“Are you sure?” Kicker asked, twitching his whiskers.
“Yes, I’m telling you. It’s dead.”
Perrimin and his closest friend Kicker, whose given name was Siminor, were both behind the rock that was too small to hide either of them, both watching the scorpion.
They had been returning from foraging duty that night when they decided to take the shortcut that only the colony’s defenders took, because there were so many wide open spaces where enemies could swoop down or pounce upon any mouse who might venture there.
According to the defenders, the route could be as safe as the long way back. It was a game of chance that most mice were too sensible to play. But Perrimin had not been feeling sensible. He was feeling bold. And they were late. He and Kicker had taken the shortcut a few times before and found that the defenders were right, there was no particular danger. Perrimin had even began to wonder who had declared the route a danger in the first place. Likely it was the colony defenders, so they could make themselves appear braver for taking that course. Never mind that it inconvenienced every other mouse.
This time, however, they had indeed encountered a danger. The scorpion barred their way home. It stood just before a long ragged log that spanned the rushing waters over which Perrimin and Kicker had to pass. The beast was huge, a little bigger than Perrimin.
At first, they thought the scorpion was playing the rock, holding still so that prey would unknowingly wander close enough to be stung. They watched and wondered if it were sleeping. But after a span of time while they hid in the hollow of a tree, one standing watch while the other slept, they realized the scorpion had not moved at all.
Perrimin slowly and yet recklessly approached the scorpion, edging closer and closer, breath held, staying close to the ground, ready to dash away. He had nudged one pincer with his nose and backed away. The scorpion had not moved. Perrimin tried again. He crept forward, he nudged, backed away. The stinger never rose, the pincers never reacted, and the legs never moved. The scorpion was indeed dead. And an idea was blooming in Perrimin’s mind.
“It’s still in our way,” Kicker said, kicking a pebble away. “I’m not climbing over it. And I’m not helping you push it away. I’ll carry you on my back, all the way to the colony if need be, but I’m not touching that beast.”
It wasn’t the beast itself that Kicker feared, Perrimin knew. Kicker was no coward. He was just sensible as all mice should be. It was the venom he feared. And perhaps death.
“I have a better idea than just pushing it out of the way.” Perrimin wrapped his tail over his friend’s shoulder. “We should drag it back to the colony and let everyone think we faced it and killed it.”
“Are you daystruck?” Kicker said. “We should go, and leave it be.”
Perrimin leaned in closer. “We’ll be heroes.” At last.
Perrimin was known for being moderately clever and of good use to the colony. But what he longed for, what he had longed for since he was a little pup, was one spectacular accomplishment. A deed done that inspired gasps and wide-eyed admiration from friends and neighbors. And shame-bowed heads from enemies. Not that he had any specific enemies. Save perhaps Garigon, the defender who was called Trapjaws. He earned the epithet because of the way he bit and held on when attacking an enemy. Other defenders used the strategy, but Garigon held on so relentlessly that mice began to say his jaws were a trap that could not be escaped. Perrimin envied him.
While foraging, he often daydreamed about rescuing the colony from various predators, each more sinister than the last, silently slithering snakes and sharp-taloned owls. He fantasized about saving some poor mum’s pups from drowning or being stolen by feral cats. He dreamt of himself as a defender. He was clever enough, but not strong or fast enough. So he dreamt of besting them at their own game by protecting the colony better than they could, taking a bit of the puff out of their chests, as it were. Especially that Trapjaws.
Perrimin looked expectantly at his friend.
Kicker’s gaze flitted from the scorpion to the way past the scorpion and back to Perrimin. “Heroes?”
The colony abided in an abandoned dwelling of the giants. The giants were a cursed folk. No whiskers, fur, or tails had they, and they walked clumsily on their hind legs, but it was said they were clever. And though Perrimin had never seen one, save in his daydreams, he had seen evidence of their cleverness. One such proof was among the items he had foraged that night. It looked like a long thin whisker, but it had no color, and it was smooth and strong. The leaders of the colony said the giants called it “twine.” Perrimin chewed the twine into smaller pieces and tied the pieces around each of the dead scorpion’s pincers, watching the beast as he worked, feeling his heart thud in his chest, feeling his fur stand up. He was exhausted when he was done, though the work had taken but a few moments.
