Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Cinderella's Mouse"

So. Once Upon A Time I was in college, taking a creative writing class with a professor I had a huge amount of respect for, a writer himself who had written multiple novels (which I'd read, and loved).
I was also working almost full-time, and most of those hours were spent working the graveyard shift. Twice a week we had to write something from a prompt he'd give us, and one week, the prompt was that we had to rewrite a fairy tale from an unexplored point of view - for instance, one of the suggestions was "Cinderella from her mouse's POV." 
It happened to be a week where everything at work went horrible FUBAR, and it came down to an hour before class before I had a single spare moment. I sat in the library and completely freaked out, my brain an utter blank. One of my classmates walked in, and I explained to him my week and how I hadn't written so much as a word.
Not. One. Word.
"Write something. ANYTHING," he advised with equal parts sympathy and urgency, and fueled by his encouragement, I opened Word, began typing, and an hour later printed off a dozen copies (because we not only wrote twice a week, but we read our creations OUT LOUD IN FRONT OF EVERYONE while the rest of the students read along) and dashed up the stairs to the classroom, where I sat down and instantly had a panic attack because I had no idea what I'd just written. 
It came to be my turn, and my professor - a grave, serious guy, former Marine, war veteran - asked if I wanted to read it or if I wanted him to read it (a choice he'd begun offering graciously after several people had struggled with reading out loud). I was about two seconds away from dying, so I told him to go ahead (the one and only time I ever did). 
He began reading in his grave, serious voice, and I couldn't tell what he thought at all, until he came to my favorite line - "that long drowsy time where lunch is fading fast and dinner is still in the distant future, and a little Havarti passes the time so sweetly" - and he paused. 
It was a long pause. 
And then, he began to chuckle, and I began to breathe again.

It wasn’t my fault, really. I wasn’t looking for personal gain or profit, and I was not letting my stomach think for me, thank you very much. I was just minding my own business when fate dragged me into the middle of this mess. 

Ok, well, that isn’t really true either. It is true that I was in the pantry, but I wasn’t getting food for myself, I swear. I have mouths to feed at home. If I was sniping away a little crumb or two here and there, who can blame me? If I was being a little too daring for my own personal safety, well, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do. I did not, after all, plan on being caught. But, the best laid plans of mice and men… 

It was just this afternoon, that long drowsy time where lunch is fading fast and dinner is still in the distant future, and a little Havarti passes the time so sweetly. I held out as long as I could – I mean, my family, huddled inside our poor, bare little mouse-hole under the china cabinet – held out as long as they could, before I came to the grim truth: if we were to eat, it was up to me. Not wanting to grieve Malena, the wife, I nobly tried to hide the truth of my mission.

Where are you going?”

It didn’t work.

“Out, my dear,” I assured her with all the gaiety I could muster. “I’ll be back in a jif. Do hold supper for me.”

“What do you mean, out? It’s after three – she’ll be back in the kitchen any minute to fix their supper. What on earth is so important that you’d risk leaving the den at this time of day?”

“She” was the only one who entered the kitchen these days. Years ago, when the kitchen was full of humans, constantly kneading this, mixing that, she used to come in, dressed in beautiful flouncy gowns with matching ribbons in her delicate light hair, and beg sweetmeats from the cook (who, I might add, was the terror of my ancestors, having declared war on my race with a vengeance). She was adored by the staff, and she grew tall and her hair darkened to auburn, though her dresses remained fancy and colorful. I’ll always remember the first time I saw her in black – her face looked paler, and great drips of water fell from her face, wetting my whiskers as I dashed from my hiding place under the oven back to the den. After she’d left, the same wet drops kept falling, this time from the eyes of Cook and the other girls. It was after that day that the staff began leaving, one by one, until only she was left. Good riddance! She never touched the traps that hung on the back door.

“Never you worry your pretty whiskers, Malena, it’s a task that I alone can bear,” I assured her. I ducked toward the hole, but Malena barred my way.

