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CATCHING A MOUSE

Mice turds pepper the back of my kitchen counter. They look like fennel seeds dipped in ink. Slender, rather beautiful miniature torpedoes that the mice drop without much consciousness. They should be a bit tidier in their habits, since the sight of them makes me go looking for new mouse traps under the sink. I don't like to bait these creatures, which are about the size of my thumb and are of a luxurious silky gray fur on top and a pure white fur around the belly. I had put a trap under the television in the living room last fall and my wife heard the terrible jaw suddenly snap shut with a mouse caught by its tail and part of his hind leg. It was terrified when I leaned down and picked up the trap where it dangled pitifully. It let out a peeping sound and darted its eyes up at me.

I carried the trap out to the side yard and looked at the creature more closely. It was not harmed; I knew if I lifted the jaw it would leap free. But my chance of observing this tiny piece of nature was too tempting for me to let it go right away. Here was the wilderness in compact form, alive and twitching, its tiny face pinched up with long whiskers, its eyes black as poppy seeds. Nothing had tamed it or taught it anything human. It only knew that we humans were a bit careless with our food and left tempting trails of breadcrumbs here and there.

A mouse is a gentle creature; it won't bite you if you hold it in your hand. It knows you won't kill it if you are calm and slow, and it will push its velvety head against any little opening between your fingers. But this mouse, dangling from the terrific jaws of the trap, was a bit agitated and I didn't think it would be as kind to me as say someone's pet mouse. It was humiliated by its own carelessness. The trap had remained untouched for half a year, with a tiny pat of peanut butter in the well located just within the boundary of the sharp teeth of the jaws. It was a trap designed to kill a mouse, not hold it. So there we were, total strangers, meeting on a crisp spring afternoon at the fence, unable to communicate but clearly aware of one another in a suspenseful moment. The mouse lurched about, and I held the trap up where I could observe the ripples of its fur, the immaculate tiny paws with their intricate joints and nails, the gray fur moving with a liquid softness as the mouse struggled.

I understood now why a cat likes to play with such a creature trapped in its paws. It will grab hold of its nape and throw it into the air, but just far enough that it can pounce on it again and cup its paws around it. It's an amusing thing to do and I have seen cats of mine play with a dying mouse for hours. So long as a single appendage can twitch, the cat is happy. Dogs are not as sadistic; they are like my trap and close their powerful jaws around the prey and fling it away like so much gristle not to be eaten. A toy mouse made of rubber that squeaks when bitten into is far more intriguing to a dog.

A mouse is elegantly programmed to find a way into a house, establish a nest among old rags or a drawer of soft fabrics my wife might be saving for a run to the charity boxes on the highway. It will lug some paper into the nest and shred it for when the babies are born. It's not a very pretty nest; it's basic, and disheveled, a mound of loose layers where it can burrow all winter. But because my house is old and has hosted countless generations of these pests, there are scented passageways that tell the new comers exactly where to go to find food. Mice have it good; a few minutes after finding a suitable nesting place, the smell of food lures them down into the bowels of the dark house and up the back walls of the counters to where the surface beckons with sacred manna. Hoboes never had it so easy.

Some mice prefer to remain outside, even in the heart of winter. They creep around slowly looking for seeds to eat, and the sound of my footstep in the snow gives them ample time to retreat to a tunnel in the leaves. They have suitable burrows in the earth, under the ground cover, where they remain warm enough to raise their litters. But these hearty cousins prefer the outside with all its perils to the dull warmth and silence of a human house. Such field mice know that the moment they step out into the daylight an owl might be watching, and will calculate its chances of catching the mouse before it can reach safety. That thrill of lethal chance, the sudden shadow of an owl's outstretched wings where the mouse is pausing, is enough to keep it lean and masterly in its survival. Unlike the mouse that prefers central heat and a ready supply of accessible snacks.

I take pity on my captive and ease the jaws apart. The mouse falls to the ground and dissolves into the matted leaves; I can hardly follow it with my eyes. The gray of its back fur is exactly the color of the ground, and you know it is there only by the bending of weed stems as it takes cover. In a second it is gone, vanished in the cold, moist textures of half-frozen earth. It doesn't seem to matter at all that this is the opposite of the comforting darkness of my house. Somehow the mouse has been programmed by exquisite genes to adapt instantly to new rules. I'm sure its leg throbs, and its tail is not happy about having been pinched for a good quarter hour. But it's alive, and it will squeeze itself through the intricate roots and the tangle of dead leaves to a new home. I'm happy for it. It will lie there until its breathing slows, and perhaps examine itself for any damage. It may wait until nightfall before venturing out for food. It probably knows the various sounds of owls and crows to alert it to immanent danger. It will build a better nest in the morning, below the reach of spring rainfall. It will smooth out a little cave and fill it with the dry grass and twigs nearby, and have as good a home as the one it has just lost.

There is no sentiment wasted on a mouse. It won't miss a thing now that it has found security once more. There is no paradise in a mouse's world -- every place abounds in danger and terrible threats to its existence. It must thread its way through a wilderness of opposition that keeps honing its attention to a razor-sharpness. There are no books in some cranny of its nest to reassure it of its noble existence; it does not know it is separate from anything else in the world, just a sliver of its general energy which it draws on to extend its fragile span of life. It lies down to sleep and no dreams occur of other worlds. The past vanishes the moment it ceases to be the present. If my trap caused it pain, that pain turns to smoke and leaves no trace behind.

Only I have the burden of memory and desire. I lie in the thorny bed of my life, with its disappointments and unfinished errands. I'm the one who cries out in my sleep for some chance to achieve my goals, but they remain elusive and leave a residue of resentment and dry wishes when I awake. I carry with me the longings of a man who has had to stop before a wide river at flood stage and to give up my goal of crossing to the ghostly mountain range beyond. I stare long and long at the vanishing materiality of my dream and retreat once more into the arid desert where I live my life. I envy the mouse its amnesia, its virginal mind untouched by betrayals and cruel seductions. The mouse is innocent, a flicker of candle light at the spout of its brief existence. It means no harm to anyone, and its tiny lips grazing on my counter have no other purpose than to ease the only urge it is aware of, a passing hunger. Once the meal is done, it retreats into the reassuring darkness and its burrow under my wife's old summer blouses, and lies there, grinning to itself in a state of perpetual bliss.

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