“You, my young friend, are a rat.”
This is where the story really gets interesting, because we go back and look at the origins of the second of our central characters, Roscuro.
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.
One day, Roscuro encounters Gregory the jailer (this is years before Despereaux was born), and his encounter with the jailer turns out to be a very formative experience.
“You smart-alecky rat nib-nib-nibbling on Gregory’s rope. Gregory will teach you to mess with his rope.”
And keeping Roscuro upside down, Gregory lit a match with the nail of his thumb, sssssttttttt, and then held the brilliant flame right in Roscuro’s face.
“Ahhh,” said Roscuro. He pulled his head back, away from the light. but, alas, he did not close his eyes, and the flame exploded around him and danced inside him.
“Has no one told you the rules?” said Gregory.
“Gregory’s rope, rat, is off-limits.”
“Apologize for chewing on Gregory’s rope.”
“I will not,” said Roscuro.
“Filthy rat,” said Gregory. “You black-souled thing. Gregory has had it with you rats.” He held the match closer to Roscuro’s face, and a terrible smell of burnt whiskers rose up around the jailer and the rat. And then the match went out and Gregory released Roscuro’s tail. He flung him back into the darkness.
“Do not ever touch Gregory’s rope again, or you will be sorry.”
[…] “Light,” he said aloud. And then he whispered the word again. “Light.”
From that moment forward, Roscuro showed an abnormal, an inordinate interest in illumination of all sorts. He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest glimmer, the tiniest shimmer. His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it to be had.
The odd thing is, Roscuro’s first experience with light was a meant to inflict pain – and it honestly doesn’t get much better from there.
So, if you happened to watch the movie first, you will be struck by the vastly different characterization of Roscuro. In the movie, he is presented as a sea-rat (with a human friend, no less), and a complete outsider to the rats of the dungeon, to the darkness itself. He’s never really evil, and only occasionally mean, when influenced by the native dungeon rats.
This story, however, seeks to humanize the rats, the natives of the dark, by focusing on one who has an abnormal yearning for the light, even if it hurts.
“I think,” said Roscuro, “that the meaning of life is light.”
“Light,” said Botticelli. “Ha-ha-ha – you kill me. Light has nothing to do with it.”
“What does it all mean, then?” asked Roscuro.
“The meaning of life,” said Botticelli, “is suffering, specifically the suffering of others. Prisoners, for instance. Reducing a prisoner to weeping and wailing and begging is a delightful way to invest your existence with meaning.”
I would say that this is only an exaggeration of what some people believe…but then again, internet trolls exist.
“Do as I say and your life will be full of meaning. This is how to torture a prisoner: first, you must convince him that you are a friend. Listen to him. Encourage him to confess his sins. And when the time is right, talk to him. Tell him what he wants to hear. Tell him, for instance, that you will forgive him. This is a wonderful joke to play upon a prisoner, to promise forgiveness.”
“Why?” said Roscuro. His eyes went back and forth, back and forth, following the locket.
“Because,” said Botticelli, “you will promise it – ha – but you will not grant it. You gain his trust. And then you deny him. You refuse to offer the very thing he wants. Forgiveness, freedom, friendship, whatever it is that his heart most desires, you withhold.” At this point in his lecture, Botticelli laughed so hard that he had to sit down and catch his breath. The locket swayed slowly back and forth and then stopped altogether.
“Ha,” said Botticelli, “ha-ha-ha! You gain his trust, you refuse him and – ha-ha – you become what he knew you were all along, what you knew you were all along, not a friend, not a confessor, not a forgiver, but – ha-ha! – a rat!”
Botticelli convinces him that he’ll find more meaning from torturing prisoners than obsessing over the light he cannot have, and it seems Roscuro’s convinced enough to give it a shot.
“Your time will come,” said Botticelli. “Currently, all the prisoners are spoken for. But another prisoner will arrive sooner or later. How do I know this to be true? Because, Roscuro, thankfully there is evil in the world. And the presence of evil guarantees the existence of prisoners.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Of course you are looking forward to it. You are looking forward to it because you are a rat, a real rat.”
“Yes,” said Roscuro. “I am a real rat.”
“Concerned not at all with the light,” said Boticelli.
“You, my young friend, are a rat. Exactly. Yes. Evil. Prisoners. Rats. Suffering. It all fits together so neatly, so sweetly. Oh, it is a lovely world, a lovely, dark world.”
And so, Roscuro is giving a shot to fitting into the society he was born into – a lot like a certain big-eared mouse…
Until next time…