by Chelsea Eckert
The mouse’s name was Mushika, and she was so very small that not even Time Himself could sniff her out. You see, dear reader, Time is as brutal as tidewaters, as resolved as a gorilla barreling down a hill. But when Mushika was real still, and real calm, she saw right through Him.
They pulled up to the house, Hal and his youngest grandson. It was a godmother of an abode, unattractive but warm. The right sort of base to promote the growth of a little mind.
“We’ve read some stuff in school,” Conrad said with neither interest nor disdain. The two of them had been discussing mythology. (Rather: Hal had been discussing mythology.)
“So I don’t suppose,” Hal said, “that you know the Hindu god of wisdom used to ride a mouse into battle? Of all things!”
“Oh.” Conrad’s glance was affixed to the radio. There Katy Perry chirped about Californian girls. With a jerk of his keys Hal switched off this distraction, and yet Conrad still said nothing. Worrisome.
“In fact–I just recalled–I had a mouse when I was your age. A fancy mouse, nothing special.” Remembrance engulfed Hal. He and Conrad got out of the car, swished through autumn detritus. “My own great-grandfather had passed on a book of folklore to me, so I named the little thing Mushika. After the mount of the god of wisdom. I used to have her make my decisions for me, ha ha. Put her at one end of the table. Bits of paper with various courses of action on the other. And then she’d move toward the one that I’d–ah…”
Conrad was fidgeting with the zipper on his coat. Nothing was wrong with the boy. That, at least, might have been a good and proper explanation. One could find some pride in that, however diseased it was.
Hal said, “Well, nevermind that. What is an average day in the life of my favorite grandson like?” A lie, but–admittedly he had not paid as much attention to Conrad as to his cousins, each of whom were distinct in Hal’s mind. Kit, the painter. Phillip, the fledgling naturalist, now applying to college. Et cetera.
“Um. School. And then I do my homework and my enrichment at the library. Then, when Dad comes home, we all watch Wheel of Fortune together,” Conrad said.
“Wheel of Fortune! Good at it, are you, my boy? From the comfort of your couch.”
“I don’t ever answer the puzzles. I like to watch other people do it.”
That made Conrad–what? Banal? At ten years old! But Hal considered himself a man of thought, a dogged ideas-man, and a blasphemous one came to him as they walked towards his house. Instead of directing Conrad inside Hal gently pushed him towards the ample yard.
“Have you ever thought, my boy, that maybe you should answer the puzzles? And I don’t just mean on Wheel of Fortune, you know,” Hal said.
Conrad only shrugged.
On Hal’s property there stood one stalwart ash tree that had remained unchanged since his boyhood. They came before it now. Vaguely Hal recalled that he had buried the mouse Mushika here long ago–yes, yes, in a ring-box. To mark the grave he had sharpened rocks until they’d become stake-like. He put those stakes into the ground around the box so that only their tops peeked out, forming a little stone circle. For a few minutes Hal, with his shoe, wiped away moss and assorted botanic gunk from the general vicinity of the tree.
And there it was: the fairy ring of stakes, undisturbed. He bent and dug lightly at Mushika’s grave, receiving wordless, abiding help from Conrad.
“We’ll learn something about death today,” Hal said, absently. “It’s sad, yes. That’s the obvious.”
They hit the ring-box. Still whole. Hal took the box into his palm. A gentle rumbling seemed to come from inside. He had read a good book about this.
Hal continued, “What’s less clear to a boy is–and this is the poetry of it–how critical the process is to the local ecosystem.”
He opened the box. A black mouse unfurled like a budding flower and stared up at him. The creature was–preserved, like its container. Unhurt. Its dewdrop eyes blinked rapidly, a fusillade of panic and recognition. If it were human its expression might have been one of distressed surprise.
“Oh–big feeder?” Mushika said. Her voice was reedy. A short trill on some woodwind instrument. “It is you.”
Turning away from his grandson, covering Mushika with his other hand, Hal panicked. Myriad emotions swarmed beneath his skin. It was her. Black. Runty. The same kink in her tail, the same notch in her left ear. A miracle? No–no such thing. Behind him, Conrad said nothing.
