I spent the afternoon on my third vacation day from school walking in the woods behind the dairy barn. I could hear the cows mooing even deep within the solitude of my wooded playground and imagined them to be some sort of mythical beasts that the prince rat and I had to fight off to survive the winter. In my hands I held a long branch, swinging it around like a hero’s sword. At my feet, like a little dog, scampered my prince rat. He was quicker than I was, but seemed content to stop every ten feet or so and inspect a fallen log or a berry bush while casually waiting for me to catch up. I liked that he never rushed me.
My favorite spot in the woods was a little clearing right before the creek bed became rocky. The soil turned to fine sand and was warm in the afternoon light. It seemed strange for such perfectly orangey yellow sand to be filled in only this one spot and I sometimes wondered if it were dumped there purposely. I would have asked my uncle, but I feared his response, I didn’t want him to know about my special place.
As prince rat ran to the creek bed to sip some water from between the rocks, monstrously huge beside his little brown form, I settled myself in the warm sand, carefully burying my special sword up to its hilt beside me. From this spot I could hear the creek trickle by and soon became lost in my thoughts.
I don’t know how long it was before I noticed that I hadn’t seen prince rat in awhile. Instantly I leapt to my feet and called his name.
“Prince? Prince rat?” Anxiety racked my entire body. Thinking about his tiny form dropping into the creek, high and fast this time of year, I ran back and forth along the rushing water, calling his name.
“Prince?” My hands cupped around my mouth I called for him again and again. Racing back to pull my sword from its sandy sheath, I turned back towards the woods and my heart leapt to my throat when I saw a blue mass hop towards me.
Monster! Was my first though Snake! Was my second. Royal blue feathers and a scaly tail came closer, slowly sneaking through the tall grasses. I lifted my sword to strike.
“Don’t come near!” I shouted and all of a sudden the scaly tail broke away from the blue feathers. I stood there, sword still raised as it finally dawned on me what the two pieces meant.
He sat beside his prize looking proud. A dead blue jay, close to his own size. Its eyes had been eaten away and I made a face of disgust as I suspected it to be my beady eyed prince’s doing. Looking at me proudly the prince began to wash himself using both hands. Back, paws, face, he was always thorough.
I lowered my sword and stepped closer to inspect the bird. Maybe he feared I would take his prize, so darting forward like a little copper flash, he grabbed the flesh behind the creature’s torn wing and pulled, dragging It several inches from me with a defiant glare.
“Don’t!” I said, “Its dead, it could be diseased.” As I lectured the prince on the dangers of dead woodland creatures I picked the bird up with the end of my sword and flung it into the creek. Its funny, It never even occurred to me that a friendly wild rat could be carrying some disease or another, but a bird? Forget about it.
Pouting, the prince finished his cleaning and then jumped into my lap to search for treats. These days I kept my pockets full of bread crumbs and I feared I was making the prince a bit too fat, I wouldn’t have told him that though, he was awfully sensitive about his looks. I imagined what he would be like if he were a human. Flowing copper hair, deep brown eyes; he would be a clown when I needed him to cheer me up, but protective when someone threatened our friendship. I would never be lonely with my prince by my side.
His pink tail curled around my wrist as he poked his fuzzy snout into my pockets. Gently I ran a finger along his back and his silky copper fur, seemingly annoyed he took a hand and pushed my own away from him before fishing out a large piece of banana loaf from me.
“Prince.” I sighed. “I wish everyday could be like this.” It was simple in those warm hidden woods, I liked simple.
As the prince pulled out another big chunk of bread I grabbed it from his paws. As if he were desperately hungry he kept his hold too and when I lifted the bread in my hand the prince dangled by his paws from my fingers.
“You can’t still be hungry.” I laughed, releasing my hold and allowing him his reward.
Suddenly the prince dropped the bread and shot under my legs.
“What are you doing here?” A voice snarled much too close. I felt my eyes bulge in my face, that voice was all too familiar. Jonny McClary, the meanest kid in school.
Whipping around I raised onto my knees, hoping to block the prince from the boy’s view, no telling what a bully like Jonny would do to an honest prince.
“Ew, it's the cow girl.” Another boy said from beside Jonny. There were three of them in total, two with dark brown hair and freckles, an unusual combination, these were the McClary boys Jonny and Tommy. Jonny was a fifth grader, but Tommy was in my grade though in a different class. The other boy had hair so blonde that it seemed white, this was Devon Peckular a fifth grader who I only knew by reputation and the reputation wasn’t a good one. Devon held a strange gray satchel over his shoulder and the smile on his face made me feel suddenly much too exposed in the sandy opening.
“I asked you a question.” Jonny said, taking a step closer. I glanced behind me and found the prince nowhere to be seen. Letting out a breath I crept to my feet and turned back to the boys, face already covered in a deep blush.
“I was playing hero.” I muttered, looking away from the boys. They all started laughing and suddenly my epic sword felt like a too light stick within my hands.
“Hero?” Tommy’s high pitch squeal of amusement caused me to furrow my brows. I wanted to get away from them. I remembered what my friend had told me the first time we ever saw the brothers, dangerous. I could feel it now too, there was something off about the dark haired brothers. Devon’s eyes crept over the river bank lazily, he didn’t even acknowledge my presence.
“Come on, lets get back to work.” He said, a demand not a request. It was clear that between the three boys he was the leader.
“In a minute.” Jonny said, “This girl is on our turf.”
