flat of peanut butter, and in a few days I had a nice plot ready to plant. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon, and I was putting in some tomato plants when I noticed a pair of blue eyes watching me through the fence.
"Hi there," I called. It was Red, the boy from next door. He waved back.
"Whatcha doing?" he asked.
"Planting a garden. If your mom says it's okay, you can come over and help."
In next to no time he had gone inside and come back. "She says yes!" he called, opening the gate. Inside my yard, he crouched down next to me and watched for a few minutes, helping to press the soil in around the new plants. After a while he asked, "Can I help dig?"
"Sure," I said. "There's another spade over by the porch." He ran off to get it, and I went back to my planting. After a few minutes I noticed that he hadn't come back; when I looked around I saw him kneeling in the grass peering at something under the porch. He seemed alright, so I turned back and started planting the radishes. By the time he came back, I had finished that day's planting.
"Can I dig now?" Red asked.
"Afraid not," I said. "I'm all done for now. By the way, where were you?"
"With the mice under the porch."
"What?" I looked back at where he'd been. "They weren't bothering you, were they?"
"No," said Red. "I asked if they wanted to come see the garden, but they said they couldn't because of the peanut butter."
"I give them peanut butter so they'll stay out of my garden," I explained. "I don't want the little pests messing up my plants."
"But they're not pests!" Red protested. "They're nice mice. They gave me a violet stem to eat."
I couldn't imagine which mice he'd been talking to; somehow the mouse king didn't fit my idea of "nice mice."
"You'd better head home, Red," I said. "It'll be supper time soon, and you need to wash up."
"Can I come back tomorrow to see Miss Persimmon?" Red asked as we reached the gate.
"Who?" I asked.
"Miss Persimmon Barleycorn. She said she'd like to see me again. Can I bring Ruby to meet her, too?" Ruby was Red's sister.
"Ask your mom. If she says it's okay, then yes."
Red ran across his own yard and waved goodbye before disappearing into the house. I watched him go, reflecting one moment that I doubted his mom would let him come over to play with mice, and the next that I had never thought of a mouse being named Persimmon Barleycorn.
The next day when I went out to water the garden, Red was waiting at the gate with his little sister Ruby. I let them in and they went straight to the corner of the porch where the mice had been yesterday. I finished my chores and was about to go inside when Red called me over.
"Come meet Miss Persimmon!"
There were seven mice waiting under the porch when I got there. Red pointed to one, as brown and beady-eyed as the rest for all I could tell.
"Miss _, this is Miss Persimmon Barleycorn. Miss Persimmon, this is Miss _."
One of the mice stood up on her hind legs and made a curtsy. "How do you do? I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance. And thank you for letting Red and Ruby come over; they're such nice children!"
I curtsied back awkwardly. "They're not mine; they're friends from next door." One of the other mice laughed squeakily.
"Oh, we know that! There's no mistaking when children live in the house. They're usually the first to meet us."
Miss Persimmon stepped back. "Miss _, may I introduce my friend, Miss Bryony Bramble."
I curtsied again, and they started introducing the other mice. There were Miss Bryony's children, Rusty and Moss, and three of Miss Persimmon's children, Chestnut, Fern, and Mezzanine. I must have made a face when I heard that last one, because Miss Persimmon quickly explained.
"Mezzy's my youngest. And I've always liked the sound of that word, though I'm not sure what it means. I heard one of the old family say it once."
"That's the only nice thing they ever gave us," said Miss Bryony. "Miss Persimmon lost her husband to their cat just after poor Mezzanine was born."
"Yes," Miss Persimmon admitted. "Thank you so much for not getting a cat or traps. We really don't mean you any harm."
All of a sudden I felt very sorry for Miss Persimmon and her family. I sat down, feeling awkward. "Actually, I'm allergic to cats, so I wouldn't get one anyway. And I don't like poison, and, well… you guys aren't bothering anyone. If you hadn't brought me downstairs, I never would have known you were there."
"That would be sad," said Red.
"Yes, it would," Miss Persimmon agreed.
Over the next few weeks, Red and Ruby came over almost every day, and my relationship with the mice became less of an uneasy truce and more like an actual friendship. I learned something new about them every day. One day, Miss Bryony introduced me to her sister, Ivy Hedgeapple, and her husband, Clover. Ivy and Bryony were the daughters of Old Hawthorne Robinsegg, whose claim to fame had been that he could read.
