Following the events of "Mrs. Brisby and the Search for Johnathan," the title says it all, as the Brisby family makes its final decision on whether or not to make their home in Thorn Valley alongside the Rats of NIMH. The original version of this story was written in 1991.
Chapter 1: The Deadline nears
Madeline Brisby was happy, probably more than at any other time in her life.
On this late August day, she and her oldest daughter Teresa filled their baskets with wild blackberries from a thicket at the edge of the woods, within which, some 50 feet away, lay the family’s summer home. The two mice’s conversation ranged from their past experiences here and while living at past winter homes close to the nearby farm, to Madeline and their rat friends’ experiences in that strange realm where they’d found Johnathan Brisby, the one who once again made their family complete.
Yes, Madeline Brisby was happy; indeed, how could she not be? Her family was once again whole, now that she had her husband back; and her children were healthy and growing and had bright futures ahead of them. And yet, it was that bright future—hers as well as theirs—that lately had brought to her a degree of disquietude. She was acutely aware of its source, as well as its most likely, even inevitable outcome.
So it was that, for some four or five days, family members had almost completely avoided mentioning what they’d come to call the Deadline—as Teresa now did. It’s not as if it were a forbidden subject; no, far from it. Rather, there’d been many lively discussions, these four weeks past, about what they’d do after it had passed. They’d be embarking on an entirely new life, with new friends, new challenges, new worlds to explore; and they’d already had a taste of it a month ago, serving all the more to make inevitable what would follow the Deadline. Yet, for the most part, Madeline’s contributions to those discussions had been minimal; and more recently, she found herself unable to completely contain this feeling whenever the subject came up, for all she tried to hide it. Her family knew its source as well as she; it had hardly been a secret that out of all of them, she was the one most reluctant to leave her old life behind. There had been no pressure put on her or anyone else; but, though there had been no formal agreement to this effect, the entire family knew implicitly that it would have to be a unanimous decision in the end: all or no one, with everyone deciding as a unit whether to stay or go. The alternative—some staying and some leaving—simply would not be an option.
Now, as mother and daughter headed back home with full berry-laden baskets, Teresa said hesitantly, “Mother…you know that…it’s tomorrow, don’t you?”
“You mean the Deadline? Of course, dear.”
Teresa almost stopped in her tracks, momentarily taken aback by her mother’s casual-sounding reaction. “I thought…we all thought that maybe…”
"That I wouldn’t want to leave. I know, dear. But…isn’t that true of all of us, to some degree?”
Teresa nodded, smiling. “Yes, you’re right. It’s just that…we all knew how much you loved it here. We knew you wouldn’t want to stay if the rest of us wanted to move, but…it just looked to us like it was harder for you.”
“Thank you, Teresa, that’s sweet of you. But your father always said that we have to weigh the pros and cons of every situation. I guess it may have looked as if I were…troubled by the idea of moving to Thorn Valley, but there’s so much I want to experience there, just as much as all of you, that I really can’t see any cons at all. Of course I’ll miss this place, but I absolutely wouldn’t dream—couldn’t dream—of staying on here by myself.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Mother. I’ll miss it here, too, but it’s going to be so great for us there.”
“I know it will, dear. But…let’s wait until supper before we discuss it further, all right?”
“Sure.” After a pause Teresa added, “Dad probably already knows, doesn’t he?”
Madeline chuckled to herself. “I’m sure he does. But I think he may be just a little surprised that I’d agree so readily. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.” They both laughed as they continued hauling their goods home.
A short ways upstream, two tiny buckets, now full of water, were being raised from the slow-moving current up to the thick overhanging branch. The one who hauled them up paused to unhook the cords from their handles, coil them up and toss them over his shoulder; then he picked up the buckets and, once he’d made sure he was properly balanced, started making his way back to the bank. It wasn’t the easiest location for filling the buckets, but it did make for water that was clearer and cleaner, with less sediment, especially at times such as now, when there were mouse children—his as well as others—churning up the waters downstream.
Well, Johnathan, it hasn’t been all domestic bliss since you got back, has it? he thought as he hauled the buckets toward their home, some seven feet further downstream. Too bad we don’t have the means to have running water in our home; sure do envy the Rats right now.
Johnathan Brisby thought some more, as he wended his way up the path to the house, about those rats, and their own ties to his family, and about the final decision they’d all be making soon. Then, he saw Martin, his oldest son, at the edge of the bank, at a point where it dropped off sharply a few inches. He was still soaking wet after his swim, lying on his stomach, watching tadpoles and minnows swim by, with one of his arms idly dangling over the side and motioning with his hand over the water’s surface but still quite a ways from touching it.
“Hey, lazybones,” Johnathan said, his tone casual, “feel like expending a little energy and giving me a hand here?”
Martin looked up abruptly, though he didn’t appear startled. “Yeah, okay, Dad.” He got to his feet and took one of the buckets, grunting as he hefted its weight. Johnathan noted with a mixture of awe and pride how much Martin had grown physically these eleven months past, and possibly a little more just in the past month; it was clearly much less effort for him to carry his bucket than it would have then. They continued on together. The task of hauling water was one all of them shared equally, and Johnathan was sure Martin had done less than his share today, but he wasn’t about to lecture him about it; it was too lazy a day for it. A song lyric made its way into his head: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”
“So…” Johnathan said casually, “anything on your mind, son? Something you need to get off your chest?”
“Mmm, no. Nothin’, really.”
Johnathan was sure that Martin actually had plenty on his mind, at least as much as he did himself, but didn’t press the issue. “I was just thinking about the Rats myself; how they don’t have to haul water like we do. Not that they have everything easy, of course; they did rebuild their whole colony from scratch, after all.”
He glanced down at Martin, who looked ready to say something. As they paused a short ways from their front door, they both set their buckets down. “It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”
“The Deadline? That’s right.”
“Do you think…I don’t know, it looks to me like…Mom’s not on board yet, not completely. I know it’s not like she’s gonna stay behind, but still…”
“Oh, I wouldn’t rule her out. She enjoyed her stay in Thorn Valley as much as you kids, even if she wasn’t there as long. We knew from the beginning that she’d probably miss the old homestead more than the rest of us. But take it from me: she wants what’s best for all of us.”
Martin nodded, smiling. He and his siblings were well aware of the recent changes in their parents. Their love was as strong as ever, and it had been made perhaps ever deeper and more profound. Since the moment they were reunited back on Lahaikshe—when both were conscious—they’d established an empathic link, endowed by the Stone, that powerful object that had influenced their lives in so many ways. It had, in effect, “selected” them, and now their hearts were open books to each other, and—to a lesser extent—their minds as well. They’d made a vow of “no secrets,” but now it was almost redundant, because there was little they could keep from each other now.
Presently Madeline and Teresa came into view with their berry-baskets, followed closely by Timothy and Cynthia, both still damp and wrapped in towels after their swim. As they met, Johnathan and Madeline took a brief moment to embrace and kiss—a habit they’d fallen into whenever they’d been apart for more than ten minutes at a time—after which she and Teresa brought their berries into the house.
Johnathan turned to pick up his water-bucket and saw Martin looking at him with expectancy. He just gave a reassuring smile, nodding slightly. Martin gave a fist-pumping motion and whispered “Yesss!”
“What’s going on?” asked Cynthia, removing her towel to allow her fur to air-dry. Timothy did the same.
“Let’s wait till we’re all sitting down to supper, okay?” Johnathan said, and his two younger children seemed to grasp his meaning as well as Martin. He and Johnathan brought their water-buckets inside.
Less than an hour later, they had all just sat down to supper, and Madeline wasted no time. “Everyone…I know some of you have been concerned about me, and what my decision would be when…the Deadline came. I want to assure you all that I’m completely ‘on board’ with moving to Thorn Valley, and though I will…definitely miss this place, I’m looking forward to this every bit as much as you.”
Everyone expressed their relief—though at this point there was little doubt left—and thanked her with hugs and kisses. For now, none really felt the need or desire to talk about how much they’d miss their creekside home, so the subject of discussion was steered toward the things they wouldn’t miss: the sometimes arduous task of maintaining a steady food supply in the winter, the need to avoid the farm cat Dragon and contact with humans as much as possible…
“…and no more Auntie Shrew…right, Martin?” Cynthia said teasingly, nudging her big brother.
“What are you talking about? Leave me alone,” he replied, sounding only mildly annoyed.
“Don’t tease your brother, Cynthia,” admonished their mother. Out of all of them, only she and Johnathan were aware of the reasons for Martin’s uncharacteristically mild reaction to the subject of their part-time self-appointed guardian and Martin’s long-time nemesis. It had been this way since returning from their trip to Thorn Valley a month ago, and even when the shrew had visited them he’d been remarkably casual about her presence. But they’d promised Martin that they’d leave it to him to decide when to detail those reasons to his siblings, as well as when to actually discuss a particularly vital matter with Auntie Shrew.
They proceeded to discuss the many advantages to living in Thorn Valley, most of which they’d already seen and experienced first-hand. Predator activity had decreased dramatically, beginning the day Arthur’s advance party arrived on the scene over a year ago. Since then, the rats had waged an aggressive campaign to make a large portion of the valley their own and to convey to any creature that would prey upon them that they’d best look elsewhere for easier prey; and so predators had steered clear of the area more and more. There was easier access to a steady food source, with much that grew locally plus the Rats’ own agricultural successes; though of course the Brisby family would put in their fair contribution in tending to the crops and other food-gathering operations. There were the educational opportunities, which the children especially looked forward to resuming, along with furthering the friendships they’d already made among their rat contemporaries. Already they’d gotten the sense that these friendships would prove to be closer than the ones they’d made among the local mice, most notably Janice and Kory’s children—though they wouldn’t admit it to them even if they weren’t already sworn to secrecy about where they’d be moving to. But it was perhaps inevitable: it wasn’t just Johnathan anymore. The entire family was aware of all they held in common with the Rats of NIMH, a kinship made ever stronger with the discovery made four weeks ago of Madeline’s having been effectively “one of them” since she’d first met Johnathan.
Yes, the pros definitely outweighed the cons—as if there were any doubt—and so they began ironing out the finer details of preparing for their departure, and preparing the Rats for their arrival. They couldn’t very well pop up in Thorn Valley cold; Justin would have to be notified so that proper preparations could be carried out, though obviously they’d been expecting the family to make this final decision. In short order the subject of the Stone came up, and how it could be employed in this venture. It hadn’t been used at all since it had returned to Earth Johnathan and those who’d sought him out. It could be easily employed to move goods as well as people, so it was hardly a contest. Likewise, it could be used to make that advance trip to Thorn Valley to give the Rats a proper “warning.” The only real alternative—enlisting the Rats’ help in hauling their belongings by wagon, as they’d done with their own, was quickly agreed upon as imposing upon them, even though they’d likely be perfectly amenable to it. Enlisting the services of their crow friends Jeremy and Beatrice was likewise out of the question, because it was all their belongings making the move as well as themselves; plus, by now, the crows were very well along in raising their own family. They agreed, though, that they should try to get word to them to say goodbye before their departure, though they would have to be somewhat evasive about precisely how they’d be leaving.
All too soon, it was getting late and everyone was starting to yawn; everyone was excited over their plans, though they knew they wouldn’t be making the actual move tomorrow. So the family made ready for bedtime, under some protest from the children.
When the parents were in bed, some discussion continued, Johnathan bringing up the subject of how else the Stone might be employed.
“It occurs to me that we could even spare the Rats the hassle of actually building our new home,” he began as Madeline lay with head firmly against his breastbone. “We could use the Stone to actually dig it out. Why, with its rock-shaping capability, it’d be a…”
He paused, the darkness of the room not deterring him from what he’d just felt from his wife: a pang of something like uneasiness, apprehension. “Maddie, what’s wrong? Why…” Then he realized, placing his hand under her chin. “Wait…I think I understand.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, babe. I know it hasn’t been that long since…that business with Ghormfisk.” Well they both remembered the incident, in which the amulet’s rock-shaping capabilities were last used to create the cylindrical prison in which Madeline and three of their friends almost died.
“Oh, it’s all right, Johnathan,” she murmured. “I suppose I’m being a bit silly…”
“No, you’re not,” he insisted. “If using it that way again would remind you too much of that, then I have no doubt that Arthur and his crew would be only too happy to do the job.”
