I wrote the following SHORT STORY on Christmas Day, 2017.
Snow showed up Christmas Eve and turned the local roads into skating rinks, so we stayed home instead of venturing forth for roast beast and mulled Keystone Light. I had read an account of a man who saved a mouse on some Animals-R-Grrrreat site. [Dodo? Dog Heirs? ???] The following slipped forth. There are no ghosts or goblins or zombies. It’s just a tale of a lonely man and a hurt mouse.
A TINY TALE
The mouse sits in the middle of the floor, a dejected little creature. I catch my breath, understandably startled. Mice tend to rush off and hide, not sit and wait for whatever end I might decide for them. I approach, wondering about poison. A poisoned mouse would be so caught up in dying, it would not mind someone nearby watching. I notice the mouse has a twisted, bloody back leg as I look down at it. Gray fur, a white bib, large ears and suffering black eyes. My kitchen linoleum seems a killing floor and the mouse has come here to surrender. It just waits for the killing blow to the head, the jolt of electricity, the bolt into the brain. I have traps set out. I always hope they kill instantly. They don’t. Sometimes a mouse is caught by a small arm or by the tail. And if I do not remember to check, they languish for hours until they die of fright or pain. Or perhaps they just give up. Once I found half a tail still caught in a trap’s metal frame.
The mouse shivers but does not run off as I bend to get a closer look in the hard dawn light. Light in winter hurts my eyes, light in summer welcomes me. The light changes in winter, that’s what I know. Snow arrived yesterday in time for Christmas Eve. The world around me, familiar roads and dirty sidewalks and filthy alleys, rests beneath a layer of snowflakes. It seems somehow so fitting to have snow at Christmas. Even though the origins of this holiday came from the desert lands of the Middle East. As far as I know, Jesus never threw snowballs or went sledding. I look at the box yet on the table, that held small gifts from indifferent relatives mailed to me because of obligation. Generic gift boxes of spiced sausages and tiny blocks of smoked gouda or bacon-infused cheddar. Do I not have some smaller box I could line with something soft? The mouse does not move. Quick small breaths in and out, in and out.
Though I am careful, the mouse clearly experiences pain. The small face twitches, the eyes close shut. The mouse I set down in the small box, full of ripped up toilet paper. It sits there, wondering why I am prolonging its life. I get a cotton swab, dip it into some hydrogen peroxide, apply this to the mangled leg. Foam. The mouse actually drags itself into the torn paper. I try not to touch it, thinking my presence just stresses the creature out even more. A drink, a bit of something to nibble as it rests or as it dies anyway. I have an eye dropper, perhaps a bit of cracker. I brush the end of the dropper against the mouse’s tiny mouth. After a bit, it swallows. Heat spreads itself in my chest, relief and resignation that I am now committed to saving this one mouse’s life.
I put the lid on the box, with holes punched in that lid by a butter knife. I have no vet training and don’t know what to do for such a messed up limb as that. Would it be kinder to just kill the little thing? But somehow, I cannot bring myself to execute the dainty, gray and white, little beast just yet. The rest of it seems fine; it’s just that bad leg. A cat? A trap? An owl? Except. How can a three-legged mouse survive a world of human traps and predators? There are three-legged pets the world over. But a damaged little prey animal would quickly succumb to something. I begin the coffee and contemplate that small box, full of a suffering little thing. If it dies, then it will die with its thirst quenched, in the warm soft dark of a box.
My immediate family has long been gone and perhaps that is why I am reacting so strongly to a common pest like this. A longing for something I never really had? Perhaps or just my natural kindness. My Midwest fabled politeness? I have long grown used to my solitary life, to the roughness of my hands and the roughness of my life. I work in a slaughterhouse and I cut up livestock. They come to me already dead but even I wonder if whatever animated them watches us cut their bodies into steaks and chops and briskets and roasts. If there is a God, God does not live in a slaughterhouse. That much I know to be true. I hope the God everyone argues over so viciously does not live in the slaughterhouses of the world. I hope that with real hope. I hope God is not looking out of those wide dark eyes or trapped behind the dead glazed pupils, asking us to see Him finally. Where do such thoughts come from. The coffee perks away.
