“Benedic, anima mea,” I say each night to the mouse that lives behind my desk. I know what the phrase speaks of a soul, but “animal” often has more meaning to me than “soul.” Occasionally I quote Ada Limón’s poem “The Long Ride”: How good it is to love live things, even when what they’ve done is terrible. Her poem refers to a horse that killed its rider when spooked; my benediction forgives the droppings I find next to my paints each morning. In my more ill-tempered moments, I kick the desk before going to bed and hiss, “I’m an island of mercy, mouse.”
Because I am. It’s not that I can’t kill an animal. It’s that I overthink, gather information, and turn it over in my mind, especially when that information unsettles or intrudes. The consequence of so much information seeking is that I hold strange things in my heart, fall in love whenever I’m frightened.
I’m not frightened of the mouse. Given the right opportunity, I’d be willing to kiss its little ears right off. But I’m troubled by its intrusion into my space, by the fact that a living being is running about while I sleep. The mouse is one more thing in a long list of things I can control, one more thing after which I have to clean up.
The mouse showed up in January. Mice and people have lived together for millennia. The little ones get cold and fit in small holes and don’t need much to eat, and people build warm and food-filled buildings in mice’s ancestral fields. Part of me loves this reminder that cities are always partly illusory. Lift up the layers of buildings, roads, and bustle, and you’ll find prairie, old forest, forgotten springs, and swampland.
My grandmother died this summer after a long illness, after refusing to eat for ten days because she was ready, after ten days when we all had a good chance to experience the taboo of letting your kin starve. My family’s been in turmoil since, like my grandmother was a stitch holding their lives together. Violence has come, injury to the bodies I love has come, addiction has come, and more is likely coming.
I’d been praying to my grandmother for help when the mouse appeared, and though I know the mouse is not her, it’s all I have: a coincidence of death and obnoxious life joined by desperate prayer. In my experience, living things show up when one has an excess of mercy, and by excess of mercy, I mean sadness. By sadness, I mean the willingness to keep anyone and everyone from harm, to observe and learn and live with.
Euarchontoglires is a word I can’t say without hearing it in my college professor’s lilting voice. It’s the name of the clade that comprises rodents, rabbits and hares, tree shrews, lemurs, and primates: five limbs of a family tree branching off from one point, one long-lost and funny-looking grandmother. Mice are some of our closest living relatives; no wonder we reserve for them our most special exasperation. Yet we recognize in the chimp our thumbs, our probing gaze, while we are unable to recognize a hint of family in the mouse.
The mouse eats a little bit of my cranberry candle every night. I see the incisor marks in a delicate spiral, the hot-pink shit. It doesn’t seem to want anything else; it doesn’t chew or scratch or romp around. I haven’t thrown the candle away, because the mouse’s needs seem so reasonable, and I certainly wasn’t going to eat the candle. Plus, I like keeping the mouse predictable and pleased enough not to do anything rash.
People tell me I should kill the mouse or borrow a cat to do the dirty work, but the mouse, like anything with which I live long enough, has been accepted into my heart. I put out cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil and feel terrible about trying to repel it, though my apartment smells wonderful.
People call mice “vermin,” a word I’ll always associate with Hermann Goering, a word often used for people who are poor or otherwise wounded by circumstances outside of their control, a word that means these living beings will harm you if you don’t stamp them out. I think humans are the only species that destroys out of fear, not always the fear of harm, but the fear of how something looks or moves or is imagined and rumored to harm.
I talk to my dad about the mouse. He lives in the middle of large fields and woods, so we talk about the “name ’em and love ’em” strategy of accepting the fate that chooses you. And nature and family will always be the fates that choose you, regardless of your wishes or ability to control them.
I haven’t named the mouse, but I like the idea of language to counter upset: the familial reminder conjured by Euarchontoglires, the benediction to my animal, the how good it is to love live things, the islands of sadness and excesses of mercy. I have an alternative Creation story in which I picture Adam opening his eyes and screaming in terror, hurriedly naming things until they become familiar and loved and the screaming subsides. This origin and function of language—transforming fear into love—makes sense to me.
After Communion on Ash Wednesday, when the church is silent, I eat my bit of bread and pray my mouse prayer: I’m scared I’m scared I’m scared. I pray my vermin prayer: Please let those who meet my loved people in the thick of their disease treat them with mercy. I pray my clade prayer and my cranberry-shit prayer and my prairie-under-the-city prayer: Make me soft and sad enough to keep all your loved little ones from harm.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Natalie Vestin
Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.