“Really, darling, it’s all right.” She turned her head upward to face him. “I know I’ll never completely forget what happened, but…I think it’d be nice to use the Stone in that way for something good, something that’ll benefit us, our whole family. Besides…we already used it that way, after we got it back from Ghormfisk.”
“Oh…you mean when we…‘cut it down’…”
“Yes. It wasn’t exactly the same way, but we were able to take what had done us harm and make it harmless. And anyway, I agree that it might be imposing on the Rats the other way.”
In the dark, Johnathan smiled to himself. This forthrightness of hers, so typical of her manner these days, certainly did much to endear her to him all the more. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind at all if the Stone were used to excavate their home. By no means did he doubt her strength, greater than he’d given her credit for, back in the “old days”; nor did he believe that she was no more than a delicate flower to be looked at. And yet…there was still that image, the one that would continue to haunt him for a long time to come, of Madeline lying on the floor of Ghormfisk’s prison, near death from the overpowering heat and little food or water…
He screwed his eyes shut; then opened them, shuddering. “Maddie…believe me, I know, intellectually, that you’d probably handle it just fine. But…just the thought that it might upset you, despite what you’re saying now…” He sighed. “I probably just put my foot in it, didn’t I?”
Madeline chuckled. “Don’t worry, darling. That’s sweet of you, but…let me worry about it, all right?”
“Whatever you say, lady.” Johnathan nuzzled her ear. She purred contentedly, re-settling her head against his chest. Neither wanted to argue the point, to be sure, but Johnathan still couldn’t help but think…then he forced the thought away. There was any number of times, these past four weeks, when he had to remind himself that it wasn’t the old days anymore, that he wasn’t making all the decisions for both of them and that he had to allow her the freedom to choose. As long as we’re alive and in love and all of us a family, he vowed as his eyelids grew heavy, I can accept anything about her. Tomorrow, he was sure, it would all look clearer.
Philip stepped out of the main entrance to regard this late-summer morning in Thorn Valley. It was still partly cloudy and the air still smelled damp from last night’s brief rain shower. He breathed in deep before walking over to his fellow Guard rat, who acknowledged his relief with a nod, looking ready for a good morning’s sleep.
“Top of the morning, Phil. Another day in paradise.”
“You bet, Walt. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“Maybe not, but sometimes—and I wouldn’t want the captain to hear me say this—I almost wish we hadn’t chased all the predators away. It doesn’t make for the most exciting sentry duty, even overnight. Anything to break the monotony, you know?”
Philip fixed Walter with a serious look. “I’d be careful what I wish for. You know there’s always a chance of an owl or bobcat that didn’t get it through its thick skull yet.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me. But the last time anything really unusual—”
A sudden flash of light, from a point almost directly in front of the pair, made both of them leap, literally, about two inches. Even as both were prepared for almost anything, their instinctive reactions gave way to the realization that such an event can only mean one thing; and it proved correct as the one whose arrival was heralded by the flash stepped forward boldly, the distinctive and familiar red amulet around his neck.
“Why, it’s Johnathan Brisby!” greeted Philip jovially. “Making a grand entrance, as usual!” Turning to Walter, he quietly added, “Hope that’s unusual enough for you.”
“Great to see you guys.” Johnathan shook the Guard rats’ hands, greeting each by name. Correctly anticipating their visitor’s most immediate request, Walter left to get word to Justin.
In short order, he was there, in his “Sunday best”: white linen shirt and brown-and-indigo vest, the same outfit in which he’d greeted Madeline and the children a month ago. As Justin approached through the arched main entrance, arms spread in greeting and laughing heartily at the sight of his oldest friend, Johnathan got the immediate impression of a Justin who’d had an enormous weight lifted from his shoulders and without a care, or at least especially serious ones.
Justin crouched to embrace Johnathan, each slapping the other’s back. “So, Justin, is this a bad time? If so, I can come back tomorrow…”
The leader of the Rats of NIMH—who by now were increasingly referring to themselves as the Rats of Thorn Valley—laughed heartily. The two had always shared much the same sense of humor; but now, as they came out of their embrace, Justin said to Johnathan, smiling but with an earnest tone, “Johnathan, my friend, these days I’m not sure that’s possible.” He straightened. “That’s not to say bad times are behind us, but things have been going very well for us lately, and we have much to look forward to.” He beckoned Johnathan to follow him inside, where his arrival had already begun attracting attention. “So…what brings you here today, besides the Stone? Though it’s not hard to guess…”
“Yes, it’s been thirty days; and yes, we’ve decided to move here permanently.”
“That’s fantastic, Johnathan!” Justin patted the mouse’s shoulder, almost throwing him off-balance. “You know we’d love to have you.” Johnathan made to thank him, but before he could utter a word, Justin went on: “Now, if you like, we could put you up in the guest quarters you stayed in before, while we set up something more permanent for you; or maybe even make it yours permanently if you like, after we expand it into the adjacent room. Or maybe...”
“…Or maybe something else I had in mind…” began Johnathan.
Justin put a hand to his forehead. “Good Lord, where are my manners? I’m sorry, Johnathan, these past few weeks have been…” Still in the entrance corridor, they paused, and Justin beckoned Johnathan to follow him back outside. After they’d passed Philip and walked out a ways onto the “front lawn,” Justin resumed. “I didn’t want everyone to hear this, but…these past few weeks have been…giddy, just crazy, but in the best, most wonderful way; just as much, I’m sure, as it was with you once, about three years ago.”
Johnathan smiled, nodding; he didn’t need the rest spelled out. “I take it things have been well between you and Isabella.”
“My friend, things couldn’t be better,” Justin replied without hesitation. “All those weeks—months, even, in fact, ever since the Move—I’d thought it was just infatuation. But, long story short, I love her and she loves me. It’s the real thing, Johnathan. And it’s your wife whom I have to thank for giving me the final push, to take the plunge. Yes, I know: it was the situation we’d been in, too, that reminded me that life was too short and I needed to seize the day. But Madeline gave me a lot to think about. I’ll have a lot to say to her when I see her again, but…for now, you can thank her for me, from the bottom of this rat’s heart.” He patted Johnathan’s shoulder again.
“Well, I’m glad we could be of help, Justin. I’m really happy for you both. So…what I had in mind for our quarters. You know, it’s almost ironic, given what you were just telling me…but what we had in mind was something like…what Ages has now.”
“Oh, you mean separate from our colony? No need to explain, my friend. We had already discussed it, Arthur and I, and we think we found the perfect location. Right this way…”
Justin led Johnathan south, following the Wall. In about five minutes they passed the home of Mr. Ages, Johnathan’s oldest friend; and just a little further past it, Justin stopped at a location where it was obvious some excavating had already been going on. A natural ledge rose a foot above Justin’s head, directly above the tunnel already begun. Johnathan could already picture it as suitable for several to sit upon and just chew the fat. Justin directed them closer, past a wide, flat stone that lay directly in front of the tunnel.
“As you can see, Arthur’s already had a crew down here. We knew you’d likely want a home separate from the Rat colony but not too far away, and—would you believe—Ages gave his wholehearted approval for it. I think he’s genuinely looking forward to having you for neighbors.”
“Somehow, I thought he might. Well, might as well give it the once-over.” He ventured into the excavation to find that a wide space had already been dug, one which he could already imagine as a future living room. Back outside, he climbed up onto the ledge and gazed back and forth, pleased with the view. There was a natural clearing directly in front, several feet wide and long, and a view of the lake through the woodland, which was sparser in that location.
“So what do you think?”
“I like it.”
“I’m glad, but let me remind you that by no means are you obligated to this one location. We can do some more scouting around, if you like.”
“Thanks, Justin, but…” He began making his way back down. “…as far as I’m concerned, you and Arthur have picked a winner, and I’m sure Maddie’s going to like it too.” Suddenly reminded of another important matter, he related to Justin some of his and Madeline’s bedtime conversation from last night. Justin admitted that the idea of using the amulet to carve out the Brisbys’ new Thorn Valley home hadn’t occurred to him. Well he understood Johnathan’s hesitance, having shared the experience that almost took her life; but he also believed that if she said she wouldn’t have a problem with it, then she wouldn’t, even as he admitted that he didn’t know her as well as Johnathan. Still…
“Johnathan, you seem to have your heart set on using the Stone for the dig; but believe me, we’d be honored to do the job, and it’d be no imposition at all. Arthur and his crew are ready to resume work anytime, and they tell me it would be finished within a week. It’s still entirely up to you and Madeline, of course. ”
Johnathan rubbed his whiskers. “Wow, you’re almost making me feel guilty here. But you know…since it would take a few more days, I think Maddie and the kids will approve. It’ll give us plenty of time to say our goodbyes, tie up loose ends…” He looked up at Justin. “I’ll tell you what: I’ll get back to you after we’ve discussed it. Maybe both of us will be back, but either way, I think the idea will go over very well.”
They continued with some more small talk; and throughout, Johnathan observed how Justin, however changed he may be these days in the wake of recent events that had changed everyone’s lives so drastically, was very much like his old self. Though no less committed to his responsibilities as leader, he seemed quite relaxed and at peace with himself, and there was no doubt that his recent good fortune in his personal life was a major factor.
With Johnathan again wishing Justin the best of luck on his new life with Isabella, he concentrated on the Stone for the return trip home.
The idea did indeed go over very well. When Johnathan told his family that the Rats had already chosen a location they believed suitable—with the provision that the final decision would be theirs—Madeline wanted, quite reasonably, to see it for herself, so Johnathan made another trip with the amulet to Thorn Valley, this time accompanied by her. She was indeed pleased with it; and upon seeing how willing and eager Arthur and his crew (who met them there) were to do the job themselves, she agreed to it. Furthermore, she assured Johnathan that she wouldn’t be averse to his using the Stone in that fashion, and that if some further need to use it arose—such as further remodeling of the house—they would do so. They visited Justin briefly; and he was true to his word, thanking her profusely for pushing him to actively pursue a relationship with Isabella. He also gave his own assurance that their doing the construction themselves was no imposition. And so with this much done, the Brisbys thanked Justin on behalf of their entire family and returned home, making this visit brief as they’d promised the children, who were perturbed enough as it was with being expected to stay home while their parents made a trip to Thorn Valley without them.
The children were briefed on all aspects of the excavation; and though they were predictably disappointed with the delay of five to seven days, they all agreed that it would provide plenty of time for them to bid their friends in the creekside neighborhood goodbye, and otherwise tie up loose ends. They all reacted positively to the news about Justin and Isabella, especially (and most vocally) the girls; and though Timothy was more reserved, Martin seemed to approve wholeheartedly, surprisingly so given his eye-rolling reaction a month ago.
They decided to give it another two or three days before actually telling anyone they were leaving, and they also planned out how they would handle their departure. They quickly realized it would involve more bending of the truth, as they’d done after Johnathan’s return, and it bothered them somewhat. All admitted that they felt as if they’d made closer friends among the Rats than among their fellow mice here or on the farm; but they had made friends here, after all, especially with Janice and Kory and their six children still at home. It wouldn’t all be an easy process, they realized; in fact, the easiest part was deciding on their method of transporting themselves and their belongings to their new lodgings.
Over the following days, the family continued their daily routines, working and playing as they had done since Johnathan’s return. And though no one believed that there would be any serious obstacle to their plans—or a minor one—some of them were finding the further delay in carrying them out to be a bit difficult. Any further time spent in the company of Janice and Kory and their children seemed to reinforce the point. Johnathan seemed to be taking it all in stride, but Madeline confessed to Johnathan that she realized that she’d miss Janice in particular more than she thought she would. All of the children were greatly looking forward to making the move, but the younger two admitted the most to having some reluctance to leave the creekside behind; in particular Cynthia, who had made perhaps the closest friends in two of their neighbors’ children, Lana and Lincoln.
Johnathan made periodic checks, using the amulet’s imaging capability, on the construction’s progress; and, five days after he’d made his last trip to Thorn Valley, made another visit in person. Arthur’s latest progress report was good news indeed: his crew expected to complete the project, with all work done and the new home ready for habitation the next day. After bringing the news home, there was of course quite a flurry of excitement, though all knew there was still work to be done. They could, however, allow a little more time for relaxation, with the entire family swimming and playing in the creek with their neighbors. Afterwards, they invited Janice and Kory and family to have supper with them in the evening.