He took the twine in his teeth and offered one piece to Kicker. Neither of them wanted to turn their backs on the beast, nor to whatever dangers might lie ahead. So Perrimin faced forward, while Kicker faced the scorpion and walked backward.
They tugged and tugged, moving the scorpion over the log and beyond. And with each tug, Perrimin felt more and more relieved. Each tug gave him more confidence that the scorpion was not just faking death. Each tug brought them closer to home. And most of all, each tug brought them closer to glory.
But they soon grew tired. They found shelter and decided to rest and have a bit to eat before continuing on. Kicker went to find food, while Perrimin stood watch over the most extraordinary thing he had ever foraged.
As he waited and daydreamed about their triumphant return, Perrimin realized that no one would believe that he and Kicker had faced, fought, and killed this scorpion. If it wasn’t witnessed, it wasn’t true. Even a defender may have balked at facing a living scorpion so large. And if Perrimin was known for anything, it was a bit of cleverness, not strength and courage. Would they be fooled? No, he decided. Mice were a clever folk. As much as they feared a living scorpion, they would not be moved by a dead one. They would figure out for themselves that the scorpion must have been dead already when Perrimin and Kicker found it. And there would be no triumph, no glory.
“As much as they feared a living scorpion…” Perrimin muttered to himself. And his mind began to whir with another idea.
Even clever folk can be fooled if they are overcome with fear and dread. And the sight of a living scorpion the size of the behemoth they were dragging would do just that, fill them with fear and dread. And so Perrimin hatched a plan. A plan to hide Kicker in the scorpion’s shell, to have him come into the colony and terrorize the mice, so that Perrimin could dash in and drive off the “scorpion.” He and Kicker would run out of sight. They would both bring the scorpion husk back. And the mice in the colony would believe that Kicker had found Perrimin joined in battle with the scorpion and helped him save the colony from the venomous enemy.
But when Kicker returned and Perrimin explained the plan, Kicker rejected the plan. He afraid of the scorpion husk being so close to him, and afraid that the colony defenders would kill him or expose him. And Perrimin realized that he was right. He decided he’d wear the scorpion husk himself . Their roles would be reversed. He didn’t mind sharing glory with a mouse like Kicker, a friend. So long as the colony defenders didn’t get any glory.
“How do we stop them from chasing the scorpion?” Kicker said of the defenders. The mice who were chosen to be defenders were the strongest and fastest mice in the colony.
“We don’t. We tell them it’s coming. It’s no lie,” Perrimin said when he caught the doubtful expression on his friend’s face. Lying to the colony defenders was among the worst offenses one could commit. “The scorpion is coming. I just won’t tell you where I’m coming from.”
“No, Perrim, that’s not honest. And we can’t do anything that would endanger the colony. I won’t lie to the defenders . Not even for you.”
Perrimin saw the resolve in his usually easygoing friend’s eye. And he realized what folly he had almost committed. Such was the value of a good friend. He sighed. “You’re right. That we can’t do. But we have an advantage that the colony’s enemies don’t. We know our way in and out of that colony. We can be cleverer and faster than the defenders.”
Perrimin watched his friend, as Kicker thought about the plan. And he spoke words to convince him. No harm would come from it as there was no real scorpion involved. And Perrimin would be quick. He had to be, before someone realized there was something odd about the scorpion. It was trickery, but that was their trade. That was how mice like Perrimin and Kicker survived when out in the wild foraging where enemies prowled and hunted. And if they frightened their folk for a little while, they would make up for it by dragging the dead scorpion into the colony, putting those fears to rest.
Finally, Kicker agreed.
Of course, things didn’t go as planned. They went better. Perrimin snuck close to the colony to gauge how best to get past the defenders and make their grand entrance.
He learned that most of the defenders, including Trapjaws, were already occupied. A trio of cats was seen prowling around outside the colony and preying on any mice who tried to enter or leave. One of the cats was even slim and small enough that she had gotten partway inside of a little-known entrance before the defenders drove her out. The defenders would chase after such predators and chase them so far that they would decide the colony was not worth the effort.
