Shut Against the Light
“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.” – William Wordsworth
The boy extended the scuffed boot towards me, pointing out the baby mice hidden there. Four tiny translucent treasures, their eyes still shut against the light and safely stowed inside the toe of his winter boot by their mouse mother, or so she had thought. The boy grimaced, “I squished one while I was putting the boot on.” Then there were three.
For the boy, this was a momentary distraction. A secret find, shared with a young sweetheart, but not valuable enough to put off the duties which came after the boots. Even as a sixteen year old boy he was already a man. He was no baby mouse, eyes still firmly closed to the world and perhaps had never been. Even so, the boy laughed at my tender enthusiasm as he carefully scooped out the remaining tiny bodies and placed them lightly in my palm, each pup a small lump of sugar on my skin.
I stroked the soft abdomens, my finger tracing visible veins as the boy explained that animal mothers are fickle. Once touched by humans, a mother will abandon her babies, cutting her losses, so that she might live another day. I brought the pups home and placed them in a plastic Tupperware container filled with cedar shavings, six neat holes drilled in the top by my reluctant father. My father had not been a boy in many years, but he supposed there were worse things a teenage daughter could be doing.
“They won’t live,” the boy had said and he was right, but I woke every three hours anyway, holding a dropper filled with kitten milk to three tiny mouths to keep them alive. Too many days went by with their eyes unopened, but they came to know my smell. Years later my mother would cry that my youngest daughter would absolutely not take a bottle from her, and the baby mice would come rushing back. I knew even then, mothers are not easily replaced.
I cried when the first pup died, the small stiff body still warm and nestled like a quarter in the palm of my hand. The second, found upon returning from a family outing, survived its first sibling by a couple days. After the third, I poured the remaining carton of kitten milk down the drain, watched it mix with a rush of warm tap water, and wondered largely why I had ever bothered. My mother flattened the emptied carton for recycling and assured me that I had done my best, “For two weeks” she said, “they loved you.”
That was many years ago. The boy is now fully a man, but I still see the younger version of him in the sharp lines of our daughter’s nose, or the delicate arch of her sister’s eyebrow. Now we both have secrets to share. Capturing his hand, I lead him outside the home we built together, to show him a metal Folgers can found in a long-abandoned drawer. Apart from the rust, several discarded nails, and a pile of messily shredded cardboard, the can would be empty if it weren’t for the six baby mice, delicate and writhing. Presenting the can to the boy, we know that the mother is gone. Their eyes are still closed and the pups are alone, but my own eyes are irrevocably opened; we bury the can in the yard.
Maggie Walcott lives in the wilds of Northern Michigan with her family in a house they built themselves. Her first nonfiction piece, “An Open Vessel”, was published by Mothers Always Write in 2019. Her writing has since been published in Uncomfortable Revolution, The Dunes Review, Last Leaves Magazine and most recently, Every Day Fiction.