Bucks County Writers Workshop
"Get those filthy vermin out of here!" Mother jumped back. Her hands flew up in front of her mouth, fingers clutched together defensively. "Throw them in the garbage--then go down cellar and scrub your hands with laundry soap. Use a brush." Her voice was squeaky and high. She sounded out of breath like she did when she ran for the trolley.
I uncurled my hand and looked at the three small, naked mice nestled in my palm. I couldn't have been more than five years old, yet they barely filled my cupped hand. I knew vermin meant something dirty and gross. But they weren't. I could see right through their smooth pink skin. The mice were tiny and perfect and spotless, as though their mother had just given them a bath--they weren't covered with dried slime and scraggly little feathers like the dead baby robins we sometimes found under the big locust tree next to the back door. Maybe Mother hadn't really looked at them. I held out my hand. "They're really clean. See. They just got born. They didn't even open their eyes yet."
Mother shuddered and yanked her head back. "Get--those--filthy--animals--out--of--my--sight--do--you--hear--me? Her voice rose to a strangled shriek.
I covered the mice filled hand with my other one and stepped back. "But they're all alone. Their mother's gone. They don't have anyone to take care of them now. They'll die if we don't make sure they have food and a warm place to get bigger." Why couldn't my mother see that?
"Good. Three less mice for me to get rid of later on." Her voice was flat, her mouth set in a thin line. I felt lost. Mothers were supposed to help small helpless creatures. Weren't they? But my mother didn't seem to care if these poor little mice froze or starved to death.
Watching her set face, my bewilderment turned into a sense of helplessness. I looked at the innocent creatures in my hand and muttered, "You aren't the one who gets rid of mice. Dad does it. But he never kills them. He catches them in the hav-a-heart trap and takes them down to the end of the woods." I knew I was asking for trouble, but disappointment dulled my survival instincts.
"Get that sulky look off your face and stop whining." She turned her back and started clattering dishes. "I want those dirty animals in the garbage can. Now. Do you hear me? What kind of a girl plays with vermin? And look at you--why are you wearing those old overalls instead of the dress I put out for you this morning? What will the neighbors think? Now get rid of those mice this minute, wash your hands well and put on a dress before dinner."
"Yes ma'am." I went out on the side porch, letting the screen door slam shut then stomped down the porch steps. I checked to be sure Mother couldn't see me from her position at the kitchen sink, pulled the lid off the garbage can then banged it back on loudly enough so she would hear it. I held the hand still cradling the mice as though it were empty in case she had moved and could see me then hurried around to the back of the house and slipped in the open garage door.
There was a small cardboard box in the trashcan next to my father's workbench. It wasn't perfect: the bottom was greasy, but there was nothing else small enough to use. Working one handed because I didn't want to put the mice down, I pulled small pieces of paper towel off the roll above the workbench and made a kind of nest on the bottom of the box. I tucked the mice into this makeshift home. They shifted slightly when I put them down, curling and re-curling around each other as though trying to regain the coziness of my warm hand. When they finally seemed comfortable, I tucked in the flaps on the box to keep them warm.
I could hear Mother moving around upstairs. When the front doorbell rang and I heard her talking to the paperboy, I tiptoed up the back stairs carrying the boxed mice and stashed them under a pile of underpants in my dresser.
Mother mentioned the mice at dinner, stressing her horror. Dad clearly had the wrong reaction. He seemed irritated at her, not at my "unladylike" interest in mice.
He turned to me. "Did you put them in the garbage can?"
I cringed. "No sir."
"Where are they?"
"In my dresser."
"You put those filthy mice in your dresser after I expressly told you to put them in the garbage?" Mother was shrieking. She turned to my father with a dramatic flourish. "Not only do I have to put up with flagrant disobedience, now I will have to rewash every bit of clothing in her dresser and disinfect the dresser itself."
An expression of distaste crossed my father's face but he ignored her outburst. "Are they inside something?"
"Yes, sir. I put them in a little box I found in the wastebasket next to your workbench."
He pushed his chair away from the table, tossed his napkin next to his plate and stood. "Bring them down to the basement," he said.
"I hope you plan to punish her," Mother called after him, but he didn't answer.
He made a clean space on his workbench and placed the box there. When he opened it all he said was, "Ummm."
I looked up at him and waited.
"Just born. Show me where you found them." He picked up the box with the mice in it and followed me outside. The driveway reeked of sulfurous fumes like the valley did on smoggy winter mornings. A new load of red-dog from the steel mills in Pittsburgh had been rolled into the steep driveway yesterday. I showed my father where the edge of the roller had bumped the bank on the uphill side and scraped away the grass overhang that had projected over the nest where I found the shivering mice. He bent down and contemplated the remains of the nest. "The mother's long gone. I'm not sure what we can do except keep the mice warm and try to give them a little liquid. They would still be nursing at this point."
"Can we give them milk?"
"Broth maybe. I doubt if they could digest cows' milk, but we can try." He turned and went back into the cellar. "Stay here," he said and went upstairs.
"You're not going to encourage her, are you?" My mother sounded furious. I could hear her talking as she followed him upstairs. Once they got up to the second floor, I couldn't hear what either one said, but they both sounded angry.
My father looked grim when he came back down to the cellar. He was carrying an eyedropper and a small pan full of warm milk he had diluted with water and gravy from dinner. He tried to get the mice to drink it, but it didn't look as though they wanted it. "Probably smells wrong," Dad muttered. "In a few days, they will probably eat anything, but this young they do everything by instinct." He sighed. "Well, at least we can keep them warm." He turned on a small light and put the box close to it. "Don't want it to touch, but the lamp will keep the area around them warm.
Mother wouldn't speak to me when I went back upstairs. Dad spent the evening down in the cellar. I went to bed early to get away from the tension that saturated the house. But there was no respite even there. Once I was in bed the arguing started. "How can I expect to discipline her if you always undermine me?"
"I don't always anything. I just find it impossible to support such a ridiculous stereotypical female attitude. I'm pleased she isn't afraid of mice. What in God's name makes you feel it's feminine to shriek every time you see a little mouse? They can't possibly hurt you. Most of them are only about as large as your big toe even when they're full grown."
"What are you trying to say? I'm too big for you? Is that it?"
I covered my ears, but couldn't block out the words. Mother was mean. Dad was disgusted. Back and forth. But after a while their voices changed. Mother sounded coy, almost teasing. A lot like my cousin Marcy when she knew I wanted one of her lollipops and wanted me to beg for it. Dad's voice got sort of jolly, not like him at all. Then they stopped arguing and went to their room. They didn't seem to go right to sleep, but they were quiet enough so I could.
The next morning, Dad was sharp with me and wouldn't meet my eyes. Mother looked sort of smug, but she pretty much ignored me too. I had a bad feeling. When Dad left for work, I slipped down to the basement.
The box was empty.
I went out to the garbage can and pulled off the lid. The mice had been dumped on top of a lump of old cold coffee grounds. Why had Dad thrown them away? They were still alive. One had his eyes open, watching me. Maybe he thought I was his mother, come to save him. I reached into the can and picked up his tiny hand with my finger. He tried to hold on to me, but I pulled my hand away, put the lid back on the garbage can and walked away.