“…and always serve bread with your wine. / But, my son, / always serve wine.”
– Peter Meinke, “Advice to My Son”
Light skipped merrily over the daffodils. It was playing hopscotch with the honeybees, and was too distracted to notice when a little grey field mouse scrabbled up the side of the benevolent, old oak tree. The mouse was not impertinent; it was merely intent on discovery. The old oak tree seemed to the little grey field mouse the most likely place to find adventure, and that was what he wanted.
His name was Frello. His father had also been named Frello, and so had his father and his father and his father. It was tradition, and the other mice in the colony eagerly held to it. On the day he was born, excited squeaks confirmed the suggestion of “Frello” for a name, one after another, piping away, until the doctor mouse signed it onto the birth certificate. So the little grey field mouse’s name was Frello.
Frello had set out to find an adventure. Not that life in the Daffodil Valley was altogether boring: he and his siblings played chase in Glow Meadow and hide-and-seek in Glee Grove. They made slides out of sticks and daffodil leaves. They made excursions to the Shiny Sea to picnic and lounge on its banks and to get scolded by Mami Mouse for not cleaning their paws and to play Blind Mouse’s Bluff with the dragonflies who lived there and every bundle of days, as tradition said, they would build a boat with Papi Mouse out of daffodil leaves and petals and go floating on the water. They all promised never to disobey their parents or to go away from tradition. Yet they all knew they would never go away from tradition anyway, since that was the tradition. So these promises all went fluttering away over the plains, dancing over the tops of the daffodils. So life in the Daffodil Valley was not altogether boring.
But that was where they had always gone, and that was what they had always played, and that was what they had always said. While his brothers and sisters hadn’t seemed to mind, Frello wanted something else: an adventure.
So here Frello was, climbing the old oak tree with claws he had found one day while rebelliously exploring without Mami or Papi Mouse, and he was determined to reach the first branch of that oak at least. Light, who had by this time finished its game with the bumblebees, saw Frello scrambling steadily up the brown bark’s face.
“Oh Frello Mouse, what are you doing?” it asked in concern.
“I am looking for an adventure!” replied the mouse excitedly.
“Whatever for?” laughed the Light with a twinkle. “Don’t you like being here, with us, in the daffodils?”
“Oh Light, I do, but that’s just it too.”
“What a riddle you speak in,” said the Light in surprise.
“All the same I must go,” declared the mouse with a squeak.
And on he went.
Frello reached the first branch in a few more minutes climbing, which was a marvelous feat, although he didn’t know it. To you and me, reader, it would not seem so marvelous, but the few feet from the ground to the branch is a long way, especially for a field mouse who has never climbed anything ever except leaf-and-twig slides before. Having secured paw-holds, front and back, Frello pulled himself onto the first branch.
“Oh this is nice,” said Frello at once, expecting it to be so.
But he immediately noticed how noisy it was. Chitter and chatter and squeaks filled the air. Chatter almost crowded Frello off the branch, although it didn’t mean to. Bursts of sunshine came through gaps in the leaves and chased patterns of shadows around the tree bark, and Frello had a hard time seeing what made the sounds. After moving and squinting a good deal, he saw that five squirrels ran back and forth along the branch, laughing at the top of their voices. The squirrels ran and played and danced and laughed.
“They’re playing Blind Mouse’s Bluff!” Frello exclaimed in delight, and he ran and joined the game. The squirrels included him without question, but none bothered to talk with him, even after ten rounds of the game. After playing for so long, Frello, while young and used to playing different games all day, began to tire of the same game and wanted to talk to the squirrels. It was tradition, after all, to do so. They seemed to be much like the mouse colony.
“Excuse me, sir, Squirrel—could you—”
The five squirrels played on.
“Hello, Mister Squirrel, would you tell me—”
Mister Squirrel jumped over an acorn in his path and ran on.
“Little Squirrel, tell me—”
The Little Squirrel looked curiously at him, was tagged by the Blind Squirrel, and dashed off.
Frello sat discouraged on the branch’s edge for a long while. No one wanted to talk to him! After a while, he decided to try one last time to talk to one of the squirrels.
“Miss Squirrel—Please, Miss Squirrel—”
She paused in her game.
“Please, would you mind—”
“Oh isn’t this fun!” she squeaked. “Blind Squirrel’s Bluff is the perfect game to play after the work is done!”
“You work?” Frello asked curiously.
“Of course!” Miss Squirrel exclaimed. “Work makes play all the more fun!”
“But tradition says that work—”
“Don’t you ever work?”
“Well, no. It’s tradition—”
“Oh, oh, we’re missing the game!” the flighty squirrel interrupted. She scampered away to rejoin the game, which was by this time on its twelfth exuberant round. When she had left, Frello was left thinking how the mouse colony never worked at all, and he was wondering why tradition said it was bad if it made play all the more fun. He turned and scrambled further up the oak’s brown torso to the second branch.
As he ventured, he began to notice that it was a good deal darker up here among the green leaves. Once he had scurried up onto the second branch, the air tossed Frello’s soft, grey fur to and fro. He gazed around to see what caused the air to toss his fur and to swirl the leaves so. He saw, as soon as he looked, bees everywhere. Great big bees, their black shells shining and their yellow stripes stunning, flew hither and thither, everywhere. There were so many of them flying around that the air was like a storm without the rain. There were no sounds except for buzzing and rustling of the bees’ wings and leaves in the wind.
