Mousie! – a story from Bangan Forest by Laurie Fraser

This is the last story in the Runt Rabbit series- read 5th. The first one is here.

mouseytongue.jpg (800×494)  art by shyluk.blogspot.com

Mousie!

Mousie was travelling down the safest path in all of Bangan Forest. She had lived on the edge of Widest Path her whole life, so feeling safe was normal to her. She was an overconfident young female – mostly beige with white feet and bright pink ears. Her bulging eyes were beautiful black beads. She had tied Buttercup to the end of her long tail like a flag. Mousie was heading East at a good pace. She quickly caught up to another mouse: slower, older, and larger than Mousie.

Ani!” she shouted with a big smile as she passed.

“Hello,” he answered with a nod.

Something seemed strange, and she stopped to stare at him.

“You’re not Mouse!”

“Correct. I am Rabbit. Look at my tail.” He lifted his large overcoat and spun around to show her his tiny ball of fluff.

“What?” shouted Mousie. “You’re the smallest rabbit I’ve ever seen!”

“I was the smallest in the litter. I’m called Runt Rabbit.” He didn’t take offence at being mistaken for Mouse. He was, after all, the tiniest rabbit anyone had ever seen. Runt was barely rabbit at all, really.

Mousie could tell he was old because he had a pink bald spot between his ears, and his whiskers were bent. His feet were oddly large. His tan overcoat was patched and oversized.

She jumped. “Gotta go, Runt!”

“Wait. Where are you going? Why is Buttercup on your tail? Why are you travelling alone on Mnaadendmowin?”

Mnaadendmowin? I thought I was on Widest Path. My teacher taught us to use this path for safety.”

“You were taught correctly. Mnaadendmowin is Widest Path’s traditional name, and it is the safest place in all of Bangan Forest. All beings are respected here. But Mousie, as soon as you put one foot off Widest Path, you are fair game. Owl is watching you with his orange eyes, even now as we speak; he waits for you to make a mistake.”

“You think I don’t see him there acting like Tree’s trunk? His name is Yowl! He stalks me everywhere I go!”

“Be careful, Young Mousie. Owls eat mice.”

“I know that! I’m not stupid!”

“No, but you are inexperienced.”

“Yowl ate my sister! Yowl ate my cousin! Yowl ate my brother’s friend! Yowl ate…”

“Okay, sorry.”

“Yowl will eat me!”

Owls have excellent hearing, and Yowl heard every word of their conversation from his perch on Poplar Tree. He turned his head all the way to the left and then all the way to the right. Mousie was wrong. Summer was neigh, and Yowl was never hungry. Mice, moles and voles flooded meadows and Forest’s floor. Yowl filled his stomach easily each evening without leaving his territory.

Yowl was a bit of a loner. If he had been human, he would have been a reclusive millionaire or maybe an actor who had grown weary of adulation and spotlights. Yowl was handsome too; anyone would agree. His shiny feathers were brown and grey with bits of black here and there. When Yowl sat on Oak’s branch, his colours matched Oak exactly. That’s why it was hard to see Yowl. The best way to spot him was to look for his orange eyes. His round flat face was brown, and those orange eyes were like lasers.

The truth was – and no one knew it – Yowl had a thing for Mousie. He didn’t need to eat her; he needed to hear her. He followed her around because he loved her sounds. She had a smoker’s voice, and she’d always been loud, shouting from the day she was born. Yowl had listened to her grow up. He had heard her declarations of independence from the traditional female role. He’d heard her cries for freedom from procreation and housework. He’d even heard the wishes she’d made on shooting stars – that’s how good Yowl’s hearing was.

From his perch in Poplar Tree, Yowl listened to Mousie’s endearing squeaks.

“Runt Rabbit! Why are you wearing human clothes?” This was a pet peeve of Mousie’s. In fact, her whole generation generally rejected their parents’ love of human things. The young ones believed that independence was best, and that the old ways were more authentic.

Runt pulled his overcoat tightly around his thin body. “I get cold without it.”

“Your own fur should keep you warm!” Mousie stepped back and crossed her arms. “Your feet are plenty furry!”

“Yes, my feet are always warm.” His brown feet were uncommonly large, much too big for his body. “But look,” he pulled open his tan overcoat, “I have spots with no fur at all.” He had a bald spot on his chest and another on his right shoulder. He was skin and bones.

“Eww!” She looked disgusted. “Keep your coat. Perhaps you are the sort who needs an extra layer!”

Mousie had loudly criticized her parents and neighbours for wearing hats with visors and neckerchiefs with camouflage. “Our eyes need Sun’s rays! We are born camouflaged! We are Deer Mouse!”