It was then, toward the end of the meal, that they broke the news of their leaving tomorrow, describing briefly how they expected their departure to be rather abrupt and that they wished it to be as private as possible. The news elicited a mixture of reactions. Kory seemed to take it in stride, but Janice just sat silently, almost sullenly, for several minutes. Their children’s reactions were mixed: Sibelle and Dupree, the two oldest, were mostly curious about where the Brisbys were moving to; Lana and Lincoln moved closer to Timothy and Cynthia and started hugging them and crying; and the two youngest, Dean and Dewey, who were still just babies, didn’t really understand. The Brisbys gave their friends their explanation as they’d rehearsed it, and it was really a variation on the one Madeline gave to Janice and Auntie Shrew over a month ago about the family’s first trip to Thorn Valley: that they’d decided to move closer to Johnathan’s old friends, who lived further off to the north.
Most of them seemed to accept the explanation, even Lana and Lincoln; but Janice suddenly got up, looking angry but saying nothing, and walked right out of the house, leaving her family staring in disbelief. The Brisbys, though, had anticipated a reaction like this—though perhaps not so extreme—from at least some of them; and when Kory started after her, Madeline asked him to let her talk to Janice first, believing she could calm her down. Kory, easy-going as always, allowed this, telling her and Johnathan he didn’t hold them to blame and that Janice had been in some odd moods lately anyway.
Outside, Madeline found her neighbor sitting on a stone at the creek’s edge, long a favorite spot of theirs for quiet conversation or contemplation. “Janice, dear,” she said quietly as she approached, “may I join you?”
“I guess I can’t stop you, can I?” Janice replied without looking around, more than a hint of bitterness in her voice.
After she sat, Madeline said, “I’m so sorry, Janice. We didn’t mean to upset you.” She was, for a moment, unsure of what to say next. “But we really do need to make this move, and it’s not because of anyone here, least of all you. I know how you must feel…”
Janice abruptly turned. “How can you know how I feel? How can anyone?”
“We’ve all had friends leave us; and family, too. Sometimes they have to move away for good, and sometimes they—”
“I know all that! I just…” Janice looked away, then suddenly got up, moving resolutely toward the house, where Johnathan and Kory were already standing in the doorway. “Get the children together, Kory,” she said calmly. “We’re leaving now.”
Kory looked at Johnathan, shrugging as he turned. Some of his children had already heard and looked up in confusion. “C’mon, kids, let’s go home,” he announced. As they all gathered, he said to Johnathan, “I don’t really understand, but I’ll try to calm her down.” Johnathan wished him good luck as he and his family watched their friends depart.
Martin scratched his head. “Wow, why’d she get so bent out of shape?”
“Martin!” admonished Teresa, seeing their mother’s downcast expression as Johnathan met her at the door, embracing her.
“It’ll be all right, Maddie,” said Johnathan, stroking his wife’s head. “I bet she’ll have cooled off by tomorrow.”
“I guess. Oh, I know it’s not my fault. But I had no idea she’d react like that.”
“None of us did. But let’s not let it put a damper on our plans.” They continued discussing those plans as they finished off their dinners. Tomorrow after breakfast, their first order of business would be to gather all their belongings in one area in the middle of the front room, and then make a visit to the farm to attend to some unfinished bits of business. Final goodbyes to their friends would be in order, especially given today’s developments; and they realized that the precise way they’d be carried out would have to be made up as they went along if they wanted their departure to be carried out as privately as possible.
Before bedtime, Timothy entertained everyone with another storytelling session, one based on his and his siblings’ previous Thorn Valley experience but going off in more fanciful directions.
Predictably, getting the children to settle down to sleep took a little longer than usual. Once this was done, the parents did likewise, though they were certainly equally looking forward to the day to come. Madeline found she was still troubled by Janice’s reaction, while admitting that both it and her own reaction in turn were irrational.
“I want to help her, somehow. I know it’s not my fault, or yours, but…I don’t know, I can’t help feeling there’s more to it, some reason other than simply…having friends leave.” She sighed.
“I know, darling. But sometimes friends have to part ways, and I guess Janice is one of those who has trouble dealing with that.”
Madeline, head against Johnathan’s chest, looked up. “I guess so. Oh, I’m sure she’ll get over it.”
“Right. And maybe before we leave tomorrow, too.” He kissed her forehead, and they exchanged endearments and goodnights. Johnathan thought about how happy they’d both been since their reunion, and how it had done his heart proud to see Madeline smile and laugh so much these days—more, he believed, in this past month than she ever had before. It troubled him to see her troubled or displeased in the slightest, for all he was aware of the emotional strength that had always carried her through, especially during the ten months she and the children had spent believing him dead. It was their shared amulet-endowed emotional rapport, he knew, that was largely responsible; something they both welcomed when they learned of it, but which was proving to have its downside. Oh well, Johnathan thought as his wife began slipping into slumber,we’re still getting used to it. He yawned, feeling more relaxed himself.
Chapter 2: Breaking the old ties
“C’mon, you guys, it’s just a bit further! See? There’s the big stone right ahead!”
“We see it, Martin,” replied Madeline. “Don’t go too far ahead.”
Through rows of turnips, carrots, wax beans and other crops, the Brisbys wended their way, every bit as full of eagerness and anticipation for the new life upon which they would soon embark, but full of caution as well. For this was the growing season—albeit its tail-end—meaning they had to be on the lookout for not only the usual predators, but members of the Fitzgibbons family as well, when they’d be out harvesting or weeding or otherwise tending to crops. And there was Dragon, of course, who continued to patrol the farmyard like a roving sentinel. He’d been an even greater problem in the past five months since the Rats’ departure; or rather, the departure of the Rats and Mr. Ages and his sleeping powder, frequently administered to Dragon during many of the Rats’ larger operations outside their old rosebush colony.
This absence had meant taking greater care for the Brisby family—minus Johnathan—during this past spring’s Moving Day, which had been a semi-annual ritual for them over the past two years. It had been Johnathan’s idea, to bring them nearer to a more dependable winter food source, but it was also—unbeknownst to his family—partially a compromise between Johnathan and the rats, so that he’d be more readily available to help them with certain operations at least part of the year. It was just one thing Johnathan had come clean about since his return, and another of them was presently coming into view.
“Well, here we are,” he announced. The family emerged near the base of the big “wave stone,” so-called due to its shape, not unlike that of a large, curling ocean wave. The Fitzgibbonses had allowed the area surrounding it to become overgrown with a lot of weedy growth; and there, in the shade of the stone and largely buried, was their most recent home. As the children approached it more quickly, their parents hung back, regarding it silently for a moment.
“I think I’ll have more memories about this place than any other winter home we’ve lived in,” said Madeline with a sigh.
“I can imagine. Wish I could do more than just imagine, though. I know I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but…I really should have been here when Timothy caught pneumonia, and everything after that…”
“Well, you did give us this place, in a way.” The two approached the block, preparing to follow the children in climbing up to the roof and entranceway. As they did so, they recalled Johnathan’s story of how, before his disappearance, he’d used the red amulet to alter and reshape this cinderblock to its present form to make it into more of a proper home, intending to lead his family to it on their next Moving Day. That didn’t happen, of course, but he couldn’t have known that a month after that night, Madeline and the children would find the cinderblock on their own, with no idea of Johnathan’s connection to it; or that they wouldn’t question their new home’s somewhat odd characteristics, simply believing that someone else had probably just lived here previously, and they were lucky enough to have found one so suitable for their needs.
They followed their children through the entrance, down the stairs into the living room. Many of their belongings were still here: bedding, eating utensils, furniture, decorative things like the small wooden doll and copper penny.
“Well, I must say you kept a cozy little den here this past winter. Sure wish I could have shared it with you.” Johnathan sighed, and both he and Madeline thought briefly on how things might have been had he been here all this time, especially during last spring’s crisis. He’d already said that if so, he may very well have told all about their aging difference much sooner, and that crisis could very well have turned out much differently. It was all irrelevant now, of course, with the knowledge that Madeline was aging at the same rate as he, and with no real way to tell what could have been.
“Hey, are we taking everything out of here?” asked Martin, breaking his parents’ train of thought.
“Uhm…yes, we sure are, Martin,” answered Johnathan. “We’re not leaving anything behind, and you can bet we’ll have room for everything in our new home. I know we’ll all appreciate larger quarters.” He smiled at Madeline, recalling the discussions they’d had about possible future additions to the family—and more than discussions.
As they all began moving everything into the center of the living room, the children described some of their experiences living in this house and this area, good times and not so. There was, however, a noticeable lack of mention of last spring’s crisis, partially because it had been discussed plenty since Johnathan’s return, but he knew it was also likely to be due to the fact that the children almost didn’t survive it. For all that living here held pleasant memories, this house had, after all, become a death trap for the children and Auntie Shrew, sinking into the mud with all of them inside. And the risks their mother had taken… Small wonder that they now all went about their business quite matter-of-factly, with no great amount of waxing nostalgic or being overly sentimental about leaving this place for good. But then, they were used to frequent moves, though they all admitted that it was nice that this should be the last one.
After all their belongings were clustered together, Teresa suggested they go up above for one last look around the farmyard. All agreed, and a minute later they’d all made the climb to the top of the wave stone.
“You see the corner of the garden there, with all the flowers?” Madeline said, pointing. “That was partially to make up for the rosebush being torn out. Mrs. Fitzgibbons wasn’t happy about that at all.”
“And she wasn’t the only one,” said Johnathan with a laugh, noting how conspicuous the rosebush was by its absence. “I see they planted something in its place, too.”
“A couple of lilac bushes,” said Teresa. “You can’t see them too well from here; they haven’t grown too big yet.”
There was still some early-morning low-lying mist about, so it was hard to see quite a few things from their vantage point atop the stone; but it still provided quite a wide view. There was the farmhouse, the barn, the abandoned threshing machine beneath which lay Mr. Ages’s former home and laboratory, the rows of crops stretching away into the distance, the old mill, the portion of the creek upstream from their home, the woods where lay that home that they’d soon be vacating—far beyond which lay their new home. Robins called out loudly, voices ringing through the damp air. Barn swallows glided acrobatically about, catching insects on the wing. Voices could be heard coming from the farmhouse as the family prepared for work and school. A door could be heard opening and closing; was Dragon being let outside? Perhaps not, but they’d know for sure soon enough if he was about.
Looking about the area adjacent to the wave stone, Johnathan could more clearly see how the tractor had left it completely untouched, including the cinderblock. “You know…if I hadn’t been in such a hurry that night, I might have realized that it would be right in the tractor’s path where it was. Oh, well…one can never know everything, right? Though in this case…”
“…it was just as well,” Madeline said seriously, nodding; neither saw the need to elaborate. She started to turn around, looking down the slope back to ground level. “Well, I guess we can—”
“Wait a minute,” whispered Johnathan in a manner that prompted them all to grow still and silent. They all became aware of an increased hubbub in the corn rows; robins were scolding more loudly, and swallows were swooping low, buzzing something unseen. Soon the source of the commotion came into view, confirming their suspicions.
“They did let Dragon out,” whispered Madeline. “Let’s get below now.”
The children turned to start down, but Johnathan said, “Wait. I don’t think we’ll have to.” There seemed to be no sense of caution or alarm in his voice; instead, a look came over him that suggested he was planning something quite elaborate, even fun. He rubbed his whiskers, nodded slowly and chortled to himself almost insidiously. “Ooh, Johnathan, you are sooo wicked…” He rubbed his hands together.
His wife and children looked at him and at each other, baffled. “Johnathan, shouldn’t we be going? What are you thinking?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be safe. This’ll see to it,” he said, holding up the Stone, “and to other things too.” Returning his attention to Dragon’s patrol of the garden, Johnathan suddenly began leaping up and down and waving arms, startling his family at first until they realized what he had in mind. They joined him in trying to catch Dragon’s eye.
They quickly succeeded; Dragon, still some twenty feet away, was now directing his most piercing stare right at them. Though they believed Johnathan’s assurance of their safety, it was still a most unsettling sight, especially as he began approaching slowly, deliberately.
