The sky was blue and black with night and the grass was seized up with frost. Squirrels and badgers, foxes and voles adopted a retiring attitude faced with this bitter cold. They snuggled in their warrens until they were as warm as toast, and passing chills only cooled them into slumber. Small cars purred down village streets at infrequent intervals. The honeyed light of houses glowed warm, and each little cottage stood as solid as a rock against the icy gusts of winter. Logs whizzed and crackled in their hearths, grandmas snored beneath an avalanche of blankets and children, restless in the quiet of their rooms, plotted after apple-red parcels beneath the Christmas tree.
Only one little fellow, all by himself, could not feel the joy of Christmas. The attic was dark, and all filled with holes; it was damp, and dreary and dire. Cobwebs fell off rafters like phantom willows, and the spiders that made them were invisible. Here, in a lonely chasm of sodden furniture and neglected memories, lived a little brown mouse, brown like brown sugar. His whiskers were long, his eyes were tiny nervous buttons, and his fur, once fragrant like sawdust and cinnamon, was congealed with black slime. He shivered with cold, with loneliness and grief. There had been other mice, not so long ago, and they had played and chewed on wires and frolicked amongst the drier and emptier corners of the house together. But they had all gone, and he was on his own; him and the wet and the spiders that he could not see.
It had all started some weeks back, when the first snows of the season came clinging to the fields and delighted the mice in the attic with back-tingling draughts. There had been lots of thumping and banging round the house, murmuring, squawking – noises the mice hadn’t heard for some weeks, for they had begun to treat the house as their own. A cheeky scamper into the kitchen had evolved into bolshie escapades through the living room and swaggers through threadbare bedrooms. An air of victory had descended upon the mice, who grew satisfied with their conquest and had taken to louche evenings lying in the master bedroom, quoting Caesar and Napoleon. Yet now the house rumbled with alien tremors, with the dismal news of unwanted arrivals. Soon after that the mice began to go missing, until only this small one was left. He had not known what had disappeared his family but he knew it was a monster. One time he had heard an uncle squeaking desperately as he was caught just before he made it into the wall. He trembled at the memory.
Yet, cold and wet and bleak as it was, this little mouse was no shrinking violet, no pampered parlour mouse. His ancestors had dwelt among the boughs of ancient elm trees, which drank up the skies with their canopies. They had outwitted hulking black rats, stoats, weasels and the shrieking terror of owls and had lived and died by “the known rules of ancient liberty”. The blackness turned to fire in the little mouse’s heart, and between his tiny yellow gnashers he let out a hiss like a kettle. Bounding like a jerboa, he felt reinvigorated by a fresh and defiant heroism. He scuttled across floorboards and disappeared into a crack in the wall, determined to confront the intruders and reclaim the honour of mousedom once more. The hidden spiders sighed and a chorus of their hungry abdomens rumbled with disappointment.
The dusty shaft of the inner wall loomed down beneath the mouse, and he could see a narrow beam of light at the bottom, where the exit crack led into the kitchen. There were several narrow beams, leading down to the ground, and the distance seemed suddenly great to the mouse, like peering down a well. Yet the mouse dove down into the abyss of grey wood, scampering across planks and down the wooden walls almost vertically until he skidded across the mould and debris of the floor, and saw the eye of escape, a large hole illuminated by the white electric glow of outside.
He waited at the hole in the wall in silence, and just began to reveal his twitchy nose when a shadow slowly shifted across the floor ahead of him. He withdrew immediately and the shadow softly trotted past the hole, blotting its light like a huge crow eclipsing the sun. The mouse heard the near-silent padding of feet, the four clawed feet of a monster.
The little mouse’s heart was rattling like a machinegun in his chest. Was the monster waiting for him to leave, to catch him, devouring and digesting the last of his brutalised line? He quivered, but remembered his woodland ancestors, the tinge of folk heroism in his blood, and took another peek. Nothing but crisp cream cupboards and sparkling countertops; a vast and sterile, and seemingly empty, kitchen. The mouse hardened his stomach like a stone and made a break for it. Darting under a giant, blockish rubberwood table the mouse made for the pots and pans cabinet, where he could make an assessment. There were a couple of green peas on the dark slate floor in front of him, left by some hasty or ill-motivated cleaner, and the mouse inhaled them. The peas looked like inflated balloons in his mouth before they disappeared down his eager rodent oesophagus.
Reenergised, the little mouse meticulously scanned his surroundings. To the right of the room was a large ajar door, and the mouse peered through. Past the door was a sort of jumbled room filled with cabinets, old towels, an angrily churning washing machine, old cups and Tupperware and coats upon coats hanging on diminutive pegs which looked liable to splinter off the door. To the left of the kitchen, past a rack of juicy veg and fruit, was another open door, and all the mouse could see was an inviting sliver of carpet which beckoned towards the living room. The mouse knew the heart of his kingdom awaited through there, and he hastened to peer through the corridor. He made out the outline of a lengthy sofa, weighed down like a pudding by a hillock of blankets, which gently rose and fell with the breathing of someone underneath. He could also make out the flickering fireplace and felt the allure, the seductive warmth of black and scarlet embers which blushed and blinked at him like eyes.
