This is supposed to be the greatest day of young Hiro's life. No longer a mouse pup, he's finally free to take his first steps outside the cramped confines of the Community, the only world he's ever known.
Hiro had never understood how the Community had such a strong grip on the great mischief of mice who lived there. To him, the cramped quarters inside of those dark and dank walls felt like prison, offering nothing more than a bunch of frantic scurrying around in pursuit of a meager life. In contrast, the great Green Expanse that lay just outside held the promise of something far sweeter, days spent bathing in the sun with a belly full of fresh berries.
Yet, as he stood at the doorway to his long sought emancipation, Hiro found himself locked in terror.
Hiro knows it's too late for second guesses. While all the other mouse pups had smartly spent their puphoods learning how to navigate the competitive and complex life within the walls, Hiro had wasted his away daydreaming about his future freedom.
Loneliness grabs at his throat as he listens to the faint rumble of celebrations for all those other mice who had chosen to spend their adulthoods within the Community. He shakes his head in defeat. You know this is your path. Why can't you take the first step!?
Hiro's gaze locks on an enormous pile of mouse bones lying off in the distance. Red, the one-eyed hawk... that's why!
Red was the reason so few had so much as considered a life beyond the walls. It was common knowledge the great hawk would devour any foolish enough to venture into his hunting grounds.
It's not like Hiro had been oblivious to the threat. Yet, for reasons he could not explain, the hawk had never felt all that scary to him. Within the safe confines of the walls, Red had been nothing more than a concept in his mind, a great bird wanting only to be friends. But here, on the doorstep of Red's realm, Hiro's body grips at the thought of the giant flying beast patrolling the skies. Just go Hiro, Red won't hurt you.
Much to the ridicule of his friends and family, Hiro had always trusted that voice and was not about to turn away from it now. Exercising considerable caution, he takes a step outside and looks around. No sign of Red. Whew! Encouraged by his good fortune, he spots a nearby strawberry bush. Having never before feasted on fresh berries, he completely forgets about the big bird and sprints desirously towards the bush. He snatches a head-sized berry and hurriedly begins his retreat back to the safety of the wall.
"Leaving so soon young mouse?" a commanding voice questions from behind. Hiro freezes in terror. Is that Red!?
Too scared to breathe, Hiro turns around slowly to discover a behemoth of a mouse, far bigger and stronger than any he'd ever seen within the walls. "Of course I am! It's not safe out here..." He pauses suddenly at the recognition of how causally the strong mouse stands out in the open. "Isn't it...?"
The stranger bellows with laughter. "You're a funny young mouse! What's your name?"
Hiro lifts his chin in feigned pride. "I'm Hiro."
"Welcome to the Great Expanse young Hiro, I'm Aizen. You know, watching you reminds me of my first day out here. I still get the shivers!" Aizen wiggles from head to toe in silly exaggeration.
Hiro tilts his head in curiosity. "Aren't you scared now?"
"Why should I be? There's nothing to be afraid of out here."
"But... what about Red?"
"Ah Red, the great one-eyed hawk, right? ...I don't know how to tell you this, but Old Red is nothing more than the stuff of legend." Aizen then nods toward the wall. "A convenient lie all those mice back there chose to believe. If you think about it, without the threat of Old Red, they'd have to come up with another excuse for choosing a pitiful life cooped up in there when the expanse of freedom awaits just outside."
With his head still slanted in confusion, Hiro asks. "Are you saying Red's not real?"
Aizen shakes his head solemnly. "I guess you could say he's real in the heads of all those mice in there. But, if you're asking whether he lives and breathes in reality... Absolutely not."
Hiro points his nose toward the massive pile of mouse bones he'd long imagined to belong to Red's victims. "What about all those mice? If Red didn't kill them, then what did?"
Aizen shakes his head and frowns. "Poor things... They were all annihilated by the real danger lurking out here."
Hiro feels his body tremble as he struggles to respond. "Yeah, and what's that?"
The strong mouse offers a pensive smile. "Freedom has a cost young mouse... Come on, I'll show you. I'm going to take you back to the wall. Please keep your gaze toward the ground as we do."
Hiro nods in agreement before falling in line behind Aizen. As they reach their destination, Aizen speaks. "Good, good Hiro. You kept your gaze down... Are you ready to see the real terror that lives out here?"
Hiro swallows the fear trapped in his throat and nods. "Yeah, I think so."
"Ok then. I want you to look at the wall in front of you and tell me what you see."
