Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Fitzgibbon’s Plough


  1. subdued – quiet and depressed; low in intensity
  2. delirious – in an acutely disturbed state of mind due to illness or intoxication and characterized by restlessness, illusions, and incoherence of thought and speech
  3. infant – a very young child or baby
  4. reassured – to give someone confidence or hope, to make someone feel less anxious or fearful
  5. scarcely – barely; almost not
  6. grey-green – a color that is a mixture of grey and green
  7. gaily – in a cheerful or lighthearted way
  8. nagging – persistent and annoying
  9. plough – a large farming tool with one or more blades used to cut the soil and turn it over, especially to prepare it for planting
  10. creaking – making a harsh, high-pitched sound when being moved or when pressure or weight is applied to it.

Fitzgibbon’s Plough

When Mrs Frisby went into her house, she found Timothy asleep and the other children waiting, frightened, sad and subdued.

‘He went to sleep right after you left,’ Teresa said. ‘He’s waked up twice, and the second time he wasn’t delirious. He said his chest hurt and his head hurt. But, Mother, he seemed so weak – he could hardly talk. He asked where you were, and I told him. Then he went back to sleep.’

Mrs Frisby went to where Timothy lay, a small ball of damp fur curled under a bit of cloth blanket. He looked scarcely larger than he had when she and Mr Frisby had carried him to Mr Ages as an infant, and the thought of that trip made her wish Mr Frisby were alive to reassure the children and tell them not to worry. But he was not, and it was she who must say it.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘Mr Ages gave me some medicine for him and says he will recover.’ She mixed the contents of one of the packets, a grey-green powder, in water, and then gently shook Timothy awake.

He smiled. ‘You’re back,’ he said in a voice as small as a whisper.

‘I’m back, and I’ve brought you some medicine. Mr Ages says it will make you all right.’ She lifted his head on her arm, and he swallowed the medicine. ‘I expect it’s bitter,’ she said.

‘It’s not so bad,’ he said. ‘It tastes like pepper.’ And he fell back to sleep immediately.

The next morning, as predicted, his fever was lower, his breathing grew easier, and his heartbeat slowed down; still, that day he slept seven hours out of each eight. The next day he stayed awake longer, and on the third day had no fever at all, just as Mr Ages had said. However, since Mr Ages had been right in all that, Mrs Frisby knew he was sure to have been right in the other things he had said: Timothy was not really strong yet. He must stay in bed, stay warm, and breathe only warm air.

During those three days she had stayed close by his side, but on the fourth she felt cheerful enough to go for a walk, and also to fetch some more of the corn from the stump so they could have it for supper.

She went out of her front door into the sunshine and was surprised to find a spring day waiting for her. The weather had turned warm while she had stayed indoors; February was over and March had come in, as they say, like a lamb. There was a smell of dampness in the air as the frosted ground thawed, a smell of things getting ready to grow. It made her feel even more cheerful than before, and she walked almost gaily across the garden.

And yet despite the fine warmth of the day – indeed, in a way, because of it – Mrs Frisby could not quite get rid of a nagging worry that kept flickering in her mind; it was the kind of worry that, if you push it out of this corner of your thoughts, pops up in that corner, and finally in the middle, where it has to be faced. It was the thought of Moving Day.

Everybody knows that the ground hog comes up from the deep hole where he has slept away the winter, looks around, and if he decides the cold weather is not over, goes back down to sleep for another six weeks. Field mice like Mrs Frisby are not so lucky. When winter is over, they must move out of the garden and back to the meadow or the pasture. For as soon as the weather allows, Farmer Fitzgibbon’s tractor comes rumbling through, pulling the sharp-bladed plough through the soil, turning over every foot of it. No animal caught in the garden that day is likely to escape alive, and all the winter homes, all the tunnels and holes and nests and cocoons, are torn up. After the plough comes the harrow, with its heavy creaking discs, and then the people with hoes and seeds.

Not all the field mice move into the garden for the winter, of course. Some find their way to barn lofts; some even creep into people’s houses and live under the eaves or in attics, taking their chances with mousetraps. But the Frisbys had always come to the garden, preferring the relative safety and freedom of the outdoors.

Moving Day therefore depends on the weather, and that is why a fine day set Mrs Frisby worrying, even as she enjoyed it. As soon as the frost was out of the ground, the plough would come, and that could happen as much as a month earlier (or later) one year than the last.

And the worry was this: If it came too soon, Timothy would not be able to move. He was supposed to stay in bed, and moving meant a long walk across the field of winter wheat, up and down the hill to the brook’s edge, where the Frisbys made their summer home. Not only that – the home itself would be damp and chilly for the first few weeks (as summer homes always are) until early spring turned to late spring and the nights grew truly warm. This was something that Mrs Frisby and the children did not ordinarily mind; Moving Day, in fact, was normally a gay time, for it marked the end of the grey weather and the frost. It was like the beginning of a summer holiday.

But this year? Now that Mrs Frisby had faced the problem, she did not see any answer except to hope that the day would not come too early. In another month (according to Mr Ages), Timothy would be strong enough. Perhaps she was only borrowing trouble. One warm day, she told herself, does not make a summer. No, nor even a spring.

She walked on through the garden and saw ahead of her a small figure she knew. It was a lady shrew, a tiny thing scarcely bigger than a peanut, but with a wit as sharp as her teeth. She lived in a simple hole in the ground a few yards away; Mrs Frisby met her often and had grown to like her, though shrews are generally unpopular, having a reputation for short tempers and extremely large appetites.

‘Good morning,’ said Mrs Frisby.

‘Ah, Mrs Frisby. Good morning indeed. Too good is what I’m thinking.’ The shrew was holding a stalk of straw, which she now thrust into the earth. It went down easily for two inches or more before it bent in her hand. ‘Look at that. The top of the frost is gone already. Another few days like this, and it will be all gone. Then we will have the tractor in here again, breaking everything up.’

‘So soon? Do you really think so?’ asked Mrs Frisby, her worry returning in a rush, stronger than before.

‘He ploughs when the frost is gone. Remember the spring of sixty-five? That year he ploughed on the eleventh day of March, and on a Sunday at that. I moved down to the woods that night and nearly froze to death in a miserable hollow log. And that day came after a week of days just like this.’

Mrs Frisby did remember it; her family, too, had shivered through those chilly nights. For the fact was, the earlier Moving Day came, the colder the nights were likely to be.

‘Oh, dear,’ she said. ‘I hope it doesn’t happen this year. Poor Timothy’s too sick to move.’

‘Sick is he? Take him to Mr Ages.’

‘I’ve been myself. But he was too weak to get out of bed, and still is.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Then we must hope for another frost, or that the tractor will break down. I wish someone would drive a tractor through his house and see how he likes it.’ So muttering, the lady shrew moved off, and Mrs Frisby continued across the garden. The remark was illogical, of course, for they both knew that without Mr Fitzgibbon’s plough there would be no garden to live in at all, and there was no way he could turn the earth without also turning up their houses.

Or was there? What the shrew had said was meant to be sympathetic, but it was not helpful. It meant, Mrs Frisby realized, that she, too, could see no solution to the problem. But that did not mean that there was none. She remembered something her husband, Mr Frisby, used to say: All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key. All right. She must try to find the key. But where? Whom to ask?

And then, as if to make things worse, she heard a sound that filled her with alarm. It came from across the fence in the farmyard, a loud, sputtering roar. It was Mr Fitzgibbon starting his tractor.

Paul Hoets is a freelance maker who lives in South Korea. If you liked this article and would like to contribute to his empire of dirt, silicon and tech. education, buy him a coffee!