I took a deep breath and jumped to the side, hoping to outrun them but not prepared to trip over my own feet. The laugher began again.
Rough hands gripped my chin and lifted my face until dangerous eyes filled my own.
“What should we do with her?” Jonny licked his lips and in the background Devon unshouldered his burden, only then could I see that it wasn’t a gray satchel on his back but a string of squirrels. My heart jumped.
“What are you doing out here?” My frail voice squeaked. Unconsciously my eyes searched for the prince rat, praying that he would stay hidden, but then rats live for mischief and its then that I felt a too familiar presence press against my ankle.
No! my mind shouted, but I was too afraid to look down, if the boys saw my prince they would certainly go after him.
“Why should I tell you?” Jonny demanded. The prince began to tug at my pants, his signal for me to pick him up, I tried to put my other leg before him but the boys thought I was trying to run. Jonny grabbed my arm.
“Why should I tell you what we are doing?” He shouted, his scary face contorted in an anger that I couldn’t begin to understand.
“Because I’m a hero.” I said, I could feel the prince on my foot now, if the boys looked down they would see him, I couldn’t think of what else to do so I raised my sword and smacked it against Jonny’s side as hard as I could. The Jonny cried out in pain and the stick broke in two.
It was chaos then, I ran one way as Jonny fell to the ground. Devon burst out laughing on the log where he was perched and before I could get back to the path Tommy had me by the collar.
I turned with tears in my eyes, expecting the blows, but all I found was a smiling face, he panted like a dog and licked red chapped lips before speaking.
“Gutsy move cow girl.” He said, “I like you, so I’ll give you the honor of being my girlfriend.” He was self assured to an extent that I could only ever dream of.
My eyes must have been as wide as plates.
“Even if you are rot ugly,” He added.
He let me go and my feet carried me away from them, away from the creekbed, away from my safe place.
Behind me I could still hear Devon’s laughter and I could hear Tommy shouting.
“See you at school cow girl.”
Maybe nowhere was safe anymore.
That evening I sat in the TV room with my uncle and aunt and I couldn’t help but stare at my aunt’s face. She was pretty in a conventional sense, petite, thin, always covered in makeup, but I didn’t see what made me rot ugly when she was considered pretty.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep. I hadn’t seen prince rat since the boys at the creekbed and I was terrified that he hadn’t escaped. Every time I closed my eyes I saw a string of gray with a little copper pelt on the end. A shiny trophy for a group of evil poachers in my hero’s fortress. By sunrise I gave up on sleep and instead took out my photobook from its place of honor beside my bed.
The faces on the pages seemed so far away. My family, my mother in her carrot apron, my dad shaving, me with my brothers in the yard. I could remember those times and yet it was like replaying an old movie in my head, maybe those really never were my memories at all. Closing the book with a snap I curled into a ball in the center of my bed and hummed a tune I had heard on the radio.
When morning came my uncle’s voice shouted through the floorboards. It was Sunday, God’s day.
My aunt dressed me in a purple Sunday dress with frills and all sorts of lace which didn’t suit me. A hat topped off the ridiculous outfit but I kept my lips shut tight as she tugged on the ties.
“Very cute.” She assured me.
When we went downstairs my uncle, belly threatening to burst his sweat stained dress shirt, said the same, “Very cute.”
I wondered then if maybe I was cute, was that why Tommy hadn’t struck me in the woods?
We took the loud coughing monster of a car to the church. I recognized the people who filed into the big white building and that set me somewhat at ease, even as my uncle took my hand to pull me beside him.
“This way.” He said, as if I didn’t know my way around my own church.
My aunt filed through the doors behind us, head hanging as if she too hadn’t slept well that evening.
The sermon that day was about Judas and his betrayal. The words struck at me. I had tried to save the prince rat, but what if I was just like Judas? What if I was only trying to save myself and now talking myself into thinking I was a hero?
The priest talked of Judah’s ultimate sin and his death hanging from a jagged tree branch. My mind spun with an image of the dead blue jay, the squirrel pelts with one copper one betwixt them and a poor man dead by his own hand, accepting his sin.
I was so immersed in my worries that I hardly noticed when the service stood to shake hands.
“And also with you.” I muttered under my breath, not looking at the adults who took my hands. All around me was the scent of cheap rosewater perfumes and stick chewing gum.
“And also with you.”
“Peace be with you.” My eyes shot up because I knew that voice. There before me stood a woman, lovely and round and beautiful as I knew her to be. It was the woman from my photobook, my mother.
A smile flew to my lips and my arms shot over the pew to embrace her middle, however the second my hands touched her she froze. I looked up to find my mother’s eyes quite unrecognizable.
“Well hello honey.” The woman murmured with an awkward smile and before I knew it my aunt was pulling my arms away, apologizing to the round woman while squeezing my arm until it hurt.
“What were you thinking?” She whispered furiously, giving my skinny arm a final pinch before letting me slump back into the pew.
I couldn’t make sense of it but before I could say a word the priest began his sermon again.
The second half was about Mary, Jesus’s mother, the holy mother.
“While those around him felt fear, betrayed him, denied him, only Jesus’s mother stayed by his side until the end, crying tears of thankfulness to the lord for bringing her a son, even if he be taken too soon.”
When the service ended I blinked my eyes and found them full of tears.
“What’s wrong with you?” My uncles booming voice crashed around me and I jumped up.
“I don’t feel good.” I lied and my aunt’s brow raised in annoyance.
“Don’t complain.” She scolded and I hung my head.
