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Prodigal Son

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The Frisby family had enjoyed a wonderful summer, in their home under the old oak tree by the banks of the brook. Mrs Frisby had been content watching Timothy get well again, with never a sign of his chest complaint, not even on wet days, while Timothy himself and the other children had barely even seen the summer passing for all the fun they had been having with the children of the five other mouse families who lived in the local area. And that contented Mrs Frisby more than anything else could have done - she didn't need them to pay her attention when their lives were so obviously full and happy. But of course, it couldn't last, every summer is always inevitably followed by autumn and then winter. When there was a nip of cold in the air in mornings and evenings, and just a hint of colour in the leaves on the oak above them, Mrs Frisby called her children together, bade them to say goodbye to their playmates and to prepare for the long journey back to the FitzGibbon's garden.

It wasn't a difficult journey back - perhaps there was more of a hint of melancholy than on the spring journey, and there were certainly tears in the eyes of Teresa, her eldest, who was missing a certain boy mouse from the Perkins family, but otherwise they were all content enough. They were growing up, thought Mrs Frisby sadly. Teresa and Martin could certainly leave the nest, if she insisted on it, as certain mouse mothers were known to do - particularly when times were hard. But she herself didn't want them to go, and would never ask them, but she could tell that the time was coming when they would ask of their own accord. The change in the air made her uneasy and a little sad, but she tried to shake herself out of the odd mood and be cheerful for the children.

Their winter home in the cement block was a little musty, but just finding it intact and empty of other animals made Mrs Frisby's heart leap a little in gladness. It didn't take long to get it shipshape again with all the children pitching in, and inevitably lead to thoughts of the rats and how they were faring in their new home in Thorn Valley. The children wondered too - Martin remembered his desire to visit them via Jeremy the crow. The thought scared Mrs Frisby, but she could hardly deny him, after all she had done a similar journey herself to visit the wise owl.

"But Mother," said Martin, "Surely you want to find out how they're doing? They are our friends. And you did promise I could."

Mrs Frisby gave in to the inevitable rather than hold her children back, after all, she wanted them to be all they could be, and Martin was so keen. After they spent a day finding new bedding for their winter bedroom and filling the larder with the freshest peas and beans they could find, Martin declared himself ready. When they were foraging, he had found himself a bottle cap, which he spent some time polishing until it was as bright and shiny as when it was new.

"Be careful," said Mrs Frisby, "When you are flashing it about, make sure you don't attract more dangerous things than crows."

Martin laughed and promised he would be cautious. And indeed it didn't take long, flashing the cap in the early fall sunshine, before Jeremy did appear and very glad to see them all he was too.

"I thought about you and your family," he said, "I am glad to see you so hale and hearty."

"And ready for adventure," exclaimed Martin, before explaining what he wanted to do. Jeremy was all for it, perhaps succumbing to Martin's excitement and Mrs Frisby could see that nothing was going to stop her first born son from going. Her heart in her mouth, she wished him well and then watched as he climbed aboard Jeremy's broad back, gripping the feathers tightly. Then they were off, the downdraft from Jeremy's wings flattening Mrs Frisby's ears. The first one of her children to leave! She missed him already.

***

Autumn continued on as Mrs Frisby waited for Martin's return, some warm days, followed by chilly nights, the hint of colour in the leaves beginning to spread and offer the proper gold of fall. She began to spend more and more of her time up in the old hickory tree, the one where she had watched the last of the rats do their heroic dashes out from the blackberry bush. It made her feel closer to them and to her son, somehow, while also allowing her a perfect vantage point to watch for his return. For while she saw Jeremy regularly enough, he was distressingly vague about when Martin was coming home.

It was probably her vigil that caused Mrs Frisby to notice what she did. The hickory tree gave a good view of the patch of garden where the big rosebush had once stood. The Fitzgibbon's had not been idle that summer, and in place of torn up earth there was now a beautifully turned bit of soil with several new rose bushes and a lilac tree. And it was in amongst these that Mrs Frisby saw movement one day - and it was a rat! Her heart beating faster Mrs Frisby looked for others - perhaps Thorn Valley was not going well and the rats of NIMH were returning to an easier life, just for winter? But she couldn't see any others, just this lone rat that cautiously made its way to the blackberry bush and then vanished within.

Mrs Frisby didn't know what to do. How long had this rat been using the old tunnels? Perhaps it was a random strange rat who didn't have anything to do with NIMH at all? Perhaps it was just a scout from Thorn Valley there to collect something left behind? But perhaps the rat would know something about Martin? She had to at least ask them. She had to try.

Mrs Frisby crept down from the hickory tree, all the while keeping a vigilant eye out for Dragon the cat, as she made her way along the edge of the fence towards the blackberry bush. She had never used the rats' back door before but she figured it couldn't be too hard to work out the mechanism - she knew where to enter it at least. Indeed, it didn't take her long to spot the passage cleared into the center of the blackberry bush, with the new summer growth nibbled back by strong teeth - or perhaps cut with tools, she couldn't be sure.

