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Thursday 9 September 2010

Elephants and Mice

There is an old story that elephants are afraid of mice. I suspect it is not the kind of tale that wins research money to test whether or not it is true. I can also imagine that mice, short-sighted creatures, might nonetheless pick up on something huge nearby, sometimes by shadow but mostly from the tremors running towards them through the earth from the placement of alarmingly large, heavy feet.

When writing, I tend to read books that come in short sections. Recently I have bought Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin, and Why Look at Animals? by John Berger.

This post concerns the very first section of John Berger’s book called A Mouse Story. It is preceded by some friendly drawings of mice by the author and it dates from 2009.

It involves ‘a man’ who has to cut off a ten centimeter slice of a loaf of bread each morning to remove the signs of mice meals. By accident, when looking for a file in the shed by the house, the man comes across a mouse trap made by a previous owner.

It is not a death-trap. It is a cage. One by one the man traps the mice and releases them at some distance from the house.

This was familiar to me. A few years ago my mother found mice in her living room. The rodent expert suggested her liking for chocolate might be the reason. John Berger is much more traditional in his story and uses cheese for bait. Our rodent expert – his name was Tim – said mice were not fond of cheese. He’d use After Eights but, given a choice, always went for Toblerone.

We too went for a humane – that is non-backbreaking – trap. I bought some Toblerone and every morning would transport a mouse past the pond and the hedged around compost heap, and release it into a field owned by a Dowager Duchess and from which, to my mother’s irritation, deer would break through and eat only yellow flowers.

I immediately recognized from John Berger’s descriptions the different behavior of the different mice. I missed out on two descriptions. Our trap being plastic, a mouse could not cling to any wire roof. And I never found nine babies had been born overnight.

I recognized the others though. There was ‘I don’t want to leave’. There were the immediate turners, to left or right. And then there was the mouse ‘the man’ christened ‘Alfredo’.

Our respective Alfredos took off like a kangaroo, leaping high in the air and appearing again two or three times well above the tufts of grass.

In the story, Alfredo is the penultimate mouse. The last mouse is a disappointment, just a scuttle, and the man understands he had been hoping to see another leaping prisoner attaining his dream of freedom.

I have to admit, I thought my Alfredo was invigorated more by fear. That opinion is also based on the number of what I will call pellets in the trap. That had to be washed out.

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