“Rolan Ratschwitz, you’re going out into the pantry, aren’t you?” Malena’ dark eyes glinted with concern for me. “Of all the mice in this county, I married one that thinks with his stomach!”

Malena does babble on so when she’s sick with worry.

“One of these days, you’re going to go too far, and you’ll have her on us, just like your father did with the last cook!” Malena ranted. “A fine world you’ll leave to our children – inciting war with the humans.” 

I glanced at our three young pups, nestled snug in a nest lined with Malena’s fur. Two girls and a boy, named for me. Fine looking pups, though the boy didn’t have the handsome physique that comes from my side of the family.

“If you get caught and she turns you over to the gardener, don’t come crying to me!” Malena finished, turning away so I wouldn’t see the tears of sadness on her whiskers. Emotional dear.

I seized this opportunity to duck out the hole and scurried along the wall until I came under the great stove. I sat for a moment, my nose alive with the wonderful afternoon kitchen smells – the yeasty, earthy smell of the bread rising above me, the sharp tangy taste of the spring onions in their basket, the sweet perfume of the fresh milk in its stoneware jug, resting on the counter. My whiskers jiggled in anticipation.

Bread and onions and milk are all good, but my intended target was resting on the shelf far above my head – the cheese. She’d been slicing good thick slices into the pastries she’d been fixing, but the sudden ringing of the bell sounded through the kitchen, and in her hurry she’d shoved the block of cheddar onto the shelf and away she went. 

It was a tricky climb, but one that I handled masterfully, I must say. From under the stove, I climbed up the rough wood of the wall, hidden by the stove pipe, and from there it was a dangerous leap to the shelf. When I finally landed, my energy worn by the sheer strength and daring of the journey, I barely had enough strength to drag myself over to the cheese itself.

It was magnificent. Taller than I was, stretching on like a great orange horizon, filled with rich cheddar goodness and flavor. I scampered nimbly up the side and plunged my teeth into the stuff.

Oh, heaven. 

I was so lost in lactose paradise that I didn’t hear the warning footsteps or the gentle tune she was humming until she was already in the kitchen. By the time I realized what was happening, she’d cut off my escape route and was headed towards me.

It was time for quick thinking. I ran towards the side of the shelf as fast as my little legs could carry me. I could jump from the shelf onto the counter below, and scurry down the side to the floor, where I could wait her out under the stove. It was nice and warm and my stomach was full – not a bad way to spend a few hours. When she served the supper to the rest of the humans, I would slip across the floor and into my den. Reaching the side of the shelf, I braced myself and jumped.

I still hold that my plan would have gone beautifully if I hadn’t forgotten about the bread dough (it’s only natural that a fellow would forget something like that in the heat of the moment, y’know). I landed smack dab in the middle of the loaf with a “plop” and a small cloud of flour. Instantly, I was dying. The flour clogged my eyes and nose, my feet were held powerless in the sticky goo, and I was rapidly sinking. My life flashed before my eyes. I thought about poor Malena, raising our pups alone, without the protection and provision of her strong husband. It was a heartbreaking thought.

Suddenly I was lifted high above the dough; my feet were still wrapped in flour like a fly in a spiderweb, and I was still half-blind and half-choked, but I was no longer sinking down into that fatal bog.

“You poor thing!” 

I blinked away some flour and looked up cautiously. I had been rescued by an angel, come to save me as I lay dying, fatally wounded in my efforts to feed my family, selfless to the end. The angel blinked at me with big doe eyes, cooing her sympathies at my plight. It was then I noticed the smudge of flour on her nose.

I still contend that if I’d not been covered in flour and dough from head to tail, and if I’d not been half-choked when I was rescued, that I could have engineered a daring escape plan, and been back in the den in a jiffy. As it was, before I’d quite got my breath back, she’d wiped off my paws and stuck me in an abandoned birdcage that sat in the kitchen corner, and I was trapped.

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