by Bogi Takàcs
Sevenscore seven lands away and across the seas on the edge of the world, beyond the feet of the glass mountains where pigs frolic in the dirt, on the island plains where àthree borders meet, there lived a wise and wizened old man who loved to walk the meadows every evening.
On one warm afternoon late into spring, he got into his boat and rowed across the stream by his cottage. He strolled around the small and wet meadow, not minding the mosquitoes that preyed on every warm-blooded creature except for him. He knew the secrets that kept the mosquitoes at bay, and they were all in awe of his knowledge.
All the animals of the island plains treated him with careful respect, keeping their distance unless summoned by his words that could flow like nectar or smart like red pepper. Only one little mouse dared to approach him, one little mouse from a faraway land.
The man pushed his felt hat back on his head and rubbed his eyes. “Who are you, little mouse?”
The mouse’s tiny button-round eyes beheld him with a steady gaze. He crouched down and held out a hand to the tiny creature.
The mouse hopped into his palm, and it was only then that he noticed it had minuscule blue-and-white slippers on its feet. He knew this for a sign, and he gently placed the mouse on his shoulder and headed back to his boat.
He put down the mouse on the table in the cottage, next to his miraculous spicebox whose carvings told stories, his wood and canvas bread-holder and his table-knife. The mouse sniffed the bread-holder and squeaked. The man sliced two loaves of bread, smeared them with butter, then sprinkled red pepper on them from the spicebox. He bit into his loaf and placed the other loaf in front of the mouse.
As the mouse chewed its first tiny morsel, it shook, rolled forward over its right shoulder and turned into a young human girl.
“Uncle,” she said and bent her head slightly, “it seems like it is my fate to live among people. I lived in many lands, but you were the first to invite me into your home and offer me bread to eat.”
“So be it, then,” the man said. His own children had left the wet and treacherous island plains for far-off lands many seasons ago, and his wife already watched him from the heavens above. His heart rejoiced that he found companionship in his old age.
Years passed, and the girl grew into a young woman. Her grayish-brown hair that had covered the top of her head like a mouse’s coat grew into beautiful curly locks falling to her shoulders. She always accompanied her uncle on his boat rides, weaving in and out between the small islands of the plains, and he taught her all his secret knowledge about the animals and the plants, the truths of longevity and sudden demise, the constellations in the night sky. She learned everything eagerly, but she would only carry herself with measured little steps like a mouse, and she refused to remove her slippers even when she trod in the swamps. The man only shook his head, but never reprimanded her.
On one cheerful and sparkly summer day, the girl stood in front of her uncle, stared at him with eyes dark like coat-buttons, and said, “Father, it is time that I marry.”
“So be it, then,” said the old man, “and who shall you marry?”
“I have traveled many lands and I have seen much. I shall only marry the best of the best.”
The man pushed his felt hat back on his head and said nothing. The next morning he rowed to the large town in one corner of the plains and bought food for threescore three weeks, then rowed back home and filled up the larder.
“I will find a suitable husband for you, be not afraid,” he told his beautiful button-eyed and mousy-haired daughter. “I’ve filled up the larder for you, I’ve instructed the mosquitoes and flies to stay away. Just be patient. You can use everything in the cottage, but do not touch the jar on the top shelf.”
The girl made a promise, then the two parted to a rainfall of tears.
The man rowed to one of the small islands, well-hid by gnarly trees. He tied the boat to a thick root and got out. Then he blew the whistle around his neck.
His magical horse appeared. “What do you need, my sweet little master?”
The old man coughed, pulled himself to his full height and said, “It has been a long time since I was your sweet little master, my loyal horse.”
“Indeed,” said the horse, not in the least startled to see his master now well into age. “You haven’t summoned me in many seasons.”
“What use would I have for a horse on the island plains? But now I need your services – I need to ascend to the heavens.”
“Hop on, sweet little master,” said the horse. “For old time’s sake.”
They galloped along the road of the sky armies and rose to the heavens. The wise and wizened old man could see his wife from afar, but he could not reach her beyond the gates of death. He shook his head. “This is not why we are here. You need to ascend even higher.”
They ascended to the glowing house of the Sun and the Moon. They knocked and the Moon let them in.
“We need to talk to the Sun,” the old man said. He would settle for no less.
“He is out making his circuit,” the Moon responded. He led them inside and gave golden oats to the horse and golden bread to the horse’s master. Fireflies floated around the room, their lights reflected in the tall mirrors on each wall, but the horse was courteous and did not flick its tail to chase them away and risk breaking the mirrors by accident.
As soon as they finished their meal, the Sun arrived. The wise and wizened old man told him about the request of his daughter.
The Sun flared up and it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not burn to death.
“I am flattered, but I’m not the best of the best,” the Sun said. “The Cloud is stronger than me, for it can obscure my light.”
The man nodded and led the horse out. They descended halfway along the road of the sky armies to visit the house of the Cloud.
The Cloud led them in and offered them silver oats and silver bread. They ate to their heart’s content while they gazed at the beautiful silver plates covering the walls, each telling a story. The old man recognized the images from the spicebox, but he pushed his felt hat back on his head and said nothing.
It was the custom of people of the island plains not to speak while eating, so the man waited until they finished their meal before making his request. The entire room darkened, and it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not die of fright. “I am flattered, but I’m not the best of the best,” said the Cloud. “The Wind is stronger than me, because he can chase me to and fro as he pleases.”