I make my breakfast, oatmeal with bananas cooked into it. I make toast. I drink coffee. I check on the mouse, who huddles down but does not try to escape. I give it some more water, being patient. It does not know I am trying to help it. It only knows I scooped it up, hurt it further by pouring something painful on its leg and then trapped it in a box full of strange paper. It swallows, I see it. The cracker is yet untouched. As long as it drinks, I think. I remember having one of those watering deals for my one and only pet, a guinea pig. A metal spout they could lick to get a drink, attached to a plastic bottle. My guinea pig, named Ralph, lived almost a month. It got sick, and then I found it dead in its cage. My mother threw the stiff red and white body away. We lived in Omaha, in a tiny apartment and there was nowhere to bury it. No yard or soft grassy green place. Just tossed in with the coffee grinds, the potato peelings and the overdue bill notices. It will stink, John, she told me as she yanked the trash bag up and had me take it out to join the rest in the dumpster behind the ratty apartment building we used to live in. She had been a harsh, hard woman, German on both sides. She had no time for feelings or not doing what needed to be done. Her hands, I remember, were rougher than mine are now. They cracked and had little red fissures. She covered them with cold cream and tried not to show how they hurt her. She got the flu, it turned into some kind of awful pneumonia and then days later she died. I was fifteen and became a ward of the state of Nebraska. No one wanted me, my distant relatives never responded to the state’s pleas to come get me, and I went to work as soon as I turned eighteen. The same story of a lot of kids.
I give the mouse another drink and leave a small bottle cap full of water for it. I had agreed to a Christmas Day shift so that Todd, who had a family, could drink whiskey sours and eat turkey with his in-laws. Others who didn’t care about Christmas or didn’t really have families also took shifts today. The work would be light and yet drag. Work dragged on any holiday when the place stayed open to process carcasses. Maybe I should take the mouse with me. And what? Keep checking on it to see if it had died yet? How could I explain the small forlorn mouse I had adopted? I find I don’t want to be stared at or noticed by others. I find I hate such attention, that I’m not brave or bold. I am a sheep being led to some slaughter, and maybe I’ll protest a bit before they put a bolt in my sheep head.
It’s a mouse, I argue with myself. Why do my eyes sting?
I returned home ten hours later. I smelled of blood. My hands ached. My back ached, my spine had an ache deep in the heart of it. How much longer could I do this awful work? I am not a young man anymore. The roads proved an icy nightmare and I had slid about to and fro from work. My apartment smells of fried potatoes. I had made myself an entire panful Christmas Eve, with onions and some of that mail cheese. My tiny fake tree sits in the far corner of my living room. The picture of my mother watches me from the wall.
The mouse had curled itself up in a corner of that box. The water looked lower and the cracker had been nibbled. It goes very still, its respiration very swift. The leg looks mangled and torn, twisted strangely, both gnawed and broken, perhaps. Had I expected it to be magically healed by the application of peroxide? Maybe some antibiotic cream. I had some. It could be smeared on with a cotton swab. More peroxide to keep the leg from getting infected. Why are you doing this, something in me had to ask. Because it’s the right thing to do, I answered back.
I doctor that leg as best I can, trying to be gentle. Me, a big, rambling bear of a man, trying to be gentle with a tiny morsel of life. A foaming, the peroxide biting deep. Then I attempt to get some antibiotic ointment on that leg as the mouse clearly wishes I’d just go away and leave it alone. Why does it seem the mouse is letting me help it, though? The tiny black eyes blink carefully, the ears swivel, the little whiskers move and shiver. I try not to move or handle that leg, that tiny tiny leg.
I take a shower and wash off the day’s horrors from me. The endless coming of dead bodies to be chopped and sawed and pried apart. I have never had another job. I know of no other way to earn enough to pay my rent and pay my bills. I was never good in school and have no real talents. I cannot sing or draw. I am not that good with numbers. I can wield a bone saw and I can carve up a steer and I can cook eggs. My list of accomplishments is very small. I developed a drinking problem but I gave it up three years ago, when I hit my fiftieth birthday. Being a fifty year old drunk did not appeal to me. My last steady girl seems ages ago. Claire, who had a tattoo of a heart right above her heart. She moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be closer to her sister who had leukemia. She stopped calling me, and I don’t know if her sister survived or not.