My uncle put a hand on my shoulder and used the other to raise my chin to look at him. The movement reminded me of the McClary boys and I pulled away.
“Well you’ll have to bear with it.” He said evenly, eyes scanning the sea of people around us. “We are going to have lunch with my sister’s family, so make sure you behave yourself.”
My expression brightened instantly. Sister? My uncle had only one sibling and that was my mother. If I told my father how uneasy I felt at my uncle’s house he would have to take me home!
With a bright smile I nodded to my uncle and he smiled too.
“Well good then, good girl.” He tapped the top of my gaudy hat twice and then led the way through the crowd. To my displeasure we didn’t find my family in the crowd, but instead crammed back into the loud soot soiled car and drove to my house. My house.
It was just as I remembered it. Big railing curled around a wooden slatted porch, big trees out back, everything was how it was supposed to be which shouldn’t have been so surprising to me since it hadn’t been more than a month before that I left.
“Come on then.” My aunt grumbled as she tugged my wrist after her through the doorway. “Don’t dawdle.”
My home smelled of sweet breads and fresh air and hot chocolate. A tall clock clicked in the corner and I took in a deep breath to savor the moment.
“Uncle.” A voice called from the stairs, it was my brother.
“Hi!” I shouted to him, “I’m home!” I had always liked my brother, he was kind to me when my sisters called me useless. She isn’t useless He would say, swinging me onto his shoulders She can pick the high berries like this! He and my other brother took me berry picking every summer. It was the one and only compliment that they seemed to ever be able to think up, but I took amazing pride in it.
Now he only looked at me, half amused, half confused and my heart thud once, deeply against my ribs.
“Oh.. hi.” He said, rubbing a hand through his hair. “Its Clara or something right?”
I couldn’t formulate a response, my words were lost in his confusion and I swallowed hard. With an embarrassed smile he came down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Mom, uncle is here with his kid.”
“What…” My words came back to me but I couldn’t think of what to ask, did he really not recognize me? I thought of what I was wearing, it certainly wasn’t like what I usually wore so my hands began to unlace my hat and I got a firm smack on my bottom.
“Stop acting up.” My aunt’s firm words nearly brought tears to my eyes. I dropped my hands and rubbed where she had hit me. My uncle snorted in annoyance and that's when my mom came out of the kitchen, still in her church dress. I hadn’t been wrong, the woman in the church was my mother all right, but why didn’t she look at me now.
“Darling I am home!” My father’s voice came from the doorway and I spun to meet him, my aunt’s hand shot out to grab me but I dodged around her and flung myself out of the room.
“Dad!” I shouted, “Dad!” The man that met my eyes was my father, but suddenly another image came to mind, my uncle holding me when I was little, hugging me against his chest and dancing as some strange woman clapped. Music played in the background, some sort of jig.
I shook my head furiously.
“Dad” I said, a bit quieter. He stared at me hard like he was trying to remember and then shook his head, “Clara are you playing a new game?” He called me Clara, he never called me Clara, none of them did.
Another image assaulted me then, my uncle holding my hand as we walked on stones across a still river. I could almost smell the wet moss as if I were standing in that forest still.
“Its not a game!” I shouted and then my aunt had me in her hands again. She hit me once, twice and my father turned away.
“Stop it!” I cried, “Help me!” I shouted but I could hear my uncle in the background apologizing. “She isn’t usually like this.” He said, I can’t imagine what is wrong with her today.
A third strike and then my aunt turned me around to face her. I was crying desperately now and tears clouded my eyes.
“I asked you to behave.” She snarled, looking for all the world to be some witch out of a child’s tale. “Couldn’t you be good for once?”
She left me there, crying and joined my uncle in the kitchen. My sisters passed me by as they came down the steps. I could hear one whisper to the other.
“Who is that?”
“Just uncle’s kid, remember?”
The first shrugged and they passed me by. Laughter filled the kitchen, the sounds of food being prepared and my young baby brother’s gurgling joyfully from the attention. I stood there and cried. I had nowhere to go anymore, nowhere was safe.
The next morning I was as lost as I had ever been. My prince rat was still missing, my bottom hurt from being spanked for a quarter hour and my mind was in chaos. Where had my family gone? Were they trying to push me off on my uncle who they now referred to as my “father?” Was it possible that they could be that cruel?
Not a single member seemed to remember me and by the end of the evening I sat at the table, food untouched as my fingers stroked the familiar worn wooden table top.
“Clara are you not feeling well?” My mother’s concern caused a fiery hope to well in my chest, but it was short lived when my aunt tore my hands from the table top and dragged me out to the front. Ripping the door open she flung me outside roughly.
“If you cannot act civilized then you will stay outside until it is time for us to go.”
Rubbing my arm gently I was thankful to be outside. This great earthy smelling veranda was my fortress, how many times had I taken naps on its wooden planks? It was where I had first met the prince rat and as I waited, a soundtrack of laughter and polite conversation drifting through the windows to splash over my motionless body, I secretly prayed for his return.
“Please be safe prince rat. Please.”
But now it was morning, and reluctantly I scrubbed my arms and face with yesterday’s well water and tossed the rag back into the basin with such a lack of care that it splashed all over that day’s clothes. With a deep sigh I pulled on the soiled yellow dress and held a hand over my ear as I ripped the Velcro on my clunky black shoes to slip them on. School.
The moment I stepped into the old school house I met my ruddy haired friend. He chattered on and on about a great snowstorm that was coming.
