I awake on Christmas Day to find a mouse in the middle of my kitchen floor. This is odd. Mice tend to rush off and hide, not sit and wait for me to decide their end. I approach, wondering if the creature has been poisoned and is so caught up in dying it doesn’t mind someone watching. The mouse has gray fur, a white bib, large ears, black eyes, and a twisted, bloody back leg. I think of the slaughterhouse where I work. My linoleum seems a killing floor where the mouse has come to await the blow to the head, the jolt of electricity, the bolt into the brain.
I have traps set out. I always hope they kill instantly, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes mice are caught by a limb 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.
This mouse shivers but does not move as I bend to get a closer look in the dawn light. Snow arrived yesterday, just in time for Christmas Eve. The familiar roads and dirty sidewalks outside rest beneath a layer of white. It seems fitting to have snow at Christmas, even though Jesus never threw snowballs or went sledding. On the table are boxes of spiced sausages and blocks of smoked Gouda or bacon-infused cheddar — gifts from distant relatives, mailed out of obligation, along with photos of kids I’ve never met, labeled CHRISTMAS 2010. I look for a small box I could line with something soft.
Though I am careful when moving the mouse, it clearly feels pain. The small face twitches. The eyes shut. I set the mouse down in a box full of ripped-up toilet paper, and it lies there, taking quick breaths in and out, probably wondering why I am prolonging its life. I get a cotton swab, dip it into some hydrogen peroxide, and apply it to the mangled leg. The mouse drags itself into the torn paper. I think my presence is just stressing the creature out. It needs a drink, something to nibble as it rests or dies. I find an eyedropper and a bit of cracker. I fill the dropper with water and brush the end against the mouse’s mouth. After a moment, it swallows. I feel relief, and resignation: I am now committed to saving this mouse’s life.
I put the lid on the box, but first I punch holes in it with a butter knife. I have no vet training and don’t know what to do for the mouse’s messed-up limb. Would it be kinder just to kill it? Somehow I cannot bring myself to execute the little gray-and-white animal just yet. What mangled its leg: A cat? An owl? Can a three-legged mouse survive? There are three-legged pets the world over, but a damaged rodent would quickly fall prey to a predator. I put on some coffee and contemplate the mouse. If it dies, then it will die with its thirst quenched, in the soft warmth of the box.
I live alone, and perhaps this is why I am reacting so strongly to a common pest in need — my longing for company. Or perhaps I’m just motivated by Midwestern politeness. I’m not usually so softhearted. At the slaughterhouse my job is to cut up livestock. They come to me already dead, but, even so, I try not to think too much about the living steers as I cut their bodies into steaks, chops, briskets, and roasts. I will tell you this: If there is a God, he does not live in a slaughterhouse. That much I know. I hope the God everyone argues over so viciously is not looking out of those dead, glazed pupils, asking us to see him finally.
Where do such thoughts come from? The coffee perks away.
I make oatmeal with bananas. I make toast. I drink my coffee. I check on the mouse, who huddles in a corner but does not try to escape. I give it some more water. It doesn’t know I am trying to help it. It only knows I scooped it up, hurt it further by putting something on its leg, and then trapped it in a box. It swallows a drop. The cracker is yet untouched. As long as it drinks, it might live. I remember having a pet guinea pig. His plastic water bottle had a metal spout he could lick to get a drink. My guinea pig was named Ralph, and he lived almost a month before I found him dead in his cage. My mother threw his stiff red-and-white body away. We lived in a tiny apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, and there was nowhere to bury a pet, no yard or grassy place. My mother tossed Ralph in with the coffee grounds, the potato peelings, and the overdue-bill notices, then yanked the trash bag up and made me take it out to the dumpster behind the apartment building. It will stink, John, she said. She was 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 in winter and had red fissures. She covered them with cold cream and tried not to show how much they hurt her.
I give the mouse another drink and place a bottle cap full of water in the box before I leave for work. I agreed to work Christmas Day so that Todd, who has a family, can drink whiskey sours and eat turkey with his in-laws. The workload will be light, yet the hours will drag, like on any holiday when the slaughterhouse stays open. Maybe I should bring the mouse with me. And then what? Keep checking on it to see if it has died yet? How would I explain that I have adopted a forlorn mouse? I don’t want that kind of attention. I’m not that bold.