The mice hardly breathed as the massive grey-furred figure crept closer…closer…until Dragon was a mere eight feet away. Johnathan concentrated, gave a slight gesture—which he later admitted was only for show—and suddenly, as the red amulet glowed, Dragon was moving in another direction: straight up! Madeline and the children at first blinked in disbelief at the sight, then looked at each other, smiling. Dragon looked all around, bewildered, legs akimbo, as he was raised higher, flailing about wildly. The mice found considerable amusement in this, seeing such a powerful figure as Dragon so totally helpless and confused, even frightened.
“Look at him! Look at his fat face! Oboy, is this great!” Martin was literally rolling with laughter. Teresa was ready to join him, and Timothy and Cynthia hugged each other with glee at the strange but funny sight.
Johnathan shook his head in mock pity. “Tsk, tsk, poor kitty. I guess this isn’t very sporting, is it? What do you say, everyone? Should I let him down?”
Madeline allowed her own laughter to subside enough to say, “Maybe you should, Johnathan. They might notice.” Pragmatic though she was, she couldn’t help being equally amused by the spectacle.
“Oh, very well,” said Johnathan casually; and with Dragon now suspended some eight feet off the ground, suddenly it was as if he’d fallen through a trapdoor. He plummeted straight down, landing most ungracefully and uncatlike, mostly on his side. In another instant he was on his feet and making a beeline for the farmhouse.
It took another minute for the Brisbys to recover before making their way back to ground level. “Boy, haven’t we waited a long time to see something like that?” Johnathan wiped away more tears of laughter.
“Yes,” agreed Madeline. “Even though he is a cat and can’t help behaving as he does, he’s had that coming for years.”
“He sure has. Well…are there any other bits of business to take care of here?”
“I was thinking…we really should say goodbye to Auntie Shrew.” All of the children except Martin agreed aloud that it was a good idea, and Madeline looked at him as if expecting at least mild dissent.
At the same time, Teresa nudged him and said, “You just knew she’d say that, didn’t you?”
But Martin only put up his hands and said, “What? I didn’t say anything."
Johnathan smiled to himself. He and Madeline, out of all of them, understood Martin’s lack of protest, but in accordance with their standing month-old agreement, didn’t address it directly. Instead, he said as they reached ground level, “Well, Martin, you can stay here while the rest of us visit her, if you like.” Martin just gave a noncommittal shrug.
Johnathan felt like admitting aloud that Auntie Shrew wasn’t very high on his own list of favorite people, but decided against it. He didn’t want to set a bad example, but he also had an amount of genuine respect for her. She had, after all, lent considerable aid and comfort to Madeline for several months after she’d lost her parents Martin and Teresa; and with getting her settled into her new situation, helping her deal with her sudden loss; and she’d been just as much help when Johnathan had been thought dead. True, she had made something of an obstacle of herself when he’d first met Madeline, due to her irrational distrust of him. Madeline actually felt it necessary to sneak away without her noticing on a couple of occasions during their courtship. But she soon accepted, albeit grudgingly, that the two wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of their mutual happiness, and that Johnathan genuinely cared for Madeline. Even after the two had moved in together, the shrew would regularly drop by, usually unannounced, to offer her services and dispense advice, usually unsolicited. It didn’t do much more to endear her to Johnathan, but he knew she meant well; and there were times when she was genuinely helpful, as on occasions when the children needed looking after when both parents had to be away. Neither of them—not even Madeline—had ever known, and probably would never know, why she’d ever appointed herself Caretaker of the Field, nor even how old she was. But they both now agreed that they owed it to her to let her know they were leaving the area for good, and possibly would never see each other again. They also discussed how much about their destination they should tell her, and about their relationship to the Rats of NIMH. Madeline knew she wasn’t usually home this time of day, but was sure they’d be able to track her down shortly if she weren’t. Since her home wasn’t too far, they decided they’d make the trip there on foot rather than use the Stone, as they did to get from the creekside to the farm.
With this much settled, they all prepared to leave—including Martin, to the surprise of his siblings, who just figured he didn’t want to be left out. They all made their way to the field’s edge, then began following the outer boundary of the cultivated area, which would lead them to the small copse where Auntie Shrew made her home.
“We’re still gonna say goodbye to Jeremy and Beatrice, too, aren’t we?” brought up Cynthia along the way.
“Well, they’re not always the easiest to get ahold of,” said Madeline, “and their nest is on the opposite side of the farm…”
“But they can fly,” added Martin. “And they can spot us from the air just like that.”
“We could use the Stone to get there fast,” Johnathan suggested, “once we’re through here.” He glanced up; then, having spotted something in his peripheral vision, he added, “or, unless I miss my guess, we can get someone’s attention right now.” He looked up and pointed directly at what he’d spotted—or rather who.
Sure enough, the distinctive, slightly jerky wing beats of the large, dark bird almost directly above them—which even Johnathan recognized by now—marked him as their good friend Jeremy the crow. Accordingly, they all called out and waved arms, swiftly gaining his attention. He replied with a happy caw and began circling for a landing—which all anticipated seeing, some almost hoping it would be a little on the klutzy side.
His landing was actually quite smooth; but as he called out to his mouse friends, he managed to trip over something—they couldn’t really tell what, and they wondered if he knew himself—sending him flopping onto his belly. They approached him, unable to resist a few giggles, though the crow’s high spirits weren’t dampened at all as he picked himself up. “Hey, Mrs. B, Mr. B! Hi, kids. What brings you all around here?”
“We’re here to visit a friend, Jeremy,” replied Madeline, “but we were hoping to run into you too.”
“A friend, huh? It’s not that crazy lady with the hat, is it? This is her neck of the woods..."
Madeline chuckled. “If you mean Auntie Shrew, then yes, it is her. But don’t worry. We let her know that you were helping us that time.” Inwardly, she added: Though whether or not it completely sank in, I couldn’t say.
“We’re going to be leaving this area for good, Jeremy,” said Johnathan. “We’re moving to Thorn Valley.”
Naturally, Jeremy was surprised and disappointed; but they reminded him that he and Beatrice could fly there for a visit anytime. He was actually very understanding of their desire to be closer to their friends the Rats, and thankfully wasn’t especially inquisitive about their precise mode of travel, though they made it clear that they had plenty of “stuff” that would be making the trip as well.
They chatted for a time about the crows’ trio of newly-hatched chicks, who were all doing well with very healthy appetites. Their need for near-constant attention kept both parents quite busy, and Jeremy regretted he and Beatrice couldn’t help the Brisbys in their move in some way. The mice knew well, of course, that at this stage their highest priority had to be their children, and encouraged the crows and wished them the best of luck. Both families were entering important new chapters in their own lives, and Jeremy wished them well in Thorn Valley, promising to visit them soon. The children especially looked forward to it, hoping more rides would be forthcoming. He needed to return to Beatrice and the chicks, but let the Brisbys know one more time how much they meant to him, an uncharacteristically serious moment for him. They said their goodbyes and Jeremy took off.
As they watched him sail aloft, Madeline thought about certain discussions they’d had recently. “You know,” she said as they resumed their journey, “We’ve talked about fate and destiny playing such a part in all that’s happened to us, and Jeremy is very much a part of that. Even now I can’t say exactly why I stopped to help him that day, since I had to get right home to get the medicine to Timothy. I guess it was because he seemed so…helpless, and I knew he’d be harmless to me. But if I hadn’t…it’s possible Dragon might have attacked me on the way, and then…” She shook her head. “And he was such a help to us later, taking me to the Great Owl; otherwise, I’d never have thought to seek the Rats’ help. I didn’t realize the…enormity of it all till later, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried to dismiss him a couple of times.”
“When Auntie Shrew got the drop on him, and tied him up,” recalled Martin. His sisters—Timothy having missed the incident and so much else, being ill at the time—still couldn’t think about the incident without some amusement.
“Yes,” said Madeline, sighing, “and when I sent him off to gather string to move the house, even though that was the Rats’ job. I’m just glad I had the chance to apologize to him for all that.”
They shelved further discussion as they drew close to their destination. It was an area familiar to them; though, Johnathan noted with some humor, they weren’t as familiar with it as its main resident was with their usual haunts. Auntie Shrew’s home was, like the Brisbys’ summer home, located underneath the roots of a tree, the largest one in the copse. They paused at its entrance.
“Auntie Shrew? Are you home?” Madeline called out.
“Brisby? Is that you?”
“Yes, it is. All of us are here. May we come in?”
“Ooh, just a minute.” There was an unmistakable tone of annoyance, and she could be heard moving about, rearranging things and fretting to herself. It was a long-noted fact that, while the shrew wasn’t averse to dropping by unannounced on the Brisbys and other local residents, she wasn’t too fond of anyone reciprocating.
“Well,” Johnathan said quietly, “it’s lucky we caught her at home. Almost odd that she’d be here this time of day.” Martin’s siblings half-expected him to add something along the lines of “…instead of sticking her nose into other people’s business,” but he refrained.
Soon she came out to meet them, walking-stick in hand. “Hmph! So all of you are here. Children…Johnathan. Do come in.” As the six mice filed in, the parents noticed her manner seemed more subdued than usual.
“Auntie, do you remember when you visited us last, and I said it’s all right to call me Madeline again? Now that Johnathan’s back, I thought that would be best.”
“Oh, yes, yes, I remember. You know I’ve always had so many demands on my time, so much to remember.” She gave a low grumble.
“Are you feeling well these days?” Madeline asked with genuine concern. “You seem a bit under the weather.” The family sat down on the pebble-lined floor of the small, one-room den, which had space for little more than a bed and a food preparation area.
“Oh, I’m all right…Madeline. Just slowing down a little.” She grunted as she sat on the bed. “Don’t get around like I used to. Landsakes, I don’t know how they get along without me out there.”
Teresa threw Martin a look, again expecting him to add something; but he just put up his hands with a silent “What?” on his lips.
“At least,” Auntie Shrew went on, “with those horrid rats gone, it’s made my job easier.”
“Now, Auntie,” said Johnathan, “we’ve already told you that the rats were harmless, and that they never meant any harm to anyone in the field. Just because they kept to themselves doesn’t mean they were up to no good.”
“Harmless, hah! Stuff and nonsense! After what happened while they were moving your house, you call them harmless?”
“It was only one of them who caused all that trouble,” said Madeline patiently, having made the same point to her before. “You know that.”
She grumbled again. “Well, I still say we’re all better off without them around. Always taking, taking, taking…”
“Auntie Shrew, you shouldn’t talk about the rats like that!” said Teresa emphatically and almost angrily, to everyone’s surprise. “They’re not like that at all. They were living off the farmer before, but they wanted to change, and they have. And besides, they’re our friends.”
The shrew stared in surprise, taken aback by this response from one who’d always seemed the least likely of the Brisby children to “talk back” to her in such a manner, who’d always deferred to her authority whenever she was in charge of them.
“I think Teresa speaks for all of us,” said Johnathan. “The rats do mean a lot to us, and our ties to them are quite strong, more than just those of friendship. In fact, they have a lot to do with why we’re here now.”
“What do you have to do with them? What are you on about?” Though her tone carried its usual amount of suspicion, there was genuine curiosity there as well.
The mice proceeded to explain—as they’d discussed before—all about their impending move to Thorn Valley, and how they’d come upon this decision. Previously, when Auntie Shrew had visited them at their summer home after hearing that Mrs. Brisby’s supposedly-deceased husband had returned, they gave the same nebulous explanation they’d given their other neighbors: that unforeseen circumstances had forced Johnathan away, and that his family had just happened to find him on their trip away from home. Since then, though, they saw little harm in telling her more; after all, the likelihood of the shrew telling any human of the whereabouts of the Rats of NIMH wasn’t too high.
And so, she was told of the human experiments that changed those original twenty rats and eleven mice that included Johnathan and Ages; of their escape and eventual founding of the Rosebush colony; of the strange and powerful amulet Johnathan had found; of their Thorn Valley Plan, and Jenner’s unswerving defiance of it; of Johnathan’s true fate the night of his “death” and his time as the guest of the sorcerer who’d sought a way to send him home; of how the rats’ internecine differences led to the difficulties in moving the Brisbys’ winter home, their leader’s death, and their hasty evacuation from the rosebush and flight to Thorn Valley; of the bizarre “impressions” that led Madeline to believe Johnathan alive, and the search for him that almost led to the deaths of her and three of the rats.