“S’posed to cover half the valley!” He cheered as I looked on, “We can go sleddin and play war in the woods!”
But in my mind I could only see the prince rat huddled in a eaten out log as the blizzard froze him to death. A bitter end for a royal friend. The chew of anxiety was becoming persistent, each new worry eating just another piece of me away.
“Hey cow girl!” My whole body shook when I heard the call. Eyes turning slowly I found the McClary brother’s standing in the doorway. Tommy motioned me over and my friend tssked, “What they want with you?”
I hesitated and Tommy’s face twisted into an angry mask as he began to step through the door.
“Mr. McClary just what do you think you are doing?” Saved by the teacher, an angry old crone who looked a little too much like a spinster to be anything but a teacher.
“Coming in.” Tommy said, petulant response getting him a firm whack of a ruler on his side.
“Ouch!” He shouted as if the whack had been a stronger blow.
“We will tell our Ma on you.” Jonny said with a spoiled smile, “Then you’ll loose your position, then what will you have left to live for?”
The words were cruel and the teacher stepped back, a look of despair covering her face just long enough for the boys to start laughing and walk off without punishment. Just what was it about the McClary’s that everyone feared so much?
At recess I avoided another confrontation by hiding in the bathroom. Crouched in a stall beside a toilet I picked at my lunch of olive loaf and apple slices. My stomach longer for my mother’s peanut butter and butter sandwiches, but I did my best to keep the offensive food down despite the smell in the tiny stall. When the bell rung again I ran back to the classroom and shrunk down in my seat, head buried in my arms I let the scratchy cotton of my sleeves wipe away my tears.
The last hour of schooling went by in a flash. I ignored the teacher’s steady voice as I tried to piece together an escape plan. Surely the boys would want revenge for getting them in trouble, I had to get around them but how?
Then I saw it, across the hall in the opposite classroom they had a doorway straight to the backyard, if only I could dart across before the boys found me, I could run all the way home through the woods before they would even know I was gone.
Bing bing bing
The bell rang and I was up like a shot. Students blocked my way and trying to push past a particular dense clump I lost my grip and my books fell to the floor. I dropped to my knees and began to gather them. Red book, tiny blue book, tan planner. Then a foot stomped my hand and I cried out.
“Sorry.” An anonymous student mumbled as they headed for the door. Then I looked up to find my path cleared and I started to run.
“Clara.” A colossal frame blocked my path, the teacher stood with her hands on her hips and I slid on my heels to stop before I bumped into her.
“Clara I have been meaning to speak to you about your attendance.” My shoulders dropped as two dark haired freckled heads popped into the doorway behind the teacher. Jonny stuck out his tongue and Tommy smacked his fist into his palm several times. I can’t be sure if the teacher knew they were there or not, but I was dead now, no way to escape.
“Clara are you listening to me?” A quick whap on my shoulder brought my attention back to the teacher and I nodded quickly.
“I know that you have had some.. problems recently, but your father assured me that you would adjust quickly and I am not sure that you have shown me that you can.”
My eyes widened. My father? If my father was talking about me having a problem adjusting then maybe it was all some big plan, maybe I wasn’t really crazy at all.
Laughter came from the doorway and I looked up to see Tommy had dropped his pants, gasping I knocked into the teacher’s table and she raised a brow at me as I blushed crimson.
“Let your father and mother know that i’ll just stop by the dairy this weekened so that we can settle this all ok?”
Tommy spun his hips back and forth, tiny member swinging like a pendulum, the sight making me sick to my stomach.
“NO!” I screamed. “My father is a banker! He doesn’t work at a dairy!”
I wanted to run, but the doorway was blocked and the windows too narrow to escape through.
Suddenly all of my anxiety came rushing forward out of me. I heard the teacher shout and the boys laughter as I fell forward, eyes blank, into a pool of my own vomit.
That evening after seven more spankings I was sent to bed without dinner. It was nearly midnight when I heard the doctor knocking on the front door, an icy chill ran up and down my spine when I heard my uncle calling for me. I pretended to be asleep, but it was no use. My aunt came to my room and threw on the lights, blinding me as she dragged me from under the covers. I started crying and begging.
“Please, please i’m fine, I’m fine I don’t need to be examined.” But she ignored my pleas and dragged me down the steps by my collar.
“This is what you get for misbehaving.” She snarled.
Together with my uncle’s help she threw me into the den, leaving me alone with the red lips doctor. Shaking from head to toe I snapped my eyes shut and tensed my body, ready for his clammy hands on my skin, it was then that he began his examination.
The next morning when I heard the jays calling I didn’t even look to the window. Instead I pulled the covers over my head to shut out the light. I stayed there the entire day.
The second morning I awoke with my throat so parched that I kept choking on nothing. My eyes burned and my lips were ripped and cracked from the dryness in the air. When I walked out into the house I found everything dark and silent. No one was home and for that I was thankful.
Downstairs I found a glass liter of milk and drank straight from the bottle, coating my lips with the whiteness and letting it drip over my sleep gown as I greedily sucked it away. Tears welled in my eyes and a hand absently brushed over my rear, spanked raw and pounding from the bruises.
A movement in the corner of my eye made me hopeful, but it was just a little skittering barn mouse and before I could stop myself my arm sent the glass bottle soaring over the kitchen table like an army missile until it smashed against the far wall and exploded. Shrapnel and white flew everywhere, scaring the little creature half to death as it scurried back to the safety of its hole.