Some mice wore clothes to hide their bodies: a hat over a bald spot, a skirt over a big belly or long tail.

“You are beautiful!” Mousie would shout at them. “Fat is not shameful! Tails are not shameful!”

Runt pointed to her white feet. “Aren’t those gloves?”

“No!” She stamped all four feet at once. “These are natural!”

“I know.” He smiled at her like a Grandpa. “I’m just teasing. So, tell me, Young Mousie, what are you up to today besides frustrating Yowl?”

Mousie had lots to share. First of all, she was mating age, but she didn’t want children. Or a mate. Second, she wanted to see Forest, all of Forest, not just her family’s stomping grounds. She explained that she’d grown up in a crowded refugee camp on the edge of Widest Path.

“Which one?” asked Runt, for there were mouse camps all along Widest Path. Miles of mouse’s houses. Or mice hice as they were sometimes called.

She grimaced. “Trailer Park!”

Runt had noticed it in passing. The conditions were squalid: mouse families packed into a mish mash of abandoned squirrels’ nests and birds’ nests dragged to the side of Path. Hollow Logs and Grass Thickets had also become globe-shaped mouse homes with a plug for a door to pull shut for warmth and privacy. Mice reproduce like rabbits. Most families in Trailer Park had 4 litters per year. Crying babies and screaming children were everywhere. Hunger hung around like Sickness, hurting bellies and denying sleep. With all those mice, there was never enough food.

Trailer Park was a true community though. Families helped each other when they could. In the morning, the residents could be seen brushing each other’s backs and sharing water to brush their teeth. They took turns making Dandelion Root Coffee on the central fire pit, and it was shared with all. Adults gathered around for a cuppa, giggling and talking nonsense.

Mousie’s Father had told her that their home was once Robin’s nest. It had fallen to Ground by Shuga Tree. It was a fair size, but it was half full of winter stores that no one was allowed to touch. Mousie’s mother was consumed with finding and storing food. She didn’t allow her children to play after school.

“Get going now, and don’t come home unless your sack is full.”

Mouse sacks were tiny. They should’ve been easy to fill, but food was so scarce near the crowded camp that the children were forced to risk trips into Forest to search for seeds, berries and bark. One time, Mousie found so many cherry pits in Bear’s poop that she couldn’t carry them all. She buried them for later, but when later came, she couldn’t find them.

The children would bring the filled sacks home to their mother who compulsively piled seeds and dried berries for Winter’s time.

“I would come home from school, and she’d be counting seeds! They’d fall down and she’d pile them up again, over and over, counting and fretting and worrying.” Mousie told Runt. “I can’t spend my life as she does. Birthing babies! Feeding babies! Counting grains! Worrying about Winter’s arrival!”

“Winter is real,” said Runt mildly. “You know about him?”

“I want to see Forest, the whole of it: the big picture! Mice usually get lost in details, obsessed with little things, but I shall see it all!”

“But Mice take care of the little things. Little things can be important.”

“No! Little things make you crazy! My mother counts and piles again and again! She’s not fond of babies, but she has babies again and again!”

As usual, Mousie was shouting. “Mice have lost their minds at Trailer Park! Too crowded! Running everywhere and going nowhere! The other day, three blind mice ran right into Tom Tree- BAM! They bounced off Tom Tree and went flying across camp like Kangaroo spit! They don’t even care what happens next!”

Runt nodded. He’d met lots of crazy mice.

“They’re obsessed with human toy cars! Idiots! Mice can’t drive! Broken fingers! Broken backs!”

Runt raised an eyebrow.

“One idiot family got tiny elastics from human braces!”

“What?”

“You know, juvenile humans wear them on their teeth! Now mice are flinging these elastics all over camp, as if it’s a game. Idiots! It hurts to be hit by an elastic, let me tell you!”

Runt tapped one finger on his forehead and pondered. “I wonder how they got those elastics?” His mind went to Ricky Raccoon, probably the only thief who could rob humans’ mouths while they slept.

“Who cares?  Look, half of them are blind; the other half are idiots! They will eventually wander off Widest Path and be eaten!”

Runt was thinking that this was further evidence that Ricky had escaped Townzoo. “Where’d you guys get the toy cars?”

“I ditched the place! Just walked away this very morning! Nothing but nonsense and chaos there! I’m educated, Runt. I read 2 books already! I want to know things, do things, go places! I want to see the big picture!”

“I’m sure I’m not the first to ask you this, Mousie: As one tiny mammal to another, I fully understand the limitations of travelling by foot. You are no more than one inch in height. How, my newfound friend, do you plan to see Forest?”

“Do you have a map?”