The mouse felt his slimy wet coat on him, realised the shivering in his bones, the cold phlegm in his mouth, the stalactite-icicle boogers hanging in his nose. The rumbling, fizzing fire, the irresistible invitation of its flaking logs: the mouse had to have it. To sit and dry there would be a miracle, would be everything. He padded along the carpet, eyes darting everywhere. The monster might be anywhere; stairs led upwards to his right. He waited at their feet, listening. Nothing but the sparkling fire and gentle snores from the blanket mound. The mouse made ready to enter the living room.
Although it’s just as well that he didn’t. A very odd sensation grabbed him, just before he shot forward toward the fire. A dark, clinging feeling, a roadblock across each of his synapses. It was a sudden alertness, a command of hesitation, like a puppet master tightened all of his strings and he, the mousey marionette, went stiff. Suddenly, a face arced round the living-room door.
A cat’s face, like any face, starts off with a skull. If one has ever had the chance to look at a carnivore skull, even of one as genteel as a house-trained tabby, they will know that beneath the friendly fluff is the thin, cruel-fanged bones of a killer. The cat’s teeth were stilettos in his mouth, and his fur was as white as drowned skin. His eyes were huge and green as limes: alchemy jars swirling with poison. His little pink nose was cute enough, but its flaring nostrils filled the mouse with horror, and his ears like arrowheads or trowels, darted this way and that. His diamond pupils focused on the mouse, and leered.
The mouse thought of all his family then, siblings, cousins, uncle, aunts, grandparents and parents. What gory fates they had met, snapped between this monster’s jaws. The cat lowered his back, ready to pounce, but the mouse, in his bravery, would not have it. Like a thunderbolt from mousey Zeus, the rodent was struck with adrenaline and his legs exploded with energy like a meteor hitting water. He was running, and the cat’s low and murderous growl chased his heels like a shadow.
The cat was fast but the mouse was quicker, flying like a brown bullet as the cat sprinted behind. But the mouse could risk nothing: if he slowed to turn for the hole and the attic he would be skewered on the cat’s teeth. He zoomed through the kitchen and through the right-hand door, past the clutter. In the blur of motion the mouse spotted a cat-flap pinned to a far door. He leapt, balled up like a porcupine but soaring like a swan, and burst through the cat flap into the frigid night.
The cat leapt through in chase, and landed in the darkness without so much as a thud. His eyes, leprous boils hot with hunger and death, scanned the garden. His footprints barely crunched the frozen grass. Mouse was hot in his nose, mouse was hot in his heart and he could almost taste the squelch of red mouse on his needle covered tongue. His claws, so used to scraping mouse fur and blood, glinted in the moonlight. He trod across the garden, and his anger seethed in silence. He was eager to strike.
Yet his ears swung round, as he heard the dull thud of the cat flap behind him. The mouse had gone back inside! With a shriek of outrage like a banshee, the cat sprinted back towards the dwelling. The mouse, breathing heavily and with fear, clambered up the side of a cabinet. The cat was nearly at the cat flap! Then, with one ginormous heave, the mouse pushed on a wicker basket filled with old towels and sent it cascading to the earth. Crunch went the cat as he leapt through the cat flap and landed face first into a wall of basket. He howled with rage! Crowed with indignation! The cat slashed and scraped his paw through the flap, but could not move the basket. Trapped outside! Foiled by a mouse! He whined and growled and raved in the cold, a white silhouette stalking round the house like a vampire.
Inside, the coals were low, the logs all charred to bits. The living room was filled with smoke, and the rich, earthen scent of wood. The loving embers were at their absolute hottest and the icy night was at its blackest. Little mouse lay down to rest beside the cosiness of the fire. His fur begun to warm like barnyard straw, the damp left him and made him toastier than any animal in the woods. He felt like a radiator sock; crisp and warm and cuddly. He sat there, ogling the strange shapes of the fire and marvelling at its heat and its life. There was a waft of pine needles from the tree in the far corner. The mouse smelt it, and heard a distant feline groan, muffled by several walls. An orb of happiness lit up inside. It was to be a merry Christmas after all.
“Veni, Vidi, Vici” he murmured. His moment of smugness was brief but justified, and the mouse readily forgave himself. He yawned sleepily, dried his toes and said his prayers. He continued to watch the fire, until sleep suddenly carried him like a sleigh along the quiet, happy slopes of his dreaming.
By Matthew Chalmers