“Well that certainly is no way to make friends.” A voice behind me whispered from the darkness and I spun around, suddenly regretting throwing away my only weapon, instead I held my hands up defensively.
It was most certainly a stranger and yet he looked somehow familiar to me.
“Who are you?” I said, trying to sound confident but my voice so raw and harsh that the words barely reached him. Had my “parents” left me a new guest? My eyes searched frantically for a weapon and I found one in a serrated bread knife lying on the counter. Holding it in front of me I felt like the hero again, my shimmering sword dazzling as it shimmered in the dim light.
The man stepped forward into the sunlight drifting through the kitchen window and instantly I knew. He wasn’t a man at all. Dark black eyes, glistening ebony hair, strange suit of black satin and hunter green velvet with a funny little emblem, this was a certainly not a man.
“Don't worry little mi, “ He whispered, “Even I know better than to grab a hurt pup hissing in a corner.” He smiled brightly and I could almost imagine two long incisors where only human teeth hung. My eyes widened as my mind tried to work out the lack of logic of my assumption.
“We have met before Clary.” The stranger’s voice was pleasant, it wrapped around me like an embrace and I nodded, because whether or not logic wanted to help me out, really there was only one possibility.
He nodded, black eyes twitching back and forth, on guard for any possible danger.
“Its time that you come with us now.” He said, nodding at his own assertion.
“Couldn’t you have come two days ago?” I replied bitterly, but his grimace was enough to make me regret the words. I couldn’t lay blame on Gnar, if all of my other assumptions were correct, then he was most certainly a friend. As if searching for the right words he looked at the floor for a long moment, finally pulling out a little silver comb and running it through his hair in two quick motions.
“The prince is waiting,” he said and that alone decided me.
Running up to my room I changed into my Clary clothes and left the hated Clara gowns behind. Cut off green cotton pants, high socks with boots and a red hooded sweatshirt thoroughly chewed by the prince was my traveling suit. I grabbed a handful of marbles and my precious photobook and threw them all along with a stale loaf of pumpkin bread into the small green hardcase. Looking around the girlish room I couldn’t find much else of worth to bother with. With a farewell kiss to my favorite stuffed terrier dog, I asked him to watch over this world until I came back.
“You are ready?” The man asked and I nodded. Gently, he took my hand in his own and led me into the world of the Mischief.
I expected finding the world would be some grand affair with portals and doorways and secret chambers. Instead, like magic, the moment we walked out of the house’s front door, we were walking into the front doors of the palace. Footmen in red pulled the gargantuan emerald doors open and instantly the sweet smells of spiced breads and crisp air after a gentle rain pulled at my nose.
“This way.” Gnar’s gentle hand moved towards me, but perhaps instinctively did not touch my arm. Our eyes met and he nodded. I followed him through a vast maze of hallways, each more grand than the first. Aside from the corners which were piled with boxes and satchels of what looked to be treasures, the halls were impeccably tidy. By the fifth hallway Gnar motioned me into a small sitting room lit only by a gentle fire.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked and the rat man’s black eyes twitched towards me as a bright smile covered his lips.
“I only follow the prince’s orders.” He whispered.
“Then prince rat is ok?” I begged for the answer and he held up a hand at my desperation.
“He is safe.” He said. “He has been detained, but shortly he will join us here so please make yourself comfortable. He has made it quite clear that you are a most special guest.”
I let out a huge breath and Gnar chattered a laugh.
“Lady Clary, I will have some food brought in for you, you look as if you haven’t eaten in days.”
He was right, my stomach was growling louder than the flames in the fire could pop.
“Rest friend. In the mischief you are safe, here no one can take you from yourself.”
His words seemed strange to me but nonetheless they comforted my mind.
The warm fire and the plush couch lulled me into a gentle sleep and I didn’t even hear when Gnar came back with the food. When I awoke, unsure of the time in that darkened room I found a silver tray covered with delicacies. A chalice of ice cold milk mixed with cocoa powder, sweetbuns, crunchy puffed cookies, and as if the rats had read my mind, a simple peanut butter and butter sandwich. I devoured the tray’s contents in minutes and then allowed myself to drift back to sleep. For the first time in weeks, no nightmares woke me from my slumber.
I awoke to what sounded like chewing and my mind not quite as awake as my body didn’t recognize the room that surrounded me.
“Mom?” I called, but the moment the word left my lips I felt an oppressive sadness close on me. No, my mother wouldn’t be here, I wasn’t even sure anymore that I knew who my real mother was.
Instead a form in the darkness walked towards me. It was Gnar.
“Gnar good.. morning?” I said and he chuckled.
“Good morning child. The prince will be another few days returning, so I have been asked to chaperone you until then.”
I made a face, I may be a little child but I certainly didn’t need a chaperone.
“No good?” He asked a little sad, “Well perhaps then we can play a game?”
I sat up tall in bed and waited for his game. I felt strangely safe in this unknown palace with this strange rat man, would it be ok to enjoy this dream until I was forced to wake up?
Gnar cocked his head slightly to the side watching me as several emotions passed over my face at once. I pinched my arm just to see, but the rat man still sat before me. Perhaps not a dream then?
“Shall we play?” He asked and I nodded, excited that my eyes had adjusted to the dark light and I could see the room now, just as I had seen it the night before. Nothing had disappeared, so in my simple mind that decided it, this really couldn’t be a dream at all.
“I will grant you two wishes.” He said in his whispery voice, moving to lean against the wall while I perched on the arm of the couch.
