The first was a gerbil named Herbie. I was about ten years old. He came with another male gerbil, who turned out not to be male; many more gerbils followed. They had names, too, but Herbie is the only one that survives in memory. Some of their great-grandchildren escaped into a hospital office building; I like to think they established a permanent colony. Mice aren’t gerbils, I know, but really. Close enough. Herbie I considered a friend. I cried when he died, and dug him a grave with a headstone.
Ralph S. Mouse, Stuart Little, Algernon and Reepicheep.
When I was a teenager my family moved to a house in a field. It didn’t take long for the field mice to move in. At first my mother considered exterminating them; I don’t think she considered it very seriously, and it didn’t help that I pressed their case as being God’s creatures, as much as any other she loved. On the whole they were good neighbors, making little mess or fuss, and ate food left over by our dog Comet. I suspect mom put a little food out for them, too.
My dad found a mouse in the cellar that seemed sick and weak, and didn’t run away from him. I put the mouse in a box with a towel and some water, and put the box on the heater. He recovered. Later my dad said a mouse would sometimes sit on his bookshelf, watching him.
In graduate school my roommate thought he saw a rat run under the stove. We sat by the stove for half an hour, drinking whiskey and listening to country music and waiting with a hockey stick and a blowtorch at hand, less out of genuine rat-killing sentiment than the spirit of the moment. Then we went to sleep. The rat turned out to be a mouse; I named him Ralph, and said we should leave him alone. One night I had nightmares about being in an old house with vermin teeming under the floorboards. The next night, as I turned my sheets to make the bed, there was Ralph, crushed flat underneath. That was disturbing.
Natalie Jeremijenko has written about the simple (and non-harmful) behavioral experiments one may conduct on mice living in our homes. Implicit in her propositions is a sensibility of the mice as being both real and independent. In an urban environment in which nature is almost entirely controlled or eliminated, mice are still living in the wild. There is something wonderful about this. I love watching them on the subway tracks.
I often write about biomedical research involving mice, or even the refinement of the mice themselves into genetically diverse models of disease and drug response. I’ve never felt comfortable with this, though I understand the necessity of such research. Recently I visited a prominent breeding center. Hundreds of strains were on display in a tent, developers describing their traits, holding conversations while holding mice in the air, by their tails. I couldn’t handle it and soon went outside. I still support the research, and am fully aware of my inconsistencies.
Over the last several years I’ve seen several mice in my apartment. I assume they entered through a heating duct, and departed the same way. They’re welcome to any crumbs that find their way into the floorboards.
One night last week I was sitting on the couch when Orwell, my cat, pounced near the bed. It didn’t register until he was trotting towards me with something in his mouth; I thought it was a toy, then noticed how long the tail was. Worried that the mouse might have a disease, I took it from him. The mouse was badly wounded but still alive.
I put the mouse in a box on the balcony with some water and a stale Jewish pastry, named him Ralph Jr., and took his photograph. I envisioned nursing him back to health, and writing about him for work, and how if he recovered I might see it as a metaphor of some sort, a sign of good fortune. It would make a good series. As Ralph Jr. huddled in the box, torn and battered, I thought of what he could do for me. The next morning he was gone.
Image: Kevin Czarzasty