She dithered on the doorstep - there was no Brutus there to guard the entrance hole but she would still be entering a strange animal's territory. It wasn't an easy thing to make herself do. Luckily, just as she was about to venture inside, there was a sense of movement and Mrs Frisby jumped back as a large rat suddenly loomed over her.

"What do you think you're doing?" said the rat nastily, "Encroaching and spying, I suppose. Be off with you!"

"Oh no," said Mrs Frisby quietly, stopping her paws shaking by sheer will, "If you please, I just wanted news of my son. He's visiting Thorn Valley, you see. Perhaps you've seen him - Martin Frisby?"

The strange rat snorted but at least he stopped looming, sitting back on his haunches the better to observe her, she felt. "Frisby, eh? Then you would be related to Jonathan." He eyed her more speculatively.

"I was his wife," said Mrs Frisby, with dignity.

The strange mouse scratched his ears - embarrassed, if Mrs Frisby was any judge. "Well then, probably not spying then. I apologise, Mrs Frisby. But I am not... attached to the Thorn Valley Plan, rather the opposite, and so I have no news of them or your son. Good day."

He turned to go, but his abrupt attitude did not put her off, and indeed she felt his appearance had generated more questions than it answered. Greatly daring, she asked, "Please, what is your name?"

He paused, his back to her, and she thought he wasn't going to answer her but at the last, before disappearing into the dark, he said, "My name is Jenner."

***

Of course, the Frisby family discussed the ramifications of the infamous Jenner's appearance at great length. It was hard not to, given that autumn was turning more towards early winter and with less daylight and longer and colder nights, the family spent a good deal of time indoors. There was little else to do but speculate about this most surprising of resurrections. Timothy, in particular, seemed fascinated, and asked his mother again and again for details of their meeting. "After all, you said Mr FitzGibbon talked of 'six or seven rats' who died," said Timothy, "It must have actually only been six in the end. Poor Jenner, what a horrible thing to have happened." Mrs Frisby didn't want Timothy to consider such morbid topics for long, so didn't even ask whether he meant the death of the rats by electricity, or being the lone survivor when all your friends died in front of you. Both, she supposed, when she thought about it.

Mrs Frisby was actually grateful, in some ways, for Timothy's interest, for now they were back in their winter home, with their, by necessity, limited social circle, Timothy had started to become more withdrawn. She worried about her most sensitive and clever son, his relative fragility was always in the back of her mind, but recently she had another concern. Now he was growing up it was obvious to her how much more intelligent he was than his brothers and sisters. Of course, he didn't complain, that wasn't his way, Timothy was always helpful and polite, and caring towards his sisters, but he couldn't hide how hard he found it to occupy himself in the garden and the farm because, unlike the others, he was always thinking and found it much harder to switch off and just be. Mrs Frisby had tried to find occupations for him - she'd sent him to Mr Ages, for example, in the hopes that his researches into medicines would interest Timothy, but the experiment had not been a success. Timothy was a lot less interested in the practical applications, it seemed, than Mr Ages, and Mr Ages in turn, was far more solitary than even Mrs Frisby might have guessed. They had made each other gently miserable.

Now Mrs Frisby saw Timothy's interest in Jenner's appearance as a godsend. Mrs Frisby herself continued to see the rat now and again, from her ongoing vigil in the hickory tree, although as the weather blew colder she was forced to conclude that perhaps Martin intended to over-winter at Thorn Valley and that she should abandon her post. But before she did so, Mrs Frisby observed one more thing, something which worried but also exhilarated her - for who knew where such a thing might lead?

One day, Mrs Frisby again spied movement near the blackberry bush, and expected it to be Jenner, but instead was astonished to see her small son, looking even smaller from this bird's eye view, loitering - for there could be no other word for it - in a patch of weeds near the entrance. He looked like he might be plucking up his courage, thought Mrs Frisby. She had no time to mull on the ramifications of this before Timothy had been accosted by Jenner, who was obviously defensive and irritable, but equally obviously being soothed quickly by her son's words. Mrs Frisby wished she could hear more of their exchange, but due to the vagaries of the wind blowing their words around, she could catch only the merest fragments.

"I'm best alone," said Jenner, at one point, and "They left everything behind, who else has better right to it?" at another. Both fair points, Mrs Frisby owned.

She expected Timothy to be rebuffed and to turn away, and was prepared to anxiously hurry home to comfort him, despairing that this would send Timothy down into a deeper emotional spiral, but instead was astonished to see the two of them disappear together beneath the blackberry bush, side by side. So Mrs Frisby hurried home for another reason altogether - to wait for her son, full of curiosity as to what he and this strange misanthropic rat could possibly find in common. She was to wait for quite some time, for Timothy did not return to their house inside the cement block until well after dark. If she had not known where he was, she would have been frantic. As it was, she fed the girls and waited - more or less patiently.

