Cynthia Voigt crafts a novel about discovery, perspective, and the meaning of home--all through the eyes of an affable and worried little mouse. Fredle is an earnest young fellow suddenly cast out of his cozy home behind the kitchen cabinets--into the outside. It's a new world of color and texture and grass and sky. But with all that comes snakes and rain and lawnmowers and raccoons and a different sort of mouse (field mice, they're called) not entirely trustworthy. Do the dangers outweigh the thrill of discovery? Fredle's quest to get back inside soon becomes a wild adventure of predators and allies, of color and sound, of discovery and nostalgia. And, as Fredle himself will come to understand, of freedom.
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Knopf Books for Young Readers
January 11, 2011
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Adobe DRM EPUB
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Excerpt from Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt
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 it--was 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 cat--alerted by the sound they all knew was a trap, closing--could 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 them--and 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. They only knew that that was the way of mice, the way that protected their nests from harm and kept the healthy ones safe. He had to lean close to hear Axle say, "I'm pretty sure this will heal."
"Why are you still whispering?" he asked.
Axle didn't answer. She had fainted.
Fredle kept licking until he no longer tasted blood and he could hear Grandfather calling him quietly. "Fredle? Come home, young Fredle."
Home was a wide nest behind the second shelf of the kitchen pantry. Home was made of scraps of soft cotton T-shirts and thick terry-cloth washcloths, woven through with long, cool strips of a silk blouse that, if they hadn't been mice and color-blind to red, they would have known was a cheerful cranberry color, not the dark gray they saw. Their nest was big enough for the whole family, and so comfortable that as soon as you scrambled up over its rim at the end of a long night's foraging, all you wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep. There were two such nests at a distance from one another along this shelf between the pantry wall and the dining room wall, and one or two more could be squeezed in, if necessary. Axle's family had the first one. The nest at the far end, the nest that was wider and softer and safer, tucked way back into a corner, belonged to Fredle's family.
At night their shelf was quiet, but during the day the mice were sometimes disturbed by activity in the kitchen. Sounds were muffled by the walls but loud enough, with thumps and clatterings, with opening and closing of the pantry doors, and with various voices. Whenever he could, Fredle woke up and listened.
Three of the voices belonged to the humans: Mister and Missus, who spoke words, and the baby, who only wailed before falling abruptly silent. Sometimes two more sharp voices, which the mice knew belonged to dogs, barked.
"We're right here! Me and Missus and the baby!" one dog would bark. "Hello, Mister! Hello, Angus!"
"You don't have to step on me," the Angus dog would bark.
At the same time, Missus would be saying, "Hello, lunch is on" or "How did the afternoon go?" and Mister would say, "Settle down, you two. Sit. Good dogs. How's the baby been?" and "An angel," Missus would say, or "A horror."
"Everybody's home!" the Sadie dog would bark.
"Missus is almost always home and the baby stays with her, so you don't have to make such a big deal out of it," the Angus dog would answer impatiently.
"Everybody's home today. It's never been today before," Sadie would bark, but more quietly.
The humans and the dogs made noise when they were in the kitchen. The cat, on the other hand, made no sound at all, which was one reason it was so dangerous. The other reasons were its sharp claws and teeth, not to mention its skill at using those weapons to went mice. Moreover, although the humans and the dogs lived somewhere else at night, the cat wandered around in the darkness. As soon as he was old enough to crawl out of the nest, Fredle had been warned about the cat. His grandfather had told him how the cat never tired, never lost patience, could sit motionless for hours with only its long tail moving. The cat pounced, Grandfather said, and a mouse went. Axle said she wasn't afraid of any old cat and she boasted that she would make fun of its long, fat tail and squished-in face, if it ever came her way. This made her parents anxious and Fredle's father cross, while Fredle's mother said she didn't want to hear anything like that from any child of hers. But Fredle thought Axle might just do it and he wished he had been born brave like his cousin.
The night after her misadventure, when they gathered together at the end of their shelf between the walls before going down to the kitchen, there was Axle, "as fat and sassy as ever," Father grumbled. Fredle was smart enough to wait until everyone had scattered all over the kitchen before joining up with his cousin. She had left a chunk of her right ear behind in the trap. She told Fredle how it happened: "I thought I had the move down. In and out, whip-whap, I've done it lots before. That trap was fast."
"You were faster," Fredle pointed out.
Father, who had overheard all this, said, "Not fast enough. I hope you've learned your lesson, young Axle. You certainly paid dearly enough for it."
"Who cares about an ear?" asked Fredle, who envied Axle's battle scar.
"You'll see," Father promised, and went off to find Mother, who wanted him to stick close to her and the mouselets when she was foraging.
"There's what's left of a potato chunk over here," Fredle offered. "If you want it."
Axle did, and she bit right into it.
"Do you think humans like having us here to clean up the crumbs?" Fredle asked.
"Well, if it wasn't for us, ants would be all over the kitchen, that's for sure," Axle said.
"But then, why have a cat? Why set traps?"
"You're not asking me to figure out humans, are you, little cousin?"
"And why else would the dogs leave us those brown things to eat?"
"Nobody gives away food," Axle told him. "Even I know that rule."
"And why else--?"
"Sometimes I agree with your parents," Axle said, finishing off the potato. "You ask too many questions and I'm tired of them. Go bother your grandfather."
Grandfather and Fredle often lingered on the pantry floor after the others had scrambled up between the walls. They lingered to talk, and also because Grandfather had grown slow, and he didn't want to hold the others back. Grandfather told Fredle everything he remembered about the long-ago days on the Old Davis Place. "The dogs are new. Not as new as the baby, but I remember when there were no dogs," Grandfather said. "I remember when there were two cats, but no traps. Foraging was easier then, without traps."
"Axle can snatch food from traps," Fredle said.
"Your cousin wants to be different."
Fredle knew that, and he admired it.
"It will lead her into trouble," Grandfather warned. "Or worse."
"What's worse?" Fredle wondered.
"I just hope you won't let it lead you," Grandfather said. "But we've been talking here too long and your mother will be getting all het up. It's time to get back up home, young Fredle."
At their own nest, Mother was awake and worrying. "Where were you?"
"You knew we were in the pantry," Grandfather told her as they climbed in over the rim.
"What if Fredle took it into his head to run back into the kitchen? Or followed that cousin of his off somewhere? He's too curious and you can't deny it."
That, Fredle knew, was true. He asked questions and listened to the answers and remembered what he had been told. He enjoyed being curious.
"You know what humans say," his mother said, "and I've heard them saying it with my own ears, especially Missus, and more than once. Curiosity killed the cat. Just think about that for one minute, Fredle. Think about what a terrible monster curiosity must be, if it can kill a cat. I don't know about you, but it frightens me just to say the word."
"Now, Mother," Father said in his soothing voice. "You don't have to worry about that right now. Everyone's home safe, so we can sleep."