When the tale was finally finished, Auntie Shrew sat quietly for a minute, shaking her head, seemingly in disbelief; then she said, “Well…maybe I was wrong…about the rats…and about you, Johnathan. I know I even accused you of abandoning your family and pretending to be dead.”
Well they all remembered that scene, two days after his return, when she’d dropped by the creekside home and, before Johnathan could say a word, she’d directed that very accusation at him. Madeline and the children rushed to his defense, but he was able to hold his own, convincing her with some small difficulty that there truly were circumstances beyond his control that forced him away.
The shrew went on: “If all you’ve said is true, then perhaps you all do belong there, with them. For a long time, I considered you and your ways to be…well, strange and odd, as much as those rats. I guess I know why now.”
Madeline found her tone a bit disquieting. “Oh, Auntie Shrew, we really do want your blessing.” She sat beside her, taking her arm. “I know it’s difficult to learn all this, all at once. But this is what we really want, and…well, maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but you’ve always been important to us, after all you’ve done, and you always will be. I do love you, and I need to know that it’s all right with you, what we do and where we go. We may not even see each other again after today. I know I’ll miss you, but this is what we truly want.”
The old shrew smiled, then gave a small laugh. “Why, Madeline, you cut me to the quick. Of course I approve. You’ve convinced me that your family has more in common with those rats than with anyone else around here. And besides, I couldn’t imagine you or even Johnathan making up a story like that!” The two were able to share a laugh over this, and Madeline thanked her.
The shrew continued: “Now all of you go on ahead and move to this Thorn Valley, if that’s what will truly make you happy. And don’t worry about me. I’ll keep busy like I always have, though…I may not be able to do as much, dash it all…” She paused to stare off to the side.
Johnathan found himself feeling a pang of sympathy. Their situations were radically different, especially since growing old and subsequently slowing down was something neither he nor Madeline would know firsthand for quite a while. But Auntie Shrew’s greatest joy in life was helping others, and her ability to do so was slowly being taken away from her. What he’d been through recently—being spirited away from his family and everyone and everything else he’d ever known—was quite a different experience, but there was much it had in common with her present situation; and Johnathan now felt the need to say something to cheer and encourage her.
Then he had it. Joining Madeline at the shrew’s side, he said, “How about this? You come with us to Thorn Valley. You’d be well provided for, and among friends; I’m sure we can convince the Rats to make accommodations for you as well.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Johnathan. Auntie, you know we’d love to have you.” The children voiced their approval aloud; except for Martin, unsurprisingly, though it seemed to his father that he didn’t look especially resentful of the idea.
“That’s very kind of you all,” she responded, “but I’ll have to say no. Your Auntie’s too much a creature of habit. I’ve been here all my life; this is what I’m used to. And I realize that if I’m going to get tired sooner and have to slow down more, then so be it. I’ll just have to get used to that too.”
“You’re absolutely sure, Auntie?” asked Madeline. “You won’t reconsider?”
“No, Madeline. I must stay. Now please, go on ahead, I can see you want to get started on your move. Don’t waste any more time with me.”
“Oh, now, don’t go humble on us all at once, Auntie,” said Johnathan. “You’ve been an important part of our lives. You and we all know that. And besides, this doesn’t have to be a final farewell. Remember when we told you about how this stone will move us to Thorn Valley? Well, we could also use it to visit you anytime.”
“That’s right,” added Madeline. “You won’t be rid of us that easily. And anything you ask of us, you know we’ll provide, after all you’ve done for us.”
A round of farewells and well-wishing followed, with a reiteration that the Brisbys would be back for a visit in about a month or so. As they started to leave, though, Martin whispered something in Johnathan’s ear, after which he relayed it just as privately to Madeline. All of them except Martin filed outside, saying goodbye once more, but leaving Auntie Shrew rather bewildered.
“Why, Martin! I’d have expected you to be the first to want to leave. You’re not feeling ill, are you?”
Martin shuffled his feet and looked back and forth, up and down, avoiding looking her in the eye, looking ready to say something but unsure of how to start.
“Well, speak up, child. Landsakes, you fidget almost as much as—”
“Uh, listen, Auntie Shrew, I…” Martin sighed, wanting to get this over with but also wanting to get it done right. “I never…really hated you…not really. I just…I don’t know, I guess I…just didn’t understand.” He scratched his arm, a common nervous gesture. “It was kind o’ like…I was blaming you for Dad, for his going away…when you gave us the news about him, even though it wasn’t your fault. So…I just wanted to say…I’m sorry.”
The shrew was naturally surprised, but pleasantly, and a smile wider than Martin or his siblings had ever seen on her crossed her features. “Why, thank you, Martin. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.” She patted his shoulder.
“Yeah, well…I thought I should say it. Well…goodbye.” He was finally able to look her in the eye, even giving a small smile; then he turned and exited, leaving Auntie Shrew sitting in wistful reflection.
Outside, his family waited, his siblings looking curious, even baffled. “What’d you say to her, Martin?” asked Cynthia.
“Now, sweetheart,” said Madeline, “I think your brother wanted some privacy for a reason. He’ll tell you when he’s ready, won’t you, Martin?”
Martin’s reply sounded unexpectedly cheerful. “Sure, Mom. Can we go now?” They all began the return trip to the cinderblock, which proceeded without incident all the way.
As planned, they wasted no time in proceeding with one last task. Earlier, they’d discussed the possibility of the farmer cleaning up this area more, which would most surely include hauling the block out of there. The possibility had actually occurred to Madeline before the last spring Moving Day, though she’d not discussed it with the children. They’d have had to seek out a different winter home come autumn, if so. The point was academic now, of course, but they still thought they should do something more with it now besides move out. Certainly there was the chance that the block would lie here undisturbed for years to come, probably becoming home to others; but just in case, they decided to use the amulet to return it to its original state, just as the Rats of NIMH had destroyed all evidence of their presence on the farm. Both realized that this entailed utilizing the stone-shaping capability, and remembered their earlier agreement on this matter; but this certainly qualified as a “further need” for this capability, though neither expected it to come this soon. Madeline reminded Johnathan of her earlier estimation that she would have no problem with this use of the Stone.
They again stood in the center of the living room with their possessions; and Johnathan again reminded the children of what would follow, and that they may not want to watch, knowing that they’d become, to some degree, attached to this place. None expressed any real reluctance, so Johnathan concentrated, and the Stone began to glow.
It was very much the reverse of the process that reshaped the cinderblock almost a year ago, but now all of them were witnessing it, and right in the middle of it as well. They watched with awe as the stairwell appeared to melt into the wall, the rooftop entrance seal itself over, the front and back walls open up to the daylight where the block showed above ground, the window disengage itself and float off to the side, the doorway connecting the two rooms fill itself in. The whole process took no more than a minute, and now the six mice stood, with their small pile of possessions, in the middle of an ordinary cement block. All of them, including Johnathan, looked around with wonder.
“Wow,” said Martin. “You’d never know it was the same place.”
“It looked like…it should have gotten hot,” observed Timothy with wonderment. “But it stayed cool the whole time.”
“In spite of what almost happened to us here,” said Teresa, “I guess I’ll miss this place a little.”
Cynthia found herself unable to completely hold back the tears. “Me too. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but…”
Timothy placed an arm around her shoulders. “I’ll miss it too, but just think of the fun we’ll have when we get to Thorn Valley.”
“It’s not just this place,” she said in between sniffles. “We’re leaving our summer home too, and…I guess I’m not as ready as I thought I was.” The others, even Martin, joined Timothy in consoling her, assuring her that they all felt the same to some degree and reminding her of all that awaited them.
Once she assured them she was ready, they prepared for their next jump with the amulet. This time they’d bring with them all the possessions they’d left here; and so, after another minute of reflection, they all joined hands in a circle surrounding their possessions. Johnathan concentrated, the amulet glowed, and the jump was made.
Back in the creekside home, and once the family had re-oriented themselves—with the physical symptoms considerably lessened from before—the possessions taken from the cinderblock were added to the ones already arranged in a pile in the living room. One more jump was left to make, and none of them could hide his or her reluctance and sadness about leaving—including Martin, who had all along been the most enthusiastic about the move—though they'd all done their best the past few days to prepare, making goodbyes to their neighbors as final as possible.
“We spent the best years of our lives in this house,” said Johnathan. “We’ll always have good memories of it, but…now it’s time to move on.” They all looked around at the interior of the home they were leaving behind for good and at each other. Though all wanted to get the move underway, and settle into their new lodgings quickly, none of them was able to completely hide his or her sadness. It took another few minutes, spent in mostly silent reflection, before all felt ready.
“I guess,” said Madeline soberly, “we’d best get this over with.” Everyone nodded their agreement.
They made sure no one was around, or approaching the house; they preferred their departure to go unwitnessed, to prevent their leaving in their wake any unpleasant rumors about The Family That Vanished Into Thin Air. Certainly, there would be some amount of rumor going around anyway, given their abrupt departure and their ambiguous manner when asked where and why they were moving.
Once certain no one was about, they again made a circle of themselves and their possessions. “Goodbye, house,” said Cynthia quietly, sadly; and Martin found he hadn’t the heart to even roll his eyes. Johnathan concentrated, visualizing their new Thorn Valley home’s site, by now quite familiar. The amulet began to glow…
…And there was a knock at the door, breaking Johnathan’s concentration. He briefly grimaced, and they all looked at each other, certain of the identity of this ill-timed caller. Johnathan broke the circle to answer the door and confirm their suspicions.
“Johnathan? Can…Madeline come out?”
“Uh…sure, Janice.” Madeline was already there, sidling past him. Seeing Janice’s already apologetic expression, Madeline smiled and took her arm, leading her away from the door, which Johnathan closed discreetly.
She took a brief look around, looking for Kory or any of their children, but apparently Janice had come alone. “How do you feel, dear?”
“Oh, much better, thank you. Madeline, I’m so sorry about making that scene yesterday. I just…I guess Kory told you that I’ve…been in some strange moods lately. I don’t know why, but…that was still no excuse for talking to you that way.”
“It’s all right, Janice. Maybe you were just having a bad day.”
“I suppose I was. Well…are you getting ready to leave?”
“Very soon now. Do you remember what we told you, that we want our leaving to be private?” Madeline was prepared for another possible adverse reaction, which thankfully didn’t come.
“Yes, I do, and…I’ll respect that. We all will, I promise.” The two soon-to-be-ex-neighbors did a bit of reminiscing. Madeline was a little surprised that Janice would agree so readily; then she remembered how, in the old days, she’d been much the same way: very accepting of whatever Johnathan would tell her about himself, his origins, his mysterious friends… How did he put it, back on Lahaikshe, while telling his story of his last night on Earth? “She was always so tolerant of my little secrets.” Yes, more tolerant than she should have been, she’d since realized. Because of this, and especially in light of their mutual vow of no secrets, Madeline couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt by not leveling more with Janice. She reminded herself that this was in deference to the Rats and their wish to keep their existence and current location as secret as possible. They had, after all, already done some unbending for Auntie Shrew, mainly because she’d been a part of their lives for as long as they’d been a family; and while Janice and Kory were no more likely to reveal the Rats’ secrets, the Brisbys had decided it wouldn’t be necessary to be as forthcoming with them. It bothered them a little, but still and all, they weren’t lying to their neighbors; the information they’d given wasn’t a total fabrication, and it wasn’t important for them to know the full truth either.
Finally, Madeline told Janice that her family wished to spend a few more minutes alone before leaving their old home. Janice seemed to understand, and so the two friends hugged and gave final goodbyes before Madeline went back inside.
“So how did it go?” Johnathan asked as everyone looked toward her with expectancy. They’d kept her place in the circle open all the time she’d been outside.
“Pretty well. She apologized, even though she still couldn’t really explain her outburst last night. But anyway, everything’s fine now.” She rejoined the circle.
