Once I Killed a Mouse

The Institute for the Current Visionary Exposition at New Paltz presents, "Once I Killed a Mouse," from 1990, Volume One, of the Journal of the Institute.

No, brothers and sisters, I was not always the redeemed soul you see before you. Once I found out just how low a man can sink in this world. Yes, once I Killed a Mouse.

Some years ago, I was caretaker of a hundred sixty acre farm on the banks of the last remaining water-filled section of the Delaware-to-Hudson Canal. An old couple in their 80's had lived there 54 years, and not really farming anymore allowed themselves to visit their city grandchildren while the snow lay. I stayed on for them as caretaker, to keep watch and keep up repairs on the place. I just kept a small cabin heated.

The hundred fifty year old rambling homestead was put to bed, into cold storage with the plumbing drained and anti-freeze in the toilet. I checked through every day to make sure the roof hadn't leaked, and the wind hadn't driven broken-off black oak limbs through the window glass, and fix it if it did.

Sometime in the January deep snow while I visited a lady friend about a mile down the creek, a cat must have pushed through a cracked cellar window and complained in the basement for a night and a day, and it was pretty late in that day before my sense of obligation got enough sway over my sociability and other senses to pull me back for my daily security check.

Of course, it doesn't take too long, even in a ramshackle farmstead, to find a screaming cat. It was an orange-yellow-white striped, fair-sized cat. From the condition of its fur and the way it was screaming, I figured it was used to living in a house and that after pushing in here, realized its horrible mistake. And since I try to tolerate all God's creatures, I told it to "wait right here," while I stomped up the basement steps and crunched across the snow crust to a summer cabin the old couple last rented out about 14 years ago, and pulled the box of petrified doggie snacks out of the pantry.

I poured whatever was left in the bottom of the box into one of those square plastic Tupperware quarts and shot back down into the cellar. I shoved it over to the old yowler. "Complements of the house."

It stared at it, unbelieving.

It stared at me, unbelieving, trying to communicate its eerie déjà vu feeling. It had been thrown out of better places than this. But I just smiled, and in that uncanny way that humans have, communicated my whole-hearted faith in the principle that if you're hungry, you'll eat it.

For a few long seconds, that tormented beast stared into the yellow-green Tupperware dimensions of the lot that had befallen it, while its animal olfactory brainstem confirmed the crumpled apparition before it did, in fact, contain the full compliment of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, minerals and vitamins listed on the back of the box, with nutritional values more effaciously preserved than the funerary offerings of yore.

Gradually, the electro-motor forces pulling on the olfactory brainstem accumulated a biomechanical moment that almost pulled the whole pussycat to its vinyl resting place, and somewhere, cracked pillars of temples propped by sandbags of time began to crumble into tumbled middens of doggie treats. But then, suddenly, something still crouching in those buried crypts jerked awake and pulled back against the physical will of the animal, pinning it, like a moth fluttering against the window glass.

But unlike moths, which win our inert sympathy by struggling in Silence, thank God, the thing began to yowl

> Yowl! YOWL!

like a picket line of burial ground ghouls, calling for their accustomed daily due. Like an air raid radio public benefit announcement, that everything you see in this mirror is now Much Closer than it Appears.

> Yowl!

But I was young and liberal then, and had lived something of the outdoorsman's life, so I considered the felix domesticat as a dupe of civilization, like the biblical Esau, a wild hunter who traded his birthright for a bowl of pottage and a nap on the doormat. So I thought I could play Joy Admonson of the Borscht Belt, and teach this momma's boy of the Wild Kingdom to hunt. Which shows, to my credit, that to do a good deed for a dumb beast, I was willing to go to any extremity short of owning one. Locally, there were also similar programs for returning Peregrine falcons to their natural habitat.

So, to get down to work. What I had to work with here was a beast, genetically geared toward achieving its personal best--chasing and chomping bite-sized fur balls--but which, somewhere in its suburban early rearing, had its super-ego falsely imprinted by some kind-hearted, crack-grinned, rumpled witch of the east into a career as a bowl-licker. But now, my dear Watson, with a little help from amateur ethnology, the napping buds of its genetic potential might yet kick in, and assume their true ecological niche in a flurry of late blooming, mousicidal mania.