Rusty and Red quickly became friends. Rusty, it turned out, was a rather ambitious young mouse. He wanted to learn to read like his grandfather. Red, who was learning to read himself, started bringing his books over and helping Rusty to sound out the words. The little mouse picked it up fast, and before long he was reading over my shoulder every night at bedtime. I suppose it was a mouse's version of a college education.
Around the end of June, I went out to the garden and found two of my plants wilted. I was still grousing about it when Red and Ruby came over.
"What's wrong?" Ruby asked.
"Oh, I'm just mad because bugs are eating my plants," I told her.
"I bet the mice could help!" said Red. He ran to the porch; when Ruby and I got there he was already explaining the situation to Miss Bryony and Miss Persimmon.
"It's probably hornworms," Miss Persimmon said, while Miss Bryony nodded.
"Can you make them go away?" Red asked. The mice looked uncomfortable.
"It would be nice to go into the garden for worms," Miss Persimmon said. "But we're getting peanut butter in exchange for staying out of the garden."
"You know," I said. "We could renegotiate. Do you think you could arrange an audience with the king?"
"I'm sure we could set something up," said Miss Bryony. "Rusty, go inside and take care of it, will you?" Rusty scampered off, and a few minutes later reappeared with the mouse king.
"You called?" he said.
I knelt down to see him better. "What happened to the proper form?"
"Well, now, let's not be picky," he said. "I heard you wanted to revisit the Peanut Butter Treaty?"
"Yes, I would. Can we go up on the porch to talk about it?"
I went up the steps while the mouse king shimmied up one of the supports, leaving the others to visit. I sat down in one of the deck chairs and thought about what to say. The king climbed up on the table and sat watching me, nose twitching expectantly.
"I have a problem," I said at last. "There are bugs eating my garden. One of your, um… people… said that you guys could hunt the bugs and get rid of them for me. If I let you go in there, will you leave the vegetables alone?"
The mouse king sniffed. "Madame, we are mice, not gophers or rabbits. Your plants will come to no harm from us."
"Great! Then you can go back in the garden, and I can stop buying you peanut butter."
"Whoa, whoa, wait!" the mouse king protested. "How do we know that those grubs will be enough to support us? If you're going to cut off the peanut butter, then we want access to the other useful plants, too."
"The useful plants?" I said. There go my zucchinis.
"Yes, you know, dandelion, chickweed, purslane…"
"You mean you want the weeds? Go ahead, take all you want! Come to think of it," I added, "if any of the vegetables fall on the ground before I can pick them, you can have those, too."
"Excellent!" said the mouse king. "Then we're agreed?"
"Agreed," I said.
At that moment Red and Ruby came up the porch steps.
"Can the mice go in the garden now?" Ruby asked. I nodded yes. "Yippee!" she cheered, and ran to tell Miss Persimmon and Miss Bryony.
"I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of meeting your friends," said the king. "And come to think of it, I don't think we've ever been properly introduced."
Red stepped up happily to do the honors. "This is Miss _," he said.
The mouse king sat back on his hind legs and bowed elegantly. "Campion Oatfarl III, king of the Mice of the Basement, at your service."
"I'm pleased to know you, King Campion Oatfarl," I said, and held out my hand, completely forgetting that he couldn't shake it. Instead, he hopped onto it, and I carried him back down from the porch.
"I shall inform my mice at once," he said when I had set him down. "We'll have a foraging party out this evening."
"Sounds good," I said, and King Campion scurried off to inform his kingdom.
The new treaty worked out well for everyone. The mice were happy because they could hunt and forage like mice are supposed to, and I was happy because my garden was kept weeded and bug-free. With the hornworms under control, the tomatoes soon started producing, which meant windfall vegetables for the mice as well. Rusty, who had read in the backs of my gardening books about "preserving the harvest," thought it might be a good idea to store some of these for the winter, and before long my porch railing was covered with tomatoes, carefully sliced with sewing thread and left there to dry.
And so my friendship with the mice was cemented, all because Red and Ruby had thought to make friends with them. They even brought their mom over to meet them, and we spent the afternoon chatting and sipping lemonade with Miss Persimmon and Miss Briony.
One evening I got a phone call; it was Red and Ruby's dad. Their mom was having a baby, and he wanted to know if they could spend the night at my house. A few minutes later they were at the back gate, wearing pajamas since it was almost bedtime. By the time we got into the house, the mice had noticed what was going on and had all turned out.
Red was excited to be spending the night next door and kept talking about the new baby. For Ruby, though, this was the first time something like this had happened, and she was upset that she couldn't be with her mom. Miss Persimmon and Miss Bryony came up and talked to her for a while, and she felt better after that.
