Chapter 1: Airport
Baltimore sucks. At least that's what I thought when I stepped off the jetway in the airport. The place reeked of overpriced, stale pizza. I had gotten back from San Jose, where I was born and spent most of my life. I had moved to Baltimore two years ago during my freshman year because my father got a better job offer. Now I was 17. I had no license, I had no friends, I had no life. Moving to Baltimore was the worse thing that ever happened to me. There was one plus, though. I did get to visit with my friends in San Jose every summer. That was lots of fun, but now I was back. Yahoo.
I looked around and saw my mother, Sandra, standing by the restrooms. She looked around nervously and lit up a cigarette.
What the hell is she doing? I thought as I shouldered my laptop and jogged to where she was standing. No sooner had she looked up than I plucked the cigarette from her mouth and ground it out in the ashtray. I had never seen her so surprised in my life.
"Oh uh, hi, David. Did you have a nice visit?" She was obviously embarrassed and was being evasive.
I let the matter drop and gave her I hug. "Yeah," I said, "I had a great time. I forgot to buy my cold weather clothes. Sorry."
"Oh, that's alright. Don't worry, we can take car of that."
We walked to the baggage claim in silence. I scanned the oddsize area and saw my two large trunks. I tried to weave my way through the mob of people trying to get to their bags first. I slipped a dollar into the Smarte-Carte machine and got a luggage cart. After heaving the trunk onto the cart, I circled around to where my mom was waiting. I tried to hurry, fearing she would try to light up again.
"So how is everybody?" I asked.
She said that everybody was fine and went on to complain about her so-called wrinkles and the "do-you-think-I'm-fat" routine. Christ, you'd think that these questions and complaints would at least be reserved for my dad. I followed her into the parking garage and she beeped off the alarm on her Mercedes. I put one trunk in the trunk of the car, and one in the back seat. I got into the car and the engine came quietly to life.
I pretended to be asleep, but mom knew I was faking it. She craned her neck to look out of the rear window as she backed out.
"David, dad and I want to get away for a week," She said.
"Where are you going?" I said.
"Were leaving for Veracruz tomorrow after noon."
So you just want me to sit around the house all week, is that it?" I asked with a hint of irritation.
"No, not exactly," She said looking away for a moment. "You're going to spend the week with Russ and Claire."
"The Fitzgibbons?" I asked in disbelief. "There's nothing to do but pick pumpkins and squash and sit on my butt!"
"Well, you have your laptop," She said reaching into the back seat. "And this stuff your father wanted you to have." She plopped a large, hastily giftwrapped box the size of a PC monitor into my lap. "Call it an early Hanukkah present."
I tore away the wrapping with half-hearted enthusiasm. But when I opened the box, my face showed a smile for the first time. The first item in the box was a Panasonic portable DVD player. The second was a 56k cellular laptop modem. Then there were ten of my favorite movies on DVD. I was touched. I plugged in the player to the cigarette lighter and started Austin Powers.
"Do you want to call dad now? I'm taking you to the farm because you have all your stuff."
I paused the player and said, "Yeah, thanks."
I picked up the cell phone and dialed my dad at work. The phone rung three times. Not good. "Hi. You've reached the office of Daniel Levine. I'm sorry I'm not able to take your call right now, but if you leave your name and number, I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
"Hi, dad. This is David. Thanks for all of the cool stuff. I really appreciate it. I'll try to call you tomorrow from the farm."
I hit the end button and restarted my movie.
Russel Fitzgibbon was an old high school chum of my father's. He was like an uncle to me. I grew up knowing him and playing with his son, Paul, on their farm in northern Virginia. They also had another son, Billy, who was hyper and immature, but in an endearing sort of way. I guess they were the only family friends that my father bothered to keep in touch with.
The highway seemed to stretch on into infinity. Mom started to reach for her Marlboro's, but I snatched them from her reach and tossed them out my open window. She started to protest, but thought better of it. We continued our drive in silence as the landscape became more and more rural.