The wise and wizened old man said goodbye to the Cloud and led out his horse. They descended even further on the road of the sky armies, but they could not find the wind, for it was busy running to and fro. They went inside the Wind’s airy cottage, sat down and waited.
Eventually the Wind tired out and dragged himself home, throwing himself into his hammock. It was only after he rested a while that he could get up and offer his guests shining copper oats and copper bread. After they ate, the old man made his request for the third time that day.
The cottage turned so cold, the air so sharp, that it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not freeze to death. “I am flattered,” said the Wind, though it didn’t look flattered in truth, “but I’m not the best of the best. That mountain down there, just below my cottage, it is much stronger than me, for I have tried to blow it away all day and I could not manage to make it budge as much as a hair’s breadth.”
The man excused himself and led out his horse. They stared down and saw the old Mátra below the Wind’s airy cottage, at the feet of the road of the sky armies. They galloped down the sparkling road and found themselves in front of the old Mátra, back on solid ground, but far, very far from the island plains.
The wise and wizened old man greeted the mountain with courtesy. Alas, the mountain did not offer them
anything to eat beyond the grapes growing on its southern slopes. The old man ate to his fill, but his horse only neighed in displeasure.
“Don’t worry, we shall be home soon,” said the old man to his horse, then he turned to the mountain and presented his daughter’s request.
The Mátra shook and for a moment the old man feared it would erupt, but nothing happened that would’ve endangered their lives. “Me? Bah! I’m not the best of the best! I can’t even crush these little mice that tickle my feet!”
The wise and wizened old man nodded and started to lead his horse in a circle around the slopes. They passed grape orchards and forests, then they finally saw the entrance into the kingdom of the mice, its burrows tunneling into the feet of the mountain.
The old man and the horse rolled over their shoulders and became small like mice. They entered the kingdom, offering morsels of heavenly bread and pieces of heavenly oats from the folds of their clothing to the heavily armed guards at the gates.
They allowed themselves to be led to the king’s throne room, decorated with all manner of seeds and dried fruit in intricate patterns. A choir sang and plucked their instruments made out of mouse whiskers tied across halves of walnut shells.
The old man curtsied, and even the horse made an attempt at reproducing the human gesture. The king smiled at them, his coat-button eyes glistening in the light of the tiny lanterns. The wise and wizened old man offered his daughter’s request and the king licked a paw in consternation.
“I am the king of mice, burrowers and tunnelers who can bring down the tallest mountains. Despite that, you’re the first one to call me the best of the best. I can visit her, but how will a human girl marry me?”
“Do not worry, Your Highness,” the old man said. “I know the hidden ways of the world.”
The king smoothed down the fur on his chest, his paw twitching just a little. “Let us prepare! I will ride on my choicest carriage, accompanied by my bravest warriors.”
The old man shook his head. “If I may, Your Highness – the island plains are far, very far from the old Mátra. By the time you get there on your carriage, my daughter will turn into an elderly matron.” He was courteous and didn’t remind the king of the life span of mice.
“Well then, what do you propose?” asked the king.
“Just hop into my pocket and my trusty steed will take us there.”
They went outside, the old man and the horse rolled over their shoulders and grew to their full size. The old man crouched and the king hopped into his pocket, alongside two of his guards.
They flew back to the island plains and landed in front of the cottage. The girl came running and she gasped when she saw the majestic horse. How much larger was her surprise when her uncle set down the three well-dressed mice on the kitchen table!
“You haven’t opened the jar on the top shelf, have you?” he asked.
The girl shook her head.
“Then please fetch it for me.”
“What’s in it, uncle?”
“Salt from the tears of a long gone princess, a curative that cures all manner of ailments and soothes the soul.”
She found this answer strange, but she stepped to the shelves and fetched the jar regardless.
The wise and wizened old man sprinkled the king with salt from the jar. Everyone held back their breath.
“Odd,” the old man said. “I was sure this would work.”
“Are you trying to turn him into a human?” the button-eyed girl asked.
The mouse-king gasped. “How would I rule my kingdom as a human?”
His guards stepped in front of him and drew their minuscule swords fashioned from tiny twigs and discarded doornails. “Stand down. I need to think this over,” the king said and cast a surprisingly shy glance at the girl.
The girl smiled at him, then quietly reached into the jar of salt and licked her fingers. She turned into a mouse on the spot.
“So be it, then,” the wise and wizened old man said. “Jump into my pocket.”
The girl said, “Uncle, do you see my slippers? With them I can move faster than the wind, faster than the speed of thought, if I just run instead of walking. Allow me to show you…”
She pushed the guards aside and grabbed hold of the stunned mouse-king. The two of them vanished in a poof of dust.
The old man pushed his felt hat back on his head, put the confused bodyguards in his pocket, jumped on his horse and flew off in the direction of the Mátra. By the time he arrived, his daughter and the mouse-king had already professed their love to each other. He was happy she had finally found a good match. Even though he understood the mouse-king wasn’t exactly the mightiest being on the earth and in the heavens, probably not even in his own eyes, still the old man was certain the king was the best of the best for her.
Seven days, seven nights, sevenscore days, sevenscore nights the mice celebrated, while the old Mátra grumbled about the jubilations and the people were puzzled by the high-pitched songs coming from burrows in the ground.
Perhaps you yourself have heard the mice sing?
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular-science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and their works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Apex and Jabberwocky, among others.