After steadying himself internally Hal opened his hand. Mushika bowed her head a little. He held her out for Conrad to see, and Conrad craned his neck for a view.
“Mushika,” Hal said, “my grandson. Conrad–Mushika.”
“Is he a feeder?” Mushika said, quivering. “Or a–a–“
“Completely and utterly safe,” Hal piped in. His grandson looked unsure of this, and Hal winked at him. “This will be our little undertaking.”
“I have never heard of such a thing,” said the Moon Cat. He was a very bored creature, right down to his soul. The simple feline instinct to chase and tease did not arouse him. He simply glowed. Other creatures reflected him.
“What I say is the truth,” Mushika replied. “There is nothing more to speak of.”
They went inside. Hal placed Mushika on the kitchen table. The mouse stared up at them with anticipation.
“Conrad, my boy,” said Hal, “why don’t you ask Mushika something about herself?”
“Nothing’s really on my mind,” Conrad answered.
“I cannot see how. My decades-old dead mouse is alive and speaking to us. Don’t you have questions? Aren’t you doubting the very way the universe functions?”
His grandson nodded and plodded into the living room, where he turned on the blank noise of twenty-four-hour news. “I know, Grandpa. Just–it’s not all that surprising.”
“Why don’t you keep active, then? There’s a little neighbor girl about your age–Lucy–“
“Okay.” But Conrad kept watching.
Hal turned back to the mouse. Perhaps he could–well–a story about her might capture Conrad. Did the boy like to read? Didn’t all children? He imagined a middle-grade book about Mushika. Winner of the Newbery Medal. Yes. He had always wanted to write.
“Do you need me to run the table again, big feeder?” asked Mushika. “Show me where the words are, and I will do it. I promise.”
“No, no, my girl. It appears I’ve gotten too old for that.” He stroked the top of her head with one finger. A sigh wiggled out of her. “Tell me how you’ve gotten here.”
“I have dreams,” Mushika said, as if unaware that Hal had spoken. She related to him a nebulous tale in which she felt herself passing through sunlight endlessly, the brightness engulfing her, surging in and out of her body. Then (she said) she was back in the ring-box. She did not feel the need to eat or breed or defecate, and she found that waiting came as easy to her as a breath.
“But,” she finished, shivering, “I still sleep. I still dream. I dreamed of you and the little feeder coming to find me and it was so. I had more dreams, more about you, if you want to know of them…”
Every decision that she had made for him in his youth, Hal realized, had been the right one. In retrospect. The little day-to-day things: what to do for breakfast, which girl with whom to ride his bike. Ah. And then, in time, options that held more consequence. His parents had divorced and–he went with his father. Good old Poppa who told him to go into teaching.
“But now we are here,” Hal said to no one in particular, “and I am old.”
He looked over at Conrad. Mushika twisted her body towards the front door and then the window, as if searching for something.
“Moon Cat, I have come to ask for protection on behalf of my brothers and sisters, us constellations, children of Time,” said the little star.
“Ah? Oh,” Moon Cat replied. “How boring. I already know the story. He is hard at work and cannot always feed and nurture you, is that so? What shall we do, Advisor Rodent?”
Mushika closed her eyes. There had been a dream about this, and there was blood in it, although blood had always meant life to mouse-kind. Squealing, wondrous life. Death was like so much cut grass.
In his working days Hal had been a teacher of writing and literature. He had not been a very good one, even by his own esteem. Not in the ways that mattered. The most troubled children he had always called by their last names simply out of habit. And so he had rendered them intangible. So many of them. His passions he could not inflame in others unless the kindling was already present.
When he went to pick up Conrad at school he waited with the car parked so that it faced away from the building proper. He had a yellow legal pad in his lap. After he wrung a paragraph out of himself about Mushika, his neck ached. Writing a coherent narrative had never been this difficult. Not even five years ago. He was dying. By God, he would be dead soon.
Someone tapped outside the car window. Lucy–the daughter of the freelancer next door–waved at him, all braces and braids. He simply looked at her, and she meandered away to her father. Oafish girl. Strange to imagine a child in such a way, but–well–she was silly, both in demeanor and character, and how far did that get a woman? She often tailed him as he did yard-work, her knees and elbows flailing. She talked a lot about Disney sitcoms and gave him migraines.
