Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: In the Library


  1. Recessed – (of a light bulb or other fitting) fixed so as to be level with the surface it is in or attached to.
  2. Annoying – causing irritation or annoyance.
  3. Astonishment – great surprise.
  4. Inclining – slope or lean in a particular direction; bend or turn.
  5. Fresco – cool, moist, and free from unpleasant odors or staleness.
  6. Exception – a person or thing that is excluded from a general statement or does not follow a rule.
  7. Neatly – in a tidy and orderly manner.
  8. Spiral – a curve that winds round and round a central point or axis, growing larger (or smaller) as it does so.
  9. Rectangular – having the shape of a rectangle.
  10. Gasped – inhale suddenly with the mouth open, out of pain or astonishment.

In the Library

The tunnel led gently downwards, and after the first dozen steps they were in darkness. Mrs Frisby could see nothing at all. Behind her Mr Ages limped along; ahead she could hear the scuffle of Justin’s footsteps. She followed the sound blindly. Then she heard his voice.

‘Just walk straight forward, Mrs Frisby. There’s nothing to trip over, and nothing to bump into. If you get off course, you’ll feel the wall.’ He added: ‘The dark part doesn’t last long.’

Now what did he mean by that? She thought it over for a minute or two as she walked and had just decided to ask him, when to her surprise she saw ahead of her a faint glow. A light! But how could there be a light down so far? ‘There, we’re through it,’ said Justin cheerfully. ‘I know that blackout bit must be annoying the first time, but it’s necessary.’

‘But aren’t we under the ground?’

‘Oh yes. About three feet down by now, I’d guess.’

‘Then how can it be light?’

‘I could tell you,’ Justin said, ‘but if you’ll wait fifteen seconds, you’ll see for yourself.’

In a few more steps the tunnel – Mrs Frisby could now discern, dimly, its shape and direction – took a turn to the right, and she did see for herself. She stopped in astonishment.

Ahead of her stretched a long, well-lit hallway. Its ceiling and walls were a smoothly curved arch, its floor hard and flat, with a soft layer of carpet down the middle. The light came from the walls, where every foot or so on both sides a tiny light bulb had been recessed and the hole in which it stood, like a small window, had been covered with a square of coloured glass – blue, green or yellow. The effect was that of stained-glass windows in sunlight.

Justin was watching her and smiling. ‘Do you like it? The carpet and the coloured glass we don’t really need. Some of the wives did that on their own, just for looks. They cut the glass, believe it or not, from old bottles. The carpet was a piece of trim they found somewhere.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ Mrs Frisby said. ‘But how…’

‘We’ve had electricity for years now.’

‘Five,’ said Mr Ages.

‘Five,’ said Justin agreeably. ‘The lights’ – they were the very small, very bright twinkling kind – ‘we found on trees. In fact, most of our lights come from trees. Not until after Christmas, of course – about New Year. The big light bulbs we have trouble handling.’

Mrs Frisby was familiar with electricity (her husband, who knew all kinds of things, had once explained it to her). At night she had seen the lamps shining in Mr Fitzgibbon’s house, and at Christmas time the lights that his sons strung on a pine tree outside.

‘You mean you just took them?’ she asked.

‘We were careful to take only a few from each tree,’ said Mr Ages.

‘It was like picking fruit,’ Justin said rather dreamily. ‘The annual light bulb harvest. We had to go quite far up the road before we had enough. Even so, it took two Christmases.’

‘Justin,’ said Mr Ages, ‘I think we’d better get on.’

They continued along the corridor, which curved always slightly to the right, so Mrs Frisby could never really tell how long it was, and which soon began to incline more steeply into the ground. Mrs Frisby noticed that the air, which should have been dank and damp so deep underground, was on the contrary fresh and clean, and she thought she could even detect a very faint breeze blowing past her ears as she moved.

In a few more minutes the hall widened abruptly into a large oval chamber. Here the lights were set in the ceiling; at the far end, Mrs Frisby could see, the long tunnel continued and looked as if it slanted upward again – perhaps to another entrance, a back door. Was this, then, their destination, the main hall of the rats? But if so, where were all the other rats? The room was entirely empty – not even a stick of furniture.

‘A storeroom,’ said Justin. ‘Sometimes full. Now empty.’

Then she saw that off one side of the chamber there was a stairway leading down, and beside it a small door. Justin led them to the door.

‘For freight only,’ he said with a grin at Mr Ages. ‘But considering your limp, I think we can make an exception. The stairs wouldn’t be easy.’

Mrs Frisby looked at the stairway. It went down in a spiral and each step was neatly inlaid with a rectangular piece of slate. She could not tell how far down it led, since after the first turn of the spiral she could see no more, but she had a feeling it was a long way down. As Justin said, it would be hard for Mr Ages.

Justin opened the door. It led into a square room that looked like a cupboard.

‘After you,’ he said. Mrs Frisby went in, the others followed, and the door swung shut. On the wall were two knobs. Justin pushed one of them, and Mrs Frisby, who had never been in a lift before, gasped and almost fell as she felt the floor suddenly sink beneath her feet. Justin reached out a hand to steady her.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘I should have warned you.’

