While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.
He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
“Furlough,” he said, “what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?”
“Cripes!” shouted Furlough from a far corner. “Don’t stand there in the middle of the floor talking about heaven. Move! You’re a mouse, not a man. You’ve got to scurry.”
“What?” said Despereaux, still staring at the light.
Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.
Reader, you may ask this question; in fact, you must ask this question: Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea?
The answer is … yes. Of course, it’s ridiculous.
Love is ridiculous.
But love is also wonderful. And powerful. And Despereaux’s love for the Princess Pea would prove, in time, to be all of these things: Powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous.
“Do not speak to her!” thundered the king.
Despereaux dropped his handkerchief. He backed away from the king.
“Rodents do not speak to princesses. We will not have this becoming a topsy-turvy, wrong-headed world. There are rules. Scat. Get lost, before my common sense returns and I have you killed.”
“Did you break them?”
“Yes, sir,” said Despereaux. He raised his voice. “But…I broke the rules for good reasons. Because of music. And because of love.”
“Love!” said the Head Mouse.
“Oh cripes,” said Furlough. “Here we go.”
“I love her, sir,” said Despereaux.
“We are not here to talk about love. This trial is not about love. This trial is about you being a mouse,” shouted the Most Very Honored Head Mouse from high atop the bricks, “and not acting like one!!!”
How, he wondered, had things gone so terribly wrong? Wasn’t it a good thing to love? In the story in the book, love was a very good thing. Because the knight loved the fair maiden, he was able to rescue her. They lived happily ever after. It said so. In the book. They were the last words on the page. Happily ever after. Despereaux was certain that he had read exactly those words time and time again.
Lying on the floor with the drum beating and the mice shouting and the threadmaster calling out, “Make way, make way,” Despereaux had a sudden, chilling thought: Had some other mouse eaten the words that spoke the truth? Did the knight and the fair maiden really not live happily ever after?
“Why would you save me, then?”
“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
Reader, do you know the definition of the word “chiaroscuro”? If you look in your dictionary, you will find that it means the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together. Rats do not care for light. Roscuro’s parents were having a bit of fun when they named their son. Rats have a sense of humor. Rats, in fact, think that life is very funny. And they are right, reader. They are right.
“A rat is a rat is a rat. End of story. World without end. Amen.”
“Yes,” said Roscuro. “Amen, I am a rat.” He closed his eyes. He saw, again, the red cloth spinning against the backdrop of gold.
And he told himself, reader, that it was the cloth that he desired and not the light.
And the little princess! How lovely she was! How much like light itself. Her gown was covered in sequins that winked and glimmered at the rat. And when she laughed, and she laughed often, everything around her seemed to glow brighter.
“Oh, really,” said Roscuro, “this is too extraordinary. This is too wonderful. I must tell Botticelli that he was wrong. Suffering is not the answer. Light is the answer.”
In the middle of all that beauty, it immediately became clear that it was an extremely distasteful syllable.
A curse, an insult, a word totally without light. And not until he heard it from the mouth of the princess did Roscuro realize that he did not like being a rat, that he did not want to be a rat.
“Go back to the dungeon” was what the look she gave him said. “Go back into the darkness where you belong.”
This look, reader, broke Roscuro’s heart.
Did you think that rats do not have hearts? Wrong. All living things have a heart. And the heart of any living thing can be broken.
If the rat had not looked over his shoulder, perhaps his heart would not have broken. And it is possible, then, that I would not have a story to tell.
But, reader, he did look.
But, reader, we must not forget that King Phillip loved the queen and that without her, he was lost. This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him.
Looking at the royal family had awakened some deep and slumbering need in her; it was if a small candle had been lit in her interior, sparked to life by the brilliance of the king and the queen and the princess.
For the first time in her life, reader, Mig hoped.
And hope is like love…a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.
Mig tried to name this strange emotion; she put a hand up to touch one of her aching ears, and she realized that the feeling she was experiencing, the hope blooming inside of her, felt exactly the opposite of a good clout.
“Most foolish,” muttered Gregory as he lifted the cover off the plate, “too foolish to be borne, a world without soup.”
He dreamt of the stained-glass windows and the dark of the dungeon. In Despereaux’s dream, the light came to life, brilliant and glorious, in the shape of a knight swinging a sword. The knight fought the dark.
And the dark took many shapes. First the dark was his mother, uttering phrases in French. And then the dark became his father beating the drum. The dark was Furlough wearing a black hood and shaking his head no. And the dark became a huge rat smiling a smile that was evil and sharp.
And while the mouse slept, Roscuro put his terrible plan into effect. Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light.
And what of the light in the princess’s heart? Reader, I am pleased to tell you that the Pea was a kind person, and perhaps more important, she was empathetic. Do you know what it means to be empathetic?
I will tell you: it means that when you are being forcibly taken to a dungeon, when you have a large knife pointed at your back, when you are trying to be brave, you are able, still, to think for a moment of the person who is holding that knife.
You are able to think: “Oh, poor Mig, she wants to be a princess so badly and she thinks that this is the way. Poor, poor Mig. What must it be like to want something that desperately?”
“It will be all right,” said Louise.
Cook brought the hem of her apron up to wipe at her tears. “It won’t,” she said. “It won’t be all right ever again. They’ve taken our little darling away. There ain’t nothing left to live for without the princess.”
Despereaux was amazed to have exactly what was in his heart spoken aloud by such a ferocious, mouse-hating woman as Cook.
He put a nervous paw up to his neck and pulled at the red thread, and suddenly his dream came flooding back to him…the dark and the light and the knight swinging his sword and the terrible moment when he had realized that the suit of armor was empty.
And then, reader, as he stood before the king, a wonderful, amazing thought occurred to the mouse. What if the suit of armor had been empty for a reason? What if it had been empty because it was waiting?
Cook smiled. “See?” she said. “There ain’t a body, be it mouse or man, that ain’t made better by a little soup.”
“What do you want, Miggery Sow?!” the princess shouted.
“Don’t ask her that,” said Roscuro. “Shut up. Shut up.”
But it was too late. The words had been said; the question, at last, had been asked. The world stopped spinning and all of creation held its breath, waiting to hear what it was that Miggery Sow wanted.
“I want…,” said Mig.
“Yes?” shouted the Pea.
“I want my ma!” cried Mig, into the silent, waiting world. “I want my ma!”
“Oh,” said the princess. She held out her hand to Mig.
Mig took hold of it.
“I want my mother, too,” said the princess softly. And she squeezed Mig’s hand.
Despereaux held his trembling needle against Roscuro’s heart. The mouse knew that as a knight, it was his duty to protect the princess. But would killing the rat make the darkness go away?
And the smell of soup crashed through his soul like a great wave, bringing with it the memory of light, the chandelier, the music, the laughter, everything, all the things that were not, would never, could never be available to him as a rat.
“Soup,” moaned Roscuro.
And he began to cry.
“Kill me,” said Roscuro. He fell down before Despereaux. “It will never work. All I wanted was some light. This is why I brought the princess here, really, just for some beauty…some light of my own.”
I think, reader, that she was feeling the same thing that Despereaux had felt when he was faced with his father begging him for forgiveness. That is, Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting, always, with the light. She did not like the rat. She would never like the rat, but she knew what she must do to save her own heart.
And so, here are the words that the princess spoke to her enemy.
She said, “Roscuro, would you like some soup?”