I change the toilet paper. I get the mouse another cracker and a bit of banana. Do mice eat bananas?
If I need the internet and I never do, I go to the local library. I have a cell phone but hardly anyone but work calls me. I need something like an old-fashioned set of encyclopedias. What do mice eat? I don’t know. I wonder if any vets are working today. I have no numbers to call. It’s not like the old days, when you had a phone book. I miss phone books. I am rather behind on technology and all that. I miss phone books.
I go to bed early, after another check on my little hurt guest. I also spring all my traps. I find a dead mouse in one and the stiff body seems an actual mocking of my attempts to save the mouse I placed in that tiny box. I take the dead out to the garbage bin everyone uses. We pile our garbage bags and refuse inside and the garbage men arrive once a week to collect it, for which we all pay a small collective fee. The wind kicks up, more snow arriving. I sleep and have my usual dreams of imagining I am part of some giant family and it’s summer. It’s always summer in my dreams. That warm, gentle light of summer.
The mouse has survived the night.
It drags itself into the little cave it made in the toilet paper. I doctor the leg again, being ever so careful. I change the toilet paper. Maybe that stuff they use in teddy bears? What is that called? I eat scrambled eggs, with a bit of the extra fancy smoked gouda sprinkled on it, drink my black coffee and feel something like peace. I hear little movements from that box today. I even hear that cracker being munched a bit. There are no other sounds except the usual creaks of my apartment, the rising and falling whine of the wind full of snow and sleet, and the nibbling of that hurt mouse. Todd has a dog. He would have a vet’s number. I have the swing shift today.
“Todd? Yeah, it’s John. Hey, weird question. Do you have a vet?”
“Hey, John. Merry Christmas, you sumbitch. A what?”
“A vet. Thanks. Merry Christmas,” I say back, my face hot. Was I asking about a vet for a mouse? Was I?
“You need a vet? Uh…yeah. We go to the vet clinic.” Todd rattles off a number and I hastily recorded it on the back of my electric bill. “You get a dog?”
“No. I found a…a wild animal and maybe the vet can help.”
“Just kill it. It’s probably suffering.” Todd offers.
“Yeah.” We exchange some words, mostly him speaking of how dry the turkey was. He loves wet turkey. Dripping with turkey juice and butter. I hate turkey so I mostly ignore the turkey grumbling.
A woman’s bright, sweet voice answers when I try that number. I explain my problem.
“A mouse, you said? A wild mouse? Um, well, you can bring it in, of course. But maybe you should try a wildlife rescue. Just a long shot. They take in injured wildlife, after all.”
I had not thought of that. “Thank you. The back leg is crunched or something. It let me pick it up and I have it in a box.”
“Like I said, we can take a look at it, sir. But I’d suggest a wildlife place. I have a number if you want to try them. There’s one nearby. They’re small but they might be able to do something.”
“Okay. Thanks.” I take the number and end the call. I check in the box, the mouse peers back at me, from its cave, before carefully trying to hide itself completely from me. I call the wildlife place and it goes to message. To the vet, then.
My sweet-voiced angel turns out to be a giant, ugly woman with grizzled fake red hair and the loveliest smile. She looks into the box and then nods at me. A man sits on one of the old worn yellow chairs, with a cocker spaniel held on his lap. “It’ll be a bit, We have a cat with a broken leg to see to and then Mr. Thorndyce here and Bandit. You tried the wildlife place?” Her nametag spells out Juli. The air stinks of sharp, bitter medicine and cinnamon air spray. Pictures of animals hang on the walls. A poster about the care of a new puppy. A bulletin board for community animal needs and wants and people looking for lost dogs or cats or people trying to give away unwanted this or that.
“Yes, I did. I just got an answering machine. I’ll try them again.” I catch a glimpse of a big shaggy black dog being led to a cage, wearing a cast on a front leg. It tries to lick the person trying to get it into the cage. The person pets it, bends low to say something to the wiggling friendly dog and then puts the dog behind bars to await the owner coming to pick it up.
“They’re probably busy doing rounds. Feeding, cleaning, you know. Yeah, try again. Dr. Calvin will take a looksee. Oh yeah…look at that leg. Poor thing. Just have a seat.” She smiles that lovely smile, her teeth yellow and homely. Juli probably had kids at home and lots of dogs, that was the impression I got from her. Those ugly farm women types someone marries because they probably got her pregnant. She even wears a red and green sweater beneath her white coat.
