Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Variation On A Theme of Mice, Part II -- Or Yet Another Writing Exercise

OK, I admit the first two paragraphs of this are a mess, but I subscribe to the Ray Bradbury theory of writing: Most of what I write is crap, so I have to write a lot in order to get something good.

The sun shone cold, and the field was white ice. Stubborn stubs of leftover wheat poked like naively optimistic spring shoots out of the frozen earth and through the windblown crust. Where the wind had found enough snow, there were drifts; piled up against irrigation furrows, sweeping like sand dunes around abandoned bales of straw and built into icebergs in ditches and canals. Tracks of errant rabbits and hungry housecats crisscrossed the narrow corner of the field bunched into the armpit formed by the highway and the county road. Tiny sparrows sunned themselves on the rotting scaffolding holding up the faded billboard that faced optimistically to the southwest. Under the drifts, mingled with discarded beer cans and broken v-belts and dead roadside weeds, the mice carved their world.

After the spring thaw, their furrows and burrows and pathways and crossroads, carved out of the wood-hard drifts and lined with soft dead grass, their traces resembled the odd Indian writings under pine bark that turned out to be the freeways of burrowing insects and grubs that thrived between skin and flesh. Spring, the time of rebirth, renewal, regreening and preening, is also a time of cleaning up, of closing up the frivolous entries to the underground world that were opened in winter to facilitate surface travel. How the tiny mice longed to be able to carve their protective surface tunnels through the clear bright warm sun of summer, fearing not when the leaf or cigarette packet crackled underfoot; to be able to continue along the path with a normal pace and heart rate when the shadows of birds passed overhead. To enjoy year-round the muffling effect the deep snow had on the noise of traffic and little boys and cats and bb guns. Safety. Bliss. Yet mixed with uneasiness and discomfort. As painful as it can be, losing a relative or loved one to the occasional cat, owl or foot was nothing as compared to the relative misery of the long white darkness imposed on the tiny kingdom. Warm dark is pleasant; the press of the neighbor's fur, the smells of familiarity, the full stomachs and the long tails twitching sometimes in dreams. Cool dark, the white dark of snow-carved tunnels that link burrows and traces that fill with the stuffiness and dank and dust of winter; cool dark is a different matter altogether. Occasional floods that swept away the familiar smells, the poor offerings of a stingy Mother Earth, and the whiteblind anxiety that greeted any mouse who ventured to the surface in hopes of finding something a bit fresher to nibble on for dinner.

Theeg was that kind of mouse. Born the summer before in a feather-lined burrow under a discarded corner of plywood left in the vacant lot near the Red Tower, he longed for the warmth and plenty of summer. Vague memories, half-remembered dreams of that dark warm place; soft everywhere with the smell of pigeon and blistered wood glue and his brothers and sisters clawing over him to crowd their mother when her plump shadow blocked all the incoming light. That bright blue hole, where his mother went sometimes in the morning but most of the time in the late afternoon, fascinated Theeg. Mother said the world was indeed much bigger than the familiar, cozy burrow she had built, and that everything did not smell of pigeon. "What is the blue? What is the blue?" he had squeaked (and a baby mouse's squeak has got to be the most pathetic noise on the earth, except to a mother mouse).

"The blue is the blue, that's all I know," his mother said as he and his seven siblings quibbled and scratched each other for access to her nipples.

"Is it big? What does it look like?" Theeg had his full (he was an aggressive child, more willing to pose questions than anything else). He knew his mother knew everything: when the cat was gone, how to line a burrow, how to sneak and how to paw at seeds to see if they were ready to eat.

"Ouch!" mother peeped, and gave one of her tiny daughter a swat. "The blue is rather big; the biggest thing out there, I'd say. As for where it is, that's difficult to say. It's everywhere and nowhere. You can touch it with your whiskers but never reach it by walking. It's above, mostly. Above the Red Tower, above the Arch and above the Blocks, sort of like this wood is above us now, but then again,"

"But mother, I can touch the wood," Theeg whined, stretching on his hind legs until his tiny fingers scraped at the burrow ceiling. "I can smell the wood. Does the blue smell?'