Chapter 2: Arrival
I was starting another movie, and already nauseous from watching the first one in the car, when we pulled into the long dirt driveway to their farmhouse. I put away the DVD and looked up. We passed a huge lilac bush. There had been a rosebush there two years ago, but they removed it and put in this one instead. They had a nice farmhouse; it was very well kept. Claire stood at the front porch and waved.
I smiled and returned the gesture. My mom stopped the car and I got out. I exchanged hugs and greetings. Russ said, "Jiminy Christmas! You seem to grow bigger every time you go away. We could use your help for harvest."
I smiled outwardly, but I still wanted to go home.
I suffered through the usual questions like, "How tall are you?" and "What grade are you in?" and "Do you have a girlfriend?" As much as I loved the Fitzgibbons, the farm was just not my element.
My mom said she had to leave to prepare for the trip and she couldn't stay for dinner. She kissed my goodbye and drove off. Her parting words were, "Have fun." Sure. Yeah Right.
I turned and walked into the house. Paul approached me in the foyer. He gave me a hug and said, "You wanna play Episode I RACERS?"
"That's okay. Do you want to watch a movie on my DVD player?"
"Hell yeah!" He said as I pulled it out. "Wow, it's so small."
"God bless the nineties," I said.
We were walking towards the living room when the sound of the dinner bell made us double back. Claire had just finished setting the table and was standing in front of her place at the table. Russ came into the kitchen, drying his hands with a shop towel.
"Welcome back, David. It's been a little while. I hope you're hungry, I made roast chicken with artichokes and cornbread. Of course, it's all from the farm," Claire said.
We all took our seats and said grace. After that, Mr. Fitzgibbon raised a toast to my visit. We started in on the fattest chicken I had ever seen. It looked like a Thanksgiving turkey. The artichokes were bigger than my fist and were also superb.
I looked around the kitchen. It was kept immaculately clean and polished. A large cat padded into the room and started to eat from a bowl on the floor marked "Kitty".
"Jeez, Dragon's fat," I said. I was going into veterinary medicine and was always studying on the Internet to prepare myself for college.
"Yeah, but he's a great mouser," Billy said through a mouthful of cornbread. "One time I saved mouse from him."
Paul rolled his eyes and Claire looked up.
"He was about to catch the mouse so I dropped a colander over it. We put it in a birdcage, but it got away," Billy said.
"It serves you right. The poor thing would have died anyway," Paul said.
The food was so good that I finished my meal in silence. Paul and Russ chatted about how harvest was going and Claire had to reprimand Billy for scraping his fork on the plate several times. Billy was defiant as Claire was patient. I truly felt sorry for Claire.
When it was obvious that everybody had finished their meal, Paul stood up and started to clear the table. Mrs. Fitzgibbon also stood up and started to do the dishes at the sink.
"I'll help you with those dishes, Claire," I said, trying to be polite.
"Paul's already helping me, dear," She said. She handed me a large Tupperware bowl. "But you can go out to the garden and pick some blackberries for dessert."
"No problem," I said with anticipation.
Claire knew that her berry tarts were my favorite of all her recipes. I don't know how she did it, but Claire Fitzgibbon could whip out those berry tarts in nothing flat. She made them for as long as I remember. My mom never seemed to have the time to cook.
I walked out onto the porch and took a deep breath. I caught a whiff of lilacs and pumpkins. The sun the sun was hanging lazily in the sky, and the clouds were scattered. It was serene and calm.
The garden must have been 100 meters from the house. I saw the blackberry bramble from that far. I felt better as I made my way out to the garden.
Chapter 3: Garden
I started to pick blackberries, even though the Tupperware and the bramble were both quite large. Oh well, I thought, It's like eating the whale, one bite at a time. Thinking of this analogy, I couldn't help but pop a few into my mouth. They were sweet and succulent.
I kept picking, and pretty soon, I had filled the bowl to the brim. I was worn out, and I needed to rest. I looked for a good place, and found one when I spotted a large boulder off to my right. I walked over to the stone and leaned on it. I set the bowl on the stone and relaxed.
I thought of my situation at home. It was pathetic. I really didn't have much to do. Even when I did have free time, I found it hard to enjoy myself. I did have fun sometimes. My father suggested that I go down to the Capitol and sit in the People's Gallery in the House. There I would make rude gestures at Representatives I didn't like until either they got really irritated or I was asked to leave. My father said he did it when he was a kid, when it was easier to get away with.