Hal rubbed his temples.
In a few minutes Conrad slipped into the car, looking disheveled. He tugged Mushika by the paw out of his breast pocket and tossed her violently onto Hal’s pad.
“Boy!” Hal stroked Mushika, collecting her into his palm. He had given her to Conrad for the week; she was breathing heavily but otherwise appeared unhurt. “Be gentle, for God’s sake!”
“She said Todd Cole’s mother kissed somebody who wasn’t his dad and Todd walked to school today and he was crying,” Conrad said, his cheeks crimson, his jaw strained. “You know what happened? Do you?”
Hal closed his eyes and breathed. Then he nudged Mushika up his torso onto his shoulder and leaned over to Conrad, trying to emit an aura of affection and disclosure.
“Todd Cole’s mother is–who, boy? Do you know her name? Todd Cole, son of–son of–who did Jim Cole marry…? It’s–ah, Beth, isn’t it?” Hal swam out to the depths of his memory. “She was Beth Silverman. Only child of Norm Silverman. Lord. My boy, that woman was hard liquor, even when she was growing up with your mother. Not all mothers are good mothers. Now you know. I am sorry.”
Conrad would not meet his eye. It occurred to Hal that Conrad had never willingly looked at him. Hal had always called him to attention, or taken the boy’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and manually pulled Conrad’s head to face his own.
“But so many good people come from bad mothers. ‘Good wombs have borne bad sons,’ as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, except the opposite. I hope you understand that.”
“I want to go home,” Conrad said.
“So,” Hal said, “I’ve been making you something for–well, I don’t think it will be done by Christmas. But by your birthday, by March, yes. A little book rather like–one part Roald Dahl, one part Philip Pullman.”
No response. The world outside was awash in squash and quivering trees and plastic turkeys on lawns. It was fall, i.e. changing-time. A time for hunger. A time to bring it out in others. But Conrad only stared at his boots. Mushika pressed her face against the car window, and by her breathing Hal could tell she was afraid.
“I saw my neighbor Lucy just a while ago,” Hal said, mentally grasping. “The little girl next door. Fine thing. Sharp as a key…”
“You will likely not remember what I say,” the Queen of Fey began, “but I shall say it anyway, so that if any mite at all is listening, perchance, he shall take it home to his people. Rewards do not always lie at the conclusion of every journey. Many you must make for the sake of your own sore feet.”
She lay the quill in Mushika’s paw. It had fallen off a ziz bird in the days when humankind had still sensibly knelt before emperors. Yet a drop of blood clung to the end of the shaft, opaque and globelike.
“I know,” Mushika whispered.
Then it was winter.
Hal had finalized about a half of the Mushika book; it would come in at about one-hundred fifty pages. A likely size for Conrad, whom he often kept around the house for inspiration. Mushika–his other muse–he let nest in a little drawer in his office and move about as she pleased. All that she had prophesied came to fruition thus far. On one end of the spectrum: the Coles’ divorce. On the other: triviality. Spilled coffee. Failed quizzes.
She had also talked to him about his book’s popularity, i.e. that it would be. Yet Hal was tired today in particular. That success would certainly come to him fluttered in the form of self-doubt within. It was not easy. Of course, he would achieve it, eventually. He saw no reason to complain as he moved to bed to take a nap, but dread had suffused him–
A thump ripped through the walls. When Hal rushed out into the kitchen he saw Conrad brandishing his fist, sobbing. Mushika skittered across the floor and into Hal’s waiting palms. She’d had the run of the house in the last few hours although now Hal regretted this.
“One never insults the feeders, never,” Mushika said. “Though I think I did and help me please help me–“
“There is nothing you could say that would warrant that kind of treatment,” Hal replied. He looked up at Conrad for an explanation; the boy wailed.
“The little feeder’s mother has a–a growing, in her lung,” Mushika said, and curled into herself, as if hurt.
Hal exhaled loudly. He slipped Mushika into her drawer and told her to hush; she held up her paws as if meaning to stop him, but, with a single finger against his lips, he shut her in. Then he went back to Conrad.
“What should we do, my boy? We have to discuss this, what to do with this knowledge.”
