Note: I deleted the previous version, (to which I had added more words to the original document, upon the advice of a conference agent, of all things) and hope you don't mind taking another peek. I agree the extra words just slowed it down. So here is the story as first written.
Again, brutal and honest feedback most appreciated! And thank you all for taking another look.
It was a grey day, and chill. The rain made it cold. It was always cold, it seemed, in New Jersey. That’s why I was constantly hugging my coat around myself, trying to keep warm.
Mom would accuse this weather of being ‘raw.’
There were glass-paned French doors leading out from the “admin” buildings to the fading back lawn. The large flagstone patio beyond was grey, too (grey on grey on grey). It wasn’t even full winter yet; a few dull rust leaves still clung to the massive trees on campus, but I was chilled to the bone.
The school was an old, private one, with lush, manicured, treed acres and very old, cold, massive granite buildings. It may have been a fancy school, and expensive, but most of the time I felt very alone there. I liked a couple of my teachers but the rest sort of blended together to me.
Cordial, strict old folk ran the place – kindly but intimidating. I don’t remember much laughter there. Actually, I don’t remember laughing much at all as a child. I was always happiest and most relaxed when I was with my animals, or walking outside in nature.
Anyway, I had my rain coat on, but I kind of hated to step out onto the exposed patio, because it would be even colder. I remember taking a minute to stare through the drizzle into the trees, at the little grey sparrows flitting about and chirping in the empty branches, flying here and there, periodically landing to peck among the weeds.
Because my arms were full of books, I leaned into the door with my shoulder. As I stepped out, I spotted a little toy that someone had dropped on the flagstones. It was one of those solid-bodied, hard, life-like cat toys; a mouse covered in grey rabbit fur, with beads for eyes and a strip of rabbit skin for a tail. It was standing upright on its weighted, flat bottom, in a sitting-up pose, large suede ears cocked forward attentively.
It was very, very tiny.
It must have been put there as a joke by somebody.
I didn’t think twice before nonchalantly scooping it up with one hand as I passed.
But – The “toy” was . . . warm. Quivery. Soft.
I cautiously inched open my fingers to peek inside. Just for a flash, a tingle – sparkle of eyes – whisk of whiskers -
I stuffed my hand deep into my right pocket, quickly regaining my spilling books, wondering if the living mouse in there would scramble up and out – but it didn’t - so I timidly sneaked back inside until my next class, still reeling in disbelief and trying to figure out what to do next. All during the rest of the school day I kept my hand in my pocket, shielding my new friend gingerly, my curiosity and wonder growing.
During the last, boring fifth grade class, I was unable to resist the mystery any longer. Trying not to attract attention, I carefully lifted the flap and stretched the pocket open so I could peek inside.
Whiskers twitched. Those long, radiant wands brushed my fingers as he edged closer to sniff.
I couldn’t suppress my giddy smile as I closed the flap again. I really did have a live mouse in my pocket! When the teacher wasn’t looking, I very carefully unwrapped a Fig Newton from my lunch bag and dropped a crumb in for him. I stuffed the rest of the cookie in my mouth, hoping no one saw.
I was crazy with curiosity. I wanted to see him properly. I was so excited I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I kept wishing there was a way to get far away from everyone so I could look at him, but there wasn’t a chance. Finally, after what seemed like the longest day I’d ever spent at school, three o’clock came.
On the walk home, trudging uphill along busy Palisades Avenue, over uneven sidewalks with weeds growing through the cracks, I let my fingers gingerly explore the quivery warm creature in my pocket. I had too many books and sacks carefully balanced about my body to stop and look at my new friend, but as I stroked him, I started to feel a growing sense of wonder-- and confusion. It just didn’t make sense -- he hadn’t even tried to get away when I brushed by and scooped him up. What wild mouse would act like that?
But here he was, warm, furry, bright eyed and very much alive.
Out of breath, I turned up the long driveway to the imposing mansion we’d moved into a couple years ago.
Mom called it a “monstrosity”.
The thing was three stories high and had five white columns out front. It was made of huge granite blocks painted white.
It still seemed a real shock after the little three-room apartment over the mechanic’s garage we used to live in a few towns away.