I had been standing there for a few minutes and felt better. I looked over to my right, and saw a clump of grass with a hole behind it. I became curious, and walked over to it. It was about four centimeters across. I had a special interest in wildlife, so I naturally wondered lived there. I heard a faint scream.
"My children! Save my children!"
In a flash of red, I was flung backward, and enveloped by the blackness of unconsciousness.
Chapter 4: Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIMH
Something soft was lightly hitting my face. There was a woman's voice, saying over and over, "wake up." It wasn't Claire, and that confused me, so I forced my eyes open. The first thing that shocked me is that my perspective of vision had changed dramatically. I could see in a wider field of vision. There was a figure in front of me and I focused my eyes. Standing there in front of me, was a huge mouse.
I gasped, my mouth was dry. And it too was different. "Oh my G-d!" I whispered softly.
It spoke, "Are you alright?"
I tried to stand up. I felt so incredibly awkward that I instinctively examined my body. The shock I received is one I will never forget.
The first thing I noticed was that I was gray, all gray. The second thing was my hands, only they weren't really hands anymore, but rather paws. Rodent paws. I started feeling my face and looking down. I had whiskers and a pointy snout. I also had a long pink tail. To my complete and utter horror, I realized that I was a rat. The world towered above me. I saw my bowl of berries, 2 meters away. It seemed like twenty. I felt like throwing up.
I looked down at the mouse. She wore a red shawl with frayed edges. She also wore an intriguing red crystal amulet, rimmed with gold, around her neck.
"Please don't be frightened," She said. "I'm sorry."
"What's happened to me?" I asked. It was still my voice, and that was a small comfort.
"Um, I really don't know," She said. She seemed just as confused as I was. "You were invading my home. I thought you were after my children. I used my amulet, but I didn't know this would happen."
Her eyes were kind, but evasive at the same time. I had so many questions. I was in denial, thinking it was all a dream or a hallucination. Maybe I was dead.
"Am I dreaming?" I asked.
"No," She said, "I'm afraid not."
"Change me back," I demanded.
"If I do, you must promise not to tell anyone of what happened here. Please, I really didn’t mean to-"
"Fine," I said, feeling quite afraid. "I promise."
The mouse looked at me with somewhat guilty eyes. She grasped her amulet, a beautiful ruby disc, framed in gold. I was fascinated. How could a field mouse have such a beautiful piece of jewelry? How could she talk? How could I talk? She held the amulet in front of her, away from her face, as if it was dangerous. She winced and said, "Change him back.." Nothing.
She made several more attempts, each one failing, each one adding to my despair. I felt hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.
"I’m so sorry," She said. "Please forgive me."
"Who are you?" was all I could manage to say in a voice under a whisper.
"I am Mrs. Jonathan Brisby," She said with pride.
"How long will I be like this?"
"I don’t know."
"What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your amulet! How am I going to explain this to my parents? My father found it amusing to pick off rats with a .22 when he was my age. Am I supposed to go to school in a pet transport on a little white Laidlaw bus? My social life is ruined! My life is ruined. I’m sorry intruded on your home Mrs. Frisby."
The mouse was very confused, yet she wasn’t upset. I could tell she was just as concerned as I was.
"I’m sorry" she said, "I’ve never spoken to a human before."
"Do you think I have ever spoken with a mouse before. So what should I do? Wait for Dragon to mercifully exercise his position in the food chain?"
As soon as I had spoken those words, she looked as if she had taken a blow. Her face took on a shocked, angered look "Don’t you ever say something like that in front of me, ever. Do you understand me?"
I nodded. "What did I say wrong?"
"Dragon," she said, "Killed my husband."
"Sorry," I said, feeling a lump of fear in my throat.
"What is your name?"
"David Levine. I am like, so totally screwed. I can’t go back to my dad now. My dad’s already enough of a nutcase as it is. He’ll kill me, or feed me to the dog before I have a chance to speak."
