The Idea of the Mouse
By Adrian West.
As I walked to the computer terminal I felt something soft and round beneath the sole of my shoe. I looked down and saw the pink indented nose of a mouse. It must have come in because of the storm, which had caused the drains to flood and blackish water to stream up onto the sidewalk. I did not move my foot, because in any case the mouse was already crippled, and because, if anyone saw it, we would have to buy the meals or at least the desserts of numerous guests dispersed throughout the restaurant who would then repay us by never returning and by telling their friends what a dingy establishment they had been to. I took a serviette from the wine bucket to my left and dropped it over my shoe, as I lifted my foot I saw the mauve serviette shake with the creature’s death spasms, and, thinking it was better to put it out of its misery, as the cliché goes, I rested my foot forcefully over its cylindrical body. We have a sense that putting something out of its misery is a manly and virtuous act, but people and other creatures in misery tend until their last second to gasp, to reach up, and to otherwise resist the imposition of death; we say that it is better to die than to suffer, but never having died, it is impossible to know, and moreover, the triumph over great suffering is often celebrated as a proof of one’s mettle; it is rare that a person who has survived a terrible ailment says, I wish that I had died instead. I have a feeling that the imploration lovers and parents make so often nowadays — if I ever can’t take care of myself, I want you to pull the plug — has more to do with our widespread though largely inadmissible contempt for the disabled and our obsession with money and the obloquy associated with becoming a financial drain than with a comprehensive examination of the nature of our own death, which is, of course, impossible. With another serviette I swept the mouse up into a plate and dropped it into a plastic bin behind the bar. I thought repeatedly about the desirability of a universal system of justice that applied equally to all living creatures and wondered what sort of sentence I would receive from a tribunal based therein. I had committed an act tantamount to unintentional manslaughter but knowing this did not free me from my guilt, in the same way as I had decided that it was better to put the mouse out of its misery despite having no access to the longings that comprised the mouse’s inner life or the agony it had undergone, so this hypothetical tribunal would relieve me of responsibility without having a clear idea of the private texture of the mouse’s existence. In any case I did not believe in responsibility, therefore I did not believe in the divestment of responsibility. I began to wonder what sort of life the mouse had had, whether mice were possessed of something like friendships or love-lives or favorite places, as well as what the ideal destiny of the mouse would have been. We tell ourselves that these animals are more or less uniform and lack time-bound ambitions but really, never having observed mice or even read a book about them, we are drawing these conclusions from the prejudices of others and from the scanty conception we derive of these creatures when we watch them scurry out from a garbage bag or run across the room. When I went home, I was depressed, and my wife indulged me as I aired my thoughts about the mouse. I understood there was something pathological in my obsession, that a so-called mentally healthy person, a person who had not borne whatever experiences or predispositions engendered my persistent resort to melancholy, would have put the incident behind him; at the same time, I do not condemn the pathological, the ideas rendered up by pathological deliberations have always rung truer to me than the phlegmatic dicta of vigorous personalities. As I lay in bed crying about the dead mouse, my wife took my hand and said to me that she would pray for it, and she closed her eyes a moment and said it was in mouse heaven. This was an uncharacteristic gesture, as my wife and I were firm disbelievers, but when she spoke, my heartbeat slowed, and it was reassuring to imagine the mouse running unthreatened along a paved road, the warm yellow sun overhead and foliage about. Only now it occurs to me that mice are nocturnal. The next day, as I lay in the bath, I thought of how ideas such as heaven, or the better place in which we always say that the dead repose at the adjournment of their long sufferings, are indispensable even if we know they are a lie, in order not to pass every moment of every day obsessing over our own end and the end of the people and things we love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrian West is a writer and translator. His work has appeared in Asymptote, McSweeney’s, Evergreen Review, Fwrcton, and the Brooklyn Rail’s Intranslation. He lives in Philadelphia with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 21st, 2012.