“Great.” Johnathan looked around at his family. “Well, barring any further interruptions, I guess this is really it.” Once again he concentrated on what would be their new home, the Stone again glowed red; and with a flash they made the jump, leaving this part of their lives behind for good, except in their memories.
Janice continued the short trek back to her family’s den, trying not to let what she’d just seen distract her, though she was still confused. She wondered if Kory might know something; might he have witnessed something like this before? It was certainly unprecedented in her experience, but maybe…
Just as her family’s home—which, like the one the Brisbys just vacated, was nestled beneath a thick tree root—came into view, she immediately saw him at the door, looking concerned. He’s such a dear, she thought; I’m so lucky to have him. It was a thought that she found herself having more and more these days.
“So how’d it go?” Kory asked as they hugged.
“Well…” she began tentatively, “they seem to have gone…for good, I guess.”
“Already? Really? Wait…so you didn’t get the chance to talk to them at all?”
“Oh, no, I did. I met Madeline, and told her I was sorry for last night. Then she went back inside; she said she wanted some more time alone with her family. I started to leave, but…I couldn‘t help it, I got curious. You know how they said they expected to leave quickly, all at once. So I kind of sneaked back, and…”
“Janice, we promised them we’d let them have their privacy.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I was going to try peeking in their window, even though…” She sighed. “But I didn’t get that far before…I saw a strange flash, like lightning, from inside the house. I wondered if something was wrong, so I went right up to the window, and…there was nobody there. None of the Brisbys, and all of their things were gone, too.”
“Really? Nothing at all?”
“No. It was almost like they were never there at all. Have you ever heard of anything like that?”
“No, never. I wonder how they did that?”
“They said they’d be leaving…abruptly, so…I guess they did, at that.” The couple could only shrug and wonder about this strange phenomenon which, like most mice, they were willing to just accept as one more thing they didn’t know or understand. It wasn’t a great concern, not when there were chores to be done.
They had no way of knowing then that, though they wouldn’t give the incident much thought in the days to come, the time would come when they and the Brisby family would meet again, and perhaps even find answers to the questions that still lingered today.
Chapter 3: A new home, A new life
They now all found themselves in a small courtyard in front of a den entrance neatly carved into the rock wall; the same which, further to the northeast, housed the Rats’ community. They again had to deal with the aftereffects of the Stone’s transporting capability: the slight ill feeling and disorientation, which had concerned the parents for its effect on the children, since they hadn’t experienced any of this before today. But just since they’d started, the effect had lessened, and they were taking it more in stride, not letting it dampen their enthusiasm at all.
What greeted their eyes was, in many ways, a miniature of the Rat community, with the same type of windows set into the rock face and a carved oak front door. Above the doorway, the ledge that Johnathan had so admired was left intact, as was the flat-topped stone that lay almost directly in front of the door. He jumped up on it and looked all around, admiring the rats’ handiwork, as well as the natural courtyard that was left largely untouched except for some minor landscaping work.
“So…what do you think, everyone? Do our friends deliver, or what?”
“Oh, it’s beautiful, Johnathan,” said Madeline. “And I just know the inside will be, too.”
Timothy looked up at his father, grinning impishly. “So…are we there yet?”
Johnathan gave a hearty laugh. “You got it, son. And I see where you’re coming from. I think I’ve had my fill of all these ‘jumps,’ too. What do you say we get ourselves moved in?”
As he hopped down from the flat-topped stone, they all gathered around their possessions, still in the same neat pile but now lying just in front of the front door. “This is it, isn’t it, Daddy?” said Cynthia. “We’re really going to live here for good?”
“For as long as it suits us, which I hope will be a very long time.” Midway through Johnathan’s sentence, the door opened, initially startling them, and a rat emerged, crouched slightly.
“Well, hello, everyone!” he said cheerily as he straightened. “Glad to see you could all make it.”
“Thanks, Arthur,” said Johnathan, shaking his hand. Madeline and the children came forward to greet him as well.
“I was just giving the place one last inspection, and everything’s all ready. So you know who to blame…”
“Oh, I’m sure everything’s perfect, Arthur,” said Madeline. “Thank you so much for everything.”
“That goes double for me,” Johnathan said. “Well, I guess we can take it from here…”
“I’ll get the word spread that you’ve arrived,” said Arthur quickly, already starting off toward the Rat colony. “Someone will be back here to give you a hand, and we’ll have a proper housewarming party, too. See you later!”
“Come on, Arthur, you don’t have to…” But the rat was already out of earshot. “…make such a big deal. Really.” Johnathan sighed and threw up his hands in mock frustration, grinning. “Guess I should know better by now.”
“Well, we’ve already seen how they celebrate here, Johnathan. I guess we can’t blame them.”
“I know. I mean, I’m not begrudging them their wish to celebrate. Guess I’m still getting used to their not doing things low-key these days.”
The children were a bit impatient from all this talk; and so, unnoticed by the parents, Timothy and Cynthia decided to explore their new home ahead of the others.
“I know what you mean.” Madeline went to the flat-topped stone, leaning against it and looking all around, admiring the view, sighing. “Oh, I just know the more we’re here, the more it’ll really feel like home to us.”
“I know. I feel it too.” Johnathan joined her at the stone they would come to call the “leaning rock” because it invited conversations conducted while leaning against it, though it was equally suited for sitting or lying back.
“It’ll seem even more like it if we started moving our stuff in...” a young voice chimed in.
“It’s okay, Teresa.” Johnathan turned. “And point taken, Martin. I guess we should stop gabbing and make that priority one. But first, let’s check the place out, see what we’ve got here. Err…did Timothy and Cynthia already go in?”
Martin replied yes, and so they all followed the younger children’s example. Upon entering, they were instantly impressed by what the rats had provided for them. A short tunnel from the entrance led to the living area, at least three times as spacious as the one in the creekside home. Further in, a corridor led to three bedrooms and a large walk-in closet, each with one or two oil lamps and skylights which let in a generous amount of daylight. Out of one of the bedrooms emerged Timothy and Cynthia, waxing excitedly over what they’d found. As they and Martin and Teresa immediately fell to deciding who got which room, their parents could only walk around slowly in silent admiration and appreciation.
“Oh, Johnathan, I love it!” Madeline suddenly leaped to hug him. “They are just too good. How can we thank them enough, for going to all this trouble for us?”
“Hello, the house! Anybody home?” came a call from without.
“Guess you can ask our benefactors in person,” said Johnathan. Outside, they immediately saw Justin, greeting them in time-honored open-armed fashion, followed by more of their new neighbors. He bear-hugged the pair, and quickly afterward greeted the children the same way, after they’d emerged upon hearing the new voices. Bryant, who had supervised the exterior work, described briefly the landscaping they’d done to make the place more aesthetically pleasing, more befitting the home of ones of the Brisbys’ status.
“Now you just tell us where you want everything,” Justin now told them, “and leave the rest to us.” The Rats all gathered at the pile of belongings, prepared to follow the mice’s instructions. Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other, shrugging and smiling, knowing it would be useless to argue if they wanted to. And so they directed the Rats in placing and arranging all their things. In a matter of minutes, everything was in place, after which Justin invited them to the colony for lunch in around an hour or so. Johnathan insisted that the Rats not go overboard with any great amount of celebrating on their behalf, and made Justin promise to keep things low-key.
After the Rats left, the family proceeded to make themselves at home. They continued exploring their new quarters, marveling at how quickly they were actually feeling at home here, made easier by seeing all their familiar belongings in their new places. For a time, they all gathered in the living room, discussing what they could expect in the days to come: how they’d help with the harvesting, attend their school, what specific occupation Johnathan—and possibly Madeline as well—might take up.
At one point, Timothy brought up a matter which hadn’t been actually discussed at all, a fact they’d find surprising. “Dad…if we’re really a part of their…society now, why don’t we actually live with them in their colony now?”
“Hey, yeah,” said Martin. “It’s like you and Mr. Ages living apart from them back on the farm, isn’t it?”
“Didn’t you say,” brought up Teresa, “that it was like an old instinctive feeling?”
“That’s very true,” agreed Johnathan. “And you’re right; there’s really no other logical reason for it.”
“I don’t think it would bother me,” said Cynthia. “I like this house, but it might be fun to live with the Rats too.”
One may well ask, quite reasonably: if they are such good friends with the Rats of NIMH, why do they not simply move into quarters within their community? Both parents would admit that there was indeed a feeling, present in them both and best attributed to instinct, that rats and mice live separately from one another, for all they are the best of friends. It was a feeling shared by the Rats as well, which is why Justin had agreed so readily, even casually, to Johnathan’s request regarding where to make their new home. Intellectually, they knew it made little sense, especially considering that they’d made good friends among them, they’d be working alongside them, sharing meals with them, attending their school, and—perhaps most importantly—considering that they were equals to them in intelligence and emotion. It was a feeling which hadn’t really been discussed at any great length, even though it had been long-established and for the most part taken for granted, ever since the establishment of the Rosebush colony. But the time would come when the subject would be seriously questioned, even challenged. Perhaps both Johnathan and Madeline knew, in the backs of their minds, that this was so, given the fact that they expected to live among the Rats for the rest of their days. Could such a matter stay buried and go unquestioned for long, after all?
For now, though, they explained it to the children as best they could; and afterwards, all agreed that this was, at the present time, not a matter of great importance. They resumed discussing their future plans here in Thorn Valley. Arrangements had already been made for the children to begin in earnest their formal schooling with the Rats, starting tomorrow. For now, everyone had quite an appetite after such a busy morning, so they adjourned to the Rat colony for lunch. Along the way, they met many more of their new neighbors, all welcoming them with good cheer and giving them bits of advice and information. A few of them were heading for the new Brisby home to drop off housewarming gifts. It was abundantly clear by now—as if there were any doubt—that the Rats were doing all they could to make their new neighbors feel at home.
Upon their arrival at the Rat colony, the sense that the entire community had become one big welcoming committee continued, with seemingly everyone happy to see them and welcome them as fellow citizens and not just guests. Justin met them quickly, telling them he’d personally bring them up to date over lunch on what was new in Thorn Valley in the past month. Their appetites had been whetted enough on the way over, just from the memories of how well they’d been fed here on their last visit, but now the tantalizing odors drifting through the corridors from the kitchen were enhancing their appetites considerably.
They came to the serving line, where they found that there was little in the way of more elaborately-prepared dishes except for the “Thorn Valley Gumbo” whose aroma had drawn them in. But no one was complaining; there were plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and grain; and as they moved down the line, Theodocia, one of the kitchen workers, told them she’d tell her boss Matilda, the “undisputed ruler of the kitchen,” of their arrival. Justin steered them toward the same sized-down table they’d used on their last visit, once more reserved for them, and he sat at the nearest standard-sized one.
Their lunchtime conversation began with Justin apprising them of new developments in a very general fashion; then, as on their last visit, Justin invited them to “ask away,” and two of the Brisby children lost no time in voicing the matter that had been foremost on their minds.
“Justin,” said Cynthia, “are you and Isabella married yet?” Beside her, Teresa looked a little dismayed that her sister had beaten her to it.
Out of habit, Madeline threw her a stern look; but before she could admonish her, Justin just laughed and said, “In every way but officially. Now, what I mean by ‘officially’…” He paused, inwardly relishing the looks of anticipation on his audience’s faces. “It’s something we’ve been planning for some time now, ever since the Rosebush, in fact. However…perhaps I should wait until my regular lunch date arrives.”
All knew who he meant, but before anyone could inquire further, he announced, “And speak of an angel…” They all turned to see Isabella, just coming off the serving line, bearing her tray.
“Hi, everyone,” she addressed her beau and the Brisby family in her familiar lilting tone. “It’s great to see all of you again.” They all called greetings to her as she set down her tray next to Justin’s. The pair kissed lightly, and then the children all came forward to take turns greeting her with hugs and kisses, Timothy the longest; since all had grown quite fond of her during their last stay, during which she’d been their primary babysitter and den-mother, and they’d come to occupy a special place in her heart as well.
After everyone was seated again, Johnathan said, “So, Justin...what’s the big revelation?”
“Ah, yes. It’s a new policy we’re instituting…I guess tradition would be a better word, since that’s what we’re hoping it’ll become; ‘it’ being a formal wedding ceremony, or at least one that’s more ‘official.’ And…Isabella and I will be the first, or one of the first beneficiaries.”