"Well, I do have an idea on how you could get some help. But you need to trust me, alright?"
"Mouse, right now I would take advice from an ant, so my ears are open."
"Have you ever heard of NIMH?"
"Yes, my father works there. How do you know of NIMH?"
"My husband was there. He had special injections that gave him increased intelligence and a longer life span, as did seven other mice and twenty rats. The scientists taught them to read, and had them run through mazes. One rat named Justin, read the directions on his cage and opened it. All of the rats and mice escaped into the air ducts that night. Sadly, six out of the eight mice were blown away by the fan, never to be seen again. That left my husband, Jonathan, and a white mouse named Mr. Ages. The group reached a vent cover that couldn’t be opened by the rats, so it was my husband who opened it, letting them all out into the night air.
"They traveled until they found an abandoned house with a library. They taught themselves everything you could possibly think of. They found this farm and created a colony under the old rosebush. They had electricity, even running water. But then, the leader of the colony (which didn’t include Mr. Ages or Jonathan), a rat named Nicodemus, decided that they should move to a far-off valley to start a farm of their own. He reasoned that it was wrong to steal from farmer Fitzgibbon.
"His friend disagreed. His name was Jenner. Jenner became so angry that he left, taking six followers with him when the colony decided in favor of Nicodemus’ idea. They are thought to be dead.
"Around the same time, I was having a crisis of my own, and that was when I learned of my husband’s involvement with the Rats. I met with Nicodemus and he helped me. A group of scientists came to the farm and gassed the burrow under the rosebush. Two rats died, but the rest made it to the colony in the woods, Thorn Valley. The colony is thriving to this day."
"So what you’re saying, is that you want me to go live with a bunch of rats? I can’t do that. If I piss them off, they’ll take a chunk out of my ear or something."
"They will most certainly not! They are the smartest, kindest creatures I have met. Nicodemus will bend over backwards for you. And so will all the other rats. They will help you if they can, you can be sure of that."
"Okay," I said. "I’ll go to the rats. I guess that’s what I am now anyway."
I was real in a bad space. The emotion was so hard to describe. It was sort of a fear-tainted melancholy. My rat body felt perfectly normal and that disturbed me. If I was a human looking at this situation, I would ask, "How could anyone be comfortable as a rat?" Yet here I stood, as an animal, as a rat. As I looked at Mrs. Brisby, an image flashed through my mind’s eye: my father setting out rat traps. And myself, who had found one that did its work. The rat’s spine had been crushed. It had a pained pleading look in its lifeless eyes.
My mind was flooded with fear and sadness. I felt terrified to think of the two people who loved me the most. I felt helpless and inferior, like it was unimportant whether I lived or died. Could I ever go home? Would I die at the hand of my father who wielded an oak cricket bat at rodents that he called "vermin"? I felt sheer, primal terror when I thought of humans now. I finally realized what it was like to be an animal. Despite my efforts at holding back, the tears came, and I started to cry.
Mrs. Brisby moved to sit by my side, she smelled like honey. "Dear, don’t cry. Cheer up, things will be alright."
At that moment, it occurred to me that this was the sort of person that I would like to have as a mother. Not the chain-smoking, dysfunctional woman that brought me into this world, but this mouse. Comparing my own mother to a field mouse. Ha! I must be losing my mind. But I liked this mouse, she actually had compassion for others.
I sniffed, "I feel so afraid, afraid of people. Even my own mother and father."
"Dear, look at me." She put her paw under my chin and lifted my face to see hers. "You can trust Nicodemus and the rats. Being an animal can be hard, but it can also be fun. Just like life. Remember, there’s a silver lining to every cloud. My husband taught me that. I’m sure you’ll be just fine, just chin up."
I stopped sniffling and looked down at my hind feet and tail.I let a faint smile cross my face, a true smile, a rat smile
"How long will it take to get to Thorn Valley?" I asked, feeling more and more as if this was the only option.
"Not long," She said.
"How will I get there?"