As soon as I hopped up the steps to the wide front porch and fumbled the heavy wooden door open, I raced to my room on the second floor and began rummaging for a spare cage. Nixon and Scampi, our dogs, bounded along after me.
Scampi, my brave and plucky Yorkie, hurried to his wicker basket, circling into the red plaid cushion to guard the foot of my bed.
Nixon was Dad’s German shepherd. He patiently put up with every new arrival with an air of chivalry. He sniffed the pocket where Mouse was with interest, then wagged his tail amiably before ambling back down the hall.
Nixon slept downstairs, watching the house for us at night.
I loved the sanctuary of my room.
Mom and I had strewn garlands of decorative ivy and flower vines all around my windows and walls. My wicker headboard, painted green, was accented by bunches of plastic berries, dried flowers and pinecones. Wire-and-fabric butterflies and fake birds, festooned with real feathers dyed pink and red, were fastened to the curlicues of the wicker by thin wires sprouting from their feet.
There were animal-pattern pillows, cushions and rugs. My latest clay scene of seals and pups, and tiny ceramic Chinese horse figurines grazing on a bit of lime green fake fur, had been carefully set up on the table in my sitting area, while Breyer horses galloped and reared on my nightstands.
Posters, many of them centerfolds from Horse of Course magazine, were Scotch-taped all over the sunny, soft-yellow walls.
But the best part was, most of my pets lived here. The air smelled fragrant and sharp from cedar shavings, and was vibrant with rustlings.
I must have lived in some sort of enchanted realm back then, a “peaceable Kingdom”.
A screen-topped 10-gallon aquarium on the wide windowsill beside my bed was full of tame but nervous fancy mice in assorted colors; white and grey, white and beige, agouti, black or piebald. Some slept snuggled together in piles, others in their ceramic, shoe-shaped “mouse house” or playing on the exercise wheel. There always seemed to be naked pink babies in the nests.
There was my beloved hooded rat, Ben, with her brown head and flag-shaped brown dorsal stripe decorating her otherwise white fur. Her boyfriend was big, lovable, laid-back Socrates (yup, they were named after the rats in the movie Willard), who was solid white. Their offspring were equally tame.
A HabiTrail with a pair of always-busy gerbils was next, and on a wooden chest nearby, my exquisite and fanciful chinchillas, with their gentle, doe-like eyes, teensy little hands, spoon-shaped black ears and fuzzy, curly tails, all clothed in shimmering finery unlike any other animal.
To me, chinchillas didn’t look like real animals. They had the densest and finest fur of any mammal, soft as air. They were ticklish. They were magical. Like puff balls. Bouncy, playful puffballs.
Then there was Chantilly, my pet skunk, who lived downstairs in the powder room. Chantilly made my parents nervous, but I thought he was fascinating, if a little testy.
With all these pets, already, certainly I could make room for one more teensy little mouse --
I rifled through closets and drawers, still wearing my rain coat, which was starting to feel stifling warm. Mouse stayed hunkered down in my pocket, only stirring to sniff the air when I lifted the button-flap to check on him. Yikes! I’d have to shake those little black pellets out of my pocket soon! What if he was hungry? He couldn’t stay in there forever --
There must be a spare cage around here somewhere!
Mouse, though, seemed completely calm, and took it all in stride. I wondered if he might have been someone’s pet and had gotten lost, but I’d never seen a tame, domestic mouse that looked like him. He looked just like a mouse you’d see in your cupboard, opening a hole in the corner of your cereal box.
Yet there was also something poised and, well -- regal about him.
Finally, I found a shoe box with a fitted lid. I sprinkled some wood shavings on the bottom, fluffed a torn-up old bit of felt into a corner and dropped in a few sunflower seeds. I figured out a way to rig a spare water bottle to the inside of the box by bending up an old coat hanger, then put the top back on to be sure it still closed properly.
I knew this had to be temporary, but at least it was a start. Everything looked good.
It was high time to take a look at him. I reached into my pocket, carefully dug my fingers under my mysterious little hitchhiker, scooped him out and quickly set him into the box.
Now, exposed, he looked unsure. He didn’t move. We stared at each other.