So I decided to establish a report with the subject.

"Listen, Streak, if it's too cold in the soup kitchen, go out and get a job! Don't give me that dumb look, unless you really mean it. How about the word 'mouse?' Does that ring a bell? M-O-U-S-E, mouse. Okay, time's up, consider yourself enrolled in Remedial Mouse 101. Wait right here."

And so, I went to get a mouse. I skipped across the cellar and up the stone stairs of the old summer kitchen, and started walking across the brittle crust of the long-laying snow cover on the far yard. It's the hardest thing to walk on. Each step holds until your whole weight is over the foot, holds for another second while you swing your other foot forwards, and crunches the rug out and drops you in a snow hole that you have to haul yourself out of, onto another jerk-start fast-drop basement bound elevator.


Step-up, crunch down, step-up, crunch down. (That's what snowshoes are for, so you don't have to do this.)

Some of the crunch holes break through into rabbit runs and field mice runways under the crust. I sturdily lurched my way to one of the sagging-beyond-likely-repair, once-upon-a-time summer cottages that I now used as a tool shed, and pick among the long-handled jobbies, taking inventory of farm implements faithfully copied from their Paleolithic prototypes with significant improvement of materials on the business end, and no loss of function.

The twelve-pound Gold Devil Splitting Maul would be an instrument of choice for snapping the spine of a cave bear, backing away from a pack of yapping dogs, but there's no likely way to apply it to a mouse. Similarly, in its time, the spike of something like a standard hardware store miner's pick must have bit as deep into the brain of a mired wooly mammoth as the tooth of a saber-tusked tiger. But the wily mouse would have its leisure to stare and laugh before that gap-toothed barn-door jaw could close its fumbling lunge.

Wait, here's the catcher, as good as an Eskimo bird spear-the Five Tined Hay-Fork. A skeletal claw on a long shank bone that flicks five points six feet in a snapping heart pounce. As sure a mouse catcher as a comma is a pause at the end of a clause, while a cat has claws at the end of its paws.

Convinced, I took the catching spear, and struck out for mouse. Crunching across the crust, each step sinking shafts into the maze of runways beneath. Sooner or later, something was gonna run for it. But after awhile, stomping around, closing ends of tunnels it looked like maybe nothing would, so I started back to the tool shed.

But in the six feet between the tool shed and my cabin I had this compost barrel, a fifty-five gallon steel drum on blocks with a wooden cover and drainage holes in the bottom. I could hear something scrapping around inside the barrel. I froze, into the classic Paleolithic pose of a bird dog coming up on a birdbath. By stepping back in my own crunch marks I was able to get in stance: one hand on the lid, hayfork chambered at shoulder, feet set; without making anywhere near the noise of Mr. Mouse, scrapping on his frozen turnip tips, and scrambling around the 18 gauge sheet metal.

He didn't have the chance of a Janet Leigh in Tony Perkin's travel lodge.

I was shocked by my own ruthless implacability in the service of an ethological peccadillo of dubious scientific import.

"But for crying out loud, Shhhhhhh! What's the big deal about mousicide? Little old ladies do it, night and day, with cool guile of spring-traps and subterfuge of apparent peace offerings of grain, laced with colorless, odorless death. And most horrifically of all, by the employ of Cats, whose delight is in squeals of panic and slow dismemberment."

Is the grin passing between the lace collared matron on her settee and her tabby-poo on his nap mat a more innocent grin, or even a grin apart from the grin of the cat, seizing squealing prey?

But I wasn't doing this for grins. This was for ethology, and the rehabilitation of a domestic dumbo. This was knee-deep in January Ice Age Ulster County. This was face-to-face, whisker to whisker, mano-a-mouso. This was it!

With the silent, stage-magic flourish, I peeled back the lid. The mouse, still gnawing at his turnip, quivered. As the sudden ill chill fell in on him, he turned, in growing suspicion, saw, glared, crouched ready to spring (which I doubt he could of, to the extent of clearing the rim, and which I didn't let him). My tight-wound readiness released the act that was chosen the moment the fork was selected.


