The Mouse in the Study
There is a mouse in my study, and I have a feeling that all of my writing today will directly or indirectly focus on this mouse. I came in to get set up for the morning’s work, opened the curtain, and there at the top of it was a small brown shape. My eyes focused. Yes, a slight, still creature on the corner of the curtain rod. My heart beat fast. I have a history with mice.
This one reminded me of the mouse up my pajama sleeve several years ago. I am certain that our cat brings these mice up to the second floor. She finds them in the kitchen, which they enter from the basement. Now she’s forgotten about this one; all fifteen years of her is curled up in the easy chair. The cat doesn’t even budge as I reach for the curtain rod mouse with a cup, then look down to see it clinging to my shoulder. We make eye contact; hers are small and deep and brown. Then she is gone.
I’ve been reading about polyvagal theory, and in clinical studies of the vagus nerve, rats have been drowned to figure out how wild and domesticated ones differ in their responses. At what point do they freeze, fight, or attempt to flee? How long does it take for them to drown based on the part of the autonomic nervous system with the primary response?
Polyvagal theory is all about love, comfort, and co-regulation. This is the meaning of the human condition: to work to maintain a state of calm and well-being as much of the time as possible, to stay in a parasympathetic state, and to keep the inner beasties soothed and quiet. Knowledge of the vagal nerve expands our understanding of compassion and ethics. Much of this knowledge comes from experimentation on the small bodies of fellow mammals undergoing great stressors, their responses tracked as they die.
This mouse in my study faces three major predators: the cat upstairs, the dog downstairs, and me. The Norwegian forest cat is a skillful hunter but clearly unmotivated, having just eaten breakfast. The mixed-breed hound is enthusiastic about sightings of prey (right now at the picture window: A SQUIRREL IS CROSSING THE STREET! A SQUIRREL IS CROSSING THE STREET!) but inept. If the mouse tries to go downstairs, the cat will probably let her flee, but if not, she’s toast. If she makes it downstairs and the dog sees her, she’ll be able to get away, but he’ll bark so much that she might have a stress-induced heart attack. I am her third predator, a large human who has been known to put out mouse traps at the cabin. Really, I’m much more interested in catch and release. So I set down a paper plate from last Christmas, red with a big white snowflake, and put a dab of peanut butter in the middle of the snowflake. If the mouse appears while I am writing this morning, I will attempt to put a plastic bowl over her, carry her downstairs, and release her into the brush by the railroad tracks. But this plan will likely fail because it is the flight instinct, not freeze, that kicks in when mice see a huge white dome headed toward them from above. She will not understand my repeated words, I am trying to help you.
I can understand why people have mice as pets. I still miss the one that burrowed under my sleeve years ago, such a small, furry, sentient creature. The theory then too was that the cat brought her upstairs, wasn’t hungry at that moment, and let her escape. She hid where it was warm, which was next to my skin. I woke up to the scratchy sense of something alive in the crook of my elbow, flailed my arms, and watched a mouse pop out of my sleeve and run across the bed. I chased her downstairs step by step, then out the front door. She was a field mouse with sizable haunches, and she wanted her freedom. I wanted her gone, but then I pictured those knowing brown eyes.
Today, when this new mouse looked at me, I did think pet, but the mouse thought otherwise. The mouse thought holy shit and ran and hid behind the little table where I keep my daily codependency readings, a bright red lighter for candles that my daughter used in high school for cigarettes, a copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, and a doily on which to rest my Kerr “self-sealing wide mouth mason jar” of jasmine tea. I see her tiny and huddled, pressed between floor trim and electrical cords. As soon as I shift the side table the littlest bit, she is out and running, across the room and behind my grandmother’s paneled chest from the 1930s, and when I shift that the tiniest bit, she is already gone.
This past summer, when our pristine vintage stove at the cabin became a urine-soaked residential hotel with at least ten full-time occupants, we learned that mice can squeeze through openings no wider than a nickel. They can thin out their bones and make themselves scant and scarce through pure will. So who knows where this mouse is now? If she was smart, she climbed into the air draft and back down to the basement. It’s really the safest place. There are plenty of entrances and egresses through the small, drafty windows that need to be caulked or boarded.
I consider not writing in my study this morning in case she’s still here, just clearing out and letting the cat go at it. But I think, try to write with a mouse in your study. See how it goes. Maybe the mouse is always in your study. Maybe you can learn to function under pressure, with uncertainty, to breathe and sing yourself into ventral vagal calm. You can learn to be at peace with a certain level of vigilance, to accept coexistence, to share space. You can tell yourself out loud that you are safe, and it is true.
The mouse has not made herself known in all of this time of writing; she looked into my eyes and split. Such giants the world is full of, such danger. There is no convincing her otherwise, no logic that will hold. It is life or death for her, each movement and moment in hostile territory, which she entered simply to be warm.
Julie Gard's prose poetry collections include I Think I Know You (FutureCycle Press), Home Studies (New Rivers Press), and Scrap: On Louise Nevelson (Ravenna Press). She lives in Duluth, Minnesota and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. www.juliegard.com