“Is she going to die?” Conrad said, slumping into the nearest chair.
“Mushika is–ah. Your mother?” What could he say of Georgia? She was his youngest child. As with her siblings Hal had pronounced her a bore by the time she was fourteen, fifteen. And soon she would be dead. As he too would be.
Yet he did not cry, could not cry. A vast and desolate disappointment stretched before him.
“My boy,” Hal said, finally, “lung cancer is quite harsh, if that’s even what Mushika means. Still, ah. I believe that–we should tell your mother about Mushika, about Mushika’s gift, and what Mushika says. But we must let her choose her own way.”
And when she gave the stars the ziz quill they shone too brightly upon her. Brighter than Moon Cat, even. But true and grateful appreciation is the most dazzling thing in existence. She was, therefore, revealed to the universe. All eyes from every divine corner turned to her.
What could he say of his daughter? This he considered as he entered the room.
“Georgia,” Hal said.
“Daddy,” she replied. Georgia sat at her kitchen table, cigarette at hand, smiling contentedly as she thumbed a children’s toy catalog. Various architectural models–some in balsa wood, some in plastic–were circled in pink highlighter. Ah, right. She liked putting those damned things together. That was the reason he couldn’t look at a picture of Fallingwater or Buckingham Palace without his intestines twisting. She never even read the fact sheets that came with the kits.
“Well.” Hal slapped his thighs. He noted half of Conrad’s face peering in from the living room just beyond the threshold. “Here is the situation. You’re going to die of cancer, Georgia.”
Now he caught her gaze. She had the same pale eyes as he did, as Conrad did, except that a noxious dullness had settled in theirs. Georgia got up, left the room. After a moment she came back with a Lego model of Windsor Castle.
“Oh!” Mushika popped out from Hal’s pocket. He watched as she slid down his pant leg and clambered up onto the table, right into Georgia’s outstretched palm. Georgia cooed; Mushika’s eyes lit up with a strange rodent joy. Then the two of them played, actually played. The mouse scaled the brick towers while Georgia stroked and tickled her ears.
Conrad wept. Hal went outside. This was a betrayal he did not expect. His own mouse. God damn them both. He came back in after he felt like something soft had torn inside of him. His grandson had disappeared but Georgia still sat with Mushika in her hands.
“It’s too late for you, Georgia,” Hal said. His voice shook. “I cannot help you now.”
Georgia only peered up at him, her chin tucked in, smirking. “The other day I was cleaning Conrad’s room when he was at school. And who’s nestled in his bed but this little thing, shaking like an epileptic? I like animals–“
“No you don’t,” Hal said, mentally flipping through scrapbooks marked Georgia. She never brought this sort-of thing up during conversation. Not at family functions. Not on the phone.
Actually–ah–when Georgia was thirteen or so, she and Hal had gone camping at Yellowstone–a special trip just for him and his youngest. She’d run up and down the RV on the way there, talking of bears and rabbits and moles and sparrows, her coltish legs trembling. But they had gotten there at the height of the destruction wrought by local elk, who had over-flourished without wolves to cap the population. There was not much to see. It had rained, and all the land’s nothing drooped. She’d leaned her forehead against the window, her expression lethargic, and remained in bed most of the week.
It was then. Yes. After that she had not been much interested in what her father had to say.
“Daddy,” Georgia chided. “You’re like a one-way mirror. Of course I like animals. I found her and I played with her. I let her run up and down my arms and she told me I was going to die. I went to the doctor because she got into my head with that whistling little voice of hers and–oh, the results are in the office, if you want to see them.” She lit another cigarette. Undeserving. That is what she was. “I’m not afraid, Daddy. Not for me.”
“I want Mushika,” Hal said. “Please, Georgia. She is mine and I found her.”
“I think I’ll keep her here for a while. Wouldn’t you like that, mousey?”
Mushika peered over a crenellation and nodded.
He enclosed her in the glass container. How Mushika huffed and puffed! She was used to the crawl and shove of rodent bodies but not the hot, sterile air of man-stuff. The trap had worked.
“This is where you shall be,” said Time. “For all days and for all seasons. I could not apprehend you, and so I award you, honorably, with speech and sound and other things which you may call Life, but which is not Life.” Duty shined in His eyes. He was not a senseless creature. “And you shall not, mouse, see through me again.”