“Shouldn’t it be three?” I asked, giddy with joy every moment that passes that convinced me more and more that this world wasn’t just another hallucination.
“How about five?” He responded with a cocky smile.
“No,” he said flatly, “ Two is my limit. I’m not a prince after all.” Smiling knowingly he pointing to my chewed shirt. Prince rat certainly had done a number on the red parka, its two pull strings were snipped awkwardly short and its long pocket had a few extra ragged holes. A few weeks before I had found the prince rat had taken a liking to the fabric and taken it to his nest to “borrow” a couple more pieces, now tattered holes ran along its length.
“So what will you wish for?” Gnar asked and I considered the possibilities.
“I can wish anything?”
“Can I wish to be back home again?”
“For everything to be right again?”
I had read stories before where fairies and genies and elves had granted wishes of foolish humans, I knew a lot could go wrong if one got too greedy. In one story that my father used to read to me it ended with the wife’s nose turning into a sausage! That one scared me for years.
“Can I save my wishes?” I asked carefully.
“Of course. From this life to the next those two wishes belong to only you.”
I smiled, if I saved them then I would have an excuse to explore prince rat’s world for a little longer. If the prince was going to be a couple of days anyways then certainly there was no rush.
“Can you show me the mischief?” I asked.
“Is that a wish?” He looked troubled and I shook my head.
“Not unless it has to be. I just want to look around.”
Gnar brushed back his deep black hair and dark dark eyes regarded me for a moment. I imagined whisker’s on his handsome face and giggled brightly.
“Am I funny?” He asked.
“No,” I assured, “You are cute.”
He seemed to like that because he reached out for my hand, stark white against his olive skin. I gave it to him gladly and before I could blink we were inside the inner palace.
“Its beautiful.” I whispered beside him as we walked the length of the great hallway. Everywhere was cluttered with artwork, shiny statues and woven brightly dyed fabrics. Things were toppled this way and that, as if someone had started to decorate and then gotten quite distracted with something else. It was a coordinated mess, just like a rats nest was supposed to be.
“The Mischief is a sanctuary, it's a better place than what you know now.” He said. I nodded, I could hardly argue with that.
“How come the prince always plays with me?” I asked, “Shouldn’t he be busy doing prince stuff?”
Gnar stopped and pointed to a glass case on the wall.
“This is something of a clock for us.” He said tapping it gently.
It wasn’t like my father’s clock at all. Thirteen little glass buckets on the inside tipped this way and that, continuously filled and emptied of colored sand as they turned. Occasionally the entire case would twist to one side or another and a faint chime would sound. Had Gnar not pointed it out I would never have even thought it a clock, a wall decoration perhaps, but it seemed far from logical in its movements and if anything time was logical.
“Our time is much different than yours,” Gnar explained, “So when the Bosha-mi is gone in your world it is only a fraction of time in ours.”
“So if I return home will I be an old crone?” I laughed and Gnar shook his head.
“If you leave the Mischief it will be with a guide. The time is very particular; traveling back and forth can be dangerous unless you know how to do it. It's a danger for those unfamiliar, but it does help us to keep those not welcome to the Mischief from ever capturing our city.”
“Gnar you know how to travel through time?”
He nodded, “I learned from the Bosha-bo himself.” His smile seemed a bit sad and I pat his arm once. Turning to look at me still only his lips smiled, his eyes seemed elsewhere. A strange fellow this guide.
I tapped on the glass case, admiring a tiny waterfall of turquoise sand as it mixed with cornstalk yellow. A sudden chime made me jump and Gnar chuckled.
“So no one can get here other than the rats?”
“ What would happen if someone just came or went on their own?”
“Someone untrained?” He asked, grimacing in horror he fingered the emblem on his lapel.
“If that were to happen it would not end well.”
It was all quite fascinating and I could have looked at that sand filled clock for hours had Gnar not started heading down a different hallway, towards the scent of sweetbreads.
The kitchen was twice as big as my uncle’s dairy farm and the scent of milk and cheese nearly as abundant. Piled high with boxes and bags and cartons of every kind of food and drink. It reminded me of the last time I had looked underneath my bed. The prince was fond of stashing the goodies that I saved for him from my meals. Despite the mess of foods, like the hallways, the kitchen was impeccably clean and high windows lit the room brightly.
“Did you guys hoard all of this?”
Gnar chuckled and handed her a sweetbun. “Most of it, we have our customs afterall.”
I giggled as I imagined how the storage cats must react when these kinds of rats walk in the door. They must run in terror, it was no wonder they had so much gathered.
The kitchen was bustling with activity as rats darted all over in both human and true form, gathering ingredients as the most welcoming aromas filled the air. Every which way I stepped there were flashes of crimson and blue and black as little rat bodies scurried around on their chores. Two rats in the corner stood on their hind legs and smacked at eachother. Another pair touched mouths before darting off into other directions. A small group of copper colored rats tussled in a bag of flour, whipping up quite a storm. From the rafters to the fireplace the place was filled with rodents. The Mischief was like a page right out of my mother’s book of greatest fears, but to me it seemed like a most splendid fantasy.
“We can eat on the veranda.” Gnar said, “There is someone who I would like you to meet.”
Outside the air was fresh and looking over the veranda rail I saw a land not too different from my own. But where cow fields and barns should have stood I saw only beautiful green grasses and deep blue lakes. A sunrise hung over the morning sky, swirled like a peach and vanilla sherbet, my stomach rumbled again.