The Brisbys all looked at each other, until Teresa said, “You mean…you and her are…”
Justin nodded, beaming. “…going to be husband and wife…officially.” He leaned over to kiss Isabella.
The reactions were predictable, as the family congratulated the couple anew, with more hugs and kisses abounding, and loud shrieks from Teresa and Cynthia. Johnathan thought he detected a look almost of dismay on Timothy before he joined in wishing them the best. Virtually all eyes in the dining hall had turned toward this scene, and even those who had only heard the shrieks could easily guess what their leader and his betrothed had just told Thorn Valley’s newest citizens.
Of course, there were still questions, mainly on the matters of who and when. Justin explained that for all upcoming ceremonies, he, as leader, would do the honors of uniting each couple in matrimony; all except his and Isabella’s, of course. “So who did you have in mind?” Johnathan asked.
“Well…Arthur’s my unofficial second-in-command; but when he and I sat down to discuss the point, we came up with what we agreed was a more appropriate choice.”
“And that would be…?”
“You, my friend. Johnathan Brisby.” Justin grinned broadly, again relishing the look on his old friend’s face.
The entire family was thunderstruck. Teresa almost choked on the mouthful of corn she was preparing to swallow, Timothy almost committed a spit-take with the tea he was drinking, and the others reacted with less dramatic but genuine degrees of surprise.
When Johnathan finally found his voice, he said, quite seriously, “Justin…how, by any stretch of the imagination…uh, don’t get me wrong, I’d be honored, really. But still…”
“If you’d rather not, maybe your lovely wife would be willing.”
Madeline gaped, wide-eyed. “Me? Justin, I…well, like Johnathan said, I’d be honored too, but…we’ve only just come here, we’re barely even…I mean…”
“One of us?” Justin smiled knowingly. His tone turned serious, his more officious side coming through. “My friends…never doubt for a minute that you’re a part of this community, or that you always have been…all of you. Neither should you doubt that you’re worthy of holding such a high honor. Both of you hold a high status among us all, by virtue of all you’ve done for us in the past. Now, it hasn’t been put to a vote yet, but…we’re having a general meeting tomorrow, to welcome you more officially to the community; and we will put it to a vote then; but only if you two approve. But I can all but guarantee it would get a majority of ‘yes’ votes.”
None of the Brisbys could find words for another moment; then Johnathan said, “Justin…Isabella…either one of us would be honored and happy to do the job. I guess…it’s just that it’s so sudden.”
“Well, we have set the date: September 24th, about three weeks from now. I realize now that I might be putting a bit too much pressure on you, since I have laid this on you suddenly, but…”
“Justin,” Madeline interrupted as she reached over to squeeze Johnathan’s hand, “it’s all right. We want you to put it to a vote.”
Johnathan nodded vigorously. “And if it goes over…either of us would be only too happy to marry you crazy kids.”
The “crazy kids” beamed at each other and kissed again, looking very much the part. “Well,” said Justin, “after it’s approved, the next step would be to decide which one gets to do the honors.”
“We’ll have to draw straws, I suppose,” said Johnathan.
“Or rock, paper, scissors,” suggested Timothy.
“Or a wrestling match,” said Martin cheekily, earning a swat on the arm from Teresa.
Both parents just laughed; then Johnathan said, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll leave it till tomorrow, okay?” As he said this, they were approached by Matilda, who was clearly happy for the chance to welcome back “the five newest fans of her cooking.” None directly brought up the subject of what they’d recently found out about Jenner, her late husband, but the Brisbys’ impression was that she’d largely come to terms with the fact that it had been an outside influence that had driven him to murder their revered leader Nicodemus this past spring. Certainly her job had been keeping her occupied and quite satisfied; later, Justin and others would confirm that these impressions were accurate.
Matilda brought the family up to date on all things culinary, including that they had perfected their yeast-growing process and so were very close to perfecting their bread recipe; she’d remembered how much the children were looking forward to having fresh baked goods. For tonight, she announced, the main dinner entrée would be lake trout, which was regarded as a relatively rare treat. It was a pretty labor-intensive task to catch, clean, fillet and cook enough fish to feed the whole colony, though it didn’t appeal to everyone’s palates. Fortunately, it did for everyone in the Brisby family, so they looked forward to it eagerly.
It soon became clear that there were many others waiting for their chances to speak to the Brisbys; though there was no actual line, they had seen many familiar faces call greetings to them as they entered the dining hall, and many of them were taking seats as close by as possible, eager to jump in when the opportunity arose. Over the next forty-odd minutes, many did: Matilda’s son Melvin and his wife Judith (Isabella’s sister), who had developed a strong bond with the family after the experiences he, Justin, Willis and Madeline had shared in seeking out Johnathan in Lahaikshe; Simone, the school principal, who was ready and eager to get the children enrolled today so they could start their education in earnest tomorrow; chief engineer Arthur and Matilda’s daughter Melinda, who, Justin was proud to announce, would be scheduled for the first formal wedding ceremony which he would conduct. Madeline was especially pleased to hear this, as it confirmed just how serious she’d believed them to be when she first met them last month. The second pair Justin would marry would be Willis and Sabrina; they came by as well, and the Brisbys congratulated both couples heartily. Another couple that was close to committing to each other, but hadn’t set a date yet, was Brutus, the Captain of the Guard, and Deena, Willis’s twin sister.
And, of course, Mr. Ages, their closest new neighbor also spent some time with the family, bringing them up to date on his work on setting up the new fully-fledged medical department, which had become his pride and joy in the past month. He and his so-far small staff—Bernadette, Jemial, and Samara, who were each at various stages in their medical training, Bernadette being the furthest along, going back to their time at the Rosebush—were already at work treating minor injuries, writing prescriptions, dispensing advice. He told Madeline that he believed that she should be given a full physical examination, in light of her recent experiences on Lahaikshe and the revelation of Johnathan’s influence on her. She agreed to it, and he assured her it shouldn’t take up too much of her time. He also wrestled a promise out of her husband, that he submit to a physical as well, to be scheduled later in the week.
It became quite the full afternoon for the new citizens, as they were taken on “refresher” tours of the entire colony, inside and out. They were brought to the garden areas, where much late-season harvesting was in progress. At the lake, Justin told them how they’d finally decided on an actual name for it: Lake Nicodemus, a choice that pleased the Brisbys as much as the Rats, who’d approved of it with nary a nay vote. The children were ready for a swim right then, but soon decided to wait till later after school was out. The family was also shown the area the Rats were already informally calling Oak Park, which they were in the process of into a top spot for ceremonies including weddings, and leisure activities.
Back inside, the children were taken to Thorn Valley School, where Simone and Isabella took charge of getting them enrolled. Just as they were finishing with this, school was letting out for the day; and the children were thrilled to finally be able to get together with their new friends. The parents stood by, looking on with both pride and amusement as Hermione and Ophelia took turns giving Teresa a welcome-back hug, Lambert and Martin excitedly brought each other up to date, Cynthia was greeted by Natalie and Mary Louise as if they were the oldest of friends, and Timothy being whisked off his feet by Quincy in a bear-hug that would do Justin proud. All of them quickly made plans to meet at Lake Nicodemus for an afterschool swim, to which the parents would join them later. For them, it all reinforced the idea that the children would thrive here, where they were already accepted and would be intellectually stimulated as they never would have in their old neighborhoods. Both felt even more strongly now that they could let go of the children more and allow them an even greater degree of freedom and independence, which they clearly craved.
While Johnathan continued visiting with some of their new friends and neighbors, discussing future plans for themselves as new citizens of Thorn Valley and what their roles would be, Madeline reported to the new medical department as promised for her physical, which she found she actually looked forward to, herself curious as to what Ages and his colleagues might find. When it was completed, she and Johnathan went to join the children at the lake.
Nearly everyone who saw them there, both adults and children, greeted them by name; including those who were on duty as lifeguards who assured them, perhaps unnecessarily at this point, that the Brisby children were being well looked after. All four could be easily seen, too busy splashing and laughing and horsing around in the cove to even notice their parents’ arrival, along with many others, adults and children alike.
Johnathan and Madeline found a spot to settle, near the neatly-folded pile of their children’s clothing, and took a moment to take in the scene. Nearby, two young couples conversed as the females breastfed their babies; another young family engaged in a play-wrestling session, a sight pleasantly familiar to the Brisbys; others just basked in the early-evening sunshine. Out on Lake Nicodemus, the crew of one of the fishing boats was bringing in their last catch of the day, fresh for tonight’s dinner.
It was such a peaceful scene that they could only look at each other and smile, neither needing to elaborate on the feelings the occasion was bringing to them; instead, they just drew arms around each other’s waist, watching their children and their friends splash the day away.
After only a minute or so, Madeline suddenly felt prompted to say, “There’s something that’s bothering you, just a little…isn’t there?”
Johnathan looked at her, smiling. “Oh, it’s…I suppose it’s just me worrying again, but…well, look at all this. I mean…it’s just hard to believe that anyone among the humans could ever consider…these people, us, dangerous; even a threat to them, when all we want is just to…live our lives, raise our children, be in the company of our friends. No different than them, or at least…the best of them. And I have no doubt, none at all, that there are some humans who would accept us, befriend us even.”
Madeline nodded thoughtfully. She had no doubt herself that it was true, though her own experience with humans was limited to being handled by Billy Fitzgibbons before he placed her in the birdcage in the farmhouse kitchen. It was not a memory she relished, though she’d since realized how lucky she’d been that Billy was not inclined to be cruel to small creatures like mice, as she knew some humans could be. “If only there was a way we could know who those humans were, the ones who would be good to us, maybe even protect us from the ones who would do us harm.”
Johnathan looked at her, visibly impressed. “Nicodemus had the same idea. He knew that there could come a day when we’d come in contact with humans again, even with our living in a remote area like this. He’d always held out hope that by that time, we’d have a better idea of who our friends among them could be, and that we might even be able to actively reach out to them.” He sighed. “I don’t know, though; I don’t like playing the pessimist, but I have to question whether that’s even possible. I’ve felt this way for a while, though I always believed in the Thorn Valley Plan. We even discussed this at length, Nicodemus and I, one time after Arthur’s crew was already out here, and we pretty much agreed to disagree. I’ve since thought, though: could he have literally foreseen a time in the future, when such a thing would come to pass? Of course, I’d like to think so, since he would definitely have premonitions, including that early one that directly involved me, that probably saved my life; though he always insisted they were always more…immediate.”
“I guess…it’s just not something with an easy solution, is it?” Madeline looked out at the cove. “But, you know…have you noticed how we’re talking as if we’re truly part of the Rats here? We use the word ‘we’ to mean both us and them.”
“You’re right. Our interests and theirs are linked, more than ever now, for all time.” They both looked out to the cove, just in time to see Lambert give Martin a toss into the deeper water. It startled them a bit at first, though they knew Martin was a more than capable swimmer, this being confirmed when they saw their son surface and begin dog-paddling back.
They looked at each other, smiling. “Enough of this talk,” said Johnathan. “I think it’s high time we joined them, don’t you?” Madeline nodded; and, after she untied her cape and he’d removed his Rusay-style vest, they jumped to their feet, laughing as they dashed hand-in-hand toward the bank and into the water. The children and their friends alike were delighted to see them, and they paused in their games to talk about what they’d done today, and what they planned to do in days to come.
The conversation turned to Eric and Sarah, the native mouse siblings—“naturals”—whom the Brisby family had befriended last time. They had come by some two weeks before, Hermione and Ophelia had told them, asking for their new friends, and the Rat children had told them that the Brisbys would likely be back here in a few weeks. They hadn’t yet shown up today, though, but they knew well by now that this was to be their regular meeting place. When they did show, it was hoped, the family would find out where they lived and maybe meet their mother and assure her that these new “strange” mice only wanted to make friends, since they’d gotten the impression that their mother might not approve or even be fearful of her children socializing with the “strange” rats and mice.
It wasn’t much longer before everyone had quite an appetite for dinner, which everyone was looking forward to greatly; and so, after taking time to dry themselves completely, everyone at the “beach party” adjourned en masse to the dining hall. Lively conversation continued as everyone dug in with gusto to their fish dinner.