‘But we’re falling!’

‘Not quite. We’re going down, but we’ve got two strong cables and an electric motor holding us.’

Still, Mrs Frisby held her breath during the rest of the descent, until finally the small lift came to a gentle stop and Justin opened the door. Then she breathed again and looked out.

The room before her was at least three times as big as the one they had just left, and corridors radiated from it in as many directions as petals from a daisy. Directly opposite the lift an open arch led into what looked like a still larger room – seemingly some kind of an assembly hall, for it had a raised platform at one end.

And now there were rats. Rats by dozens – standing and talking in groups of twos and threes and fours, rats walking slowly, rats hurrying, rats carrying papers. As Mrs Frisby stepped from the elevator, it became obvious that strangers were a rarity down there, for the hubbub of a dozen conversations stopped abruptly, and all heads turned to look at her. They did not look hostile, nor were they alarmed – since her two companions were familiar to them – but merely curious. Then, as quickly as it had died out, the sound of talking began again, as if the rats were too polite to stand and stare. But one of them, a lean rat with a scarred face, left his group and walked towards them.

‘Justin. Mr Ages. And I see we have a guest.’ He spoke graciously, with an air of quiet dignity, and Mrs Frisby noticed two more things about him. First, the scar on his face ran across his left eye, and over this eye he wore a black patch, fastened by a cord around his head. Second, he carried a satchel – rather like a handbag – by a strap over his shoulders.

‘A guest whose name you will recognize’ said Justin. ‘She is Mrs Jonathan Frisby. Mrs Frisby, this is Nicodemus.’

‘A name I recognize indeed,’ said the rat called Nicodemus. ‘Mrs Frisby – are you perhaps aware of this? – your late husband was one of our greatest friends. You are welcome here.’

‘Thank you,’ said Mrs Frisby, but she was more puzzled than ever. ‘In fact, I did not know that you knew my husband. But I’m glad to hear it, because I’ve come to ask your help.’

‘Mrs Frisby has a problem,’ said Mr Ages. -An urgent one.’

‘If we can help you, we will,’ said Nicodemus. He asked Mr Ages: ‘Can it wait until after the meeting? An hour? We were just ready to begin again.’

Mr Ages considered. ‘An hour will make no difference, I think.’

Nicodemus said: ‘Justin, show Mrs Frisby to the library, where she can be comfortable until the meeting is over.’

By this time the last of the other assembled rats had made their way into the large meeting hall, where they sat facing the raised platform. Nicodemus followed them, pulling some papers and a small reading glass from the satchel at his side as he walked to the front of the room.

Justin led Mrs Frisby in another direction, down a corridor to their left, and again she had the impression of a faint, cool breeze against her face. She realized that the corridor she had walked in up above was merely a long entranceway, and that the halls around her were the rats’ real living quarters. The one down which Justin led her was lined with doors, one of which he opened.

‘In here,’ he said.

The room they entered was big, square, well lit, and had a faint musty smell. ‘It’s reasonably comfortable, and if you like to read…’ he gestured at the walls. They were lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, and on the shelves stood – Mrs Frisby dredged in her memory. ‘Books,’ she said. ‘They’re books.’

‘Yes,’ said Justin. ‘Do you read much?’

‘Only a little,’ said Mrs Frisby. ‘My husband taught me. And the children…’ She started to tell him how. Laboriously scratching letters in the earth with a stick – it seemed so long ago. But Justin was leaving.

‘Excuse me – I’ve got to go to the meeting. I hate meetings, but this one’s important. We’re finishing up the schedule for the Plan.’ He pronounced it with a capital P.

‘The Plan?’

But he was out of the door, closing it gently behind him.

Mrs Frisby looked around her. The room – the library, Nicodemus had called it – had, in addition to its shelves of books, several tables with benches beside them, and on these were stacked more books, some of them open.

Books. Her husband, Jonathan, had told her about them. He had taught her and the children to read (the children had mastered it quickly, but she herself could barely manage the simplest words; she had thought perhaps it was because she was older). He had also told her about electricity. He had known these things – and so, it emerged, did the rats. It had never occurred to her until now to wonder how he knew them. He had always known so many things, and she had accepted that as a matter of course. But who had taught him to read? Strangely, it also emerged that he had known the rats. Had they taught him? What had been his connection with them? She remembered his long visits with Mr Ages. And Mr Ages knew the rats, too.

She sighed. Perhaps when the meeting was over and she had had a chance to talk to Nicodemus – and had told him about Timothy and Moving Day – perhaps when that was settled, he could explain all this to her.

She noticed at the far end of the room a section of wall where there were no bookshelves. There was, instead, a blackboard, covered with words and numbers written in white chalk. There were pieces of chalk and an eraser in a rack at the bottom of it. The blackboard stood near the end of the longest of the tables. Was the library also used as a classroom? When she looked at the blackboard and, rather laboriously, read what was written on it, she saw that it was not. It was, rather, a conference room.

At the top of the board, in large letters, were printed the words:


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