He was drab. Greyish-brown. Plain.
And he was beautiful.
Eyes sparkled; whiskers, like gossamer magic wands, swept the air. Each glowing, silky hair caught the light. He looked like he was wearing pajamas. He had delicate, bird-like feet. I marveled at his tiny, perfect hands. His elegant tail was thin as a wire, and dark. His eyes were dark, too, and brighter and more alive than anything I’d ever seen.
He was perfect.
I hoped he’d stay tiny.
I timidly reached a finger out to pet him, but this time he dodged it and dived into a pile of shavings. Then I heard it. “Cathy, what are you doing?”
I could tell from her footsteps Mom was on the way up. I took a deep breath. Even though I’d known this was coming, having to face it was a little unnerving. “Uhm . . .” I listened to her steady cadence as she paraded down the wooden hallway. In a moment she was pushing the door open.
“What’s in the box?”
Drat. She didn’t miss a thing. Her tone was disapproving as she clomped into my room in her high heels. The hardwood floors made every clip-clop louder. In despair, or resignation, she asked, “What’ve you got now?”
What could I say?
She contemplated the box while I stalled. “A mouse,” she said. It was a statement.
I nodded demurely, flushing. Then, since the secret was out, I was suddenly chatty, like I couldn’t find my ‘off’ switch. “He was outside at school – I didn’t know he was real - I could have sworn he was a cat toy or something.” She just glared at me. “He let me pick him up – just like that. I didn’t realize . . . why would he just let me pick him up like that? He didn’t try to run away or bite or anything. He’s tame – look.”
She peered into the box suspiciously. “What if it has rabies? You need to be careful. You saw Old Yeller.”
I closed the box, losing my bravado. “I think he’s OK.”
With a sigh she glanced around the room, looking very put-upon. Scampi scratched at her legs and jumped for attention. I was happy for the diversion.
“Well, just keep an eye on him. But-” With an accusing and overly obvious glance sweeping over all the other pets I had, “Cathy, don’t you have enough animals yet?” Sheepishly I stared at the top of the box. “He’d better not get out. You know Dad won’t be happy. If he gets loose, he’ll attract more wild mice, and -- then we’ll have problems . . .” She gave me that pursed- lipped, laser-eyed stare that I hated. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
Uncomfortable, I nodded in acknowledgement, gazing at the box’s closed lid until she gave up and walked off. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Mouse! I kept watching the box. Faint rustlings were coming from in there. I listened to them until her footfalls faded.
I checked down the hall, then breathed a sigh of relief. Good, she was downstairs now.
I closed my bedroom door.
“Where did you come from, huh?” I asked Mouse as I gently lifted the lid again. Mouse turned in his wood-chip pile and faced me, nostrils quivering as he reached his nose out to sniff. He’d already made a big fluffy round nest ball out of the felt and shavings, and was smack dab in the middle of it, snug and warm. “Will you let me pet you now?” Very slowly and softly I pushed the lid back until it stayed propped up out of the way.
Noting that he didn’t shy away any more, I scooped a few dried corn kernels and sunflower seeds from my rats ‟treat jar” and extended my hand to him, palm up, hand flat, a few inches from his nest, then waited, holding my breath.
He eyed me calmly. I stayed as still as I could. After a few minutes I crept my hand a fraction of an inch closer. He watched but still didn’t venture from the comfort of his cozy new nest.
Minutes passed. By now my legs were getting sore and my arms heavy. I wriggled into a more comfortable position and, with less caution, slid my hand closer still. The sky was dimming outside my bedroom windows. I could see the roof of the carriage house at the end of our long drive, and the tops of the trees in bleak silhouette against the dully setting sun. There was a thin blush of rose and orange at the horizon; not much of a sunset but better than the featureless grey skies of the day.
Mouse still nestled there, as if waiting for room service.
Suddenly inspired, I asked, “Is that what you want? Room service?” and moved my open hand right up to the edge of his nest until the corn bits in my palm were under his chin.
With a twitch of his ears and a nod of his head that seemed to say, “It’s about time!” Mouse casually began picking one treat after another from my hand, resting his elbows on me as he turned the kernels in his hands. One by one he ate them, and the plump grey-striped sunflower seeds, dropping the empty hulls neatly back into my palm.