"I tell you, you'll never touch it. I'm not sure, but I don't think it likes mice. Wipe that milk off your chin, Ezmerelda." She stared until Ezzy complied. "Something smells up there, but I'm not too sure it's the blue the source. Do you remember the smell last week, Theeg?"

"Um, I think so. That heavy smell, the dry one that made our fur all tingly. Sort of like dust, but a bigger smell, a cooler smell. And it got darker. And louder. And wetter."

"That's the only smell I could honestly say comes from the blue," his mother said, pushing Ronssasance and Phred, their stomachs bloated, away from her feet. "Of course, the blue was different. Darker, like you said. That blue, I swear it was closer, though still too far away to reach. It curled and rolled as if it were alive, and great blobs of it formed and seemed to come closer, turning from white to black. But then the grass started moving and crying, so I never did get to see if that blue came any closer.

Theeg loved that circle of blue he could see out of the burrow entrance. "Don't you go near that door, Theeg!" his mother warned him every time she left the burrow. "You're much too small for exploring as of yet."

"You tell me that every time you leave, mother!" Theeg complained. "I'm getting bigger, you know! I'm no longer a child."

"Child you are and will be for a while," mother chastised. "I tell you that every time I leave, because every time I leave, five minutes later I see your little face edging up the tunnel, seeing everything but your old mother hiding not six scampers away in the Rubble. I've whiskers in your cheeks, and will have for a time to come, little Sneaker!" Her speech over, mother scampered up the tunnel, casting a final "Don't you go near the door, any of you!" over her tail as she went.

"Whiskers in my cheeks, indeed," thought Theeg as he combed his bristly face. Ezzy pulled limply on his tail, her eyes already half-closed for their evening nap.

"Come on, Teeg," she yawned. "Bellin's already 'sleep on Ronssas-Ronssa-Rons' belly, and yours makes th' better pillow. You're all squishly." His nose wrinkled in disgust at the cutsey manner of his little sister, but he followed her to the heap anyway. He lay on the far side, watching Ezzy's head bob in rhythm to his breathing. He stared out the door; stared at the blue.

Theeg had been born earlier than his mother's present litter. His had been a litter of five, but he was the only one to be named. He really didn't know what had happened to his brothers and sister, but he did remember the air suddenly getting cooler and louder and fuzzier. An odd weed, a bouncing, frenzied creature had levered the plywood off the ground and thrust its probing snout, horrid black nose, smelly breath and white teeth in the middle of the burrow. Mother had grabbed Theeg, the nearest child to her, and shot like a sparrow through the grass. She dropped him unceremoniously a thousand scampers off, next to a wilting cardboard box. She returned a few minutes later with his sister and left again. His sister was wailing, silently wailing through vocal cords not yet developed enough to make more than a hoarse rasping. Something was wrong with her; her pink skin was all red, but Theeg was too frightened and disoriented to do anything but silently wail himself. Their mother came back and hunched in a ball next to the only two of her litter she had managed to save from that enormous, ferocious weed that had turned their burrow topsy-turvy. They spent the night under the cardboard box, and left his sister there the following morning to slowly return to Mother Earth. The burrow was disheveled, but the plywood was back in place and some lucky bits of rubble had fallen on top of it from the nearby pile, thus rendering it more impervious to another attack. Father was there as well, fidgeting at the new entry hole he had dug. He and Mother had spent a frantic, tearful night reconstructing the rubble of the burrow and re-lining it with new, unstained feathers. They cowered most of the day, all three of them, in their strange new burrow that smelled more of bird than of mouse, and there his parents named him Theeg, the Remainder. Theeg had stopped his wailing, and soon after, stopped asking after his brothers and sister.

"Is that what Mother is so frightened of?" he wondered as his little brothers and sisters slept in bliss around him. "It wasn't the blue that killed my litter. It wasn't the blue that made Father never come back. There must be something else out there, something bigger, something meaner, something we can touch." He tried to reconstruct a picture of the beast that had destroyed his burrow, three months but so long ago, but all he could recall was the smell and the teeth and the frenzied noise it made. His spine shivered, and Ezzy murmured in her sleep:

"Teeg, quit farting. It makes your belly wigglish."

He thought non-spine shivering thoughts as his gaze returned to the circle of blue, slowly turning crimson, that he could see out the tunnel door.

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