She held up the index digit on her paw and got up. She walked into the sunlight and pulled out a piece of aluminum foil. She held it up in the air and turned it, reflecting the rays of sunlight this way and that. This was too weird. I would have rather been unconscious again. After a moment, a large crow that seemed to come out of nowhere landed clumsily in front of the mouse. I was scared to death at first, but then I realized that she must have summoned the crow on purpose. She beckoned for me to come join her.
"David, this is Jeremy. He’ll be taking you to Thorn Valley."
"You want me to... ride on his back?" I asked, hoping the answer would be no.
"It’s perfectly safe. I have done it many times. You can trust Jeremy, he’s a personal friend."
I timidly approached the huge bird. I wanted to be home, even the one in Baltimore. The crow squawked, "I’ll get you there in no time little buddy! Just hold on to my feathers. Don’t be scared."
I climbed onto his back and looked down at Mrs. Brisby. She was smiling. She said, "Don’t forget, tell them that MRS. JONATHAN BRISBY sent you to speak with NICODEMUS. Tell him your problem, and he’ll help you. I promise.
"Thank you, " I said, although I’m not really sure why.
I clutched at Jeremy’s feathers and as soon as I held on, he pumped his massive wings and lifted into the sky. I watched the ground disappear, along with my life as a human being.
Chapter 5: Thorn Valley
I remember a few years back when I was going through a crisis in my life My father, who was taking medication for bronchitis, had just declared, since I had just had my Bar Mitzvah, that the three of us would go to Disney World and Orlando. We were at the gate, waiting for our flight, when my father started to cough. At first I thought it was normal, but then he started to cough more violently, as if he were gasping for his life. I patted him on the back and asked him if he was okay. He stopped coughing for a moment, then he doubled over and went into a Grand Mal seizure. My mother was screaming.
I will never forget the ambulance ride to the medical center. My father lay there on the stretcher, lifeless, an oxygen mask strapped to his face. My mother was sobbing, pleading with my father as if that would somehow save him. I sat there, feeling sick, sick with dread. When we reached the med center, two doctors and three nurses ran up to us and transferred my dad to a gurney. The wheeled him into the ER. I wanted to cry, but I had to keep mom stable. I put my arm around her and we walked into the waiting room.
About an hour later a doctor came out to talk to us. He was an older black man with a kind, grandfatherly face. He explained to us that my father had an allergic reaction to the medication he was taking. He said dad would be good as new in the morning.
I was so angry. I wanted to slam the smiling specialist he had seen only a week ago. "That incompetent shit," I thought. "I should sue him for every goddamn dollar he’s worth!"
The doctor who was with us, a Dr. Kelley, was kind and radiated competence. I smiled to myself, relieved as I watched my mother take his business card like a winning lottery ticket.
We had a great vacation, or at least my mother and I did. My dad didn’t have such a great time. I guess he changed after he was faced with his own mortality for the first time. He was moody and virtually silent. He would slip away on Saturday mornings to go to temple. He would work all weekend. And when I would asked if he would do something with me, he would smile lovingly, hand me a fistful of cash, and say, "Son, you’ve got plenty of friends. Go have fun. You don’t need you old man around to burden you."
And that’s how it’s been ever since. When the firm he was working for, Carisle, Kohl, & McClelland, assigned him as NIMH’s chief legal counsel, everything changed. We became upper-middle class, which was just a nice way of saying "rich."
I hated it. I gave more fuel to anti-Semitic peers who used the "rich-Jew" stereotype more than ever. I would throw my DVD player out, just for a day of real quality time with my dad. I figure my crisis never ended, I just got used to it. But it still hurts.
I couldn’t tell if the tears were from the memories, or the wind streaking past my face as we went into a steep dive over a lush, green valley. The adrenaline was really flowing now. I held onto Jeremy’s feathers so hard my paws hurt. The sun was going to set in less than two hours, I was sure of it.
I closed my eyes tight, but felt a thump shortly afterwards. We had landed. I opened my eyes to find a scene that belonged to another world. There were rats, dozens of them, harvesting and sorting vegetables. They were dressed in all sorts of clothes! They all stopped and looked at me. Nothing hostile, just curiosity. But this didn’t help any.
I slid off of Jeremy’s back. He turned and said, "Well, see ya. Gotta run!"