Look at the wall in front of me? Ok... Hiro looks up. His body is immediately flooded with disgust. Unable to hold his gaze for more than a moment, he falls to the ground and begins sobbing. "I'm not worthy of being out here."
Aizen gently brushes his muscular muzzle against Hiro's neck. "You're an incredibly strong mouse young Hiro. Many don't survive their first gaze... Are you able to tell me what you saw?"
Hiro lifts his head and sniffles. "I saw the selfish arrogance that led me to dismiss my family's wishes... I saw the profound emptiness that compelled me to renounce everything I've ever known... I saw the gripping doubt that showed me I'm not good or strong enough to make it out here on my own."
"Good, good young mouse." Aizen nods approvingly. "You're not alone. The memory of the first time I looked at my shadow still lives in me... Goodness, that felt awful in my body!"
Hiro's eyes widen. "Are you saying I'm scared of my own shadow? How's that even possible? I've been looking at my shadow my entire life."
Aizen smirks and giggles. "Yeah, those little weeny shadows behind the walls are cast by the weakest of light. They're far from the same thing you get out here in the direct sunlight... Do you know what a shadow is?"
"Sure, I think so... Isn't it just the image of me blocking the light coming from the other side?"
"Yes, exactly... What if I told you it's possible to shed your shadow?"
Hiro feels a swelling of excitement. "Are you saying that's possible?"
"Yes. In fact, that's the whole reason we're here if you ask me." Aizen gestures toward the sun hanging over the horizon. "You see the sun over there?"
Hiro nods silently.
"Yeah, that bright ball is pretty far away... Having spent a long while out here, I can tell you the land gets brighter and more beautiful the closer one travels to the sun's permanent spot in the sky. However, the closer one gets, the more tormenting their shadow becomes."
"I'm confused... What does that have to do with shedding your shadow?"
"Well, our shadows are the part of us the light is unable to shine through. If we're truly committed to being transparent, we're going to need to look directly into the darkness we cast. You know, all those past wrongs, those selfish desires, those gnawing inadequacies... The convenience of living behind the wall is we're able to pretend our darkness doesn't exist. When we do, it slowly devours us from the inside out... Make sense?"
Hiro smiles weakly. "Yeah, I think so. Why can't we ignore the shadow out here?"
"You can try, and end up in the heap over there with all those other poor souls... But, I wouldn't advise it. The sunlight is invigorating and can fill a mouse up with all sorts of false pride and arrogance, the very fuel for our darkness. In a way, you could say they became their shadows."
"Then what's my hope for surviving it out here? I can't even look at my shadow for more than a second."
"Practice, my young friend. Learn to stay with your shadow long enough for the sun burn it away."
"That's it!? Just sit here and stare at my shadow all day long?"
Hiro protests anxiously. "For how long!? How long until I get to go out and explore the Green Expanse?"
"You're already are. This is it!"
Hiro clenches his jaw. "You know what I mean. How long until I get to bathe in the sun and fill my belly with berries?"
There's a knowing warmth in Aizen's smile. "Patience Hiro... The first days out here are tedious and lonely. But the fact is, there's no way to escape your shadow and there's no way someone else can do it for you... However, I can assure you that if you do the work, it'll be well worth it."
"How will I know when I'm done?"
Aizen's smile widens. "You're done when the shadow loses its grip on you... Only then is it safe enough to venture out further into the expanse..." The strong mouse looks up, consulting the sky for a moment before returning his gaze to Hiro. "I'll tell you what Hiro. I can see you're a strong and determined young mouse. How about you commit to sitting and staring at your shadow as long as you can each day and then we can meet back at the strawberry bush in a week? I'm sure you're eager to meet some of the others who live out here?"
"There are others!?"
"There are many of us and we all take pleasure in supporting each other's journey toward the sun. I'm certain they'll love meeting you!"
"Ok, deal!" Hiro then closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly in happy disbelief. "You know what Aizen, you've given me something I never knew was possible... For the first time in my life I feel, well... sane. Like all this stuff that's been floating around in my head has... well, you know... Even though everyone has always told me I was a bit bonkers."
Aizen laughs. "Good, good young mouse. Separating truth from belief is not an easy task... especially when surrounded by others who don't want to see it." Aizen begins walking away before looking over his shoulder to bid farewell. "See you in a week?"
"You will! I promise my shadow will be lighter by then."
"I'm sure it will. Until then young Hiro."
Hiro smiles, his body fills with unexplainable joy. Welcome home Hiro.