It’s just a mouse. Why do my eyes sting?
I return home ten hours later smelling of blood. My hands ache. My back aches, deep in my spine. How much longer can I do this? I’m not a young man anymore. The roads were an icy nightmare, and I slid about on the way to and from work. My apartment smells of fried potatoes. I made myself an entire panful yesterday, with onions and some of that mail-order cheese. My fake tree sits in the far corner of my living room. A picture of my mother watches me from the wall.
The mouse has curled up in a corner of the box. The water looks lower, and the cracker has been nibbled. The mouse lies very still, but it’s breathing. The leg still looks both gnawed and broken. Had I expected it to be magically healed by the peroxide? Maybe antibiotic cream would help. I could smear some on with a cotton swab to keep the leg from getting infected.
Why am I doing this? some part of me asks. Because it’s the right thing to do, I answer back.
I doctor the mouse as best I can, trying to be gentle. Me, a big bear of a man trying to be gentle with a tiny mouse who clearly wishes I’d just go away and leave it alone. The black eyes blink carefully. The ears swivel. The whiskers move and shiver. I try not to hurt it as I swab some antibiotic cream on that leg.
I take a shower and wash the day’s work off me, the endless procession of dead bodies to be chopped and sawed apart. I have to get another job, but I know of no other way to pay my rent and bills. I was never good in school, and I am not good with numbers, but I can wield a bone saw and carve up a steer. And I can cook eggs. My list of talents is short. I used to have 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 relationship seems ages ago. Claire had a tattoo of a heart right above her own heart. She moved to Wyoming to be closer to her sister. Then she stopped calling.
I change the toilet paper in the box. I get the mouse another cracker and a bit of banana. Do mice eat bananas? I’d google it, but I am rather behind on technology and don’t have the Internet at home. I go to the local library if I need it. Maybe I should get an old-fashioned set of encyclopedias. Would that tell me what mice eat? I wonder if any vets are working today. I have no number to call, no phone book. I miss phone books.
I go to bed early, after one last check on my little guest. I also spring all my traps. I find a dead mouse in one. The stiff body seems to mock my attempts to save the mouse in the box. I take the dead mouse out to the garbage bin. The wind kicks up; more snow is arriving.
I sleep and dream of being part of a large family. It’s summer in my dream.
The mouse has survived the night.
It made itself a little cave in the toilet paper. I doctor its leg again and change the paper. Maybe I should find something else, like some of that stuffing they use in teddy bears. I eat scrambled eggs with a bit of the fancy smoked Gouda and drink my coffee. I hear movement inside the box, along with the usual creaks of my apartment and the rising and falling whine of the snow and sleet. Todd has a dog. He would have a vet’s number. I work the swing shift today, so I have time.
“Todd? It’s John. Hey, weird question: Do you have a vet?”
“Hey, John. Merry Christmas, you sumbitch. A what?”
“A vet. Thanks. Merry Christmas to you, too.” My face is hot. Will he ask why I need a vet?
Todd rattles off the number of a vet clinic, and I hastily record it on the back of my electric bill. “You get a dog?” he asks.
“No. I found a . . . wild animal. It’s injured.”
“Just kill it. It’s probably suffering,” Todd says.
“Yeah.” We exchange some small talk. He tells me how dry the turkey was. He loves juicy turkey, dripping with grease. Then we hang up.
A woman with a bright, sweet voice answers when I call the vet’s number. I explain my problem. “I have it in a box,” I tell her. “The back leg is crunched or something.”
“A mouse, you said? A wild mouse? Um, well, you can bring it in, of course. But maybe you should try a wildlife rescue.” I hadn’t thought of that. “I have a number if you want to try it,” she says.
“OK, thanks.” I take the number and call the wildlife place, but it goes to voice mail. To the vet, then.
My sweet-voiced angel turns out to be a giant woman with fake-red hair and a lovely smile. In the waiting room a man sits on one of the worn yellow chairs with a cocker spaniel on his lap. “It’ll be a bit,” the woman says. Her name tag reads: Juli. The air stinks of disinfectant and cinnamon air spray. Pictures of animals hang on the walls. A poster about the care of a new puppy. A bulletin board for people looking for lost dogs or cats or trying to give away unwanted puppies or kittens.