Bandit, the spaniel, squirms and then hops down and emits a giant pile of diarrhea. Juli gets the cleaning supplies out, after taking the pair back behind the swinging doors. “I’m sorry, he musta got into somethin’,” the man says. Don’t you worry, Juli is overheard saying. She comes back out, gives me an apologetic smile, then cleans up the mess as a young mother, holding a tiny child to her hip, comes in leading a German Shepherd, with its back leg dangling.
“He was like this this morning,” the young mother says, in tears. “I think he got hit by a car!”
So, it takes a while for Dr. Calvin to peer into the box at the thoroughly confused mouse. “Well, I can try to clean it and bandage it a bit, that’s about all I can do. You sure you want a bill for a wild mouse?”
“Yeah, I do. He lived through the night. I been putting peroxide on it and some antibiotic stuff. He’s been drinking water and took some cracker. I…I have to try, right?”
The vet, an older woman with short crisp iron gray hair and steel-blue eyes behind smeary glasses, takes a long look at me then nods. Clearly, she’s seen other nuts bringing in boxes of broken little lives and hoping for miracles or whatever is hoped for. Is a vet not in the business of miracles? Perhaps I am nuts. Perhaps I am.
I take the mouse home, over fifty dollars poorer. I got charged an office visit, basically. But that mangled leg is now encased in soft white bandaging with the warning that the mouse will probably chew that off almost immediately. I was also given a sample size of antibiotic cream meant for animals. It won’t sting, the vet assured me. She also looked up, on her computer, what mice could eat. I went to the local pet store to get some mouse pellets and also, while there, bought a small habitat, as it was called. I got a waterer, rather like the one that had watered long-dead Ralph. There’s after-Christmas sales galore but I only had my temporary guest to see to, not some coddled pup or arrogant, fluffy cat. I walk by cages of small rodents. Mice, even. Hamsters and gerbils and a rabbit or two. Fish. A wall of fish, waiting to go home and die and be flushed down a toilet. Or perhaps live for years in some quiet aquarium. I watch two angel fish float in their watery domain, black and white creatures from other worlds I will never know. Goggle-eyed goldfish and darting schools of minnows. Those beautiful betas in their small sad cups. The limp fins moving now and then, deep reds to navy blues to royal purples. I pay for my mouse supplies and head home on treacherous roads, but I am used to such conditions. The wind rocks my small truck about, but I am in four-wheel drive, which is a necessity on the plains.
I transfer Mouse to his new house and then smile over my rhyming. I bought bedding material, wood shavings with no smell. I set up the waterer. I put the habitat next to my heating duct so Mouse stays warm. I go off to my afternoon shift and come home late at night. I check on my patient who is still alive. The water seems a bit lower, the mouse seems a bit more lively and there are mouse food pellets scattered about as if the mouse has been sampling them. There are even tiny mouse droppings. Happiness. Happiness over a dime a dozen rodent still alive in its twenty five dollar and then some mouse mansion. But. I have no kids. I don’t go out that much, if ever. I don’t even drink anymore. What’s a bit of a splurge on a damn hurt mouse anyway? My mother’s flat eyes watch me and cannot tell me if I am doing right or being a foolish aging man.
I tell no one of my house guest. I cannot think of that wild thing as a pet; it’s not a pet. It never warms to me. I never try to pick it up. I only handle it to apply that cream to its healing leg. That leg gets dragged behind it as it scuttles about. I notice the mouse licking at it. The bandages indeed gnawed off, as the vet predicted. But it licks that leg. Rather like a dog would do. I notice the mouse has made itself a small nest in the very back corner of the habitat, as if to hide from me as much as possible. I respect that. It has no wish to deal with me. Very well.
I will see this through, no matter what happens. If the mouse heals, I will let it go. If it dies, I will throw away the little body, wrapped in toilet paper as a sort of shroud. I might even look into getting a dog or perhaps a cat, since I am gone so many hours for my job. Perhaps I am a bit lonelier than I knew. I doze on my couch and the mouse moves about in the plastic mansion. The snow comes down outside, in the days after Christmas.