It pierced and pinned him to the frozen scraps. He was a mouse caught, but his blood was hot, and the smoking spirit lifted his furry breast. His hands gripped the steel tine, and he bit it. He faced me with the authority of a prophet enraged, and pinned me with the eyes that burned holy writ upon the soul:

"Thou fool, how dare you! Consider whom you serve!"

If every particle of his spiritual force had a muscle fiber to conduct it, the fork would have torn from my grip and rung that drum steel like the doorbell to the elephants graveyard. But as it turned out, though his spirit was game, his flesh was mouse, and I had him outweighed a thousand to one, and already torn him worse than could be fixed.

What for? Definitely not for grins. "What For" was already on the scene, crouching under the low porch of the cabin, waiting (if that yowling is waiting!). What For was also crouching and yowling somewhere in the recurring shadows of human history, of cults of the super predator, of numb colossi hovering over mumbled chants of "Hail Caesar, Hail Caesar," of "work shall make you free."

Back on the farm, barely out of the grip of the numbing chant, the horrific tableaux of me, mouse and What For slowed and focused in on the sharp end of the fork, where that still struggling little bundle of unspecialized mammalian evolutionary potential was pinned, dignified, educatable, industrious, affectionate, and now, as often, bleeding, but ever ready to especiate in two shakes of a galactic spiral into anyone Almighty God asks him to.

The way last time the galaxy turned a cold shoulder he became us and much else of what slipped between the cracked teeth of dinosaur. Now the view panned back along the handle to me, an offshoot of him, who dashed left, up a tree, to develop these prehensile fingertips, and high-trapeze 3-D visions, then dropped out, half a swipe ahead of our bigger, slicker, probably smarter at the time big brother, Cheetah the Wonder Chimp, and ran around in the high grass, standing up to see which way went whatever could eat the grass (We couldn't). Soon hands and feet do different things, also brain.

When we get brain enough, Mr. Mouse showed us what to do with seeds. Select, collect, store, distribute. So now we're civilized, and try to help things grow, not just snatch-eat-nap, but hope to help God Almighty and Mr. Mouse get on with it.

Then the view panned out past the point, and zoomed in under the porch to Mr. Cat, the wonder dud, now a ten million year total drop out from the Evolutionary Volunteer Corps, and a slow learned for 20 million years before that, locked in to the grab-bite-nap on-mat, that's-all-folks cul de sac, who only recently made a big name for himself among Egyptian accountants for chasing Mr. Mouse away from a few stray grains of what he cultivated for seven million years while we were just trampling it.

A few strains grains for the ancestor, a few stray grains for the prophet. The Bible tells us: Every 7th year, give a field rest. What grows in it untended shall be for the creatures of the field. And in any year, don't pick over a tree twice, nor scythe the corners of the field. Leave something, so God Almighty's pinch-hitter will always be ready, in case we pull up short and get our genes stuck like sharks in the sea for 300 million years, like cat-on-the-mat, 30 million so far in the grab-bite-nap cul-de-sac, and God Almighty has to get on with it, without us.

Mr. Almighty say, "Mr. Mouse, especiate new Stand-up Guy to help things grow on farm. Ho-Ho-Sappy-Man turn out Big Dumbo, fall in evolutionary Cul-Sac like Mr. Shark and Mr. Cat. No help in him for things that grow. Only good for dead body disposal. Now you get to work, Mr. Mouse, while I push on the arm of this here galaxy."

"I'm with you, Mr. Almighty!"

"You're my main man, Mr. Mouse."

Back on the farm, Mr. Man Big Dumbo that day. Egyptian Guild of Accountants and Corpse Breakers talk louder in head than Mr. Almighty. Mr. Man serve-up Mr. Almighty's Main Man to Mr. Cul-De-Sac on salad fork. Hope tomorrow better day for Mr. Man.

Back on the farm, I had torn him worse than could be fixed, so I went ahead and forked him over to What For, crouching under the porch. He still struggled on the spit, while What For sized up the odds for his careful, cautious moment, then made his lunge to claw him away, and do his thing under the porch.

I dropped the fork right there, and left it under the snow until spring.

That's my story, and I hope I learn from it.

This has been "Once I Killed A Mouse," presented as a publication of theInstitute for Current Visionary Exposition at New Paltz, from the journal of the Institute, 1990, volume one.