“You tried the wildlife place?” Juli asks.
“Yes, I did. I just got an answering machine.” I catch a glimpse behind her of a shaggy black dog wearing a cast on a front leg. It tries to lick a person who works here, who is leading it to a cage. The person pets it, bends low to say something in its ear, and then puts the wiggling dog behind bars to wait for its owner to pick it up.
“Well,” Juli says, “Dr. Chambers will take a look-see.” She peers into the box. “Oh, yeah. Look at that leg. Poor thing. Just have a seat.” She smiles her lovely smile. Juli probably has kids at home and lots of dogs; that’s the impression I get. Someone always marries those big farm-women types. She wears a Christmas sweater beneath her white coat.
The spaniel squirms and then hops down from the man’s lap and emits a giant pile of diarrhea. Juli gets the cleaning supplies out.
“I’m sorry. He must’ve gotten into something,” the man says as he and his dog are taken back to an examining room.
“Don’t you worry,” Juli replies. She gives me an apologetic smile, then begins cleaning up the mess as a young mother holding a child on her hip comes in leading a German shepherd. The dog’s back leg is dangling.
“He was just like this this morning!” the mother says, in tears. “I think he got hit by a car!”
So it takes a while for Dr. Chambers to see me. When she does, she peers into the box at the thoroughly confused mouse. “I can try to clean the leg and bandage it a bit,” she says. “That’s about all I can do. You sure you want a bill for a wild mouse?”
“Yeah, he lived through the night. I have to try, right?”
An older woman with short gray hair, steel-blue eyes, and glasses, Dr. Chambers takes a long look at me. Clearly she’s had other nuts bring in boxes of broken lives, hoping for miracles or whatever. Is a vet not in the business of miracles? Perhaps not. Perhaps I am nuts.
Fifty dollars poorer, I head home with the mouse, its mangled leg now encased in bandaging — which, the vet warned, the mouse will probably chew off almost immediately. She also gave me a sample size of antibiotic cream for animals. It won’t sting, the vet assured me. And she told me what mice eat.
I go to the pet store to get some mouse pellets and a small habitat, as it’s called. I get wood shavings for bedding material. I get a water bottle like the one that belonged to long-dead Ralph. On the way to the checkout, I walk by cages of small rodents: hamsters, gerbils, and even mice. I pass 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 angelfish float in their watery domain, black-and-white creatures from a world I will never know. I stare at goggle-eyed goldfish and darting schools of minnows and beautiful betas in their small, sad bowls, limp fins moving now and then, deep red to navy blue to royal purple. I pay for my mouse supplies and drive home on the treacherous roads, but I’m used to such conditions. And I have four-wheel drive, a necessity on the plains.
I transfer my mouse to his new house, smiling at my rhyme. I set up the water bottle, and I put the habitat next to my heating vent so the mouse will stay warm. Then I go to work my shift.
Coming home late at night, I check on my patient: still alive. The water level seems a bit lower, and the mouse seems a bit more lively. There are food pellets scattered about, as if he has been sampling them. There are even tiny mouse droppings. Happiness. Happiness because a dime-a-dozen rodent is still alive in his twenty-five-dollar mouse mansion. But the money doesn’t bother me. I have no kids. I don’t go out that much. I don’t even drink anymore. What’s a bit of a splurge on a hurt mouse? My mother’s eyes watch me from her picture on the wall, and I cannot tell if I am doing right or being foolish.
I tell no one about my houseguest. I call him that because I cannot think of a wild thing as a pet. He’s not a pet. He never warms to me. I never try to pick him up and only handle him to apply that cream to his leg, which gets dragged behind as he scuttles about. I notice the mouse licking at it. The bandages are indeed gnawed off, as the vet predicted. But he licks that leg, rather like a dog would. He has made himself a small nest in the back corner of the habitat, to hide from me as much as possible. Very well. I respect that.
I will see this through, no matter what. If the mouse heals, I will let him go. If he dies, I will bury his little body, wrapped in a toilet-paper shroud. I might even look into getting a dog. Or perhaps a cat would be better, since I work long hours. Maybe I am lonelier than I knew. I go to bed and hear my mouse moving about in his plastic mansion. The snow comes down outside, on the day after Christmas.