"Wait!" I said. "Can’t you just-" And he was gone.
A large, very large brown rat hurried up to me. He wore a dark cloak and held a wicked looking spear. This he held millimeters from my nose.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" He demanded.
"Uh..." I managed a nervous grin. "My name is David Levine, and I was sent to speak by Mrs. Jonathan Brisby to speak with Nicodemus."
"Did you say Mrs. Jonathan Brisby?" He asked, startled.
"Well, you are welcome here, but if you’re lying..."
"I can assure you, I’m not. I would never do anything to upset a person of your...stature."
He beckoned for me to follow him. I’ll tell you, Brutus was big enough to make even my dad say "Eek! It’s alive! Kill it! Don’t let it get me!" But I never told him that. We walked along a slate path with rocks on the edge, past a garden and a pond. The rats kept staring.
And to think I expected only a hole in the ground, for what stood before me was a 20cm mound, lined with stones, and two glowing torches on either side. A rat stood guard next to the entrance. He was brown, wearing a blue and white tunic. He had a large sword on his belt. This was getting to be a little too much for me.
He approached us. He was a slim rat with a mirthful air to him. I liked him on the spot.
"Brutus, who is our guest?"
"He says his name is David and that he was sent here to by Mrs. Brisby to talk to Nicodemus," Brutus said.
"How did he get here?" The other rat asked.
The slim rat regarded me quizzically for a moment and then said, "My name is Justin. I’m the captain of the guard."
"I’m David Levine," I said, extending my paw without really thinking.
The gesture seemed somewhat foreign to him, but Justin shook my paw heartily. Brutus was already gone. Justin smiled. "So you’re hear to speak with Nicodemus?"
"Yeah," I said. "It’s sort of an, ah, a personal problem."
"I see... Come with me," He said as he walked into the dark hole.
I followed him. "Uh, I can’t really see in the dark," I said.
"That’s okay, don’t worry about it."
The tunnel was large and dark. I could tell that we were definitely heading downward. Justin was walking at a brisk pace, and I was struggling to keep from tripping over my long tail. Ever since I was transformed, I noticed something. There were so many smells and sounds, so many subtle things my mind was trying to tell me.
After I judged that we were a good two meters down, we came to a sharp corner. And I was surprised when I heard the sound of a doorknob. There was light as a door opened up, and I saw more rats than I had ever seen in my entire life.
It was a huge meeting hall, with benches on the floor, about 18 meters square. There was a raised podium with three seats on each side. The ceiling was a good three meters above us with two florescent lamps hanging from it that made the room as bright as daylight. A pipe pumped a fresh, warm breeze into the room
Rats were going back and forth, in and out of 8 large tunnels branching out from the room. Each tunnel had a neatly written sign over it. The tunnels were labeled ADMIN., LIVING, STORAGE., R. EXIT, SCHOOL, CAFÉ, MFG., MED.
Justin headed towards the administration wing and I followed right behind. We entered the tunnel, which was well-lit by several small Christmas tree lights. We passed several doors. I glanced at the signs: Arthur-ENG, Justin-SEC, Carmen-AGRI, Nicodemus-DTV. We knocked on the door marked Nicodemus-DTV. A voice said, "Come in."
Justin opened the door into a neatly furnished office with a desk and a large bookcase. There was a small radio in the corner, playing Lizst. A slender rat sat behind the desk. He had a patch over his eye and he had white fur in several places. It didn’t take a vet to tell he was getting up there in years. He had a warm, pleasant face. Not a bad thing for a rat.
"This is David, he just arrived by courier and claims that Mrs. Brisby sent him to talk with you," Justin said.
The older rat, who I properly guessed was Nicodemus, regarded me with interest. He motioned to a beanbag in front of his desk and said, "Sit down."
I sat down and looked up expectantly at Justin, who was standing impatiently at the door.
"Nicodemus, I have sentry duty until 9. I have to get back. Sorry I can’t stay. Just call if you need me," he said. And he left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Nicodemus shuffled some papers and stuffed them onto a shelf. He then looked up at me, smiled and said, "Now what is it that you wanted to speak with me about, and who are you?"