She apparently hadn’t seen this coming, Mushika, and soundly slept in Hal’s pants pocket as he and Conrad pulled up to the house. It was day. Hal felt naked. For a long while he watched snow swallow the street and his car as if the storm were some ravenous and amorphous thing come up from beneath the earth. His knees shook. Then he resolved himself, remembered himself.
He and Conrad loped like wolves into the yard–his own yard!–and stopped under the property’s ash tree. Wolves–yes. The two of them had become, admittedly, predatory. Georgia had started chemo and it had worn her out enough to make this ordeal simple. She had slept soundly when they had entered her room and when they had left it with their prize. Prey.
Conrad, shovel at hand, dug. Under snow, under winter-tough soil. There seemed to be a white film over his eyes, which were almost motionless. Then–the ring-box, unearthed. Hal pried Mushika from his pockets.
“You have to answer for yourself,” Hal said. “I cannot forgive the waste of gifts, my girl.”
“B-big feeder? It is–cold. I don’t understand.” But she must have. She grew rigid.
“I am not sure anything you can say at this point,” Hal said, “can convince me of your value. You’ve done so much.”
The mouse looked around, and then back at him. “Don’t–put me away. Please. There are more of us,” she said. “Under the tree, big feeder, we’ve all awoken. At least let me go back to them.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Please, I–” Mushika twirled around and around on Hal’s palm. He crushed her in his fist, and her heart trilled like a skipping stone against his closed hand. Before Mushika could speak further Hal shoved her into the box. It seemed to close by itself. The thought of throwing it down seized him but he laid it in the hole instead, as if he’d held a particularly fragile document or book.
He then surveyed the tree. Imagine: a thousand pinpoint eyes, somehow large with their certainty, their knowledge. If–but she could not be telling the truth. No. The day after he and Conrad had first uncovered her he had investigated the whole yard.
Maybe not closely enough.
“Bury her,” Hal heaved. He looked away. What would it do to watch? What would it do to cut down the tree, put out rat poison? What would it do to know that more needless, awful miracles lie within? “I would, but–“
“You’re not old, Grandpa,” Conrad said, and did as he was told.
Yes. Well. Hal shuddered. He thought maybe his skin would sluice off of him in so many rivulets. After all was said and done they started back to the car. Next door, the neighbor girl Lucy had just trotted outside, dressed to the nines in bright red boots and a Holden Caulfield cap that bounced against her ears. She stopped at the border of their two properties.
“Hi, Mister. And um. Grandson.” She waved. “My mom has cider inside if you–“
“It was a mouse,” Hal said flatly, sniffling, jerking a thumb behind his shoulder. “She could tell the future, you know. We buried her. For God’s sake! We buried her. Do you understand? Go get her, my girl. If you want.”
Lucy didn’t respond, rubbing her left eye with a gloved hand. After he got in the car Hal watched her out the window. Waiting, waiting. But–no. She tucked snow into a ball and began to sing some little girl song, something she had likely picked up from television. He would never know her or her parents. Not before his death. Not before his daughter’s.
On the way to the hospital he and Conrad listened to an audiobook about the habits of wild mice. It was research for the Mushika novel. Conrad asked no questions and it was all very fascinating.
It is not, by any account, a serene time, dear reader, and it was not then, either. The wind soared and ducked and whistled through the fur of Moon Cat who presided, kindly but with great disinterest, over his empire. He laid, rumbling noisily, in the boughs of an ash tree. Below, among the roots, the mice of the Fairy Ring went about their ceaseless chatter-business.
Far and away in a little man-house Mushika watched the stars, those orphans of their ever-toiling father Time, from her glass enclosure. With the power of the ziz feather they had gone back to their manse in the sky, content and secure. The thought of them became a song in her flesh and bones. Creatures like birds were hollow but she, at least, was not.
That is the end of it, and all you need to know.
Chelsea Eckert is currently attending UNC Greensboro for her MFA in creative writing. Her fiction and poetry, both literary and genre, have appeared or will appear in over twenty print and online venues. Stalk her like a hungry catamount at http://chelseaeckert.me.