The next few hours were filled with more visiting, with everyone in the family going their separate ways for the most part, though they all agreed to meet at the main foyer at 8:00 p.m. After they did, they all agreed that it had been a long day—and tiring, too, but in the best way—and that they were all ready to return to their new home for a little downtime.
By 10:00 the children were in bed—though obviously this would be one more night, like many recently, where sleep might not come too fast, given how excited they all were about the day to come. Before the parents did likewise, Johnathan opted for a few minutes alone, which Madeline generously granted him. Though they still felt as strongly as they did a month ago that their love and their life together was newly strengthened after their reunion, and that they took their no-secrets vow very seriously, they had always respected each other’s occasional need for solitude.
So Johnathan ventured outside, looking up to admire the clear starry and moonlit sky. It was as beautiful a night as the first one he and Madeline had spent together almost three and a half years ago. How fitting, thought Johnathan as he hopped onto the flat-topped “leaning rock.” He lay on his back, staring upward, tracing the Milky Way with his finger, though his mind quickly fell to matters more down-to-earth. This day marked a new beginning for his entire family, and he thanked God, silently but with a lump in his throat, for the second chance he’d been given. The two halves of his life that were once kept separate, with the one he shared with the Rats of NIMH unknown to his family, were now irrevocably joined together; and so many things that had caused him seemingly no end of guilt and stress were no longer issues at all, hopefully dead and buried for all time. Well he recalled the many occasions, especially in the months leading up to his “exile,” when he’d be doing much as he did now, contemplating his life thus far and where it would go and what he should do. He’d largely succeeding in concealing from his wife and children the feelings of guilt, frustration and even self-pity that he’d been experiencing more and more, owing to his reluctance to leveling with them over the supposed aging difference. It had already occurred to him that if he and Madeline had shared their present-day emotional rapport then, there wouldn’t have been a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d have been able to prevent her worming the truth, or what he’d thought to be so, from him. As it was, there had been occasions when he’d react defensively to his wife or children when they’d ask him if there was anything wrong, sometimes speaking sharply but always apologizing afterwards.
But that was then. Now, with any luck, he would be sharing the rest of his life with the woman he’d first fallen deeply in love with, the one he thought he’d only have two to three years with at the most. He thought back to their reunion on Lahaikshe, especially the intensely passionate but tender moments they’d shared over the course of that day, and since. It suddenly occurred to him: that awful moment that signaled the start of their reunion on such a horrifying note, the one that had returned, unbidden, to haunt him so many times since, hadn’t done so at all for days, not since a few days ago when they’d first begun discussing their impending move. The realization renewed his feeling of hope; he knew the memory would never leave him completely, but he felt confident that it wouldn’t haunt him like it used to. Of course, there were still things that were uncertain, mysteries that were still unanswered, most notably the whys and wherefores of his “exile” on Lahaikshe.
Inevitably, thoughts of the amulet came to mind: how it had been responsible for that exile but had since done nothing but good for them; how Pharsal had endowed it with all these capabilities, as if he’d specifically intended it for them; and how it seemed to be theirs indefinitely, to use as they saw fit. Now he wondered how they may come to use it in the future, the ways it may benefit them; and a thought came, unbidden: that the next great need they’d have of it would be for something that would affect not only his family, but his friends as well…perhaps all of the Rats of Thorn Valley.
Johnathan again gazed heavenward. The tedious rhythm of chirping crickets seemed to cease for a moment, as if to lend an air of portent to his thoughts. He sat up. Whatever, let the answers come as they will, he vowed. It’s not worth losing sleep over. There was too much to look forward to, and he fully expected to be too busy just living this new life, enjoying the company of his family and friends, to worry about such things.
With that, he slid off the rock and went back inside. He briefly looked in on the children in their brand-spanking-new bedrooms before returning to his wife’s side, looking forward to feeling her warm and near beside him. He entered this room, still quite unfamiliar to him but which he was sure would come to feel like home in very short order. In the dim light that filtered through the bedroom window, he could see that Madeline was simply sitting up in bed, apparently just resting her eyes. It was a bit of a surprise; he’d half-expected her to be asleep already.
“Were you waiting up for me?” he asked smiling as he removed his vest, hanging it up on one of the wall-mounted hooks.
“Yes, I was,” she answered matter-of-factly, smiling as he slid into bed and snuggled up to her, kissing her lips. “I wanted to tell you…something that I thought would be better left until we were both alone.”
“Okay,” said Johnathan with curiosity but also a trace of uncertainty.
“When I met with Mr. Ages this afternoon, and he ran his tests on me, all of which I passed with flying colors…we confirmed something that I’d suspected for a couple of days now.” Madeline breathed in deep. “Johnathan…I’m pregnant! We’re going to be parents again!”
Johnathan could only gape, speechless…but only for a moment. He leaped almost straight up off the bed, no mean feat while lying on his side, so unable to contain his excitement was he. He caught his wife in a passionate embrace upon landing, almost babbling all the while.
The bedroom door opened a crack and Cynthia poked her head in. “What’s going on?” she asked innocently.
Her parents looked at each other; then Madeline said to her, “Something very wonderful, sweetheart.”
“And,” Johnathan quickly added, “we’ll tell all of you about it in the morning.” Madeline looked at him, a mite surprised, then with understanding. They all said their goodnights, and Cynthia returned to her and Teresa’s new bedroom across the hall.
“You wanted to keep it just between us for now,” said Madeline, “just like when we first found out, back on Lahaikshe, about my being like you.”
“That’s right. I didn’t have time to discuss it before Cynthia poked her head in, but I thought it would be nice if this stayed our little secret…at least until tomorrow morning.”
“Well,” she said as they settled into each other’s arms for the night, “I’m so happy now I couldn’t argue about that if I wanted to.”
The two quietly discussed the changes and adjustments they’d have to make to accommodate their new arrival—or arrivals, since she could be carrying twins for the third time. They brought up a point they’d discussed before: using the Stone to conduct expansion of their new home, since a new bedroom may become a necessary addition. Again she insisted she’d have no problem whatsoever with it, and he had no cause to doubt her. Likewise, she acknowledged that though this impending birth could be as difficult as the past two, she had no qualms; they’d known, after all, that this was virtually inevitable, given the many times they’d shared their love since their reunion—happily, willingly, and uninhibitedly. Soon, yawning, they gave final endearments to each other before slipping into slumber.
As had become his wont lately, Johnathan rose first, slipping out of bed without disturbing Madeline, and emerged from the front door of the new Brisby family home to regard the sunrise. At the creekside home, the surrounding forest didn’t allow an unobstructed view of the eastern horizon; but here, it was more open, with only a few taller trees blocking his view of the eastern wall of Thorn Valley and Lake Nicodemus. It was a habit he’d fallen into back on Lahaikshe, though not an everyday one: regarding the sunrise while losing himself in contemplation. Then, his thoughts would run toward his life back on Earth up till that point—regrets over the mistakes and bad judgments he’d made as well as the happy times, the love and fellowship of his family and friends; but also the uncertainty of how his family was getting along without him and how he’d square things with them after his return—or if they would even welcome him back.
But all that was academic now, of course. He’d been determined not to miss this first sunrise in Thorn Valley; and he wasn’t disappointed, as he viewed with admiration the cirrus clouds stained with crimson as he stood at the leaning rock. This session of morning contemplation was dominated by the anticipation of the day to come, and beyond. The future of his family was filled with so much hope and promise he could hardly contain his emotions. The children would finally get the education they’d long deserved and anticipated, with stimulating careers to follow upon its completion. Madeline, too, was looking forward to attending classes and was herself contemplating a possible future career. Johnathan too would likely have a specific job with the Rats instead of playing the occasional advisor or helper, or performing “temp” jobs like substitute teacher or cat-drugger, the latter of which he was tickled pink to have become a thing of the past. And not only were Justin and Isabella tying the knot, but he himself (or Madeline) would likely preside over the occasion. There were the larger matters of just how this colony, this new civilization they were now an inextricable part of, would grow and evolve over the years to come. His thoughts soon fell to Nicodemus, and how much he and many others wished he could be here to share in this new life, this fulfillment of his dream and vision.
And, of course, there were the near-future additions to the family, something of which the children were yet unaware. He smiled as he anticipated the looks on their faces, though he and Madeline both believed that at least some of them had suspected it could happen, since all were aware of “the facts of life.” Briefly, he thought of the still-unknown details of his “exile” on Lahaikshe; and of that strange hunch he’d had last night about future use of the Stone. Again he dismissed them. He was determined, more than ever just since last night, to keep from being overly concerned about these matters. There was just too much going on in his life, too much for his whole family to look forward to, to wrack his brain over something which may not even…
The sound of Madeline’s voice broke his reverie. He turned and smiled upon her, standing in their new home’s doorway, looking serene and lovely as ever. Barely had he laid eyes upon her when the sun broke through the cloud cover low on the horizon, bathing her in orange. She shaded her eyes against the sudden invasion, but the smiles on both their faces were rarely broader. Both were instantly reminded of the day they’d met, when they’d emerged from the hollow log in which Dragon the cat had cornered her, and a shaft of early-evening sunlight had instantly spilled upon them. It was a moment they’d always looked back upon as the official beginning of their love. Now, here was a similar moment heralding this first day of their new life in Thorn Valley.
“Good morning, love of my life,” he said as they approached each other. “You know, you’re beautiful when you squint.”
Madeline laughed as they embraced. They kissed tenderly, and then met at the leaning rock to watch the sun rise over the eastern ridge. Johnathan detailed some of what he’d been thinking, and they discussed further the day to come, and beyond. The emotional rapport they shared enabled Madeline to feel as he did his enormous sense of optimism, but also his traces of uncertainty over what yet lay unresolved. They discussed this point now.
“I know it’s pointless,” said Johnathan, “but you know me: the original worrywart.” They both laughed. “Well, you don’t have to worry your pretty head. We’ve all got too much to keep us busy to worry about anything except—”
“Get ’em!” a youthful voice shouted before the next words on Johnathan’s lips—“—maybe a predator attack, however unlikely that may be here”—could be voiced. Barely before either could react, they found themselves under attack, but not by a predator; they were brought down to the ground by four laughing, shouting brown, grey and crème-colored blurs. Their children.
“Okay, I’m warning you hooligans, back off!” Johnathan said in mock sternness as Martin sat on his chest and Cynthia clung to his right leg. “All right, now I’m really mad!” He turned himself over, flipping Martin off to one side. Madeline was laughing herself silly as she tussled with Teresa and Timothy. This was the first they’d had a family play-wrestling session like this since they'd returned from Thorn Valley a month ago, and though the children were growing all the time, with young adulthood advancing ever closer upon them, none of them gave any thought about how much longer they’d indulge in sessions like this. Would it ever be a matter of being too old? Among the Rats, they’d seen how the adults, including the elders, maintained a sense of play into adulthood, both with their own children and each other. Such moments were much more commonplace these days; living in close proximity to humans had always weighed heavily upon them before, but there were none here, and so everyone was feeling more carefree and uninhibited, letting go of more and more of the reserve and sense of caution that had dictated so much of their behavior at the Rosebush. They’d seen so much of this attitude yesterday, and it had been perhaps epitomized best by the celebration of Johnathan’s return last month. And they all knew they could look forward to more such events in the future.
The parents hadn’t forgotten more immediate concerns, though; and so, as the dust began to settle, Johnathan said, “All right, kids, let’s take things a little easy on your mother.”
The children looked around at each other, perplexed. “Huh?” “How come?” “What’s going on?” “Are you all right, Mother?”
Madeline smiled knowingly at Johnathan. “Everyone,” she began, “in a few weeks, you—all of you—are going to be big brothers and sisters.”
As they all gaped, speechless, Johnathan continued: “Your mother is going to have another baby or two!” As expected, the news was met with a resumption of the previous pandemonium, minus the wrestling but not the decibel level, and with plenty of hugs and kisses. It was only the beginning, they all knew, of a full day of excitement and new experiences for all of them, and this day the first of many.
Once the initial excitement had died down, they went back inside to get dressed and otherwise prepare for the day to come. All looked forward to breakfast with their new/old friends, after which they would begin in earnest this day and this whole new life of theirs.