So the colony was already in a state of anxiety when Perrimin walked into the central courtyard dressed as a scorpion. He stopped and almost changed his mind when he saw that all the mice in the courtyard had stopped as well. Any moment, he expected angry cries of “false mouse!” or worse as they realized what they were really seeing. But all were silent. The courtyard that was always full of squeaks and rustling and chuckling at that time of night was as silent as it was in the middle of the day. He turned slowly and walked along. He saw what he expected, fear and dread and panic. Pups were being spirited away deep into nests. Fur was bristling. Backs were heaving from labored and panicked breaths.
There were no defenders in the courtyard. It was not their job to keep order within the colony, but to defend it from without. But Perrimin had expected that some of the colonists might try to attack him. Mice could be fierce if threatened. But their nerves were already partly unraveled. And he began to get a sick feeling in his gut from the way his own folk were looking at him. Perrimin wanted to flee and leave them be. He wondered where Kicker was.
And then Kicker came running up.
It seemed absurd now what Kicker did, gasping and dashing forth to face the “scorpion.” Kicker squeaked fiercely and angrily and Perrimin backed away. He had his tail wrapped around the scorpion’s tail. He raised the stinger toward Kicker. But even as the “scorpion” was being driven back, the other mice did not come forward or cheer Kicker.
Soon enough, they were outside the colony walls, and Perrimin exhaled from relief. They ran farther out and Perrimin stressed to Kicker that they shouldn’t wait too long before bringing that husk back into the village to relieve their poor folk from that fear. They avoided the defenders who were patrolling the colony walls. But as they went farther, they were seen by the returning defenders, those who had chased off the cats.
Perrimin was still disguised as a scorpion. He saw the lead mouse in the team break into a run.
“What do we do?” Kicker asked, running behind him.
“Follow me! We can’t let them catch us.”
Perrimin veered off, running as fast as he could with the heavy and cumbersome scorpion shell encasing him. He knew he wasn’t going fast enough. Kicker was chasing. The lead defender was close enough now that they could hear his calls. It was Trapjaws.
“Keep running,” Kicker said. “I’ll slow him.”
And Perrimin could not turn his head to see because of the scorpion husk. But he heard a cry from Kicker and what sounded like the crash of two bodies. Kicker must have fallen before Trapjaws, causing them both to tumble and lose speed.
Perrimin kept running and running and he veered and dashed under bushes and around rocks and fallen logs. He wanted to throw off the scorpion husk. It was such a burden. But he had Kicker tie it on tight, using twine. He would not be rid of it until he had time to stop and chew off the bindings. He only stopped when he could run no more. He was exhausted from the weight of the scorpion husk. But he hid in the hollow of that tree trunk that he and Kicker had foraged just the night before. He couldn’t believe he had run so far so quickly, and with the scorpion on his back. He chewed off the bindings and let the husk slide to the ground. He would drag it back to the colony himself, but for the moment, he wanted only to rest. Breathing hard, he lay down next to the dead scorpion, and he fell asleep.
He rolled to his feet, fur rising, eyes open wide. Before him was Kicker. Perrimin twitched his whiskers, irritated. Then he saw the scorpion beside Kicker, and he remembered where he was and what had happened.
It was full night still. He must not have been sleeping long.
“I’ve been searching for you everywhere. I came here on a whim. I never thought you’d come out so far.”
“Fear gave me strength,” Perrimin quipped.
Kicker took a breath. “After you ran off, the defenders returned to the colony and reported to the leaders. Everyone was so scared after the cats and then the scorpion, they did an accounting. All mice were accounted for save a few foraging parties and defenders. All were found, save you. We searched through the night and the day—”
“Night? This is not the same night?”
Kicker shook his head.
“I meant to return right away,” Perrimin said, suddenly feeling drained though he had slept all day apparently.
“Garigon is suspicious. He said you were unusually spry for a scorpion.”
“I don’t think he knows.” Kicker shook his head. “He claims to be descended from the fierce desert mice who eat scorpions as meals and grow stronger from their stings. He is leading a group of searchers to find and rescue you, even if it means facing and battling the scorpion.” He kicked at the wood of the hollowed tree. “When everyone told him how I drove the scorpion off, he didn’t believe it. He told them I bumbled the chase by getting in his way.”