“Plucky answer. Again, the limitations of size lead me to question…”

“Fine!” She was shouting again. It made Coyote turn and stare as he loped by. “Mind your business!” Mousie shouted, but Coyote only heard, “Squeak!”

Runt looked into her eyes and waited.

She motioned to her white feet. “You called them gloves, but I think of them as sturdy boots! I have all I need for my journey. I shall see Forest and find my fortune!”

“Are you old enough to leave on your own?”

“I’m not a runaway!” protested Mousie.

“Oh, I see.” Runt sat back on his haunches. “I was a hopaway, myself.” He rocked back and forth, looking at her carefully. “You don’t want to go to Danger Road?”

“OMG! Of course not! I’m too small to cross Danger Road!”

“Glad to hear it,” said Runt. “I’ve seen death there. I hope you don’t go.”

“How far is it?”

“Miles and miles. Better to spend your time collecting Dew’s drops and Thicket’s berries. Better to find a mate. Make a home and a family here in Bangan. It is peaceful here.”

“I told you: I don’t want babies! Our mouse house was crawling with them!”

“It’s your purpose to reproduce.”

“Forget that! I’m not your typical mouse trash just because I grew up in Trailer Park!” Mousie truly had an urge for freedom. Her heart could not be ignored; her dreams could not be small.

“Runt?” She wasn’t shouting this time. “I believe Happiness is somewhere else.”

“Alrighty then,” he said, satisfied. “We will journey together for the time being.”

They looked like 2 mice sauntering down Widest Path, that’s how small Runt was. As they made their way, Yowl followed at a discreet distance. Although he couldn’t always see them, he could hear them.

A few hours later, when they reached the turnoff to Cubby Bear’s Grass Patch, Runt invited Mousie to come with him. “You can make some new forest friends. There’s always a comfy campfire, and Cubby is a terrific musician.”

Mousie followed Runt down Grassy Path’s twists and turns for another 20 minutes to reach Cubby’s Grass Patch, which was surrounded by Weeds and Tall Grasses. Old Oak’s lowest branch leaned over Grass Patch a bit, providing some shelter and privacy. Old Oak’s lowest branch wasn’t bothered by Campfire at all, that’s how small Campfire was. Truth be told, Old Oak loved the warmth, the music and laughter; Cubby and his friends provided continuous entertainment and companionship.

Campfire was the same, but the characters circling it had aged. Wee Beaver was no longer wee, and neither was Wee Raccoon. Little Skunk was not little anymore, and he smelled worse than ever. His streak of white fur was dirtier every year. Twice-divorced, Little Skunk had a new girlfriend with him – a young red squirrel with a yellow bow on her head.

Cubby Bear had grown some grey hair on his snout. His saxophone had acquired a few scratches, and his rainbow-striped beret had faded. Smiles were the same. Smiles never get old. Cubby could smile even while playing sax, and that’s what he was doing when Runt showed up with Young Mousie.

Runt grinned back and waved at everyone. He found Small Stone and took a seat. Mousie crouched beside him, looking around at all the new faces, Buttercup swaying over her head.

“Where’s Bunny?” asked Wee Weasel.

“Suntanning,” answered Runt. “She sends her greetings.” He motioned to Mousie. “This is Young Mousie; she’s just left home today.”

“Welcome Fresh Young Mousie,” said Mrs. Fox with a hungry smile.

Mousie moved a little closer to Runt.

When they were young, a group of them had linked arms and crossed Danger Road with the help of Silence, Moon and Stars. When they reached Town, for their own reasons, Runt and Cubby had both stayed a few years. Runt had stayed for Love. He met his Bunny there.

For Cubby, it was money. He would put his rainbow-striped beret on the street in front of him. Then he would play his sax; Cubby loved the blues. Humans liked the blues too. They’d put money in Cubby’s beret. Cubby almost always spent his money on sugar – entire bags of sugar. He would enjoy most of it right there, in Town with his sugar-lovin’ friends. Then, inevitably, one morning, he’d wake up in a sugar daze feeling homesick. He’d smuggle the leftover sugar back to Bangan Forest: a bit in his sax, some sprinkles in his tangled fur coat.

Cubby Bear spent his whole life going back and forth: playing sax on the street for human money and then playing sax around Campfire for his friends. Cubby had a lot of friends because he always had sugar to share.

Tonight though, he didn’t pass out sugar cubes. Tonight, he opened a whole box of donuts with a flourish. “Ta-da!”

“Donuts!”

“Donuts!”

“Was Ricky Raccoon here?”

“It had to have been Ricky,” said Cubby. “When I woke up, I found this box right by my snout.” He took a sprinkle donut with pink icing and then passed the box to Wee Weasel beside him.