“Here here.” Gnar motioned for me to sit across from a dazzlingly beautiful woman. She had white blonde hair and eyes the blue of a summer sky. Blue eyes, so she couldn’t be a rat then. With what seemed a forced smile she nodded to me and I nodded back, suddenly overly conscious of my dirty skirts and rumpled hair.
“Chuh” She said in a clipped sound, lifting her chin to Gnar.
“Chuh,” he responded in like and my eyes widened at the exchange.
“This is the princess Denna” Gnar said in introduction. “I imagine that you will both have much to talk about.” With that he took his leave and I was left standing stupidly in front of the table, utterly baffled as to what I was meant to do.
“Sit” the woman commanded and I did as she told me. It was a strange table, split in the middle and slanted so far down that it touched the floor. My silent question was answered when the woman rung a small silver bell and a mass of black and brown sped across the floor from the kitchens.
“Ah.” I lifted my feet until I was crouched on my chair. As fast as lightning thirty rats darted up the table’s middle, pulling with them on a satin linen cloth the morning meal. I smiled at the feat. All those rats pulling together, not even a drop of cider was spilled as the feast settled before us.
The princess frowned and as a little brown rat hesitated in front of her. She batted him with the back of her hand and he fell to the floor. I opened my mouth to protest, but the little fellow skittered away before I could come to his defense.
“I don’t see why they lump us all together.” She grumbled. “You are nothing like me. We come from different worlds, completely different times, its only our form which is similar.”
“Different worlds?” I asked and she nodded. “I certainly wasn’t born in this awful place. I am from a world that values morals and cleanliness.”
I blushed, trying to brush at my skirts a bit more without being obvious.
“Morals ma’am?” I asked and she glared in my direction.
“You’ll address me as princess.” Her firm voice surprised me.
I gulped and nodded quickly.
“Yes morals.” She continued, “I’m certain that my true family are not thieves.”
I knew she meant the rat’s stash, but it was their culture to borrow from others, it was their nature, certainly they couldn’t be blamed for that.
“The Bosha value nothing but riches and meals.” She complained, shoveling a forkful of what looked to be some sort of meat quiche into her mouth. Her silvery blonde hair hung around her, curling over her shoulders like waterfalls and I couldn’t help but stare. What would Jonny think about this woman? Certainly she wasn’t rot ugly like me.
“The Bosha?” I asked, I had heard Gnar use the word once before.
“The Bosha are the royal family,” She explained, “The word implies that one is a leader or a boss or a ruler of some sort.”
I nodded as if I understood. Royal family? My mother once read me a story about a far away time where knights ran the lands and fought dragons, but somehow I couldn’t see the people of the Mischief doing that. Rats preferred to skitter around and be secretive rather than fight.
“The Bosha-mi seems to know you.” She said, her ice blue eyes half lidded as they scanned my face.
“Bosha… mi?” I was embarrassed to be so confused, she seemed to expect me to be able to follow her rather peculiar train of thought.
“Bosha-mi is the prince.” She said, “Bosha is ruler and mi is something small, so small ruler is a prince.”
The way in which she taught me seemed strangely teacher like. She rolled her eyes in annoyance and sighed countless times, but she pronounced the words slowly and clearly, waiting for me to repeat them back to her and correcting the pronunciation until I got it right. By the end of the first course I decided that I liked the icy princess, she seemed confident rather than mean, lonely but not standoffish.
“How long have you been here?” I asked and she laughed, “I told you, I was brought here, stolen really, as an infant. I only know about my world and my family from what I have managed to con out of the Mi-ohs”
She didn’t even wait for my question this time before adding, “An Oh is a stasher, a very important member of the Mischief. Really the most important after the Bosha. The Oh go out and gather anything that is needed for the Mischief and secretly bring it back. The Mi-oh are the best at stashing because they are small and naturally skilled at traveling through the worlds.”
“Through time?” I asked and she nodded.
“A Oh-bo would be a big stasher and since big stashers are generally ineffective at their job, you know knocking into chair legs and setting off traps, the word basically means an idiot or a fool.” A small smile curled at her lips. “Perhaps that's what I will call you then? Oh-bo? Since you haven’t told me your name yet.”
I gasped and a blush crept over my face again. “Clary ma….princess.” I responded, humiliated by my own rudeness and conveniently forgetting that the princess also had never introduced herself properly.
“Well whatever.” She said with a shrug of her shoulders. “Since Gnar has seen it necessary to pawn you off on me I might as well show you around for a bit.”
I was cheered by this, the castle seemed extremely large and it would be convenient to have the princess to explain the language as we went. She dropped her napkin to the ground carelessly and walked off towards the doorway. Stooping down I picked it up and set it carefully back on the table when I heard her calling, “Hurry up Oh-bo, my time is precious.”
It took half a day to get through only a quarter of the palace’s above ground rooms. The princess’s room was not too far from my own quarters but significantly more spacious.
“The rats like cramped quarters.” She said, “But as a human I explained to them that its rather suffocating, so I expanded until I took over this whole floor.”
She pointed out the candles hanging from silver holders on the walls.
“No electricity like in your world.” She said and I had to wonder how exactly she knew of my world. “You see they tried it out, but the rats just kept chewing the wires to pieces. Superior species my ass.” She snorted out a laugh and I giggled as I imagined the chaos of a fully wired rats nest. Prince rat had taken a liking to my radio on the second week in my new house and the poor black box had lain prone and useless ever since.