Perrimin looked at the scorpion husk. “Let me make amends for that, Kick. Let’s take this scorpion home as we’d first planned, before I bumbled.”
“What if we run into the defenders?”
“All the better. Then Trapjaws will see for himself that Perrimin and Siminor bested the scorpion. We’ll be scolded for being reckless, but we’ll also be praised.”
But it was not the defenders they ran into when they were halfway back. It was the cats that Trapjaws and his defenders had driven off. Luckily, Perrimin and Kicker saw the cats first and hid. They were taking the shortcut again. But they were lucky too that they were passing through terrain that was littered with the leavings of the giants who once resided there. That litter provided many places to hide and stay out of reach. Unluckily, the cats smelled them out. They smelled mice from the colony where they were thwarted. And unluckily, if the cats could follow their scent and movement, they would soon chase the two mice into open spaces where they could pounce.
The terrifying rumble of one cat’s purring grew louder and louder. Neither mouse made a sound but it didn’t matter. They were found.
All Perrimin could think to do was put on the scorpion armor and march out.
The lead cat began to back away. All three seemed puzzled by this creature. For they saw and smelled a venomous scorpion. But they also smelled Perrimin. Their tails twitched and their heads tilted. They were cautious, for Perrimin had wrapped his own tail around the scorpion’s and lifted up the stinger. The mice wasted no time. While Perrimin occupied the cats, Kicker snuck away. Perrimin gave his friend enough time to gain a lead on the cats, in case they pursued. But they seemed mesmerized by Perrimin and the scorpion. He began to back away, stinger still raised, and pincers moving. The cats did not follow. They sniffed the air and returned to the hiding place that Kicker had marked with his scent.
Perrimin scuttled backwards until the cats were out of sight. Then he turned and dashed ahead. Kicker rejoined him soon enough and they were on their way again. Perrimin kept the scorpion armor on in case they needed to scare anything else away. As he ran, he felt frightened but also relieved, and most surprisingly, exhilarated. He laughed out, startling Kicker. Frightening his own people had sickened him. But scaring those cats had been exciting and satisfying. He wondered if Trapjaws and the other defenders felt that way whenever they defended the colony from some predator.
They planned to come as close as they could to the colony before Perrimin took off the scorpion armor. He knew they might encounter the defenders who were searching for them. He thought he and Kicker would be able to spot them and hide before they themselves were spotted. But he grew careless from exhaustion and the weight of the husk and his longing for home. He lagged behind. Kicker saw the defenders before the defenders saw them. He alerted Perrimin, and he kept running and glancing back to assure that Perrimin was hidden before he hid. But Perrimin couldn’t manage it. And so were too late. The defenders saw them. It surely appeared as if the scorpion was chasing Kicker. So once again Trapjaws raced toward them. But Kicker veered into some bushes out of sight and Perrimin followed. His muscles burned and his lungs were empty. So when Kicker stopped, Perrimin tumbled down, the scorpion armor collapsing over him.
He was trying just to breathe when Kicker stood over him and began chewing off the armor’s bindings.
“He’ll be upon us soon,” Kicker said. “It’s done.”
But Perrimin wasn’t done yet. He saw where they were. Kicker had instinctively led them near a secret hiding hole of theirs. They had shared the location with other foragers. But the defenders may not know of it.
“I know what we must do,” Perrimin said. “Help me.”
They posed the scorpion some ways before the hiding hole, still tied to its twine, which Perrimin and Kicker held. They tied another piece of twine around the tail and the body. And they hid in the bushes that flanked the scorpion, disappearing just a few breaths before Trapjaws came crashing into the clearing. The defender stopped when he saw the scorpion and called out to the other defenders who were searching the surrounding area.
Whatever else he thought of the defender, Perrimin knew that Trapjaws, that Garigon, was brave and bold. Defender Garigon would face and dispatch the scorpion and claim the kill. It would be so.
Kicker had pointed out that Garigon would see the strings and see that the husk was of a long-dead beast, but Perrimin scoffed. He did not think such knowledge would stop a boaster like Garigon from claiming the victory. And Perrimin realized that he had been planning on doing the same, claiming a false victory.