Next, I offered him a flat white pumpkin seed – as big as his head. He grabbed it carefully with his sharp little teeth, dragged it from my palm and buried it beside his bed. Then, with a flourish, he turned away to go back to sleep.
I’d been dismissed! Who did this mouse think he was, Royalty?
I got some more goodies from the jar and tried again, but Mouse had had enough. Gingerly I stroked his back with one finger, but he just peered at me through half-closed eyes before tucking his head into his belly, making a furry little ball. He’d turned his back on me as if I didn’t matter. Not sure what to make of this, I got him a handful of ‘lab blocks’ (commercially prepared lab-rat food) and piled them in the corner of his box before replacing the lid.
At dinner, Dad finished pointedly scraping more broccoli onto my plate before hobbling back to his seat. As he turned to pull his chair out, he sucked in his breath and froze, hunched over, and braced himself against the back of the chair. He rocked his head from side to side. “You need to let him go,” he managed through gritted teeth, shaking his head slowly as he waited for the pain to subside. The old war injury – shrapnel in his knee – never ceased to cause him agony. “He’s wild. He doesn’t want to stay cooped up here.”
I didn’t answer, concentrating instead on choking down the bitter florets, glad I’d left myself a spoonful of sweet golden creamed corn to take the edge off once I’d finished all the horrid green stuff.
Dinner with my adoptive Dad tended to be a tension-filled, unpleasant ordeal. “I don’t understand why you don’t like them; they’re not hurting anybody.” I felt frumpy, and defensive. Why wouldn’t they just leave me alone?
“You’ve got your dogs. I made you get an aquarium. I made you get a canary.” He always said “made” rather than “let”, for some reason. Besides, the canary was way back when we still lived in the apartment, when I was in kindergarten. Pino was what I’d called him. Mom had gotten him from the Woolworth’s, as a surprise; a dull yellow mystery who I don’t remember having been around long. He’d just disappeared one day. I never found out what had happened to him. I don’t remember ever hearing him sing.
“I got you a Chick–U-Bator,” he reminded me. It was a hobby chicken egg incubator that was the current fad. I’d been very excited at first . . . except he’d never let me order the bantam eggs it was meant to hatch. So, what was the point of it?
“You had a rabbit,” Dad continued. “What was his name?” He looked at Mom for help.
“Arthur. King Arthur.”
“Yeah, Arthur, that’s right.”
At that moment Whiskers, one of the orange tabbies that stayed outside, mewed at the door and started rubbing back and forth against the door frame, urging us to feed him and his sister, Whisper.
“. . . and those cats . . .”
I didn’t like where this was going. Dad went on, “And what about those chin-chins – chin-chil-las. You just had to have them.”
“I like them,” I mumbled.
“They’re so noisy at night,” Mom observed.
“They do have some personality, though.” Dad grunted. “I’ll have to admit, those are kind of cute. For rats.”
“They’re not rats. Ben’s a rat.” They both looked at me. I wasn’t making things any better. “They’re NICE, Dad.”
He stood up, cleared his place and brought his things to the sink. “I’ll never like them. Rats. Mice. Rodents. Sorry, I just don’t see it.”
As he walked away, I looked imploringly at Mom. She began clearing the table and said quietly, “You know why he doesn’t like them, don’t you?
During the war. He was trapped with his squadron in an alley for 3 days. He said the rats ended up coming out and trying to bite his friends, the ones who were badly hurt. They were very aggressive after a while -- He still has nightmares about it. Try to be a little more understanding.” With that, she turned away to wash the dishes.
I sat there feeling bad. I didn’t know how to react. MY rats and mice weren’t mean. Wild rats must be different. I could grudgingly see his point. I was glad he tolerated Ben and the others, but still . . .
Later, as I was feeding and watering everyone upstairs, I took Ben out and placed her on my desk. I watched her, trying to see her through Dad’s eyes. If I tried hard, I guessed I could, but I didn’t want to see her that way. I saw a warm, gentle, bright-eyed little animal who wanted to be near me and even followed me around outside on the lawn, more attentive than a dog. I saw a friend.