When we entered the princess’s rooms I suddenly felt much more comfortable than I had since I had left my true home. Spun sugar edging and toffee colored tables filled the space with a serene elegance which personally I felt suited a warmer personality, but found beautiful nonetheless. Rich linens covered a bed the size of the entire room I slept in at my uncle’s house, but what was most impressive was the books.
Spines of indigo and lime green, apricot and rasberry created a rainbow out of the shelves. Some of the titles were vaguely familiar, classics that I was sure also stood upon my own family’s shelves. Others were written in foreign hands with foreign words and I wondered if the princess really knew how to read so many scripts.
“If nothing else the Mischief values knowledge.” The princess said, nodding to her collection. “They steal from all corners of every world. As more Mi-oh are born their empire grows. As it is there isn’t a single item that you can possibly dream of that they cannot obtain.” She held up a glowing rock on a silver chain. As I watched the orb twisted until it was shaped like a crescent moon, color changing from black to glittering gold.
“Pherros.” She said setting the rock down. The moment it left her hold it turned back to the plain black orb. “It detects one’s spirit energy and reflects it in the shape.”
I wanted more than anything else to hold the necklace. So entranced I hardly noticed when she tossed a book on the counter beside me.
“ If you care to learn, the teacher’s here can speak in every foreign tongue. Not that you’ll ever get a chance to use it, but it passes the time.” She shrugged and pointed to the book, titled in a language that I hardly recognized. I smiled politely.
“Thank you princess, but I’m not too good at school. Mama said its because my head is full of rocks.” Thinking of my mother made my stomach hurt. “Besides, I have plenty of classes back home to keep me busy.”
“Home?” She asked, eyebrows raising in surprise and I nodded.
“I am only here for a visit.” I said and she frowned.
“I see, well if that's how they are misleading you then I hope that your visit is successful.”
Without another word she led me out into the hallway and closed the door in my face. I stood dumfounded for a moment, wondering what it could have been that I said that had offended my new friend. All I could figure was that she was sad that I wouldn’t be staying with her forever. The thought made me like the princess more, at least the picture I had painted of her in my mind. Was she crying in her rooms at the thought of loosing a friend? Just as I raised my hand to knock upon the door I caught a flash of red behind me and whirled around.
It was Gnar.
“You scared me.” I scolded and he stepped back.
“You are alone?” He asked and I nodded. “I suppose it is a bit much to ask the Bosha-lo to groom the Mi-lo.” I tried to follow and gave up. All I knew was that someone hadn’t wanted to groom me and honestly I was pretty glad that whoever it was didn’t.
“Very well. I shall show you the outer walls.” Gnar gestured toward the hallways and as he walked I followed at his heels like a puppy, boots clacking on the elegant marble with every step.
Outside, on top of ancient gray stone, great turrets hung in the clouds. The castle gate was hung with wreathes and great stone sculptures surrounded its center, crumbling in bits but seeming to somehow hold together by sheer willpower.
Fountains played pleasant chimes and the gardens smelled of berries. Decorations were strung lazily in the courtyard, as if for a party that had ended ages ago.
“How old is the Mischief?,” I asked absently as I rubbed my hands along the castle’s smooth wall.
“Ageless.” Gnar said. He pointed towards the sky. “There is no sun in our sky yet it is bright, no moon in our night but our oceans still splash waves upon our shores. This world works through the hearts of those who live here, and without our Bosha’s wisdom and love we would not be able to offer sanctuary to the other worlds.”
“But, there has to have been a start right?” I asked and he shook his head.
“For those whom time has no boundaries there is no time.” He said and I remembered what he had said about traveling through times.
“So how old are you?” I asked and Gnar chuckled, dark eyes turning to stare at me, I forced a smile on my lips so that I didn’t seem nervous, but something about the talk of age worried me.
“I am also ageless.” He explained. “It is not a question that I know the answer to.”
“So you don’t have birthdays?” I asked and when he burst out in a light laugh I frowned.
“That's a shame.” I whispered and silently turned away from my guide rat.
“So, the prince rat is really a prince?” I asked and he nodded.
“Indeed, the Bosha-mi is our king’s youngest son.”
Althought I could hardly believe hitting it so smartly on the mark, I smiled brightly at my cleverness.
“I knew it!”
As the afternoon drew on and the light in the sunless sky began to fade, Gnar explained to me their world.
The Bosha-bo was the head rat, he was the king, the emperor, the president, everything to his people. They spoke of him fondly and I sincerely wished to meet him even if it was a foolish thought. After the Bosha-bo were his children, dozens of names were rattled off as Gnar told me of their epic journeys and rise to power. One part of the rats world that I loved, Bosha-mi both male and female were equally treasured by their people, equally respected.
“So you said that the prince rat is the youngest child?”
Gnar nodded. “The people have a special place in their hearts for the Bosha-mi. He is unequalled in his desire for knowledge, the people respect his energy.”
I smiled, feeling that a compliment for my friend was the same as one for me.
All of a sudden a bell chimed and Gnar’s eyes shut for several moments. When they opened again he said nothing, but led me back to my rooms.
“Is something wrong?” I asked and he shook his head. “Please keep to your rooms for now.” He said with a smile and for the second time that day the door shut in my face.
It didn’t take me long to find out what the chime had been announcing. Even through the thick wooden door I could hear the whispers, the laughter and cheers. My prince rat was home and the castle’s inhabitants were thrilled. Ignoring Gnar’s instructions I threw open the door, and following the flow of tiny furry bodies streaming down the hallway, I finally got to meet my prince.