With everyone there, it felt almost festive. King Campion introduced us to several mice I hadn't met yet, including all of Miss Persimmon's children and Pennyroyal Bramble, Miss Bryony's husband. Pennyroyal was an expert builder, which apparently meant that he knew where to build a nest so it wouldn't fall down or get discovered.
Since it was kind of a special occasion, I suggested that we watch a movie and have a slumber party in the living room. King Campion suggested we watch something where the hero was a mouse; we picked one out, I made a big bowl of popcorn, and we settled in to watch. Ruby was asleep before the movie was over. I tucked her and Red in on the couch and laid out my blankets on the floor. The mice settled in various places in the furniture. I left the empty popcorn bowl on the floor; Miss Persimmon had asked for the unpopped kernels.
"They're quite tasty if you nibble off the hulls," she told me.
It was around midnight when I woke up. I lay still, trying to figure out what had woken me up. A moment later I realized it was King Campion.
"Psst!" he squeaked in my ear. "Wake up! Something's wrong!"
"What?" I sat up, then noticed that something was wrong. The whole house smelled funny. "Is that gas?" I got up.
"It's strongest in the basement," he said. "I sent Rusty to check the stove."
Just then Rusty came running back from the kitchen. "The stove's turned off!" he panted. "It's a gas leak!"
I got up and shook Red awake, then Ruby. "Wake up. We need to go outside right now."
While they got their blankets, I ran into the kitchen, opened the cabinet, and grabbed the first dish I found, which happened to be a casserole dish. Back in the living room, I set it on the ground; it was soon filled with frightened, half-asleep mice. Everyone who couldn't fit in the dish hitched a ride on Red, Ruby, or me as we headed for the door. We left it open on our way out and ran across the street.
"We need to call the fire department," I said.
"Are any of the neighbors awake?" asked Miss Persimmon. She and her daughter Mezzanine were held carefully in Ruby's hands. "We could ask one of them for help."
"There's a light on at the Smiths' place," I said. "I'll ask if I can use their phone."
"In the meantime we need to get that gas leak shut off," said King Campion, who was sitting on my shoulder. "If we wait, it could blow up before help arrives." He scampered down to the ground. "I need volunteers!"
"You guys shouldn't go back in there," I said. "Do you even know where the leak is?"
"We may not know where the leak is," said Pennyroyal, "but I know where the shut-off valve is. And with enough mice, we can close it."
All the mousewives cried and hugged their husbands and sons; then King Campion hopped off the curb and scampered back across the street on his dangerous mission, followed by Pennyroyal and Rusty Bramble, Clover Hedgeapple, and Chestnut Barleycorn.
It turned out that the Smiths were home, although we woke them up with our knocking. I asked the mice to stay outside, since they might frighten our neighbors, and Red, Ruby, and I went in to call the fire department. In a few minutes the trucks were on their way, and we sat down to wait. We kept away from the front windows, although I couldn't resist peeking once or twice to see if King Campion and the others were back. Before too long we heard sirens, and the fire engine pulled up in front of the house. After fifteen minutes one of the firefighters came to the door.
"It's a good thing you got out when you did," he told us. "You've got a pretty big gas leak. The funny thing is, when we got there somebody had already shut off the gas." I thanked him, relieved.
I didn't want to stay the rest of the night with the Smiths, mainly because we had the mice and they had a puppy, so after we'd called Red and Ruby's parents, we headed out to collect out friends and go to a hotel.
"We're not going to leave Rusty and King Campion, are we?" Red asked as we circled around to get the mice.
"With all the firefighters across the street, they may not have been able to get back," I said. "Don't worry, they'll be alright."
But when we finally got back to where I'd left the casserole dish, there was King Campion and his little band of heroes, being hugged and cried over by their friends and family. Red, Ruby, and I were just as glad to see them; we knelt down, and when I put out my hand, King Campion hopped into it and I lifted him up to eye level.
"Thank you," I said. He smiled and twitched his whiskers.
"There now," he said. "Aren't you glad you didn't set out traps?"
It was a few days before the gas line was repaired and the mice and I could go home. Until then we stayed at Red and Ruby's house, helping with the chores so the family could spend time with the new baby.
Once everything was fixed up, we were able to go back to my house and things went back to normal, with the mice foraging in the garden and coming up to visit every so often. I lived in that house for years afterward, and as long as I was there, the mice and I were friends.