“Watch out!” A rough voice came from the shadows and Frello felt himself shoved in the shoulder. A busy bee lumbered past, intent on a mission. Frello was mystified. He backed up, trying to politely make way for the bees crawling on the tree branch, but backed into another bee.
“Hey, keep out of the way.”
“I’m sorry,” Frello said in astonishment as the bee passed him. “Whatever is the matter?” Frello wondered.
“Excuse me, oh excuse me, Mister Bee–” He called to the one nearest him, but the bee trudged on purposefully and didn’t seem to hear him. What on earth could possibly be so important that he would not, as the tradition was, linger and chatter for a while?
“Excuse me, excuse me, sir—could you tell me—” Frello tried to ask the bees passing him their mission.
“Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? Little Mouse, don’t know what you mean.”
“Why is everyone hurrying about so much that the air swirls the leaves and tosses my fur?”
“Little Mouse, I don’t know where you come from, but this is everyday life.”
“Everyday life? But I saw some honeybees this morning playing hopscotch.”
“We are not honeybees. They don’t ever want to work. We work together in order to gather food, to live, and to organize ourselves. When times of trouble come, we can rely on our community. We are strong because we work.”
“Oh. I see,” said Frello, although he did not exactly understand.
“And now, if you’ve finished, I have been talking much too long. I really must work.” With that, the bee hurried off.
Frello watched the bees in silence for a while longer as they worked, and he thought that the bees were very different from the mouse colony, which relied on the elders to organize and on tradition for food to appear. Musing over this, Frello clambered to the third branch, one paw after another.
This branch was different. It was quiet, and peaceful. And, Frello noticed, the light was perfect for his eyes, neither too dark like the second branch nor too bright and changeable like the patterned sunlight of the first branch. Underneath Frello’s paws, the bark was surprisingly level and smooth, providing a good floor on which to walk. He gazed up at the branches above him. Their leafiness formed a canopy over him, a great wooden hall full of greens and browns. The light shone through the leaves. He wondered what creatures inhabited this wonderful branch.
Ants walked across the branch. They weren’t striding or prancing. They were walking. Some ants stood about in groups, talking about the current food project or discussing a book – whatever books ants read – or the beauty of the oak tree. Their voices were pleasant to hear; they were not like the sturdy buzz of the bees or the shrill squeaks of the squirrels. There was a peace here, near the top of the oak tree.
Frello stood for a while near the edge of the level branch. He was uncertain of what to do. Soon, one of the ants noticed him.
“Hello, mouselet. What is your name?”
“My name is Frello Mouse.”
“Frello Mouse, have you come for a change?”
“I suppose that I have,” Frello replied. “I have seen and thought so many things since I have climbed this tree. Now I don’t know what to do.”
The ant’s eyes were as kind as the daffodils’ shade in high summer. Frello continued:
“I left the Daffodil Valley this morning to find an adventure, but I mostly have found unpleasant things. No one follows tradition. The squirrels and the bees don’t play all the time as tradition says to, and they don’t stop to talk all the time as tradition says either. Yet they both seem content. We mice are taught that if we don’t follow tradition we will be very unhappy. We are happy, but we don’t have the strength of the bees’ community or the exuberance of the squirrels’ play. When hard times come to the mouse colony, we ask and ask the elders what to do, and when we play, we have fun but tire quickly of our games.”
“Frello, have you ever wondered where your food comes from?”
“No,” said Frello. “It is tradition to come and find our food holes full.”
“We, the ants, fill your food holes.”
“Why don’t we work like the squirrels and the bees if work makes life better?”
“That is a worthy question from a worthy mouse who has come so far. Many years ago, the mouse colony in the Daffodil Valley was more serious than the bumblebees. They worked and worked and never laughed or played. The mice began to work so much that they forgot life is more than work. Eventually, the mice worked so long and so hard that a mouse named Levro, father of three mouselets, died as he worked. The mice honored him and remembered that life is more than work. The elders of the colony decided that a mouse’s life would never again be ended by extreme work. In fright, they created a new tradition in which all work is bad except the gathering of food. The mice were frightened that they would obsess over work again, so eventually this gathering stopped too.
“We, the ants, watched all of this happen. We failed to foresee, even from this oak tree, the consequences that such hard work would have. We began to give the colony food to make up for our lack of wisdom. Since then, we have tried, many times, to reason with your mouse elders to decree that the mice should gather their own food again, but they fear too greatly that that the colony could become too serious. Without the mouse council’s approval, we are forbidden speak. We continue to give you food for your own wellbeing in hope that one day a brave mouse like you would explore the oak tree, long a symbol of courage and wisdom, discover us, and have the courage to ask questions.”
“I looked for adventure, and I found an adventure indeed!” said Frello in reflection. “I have seen that work is beneficial, and I know that play is good. I have learned that constant work is harmful and that constant play is unfulfilling. I think that perhaps the mouse colony needs a purpose beyond having fun. It seems as if life would be best as a balance of diligence in work and of refreshment in play.”
“You have learned the value of work. You have learned the true history of your people. Now what will you do?”
“We need to be more like the bees so that we can be a strong and capable colony. We need to be more like the squirrels and appreciate our games. I am the only mouse now who knows this. I will go back to the colony and talk to the elders.”
And with that, the little grey field mouse named Frello went to change tradition.