***

In the end, Mrs Frisby had to wait a great deal longer than she meant to. First, she didn't want to discuss anything in front of the girls in case it scared them, or in case Timothy was self-conscious or defensive. Second, Mrs Frisby was conscious of the moral aspects of spying on her son. She had not intended to do so, but the fact remained that Timothy could interpret it in that way and would have a certain justification in his opinion. Surely, Mrs Frisby reasoned, Timothy would mention it her soon and then she could ask her questions? But days had passed and still Timothy had not said anything, and in fact had disappeared off, presumably to the tunnels beneath the blackberry bush, at every possible occasion.

Eventually, patience wearing thin, Mrs Frisby decided she must ask him about it. For Timothy was almost a changed mouse. Where before he had been withdrawn and quiet, he was now smiling and playful. Even his sisters had remarked on it and that decided Mrs Frisby, surely she could ask him about his changed demeanour without harm?

After breakfast one day, once the girls had charged out into the day but before Timothy had organised himself to stir outdoors, Mrs Frisby asked, "May I ask what has you so cheerful these last few days? It has been a pleasure to see it, you know."

And Timothy looked back at her, his measured stare level and calm and replied, "I think you have some inkling of it, Mother, I know you do or you would have asked me about it long since, but thank you for giving me the time I needed to... adjust, I suppose."

He looked away from her and towards something more inward-looking, a memory perhaps. "I don't know why I was so interested in Jenner, not at first anyway. Perhaps because he is linked to the story of the rats of NIMH, and to my father, and that story is so much bigger than any one of us can comprehend. Or perhaps because, as I saw him wandering about his business sometimes, he seemed... lonely. Rats are a communal species, Mother, it is not natural for them to be so solitary."

"For my part," Timothy continued, "I was restless, nothing was satisfying to me, and it was all I could do some days not to snap at you, or the girls. I don't know if I realised what it was I was seeking then, I am not sure I did really, but nevertheless I found I was drawn to Jenner and to the kind of home he was making under the blackberry bush and I wanted to talk to him."

"He didn't accept me at first, indeed he was downright rude, and tried to put me off, but I told him that whatever he was doing was just as much my legacy as it was his, and he seemed to grudgingly agree and became more amenable, if not friendly. We went down into the tunnels beneath the blackberry bush then - Jenner had been working hard to open up the blocked tunnel to the cave where everything that was left was stored. It is rough and ready but he had managed to open it, and also to reconnect the electricity, so there were lights down there, where it was so very deep."

Timothy's voice was awed, and Mrs Frisby could remember how astonishing it felt seeing artificial light outside of the farmhouse for the first time, and controlled by a fellow animal and not by a human!

"He showed me some of what the rats left there, Mother - and it is wondrous! The things we could do with just a fraction of those resources - of course, we're short of tools, because the toy tinker's tools were mostly taken to Thorn Valley, but Jenner has some that he took from a watchmaker's shop and others from a hardware store, and we manage... And anyway, that's not what matters to me, not really, Jenner's good at the practical things, but I... I like to think actually, Mother, to think and then to write my thoughts down. There's paper there too, you know - I suspect that wouldn't have been left if the rats hadn't been in a hurry, but their loss is my gain."

Timothy was almost wriggling in his excitement now, and perhaps a little in embarrassment, almost willing her to understand. And she did, as much as she was able to, and catching his excitement, Mrs Frisby spontaneously hugged him. This is all that her Timothy needed, it seemed - an outlet for his ferocious intelligence, resources and a place to work. How wonderful!

Slightly muffled by the fur on her shoulder, as though Timothy couldn't bear to stop talking, now he had started, he said, "But I haven't told you the best bit, Mother. The absolute best thing the rats could have left behind."

She pulled back to look him in the face. His eyes were shining, his whiskers twitching. He looked so happy.

"They left their books. I can read again at last!"

***

Epilogue

Of course, things didn't end there, and Mrs Frisby still worried. What if the FitzGibbon's noticed their electricity being stolen and called back the Doctor? What if the things Timothy was messing about with became dangerous? What if the rats wanted their equipment and books back again?

But she quietened her fears whenever she saw Timothy's glowing face, or whenever she saw the two of them strolling about the garden, as they did sometimes, her son and Jenner, so disparate in size but so perfectly suited, it seemed, in other ways, a true meeting of minds. They would do great things together, Mrs Frisby thought, although those things would be far beyond her grasp. But what she did know, what she was virtually certain about, was that if these two had not met, if everything that had happened had not transpired, it might have been the end - for both of them. And whatever happened next, whatever adventures might be on the horizon, she would always be grateful for that. For still saving her son, this time in a completely different way.