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Between the Walls
"I'm not finished foraging," Fredle protested. There was something on the floor behind the table leg. It didn't smell like food, but you could never be sure. Besides, if it wasn't food, Fredle wondered, what was it?
"That's metal," Axle said, adding, "Mice don't eat metal, Fredle," as if he didn't already know that.
"You're a poet and you don't know it," he snapped back, touching the round, thin disk with his nose. In the dim light of the nighttime kitchen, where all colors were dark, this thing gleamed as silver as the pipes in the cupboard under the sink. It smelled of humans. Fredle wondered what they might use it for, and why its edges were ridged. He wondered about the design on its surface. He'd never seen anything like itwas that a nose sticking out? An eye? And where was the body, if this was a head? He wondered, but he wasn't about to ask his cousin. Sometimes he got tired of knowing less and being bossed around. "Metal rhymes with Fredle," he explained, to irritate her.
"I'm not waiting around any longer," Axle announced, and she scurried off. Fredle planned to follow, just not right away. He tried licking the metal thing. Cool, and definitely not food. He raised his head and, ears cocked, peered into the darkness.
A mouse could never know what awaited him out in the kitchen. There might be crusts of bread or bits of cookies, chunks of crackers, forgotten carrot ends, or the tasteless thick brown lumps that sometimes rolled up against a wall, behind the stove, or under the humming refrigerator. There were brown things in the cat's bowl, too, if you were hungry enough, if you dared. On the pantry shelf there might be a smear of sweet honey on the side of a glass jar, or a cardboard box of oatmeal or cornflakes to be chewed through, and sometimes it was Cap'n Crunch, which was Fredle's personal favorite, although, as his mother often warned him, his sweet tooth was going to get him into trouble. In the kitchen there were drops of water clinging to the pipes in the cupboard under the sink, enough to satisfy everybody's thirst. In the kitchen, at night, you never knew what good surprises might be waiting.
However, any mouse out foraging in any kitchen knows to be afraid, and Fredle was no exception. He was out on the open floor under the kitchen table, with only one of its thick legs to hide behind, should the need arise. This flat, round metal thing was worthless, so Fredle moved on. He found a pea to nibble on and swallowed quickly, ears alert for any unmouselike sound, and wondered where Axle had gone off to. He knew better than to stop eating before he was entirely full. If you forage only at night, and always in great danger, you don't stop before you are full enough. Otherwise, you might have to wake early and wait a long, hungry time before the kitchen emptied and the mice could go out, foraging. Fredle would finish the pea before he ran off to find his cousin. He nibbled and chewed.
The dark silence snapped in half. The kitchen mice froze, and listened. Then they all dashed back to the small hole in one of the pantry doors, shoving and crowding one another to get to a place where the catalerted by the sound they all knew was a trap, closingcould not get at them. Only when he was safe on the pantry floor, behind the closed doors, did Fredle step aside and let the rest of the kitchen mice pass him by. He was waiting for Grandfather, who was old and slow. When Grandfather squeezed through the hole, the two of them climbed up between the walls together.
At their nest, the mice counted themselves"Mother?" "Grandfather?" "Kortle?" "Kidle?" and on through all fifteen of themand were breathing a collective sigh of relief when Uncle Dakle came peeping over the rim. "Is she here?" he asked. "Our Axle, is she with your Fredle?"
Went, they all thought, but nobody said it out loud. Right away they started to forget Axle. Fredle, although he knew it was against the rules, silently recalled everything he could about his cousin, the quick sound of her nails on the floorboards, the gleam of her white teeth when she yawned at one of Grandfather's stories, the proud lift of her tail. "Why" he started to ask, because now he was wondering why they had to forget, as if a went mouse had never lived with them, but he was silenced by an odd sound, and there was something he smelled.?.?.?.
Everybody froze, as mice do when they are afraid, waiting motionless and, they hoped, invisible. Everybody listened. Was it a mouse sound they were hearing? It couldn't be a cat, could it? Something was scratching lightly along the floorboards. Was that breathing? What could smell like that? What if the cat had found a way in between the walls?
The voice was just a thin sound in the darkness, like wood creaking.
"Axle!" He scrambled up onto the rim of the nest.
"Stay where you are, Fredle," his mother said. "You don't know"
But Fredle was already gone. He landed softly on the wide board on which their nests rested.
"Axle," Uncle Dakle asked. "Is that you?"
"Yes but I only want Fredle," came Axle's voice, still weak. "Go home and tell them I'm safe."
When Fredle got to Axle, she was huddled behind one of the thick pieces of wood that rose up into the darkness overhead, backed up against the lath-and-plaster wall. As soon as he got close, he asked, "Is that blood? Is that what blood smells like?"
"Dumb question," Axle said.
Without hesitating, as if he already knew what to do, Fredle started to lick at her wounded right ear. "What happened?" he asked.
"You and your questions," she said. Her voice was still pitched low, almost breathless. "If they see me they'll push me out to went, with all this blood."
Fredle knew she was right. A mouse who was wounded or sick, or too old or too weak to forage, was pushed out onto the pantry floor during the day and left there, never seen again, went. Nobody knew if the humans did it or the cat did it or something else, something unimaginable.