Wee Weasel picked a maple donut and said, “Thanks, Sticky Ricky! My hero.”

“Do you ever see him?” asked Runt, looking around Campfire at his friends. Every animal, big and small, sweet and dangerous, shook their heads. No one had seen Ricky since he escaped from Townzoo, but they knew he was free. They knew the truth about that because Ricky had been leaving gifts for his friends during Night’s time.

“What about Bunny? Has she seen him?” Wee Weasel touched each donut before choosing the strawberry one.

Runt shook his head. “Ricky loved her, probably still does…. but he’s been keeping a low profile.”

Little Skunk spoke up. “I heard he’s not allowed to carry a gun, so he has arrows now, in a quiver that he carries over his shoulder.”

His new girlfriend piped up. “I heard that he stole the arrows.”

“I heard that he was hit by a car on Danger Road, and he got up and walked away without a scratch,” said Macy Mole. She had a powdered donut, filled with blueberry jam, but she didn’t eat it. She was waiting until everyone had a donut in their paw.

“He left milk on our doorstep,” said Racky Raccoon. “I don’t know how he knew…” His voice cracked as he remembered how desperate they’d been when his mate’s milk ran dry. The kits would have died if it weren’t for Ricky’s regular deliveries.

“He’s your bother, that’s how he knew,” said Runt.

When every animal had a donut, they held it out in front of themselves and said in unison, “To Jag,” before tossing it in their mouths.

It was then that Fancy Squirrel (who was in a tux) delivered Acorn Hat full of fermented cider to Mousie.

“What’s this?” she asked, taking a sniff.

“From Yowl.” Fancy pointed up at Old Oak’s lowest branch where Yowl was perched.

Mousie drank.

Runt laughed at all the jokes and told a few stories of his own. He participated in a long serious debate about forest fires. He argued on the side of Fire- the purity, the mineral-rich ash, the new start.

At one point, he saw Yowl Owl fly over their heads, over Campfire, heading West. His wings were enormous stretched out like that, shiny brown feathers with bits of black. His orange eyes were shining like flashlights. Yowl was all-seeing, all-hearing, a master hunter in twilight.

At the last second, Runt saw Mousie on Yowl’s neck, holding tight to his feathers. She was looking down at him and yelling. He thought that she shouted, “I’m free!” but it might have been, “Baa maa pii!” or maybe it was just his imagination. After all, her pink circle mouth was much too far away to hear. Still, he hoped to see her again, and so he shouted back, “Baa maa! Baa Maa, Mousie!”

Runt looked at the place Yowl had filled Sky; now it was empty. He looked around the circle of old friends. Night was soft and Fire danced with her. Wind was gentle, a light handprint on Runt’s cheek. He was thinking that he didn’t want Young Mousie crossing Danger Road, but he had no regrets about doing that himself. He’d made so many good friends in Town. He smiled at Campfire and remembered getting into a picnic lunch left unattended in People Park. He’d eaten a salad with 14 ingredients! The jam sandwiches were overrun by Ant Army, but by then, Humans were charging and Runt took off. He had been fast in his younger days. He thought of dumpster diving and people watching. He didn’t think about Jag too much because he felt a little sad already. He hoped Mousie would be okay.

Runt stayed there, a link in the chain of animals around Campfire, until Sun lightened Night, and Strawberry Moon faded away. It wasn’t until then that Runt thought of Bunny’s warm plump body sleeping deep inside Warren. Still, it was hard to break away. He felt old tonight, and he treasured each friend, savoured every moment.

After all the farewells, the paw bumps and nose kisses, tired old Runt made most of the journey back to Warren all by himself. Dawn had arrived in a soft peachy-pink dress, and she glowed, giving him plenty of light. In spite of Dawn’s efforts to help, Runt didn’t see Raccoon tracks outside Warren. His eyes were too bleary. He ducked through the small opening, hung up his patched tan overcoat and crawled into bed next to Bunny’s warm plump body. He pulled her long strawberry blond fur over himself like a blanket.

Bunny opened one eye and stretched out one pom pom paw. “What did you bring me?”

Now, it’s true that several years had passed, and yes, Bunny had matured. She’d had many babies, and she’d been a good mother. She had learned to share. In fact, Bunny had learned to cook! Still, in all those years, while she was taking care of all those babies, Runt had never stopped taking care of her.

Runt placed a chocolate donut in Bunny’s pom pom paw. “Sweets for my Sweet,” he said sleepily.

Because she had matured, Bunny kissed Runt on his heart nose and said, “Thank you.” She grinned and gobbled up the leftover party treat. Then she snuggled her face into Runt’s armpit and went back to sleep.

art by Laurie Fraser

art by Laurie Fraser