Ben held my finger between her pink hands and very gently licked.
I cradled her in my hands and kissed her outstretched nose before putting her back.
When I was done caring for the others, I gently lifted the lid to Mouse’s box, careful so the light wouldn’t hurt his eyes. He shifted in his nest, giving me a bored glance.
“Wanna come out? Come on, Mouse, come play.” I pushed the lid almost all the way back and sat down on my bed, where I could keep an eye on him while I looked through some books. I loved to read and had a big library. Most of my books were stored on a two-piece wooden bookshelf in my bedroom. I loved them all, The Black Stallion series, The Secret Garden, the original, hard-cover Bambi (the one by Felix Salten, which is absolutely nothing like the childish Disney movie), The Call of The Wild... well, there were so many.
But my pet care books, the ones I read over and over, stayed on my night stand beside the bed, and one was a thin, soft-cover TFH publication called All About Rats. It was the only one I had on pet rats. As I lay on my bed and thumbed through the familiar pages, I kept an eye out for any movement from The Box.
I re-read passages about the different rodent species, all the while waiting to see if Mouse was starting to explore. At one point I thought I heard some rustling over there, but nothing else happened.
After about an hour I got impatient and went to go see if Mouse was asleep again. I looked into his box and everything was just the same, the fluffed-up nest still a perfect ball, cozily closed. “You OK? You sure are sleeping a lot.” I sighed and went to flop down on the bed when something on the book shelf caught my eye.
A “cat toy”! Mouse must have scampered up onto the bookshelf while I wasn’t looking! How’d he get up there? He sat stock still, in his “at-attention” pose, watching me from the second to highest shelf.
I wondered if he’d let me pick him up again. I needed a little more height to reach that shelf, so, watching him out of the corner of my eye, I dragged my wooden stool from the closet. Then I started across the room to the shelves.
Wait a minute -
I froze and intently scanned each shelf, from top to bottom. He was gone!
Nervous now, I started moving books, careful so as to not pinch or crush him. I looked behind the bookcase, as best I could, cramming my head against the wall and trying to peek behind it with one eye.
Uh-oh, Dad was going to KILL me!
Then I remembered a story I’d read about a boy who caught his lost pet hamster by making a ramp leading into a tilted bucket, putting food inside as bait. Good idea! I quietly tore my closet apart for something I could use. I found a metal storage bin. He was small; surely it would be deep enough. Hmmm, and I needed to find a plank …. I quietly moved things around some more until I could dislodge a shelf from the wall. For about 20 minutes I quietly fiddled with this and that, quietly panicking, trying to quietly get my “trap” set up.
‘Quiet’ was the operative word. Mom and Dad did NOT need to know about this. I just hoped I caught him before they found out he was loose!
By this time, it was very late. I had to get up early for school the next day. I checked my “trap” again, adding a few Pop Tart crumbs on the ramp to lure him to the edge, and some sunflower seeds at the bottom of the bin. The theory was, he’d scramble up the ramp to the lip of the bucket, slip into it and not be able to climb back out.
There was nothing to do now but wait, and I was too groggy to stay up any longer, anyway. I turned off the lights, except for the little reading lamp on my bed stand. As an afterthought, to hide my predicament from Mom (because, of course, she’d end up barging in at some point), I decided I’d better close The Box, to make it look like Mouse was still inside.
I pulled the lid the rest of the way off so I could settle it back down the right way, when I saw something move. I sat back on my heels.
Since it was dark now, I opened the desk drawer where Mom kept a flashlight for me. Quietly I pressed the “on” button and shone the beam on the felt nest.
It was moving.
Cautiously I reached in and pushed a hole into the fluff until my fingertip touched a furry warm body. Mouse spun groggily around, saw it was me, yawned and curled back up, turning his back to me.
I closed the fluff back over him, shut the lid on The Box, then crawled into bed and turned off the lamp. “OK Mouse, Sir Royal Mouse. I don’t know how you did that . . .” I rubbed my eyes. I was pretty tired. Maybe I just imagined it. “Good night.”
But, as tired as I was, I suddenly found I couldn’t fall asleep.
- End of Chapter One -