The defender known as Trapjaws stepped toward the scorpion and bared his teeth. The trap was set. And from where he sat, Perrimin saw that the defender’s eye was on the scorpion’s stinger. As the scorpion husk moved its pincers, Trapjaws leapt at it. He dodged the pincers with ease, clumsily controlled by Kicker and Perrimin as they were. Garigon clamped his teeth on the scorpion’s stinger and as he and the scorpion husk connected, Perrimin and Kicker released the twine they were holding.
Perrimin was shocked at the defender’s courage. For Garigon did not know the scorpion was already dead as Perrimin had when he first dared to touch it. Perrimin and Kicker ran out and took up the twine that was attached to the scorpion’s midsection. Garigon’s attention was on the scorpion. He didn’t even seem to notice them. They dragged the scorpion and the defender into the hiding hole. It was a shallow enough drop that the defender would not be hurt. And now Garigon would realize he was fighting a husk. And he would see the twine that was attached to the body. Perrimin and Kicker dropped down into the pit with him.
Garigon was reared against the dirt wall, peering curiously at the inanimate scorpion, when Perrimin and Kicker dropped down.
“Get away, you fools!” the defender yelled.
Perrimin leapt atop the scorpion. “It’s alright. It’s dead.”
Garigon rushed forth, pushing Perrimin aside and behind him. But he saw that it was true.
“The fall could not have killed him,” he said, perplexed.
“It didn’t. We don’t know what killed him.”
Perrimin showed him the strings. He confessed everything. He told the defender that he coerced Kicker into the whole trick and that Kicker was innocent. And Kicker for his part glared at Perrimin, claiming that he was no weak-willed fool and that he had followed his friend knowingly. Garigon looked between the two of them. Perrimin expected the defender to burst into a rage and come thrashing at them.
He burst out into laughter instead.
“We…understand it is your duty to tell the leaders,” Perrimin said as the big defender reached out with his tail and lifted the scorpion’s lifeless pincer.
“Tell them what? That we three bested the scorpion that threatened the colony?”
Perrimin was stunned.
“And the three cats,” Kicker added. He quickly reviewed their encounter with the cats for the big defender.
Garigon laughed. “Clever.”
“Ho, down there!”
The three mice looked up. The other defenders had found them.
And so it was that Perrimin and Kicker did drag the scorpion husk into the colony, surrounded by defenders. They told the truth about encountering the scorpion on the short way back home. They told the truth about Garigon facing it. And while Kicker and even Garigon would have left out the bit about the trickery that Perrimin and Kicker had wrought on the colony, Perrimin could not bear to see the misery on Kicker’s face. For Kicker was an honest mouse and had only done what he’d done out of loyalty to his friend. Just as Perrimin had brought his friend low, Kicker had raised him high. High enough to admit his dishonesty before the leaders.
Short-lived were the looks of amazement and admiration on the faces of the colonists. For now they began to turn angry eyes upon Perrimin and Kicker. But it was then that Garigon raised his voice and told all about the way Perrimin had faced down the three cats who had threatened the colony. When a voice in the crowd said that what was not witnessed could not be true, especially from the lips of known liars, Garigon revealed that a few defenders were still following the cats and had reported to him the confrontation they had seen.
“Let Perrimin and Siminor be punished for the folly of sowing fear and deceiving their own,” the leaders declared, “but also let them be rewarded for their bravery and cleverness in tricking their enemies.”
Perrimin looked over at Garigon. The defender dipped his head toward him. Perrimin may not have gained what he sought, but he had gained what he never expected, an ally he had never expected. And a lesson.
It was never the scorpion who threatened the colony, but the mouse. Perrimin had been the predator of his own people’s fears. All because he wanted their admiration and praise and love. But such things must be earned not taken. He had further to go now than he did before. He had a debt to pay to his people.
And as Perrimin saw the colony’s tinkerers gathering around the scorpion husk, wondering aloud about giving the defenders armor, he hoped he had begun to pay that debt.
Copyright © 2014, story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Scorpion Mouse” by Sanjay Patel. All rights reserved.