It is a fallacy to state that something exists just because it can't be proven that it doesn't
The great clan meeting of the mice was held yearly on the anniversary of Yog-Rodoth, the event that marked the breakaway of the genetic tree of mice from rats. Mice everywhere celebrated it with a variety of revelry, usually not just limited to raiding the larders of the humans whose houses they cohabited. So why was there a clan meeting of the mice who haunted the walls of Cardston Court at this inopportune time this year? The answer is simple.
Vercingovorious, the great chief of the clan was saddened and disappointed in the deaths of two of his ablest lieutenants. One had perished by stepping into the bog, the quagmire beyond the wall and unable to move had squealed piteously for almost an entire day. The human, who in this case had been large, noisy and hairy beyond measure, had woken up to see Gagnivorovix stuck to the black tar outside the hole into the mouse fiefdom. The mice had gathered just beyond the sight of the human and they stretched in a long line, almost ringing the entire girth of the apartment building, anxious to see what would happen to their fallen comrade. Gagnivorovix squealed and tried to move, but the more he thrashed, the more he got stuck and now bits of fur had come off, exposing the pink flesh underneath. A few of the mice edged away from the sight as mice are squeamish, timid creatures and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being seen or heard.
The human saw the mouse, ignored it and puttered around the kitchen. He smelt as all humans do when they wake, a myriad of odours that assailed the finely tuned olfactory nerves of the rodents. He was accompanied by a female, who opened the door of the frozen food factory and consumed something from inside. Normally, the frozen food store’s contents are unreachable by mice, thereby lending it a hallowed air, making it something of a sacred Shangri-La, the palace of a thousand smorgasbords. Curious as mice are, the smells and sounds of the frozen food store did nothing for the mice, deeply dismayed as they were by the unfolding drama in front of them. A few of the cynical mice wondered if they should bet on the method of demise, but thought against it, the repercussions of being caught being too severe for them to imagine.
Then to everyone’s surprise, the human turned off the lights and left. A few of the bolder mice edged closer to the hole and tried speaking to the trapped Gagnivorovix, asking him if he needed anything or if there was anything they could do for him, comforting him. Maddened beyond the pale, Gagnivorovix barely heard them and lay there, the occasional tremor of his body being the only sign that he was aware of his imminent demise. Hours passed in this fashion, with Gagnivorovix’s attempts to dislodge himself getting weaker. The mice clustered around the edge of the hole to pay their respects. Some saluted him, some spoke softly, some cried but they all filed past in a sombre line through the tunnel that they had dug through the very walls of the edifice, their home.
The lights came on harshly, blinding the mice as always, who scuttered away from the hole and watched, whiskers aquiver. The hairy human was now accompanied by another male, who was bigger, both taller and broader. This other male, who the mice knew by instinct was the executioner, reached down and fearlessly poked Gagnivorovix, who mewled piteously. Wrenching the tar off the floor with a mighty heave, the executioner walked off with the tar trap and Gagnivorovix on it. He was followed by the hairy human as he went to the place of cold liquid abysses. This was the place avoided the most by rats, as it was usually damp and cold and devoid of all food. There was something unholy about the white porcelain dome that gave even the most seasoned campaigners the shivers and as a rule, the entire clan avoided the liquid abyss. The mice in the walls had no way of knowing what was happening at that exact moment, but they guessed that the executioner meant to drown the mouse in the liquid abyss.
Mothers looked at their young knowingly, fathers shivered and the young whimpered. In a few minutes, the two humans returned and in the most callous display of disregard for murine life, shoved the tar with Gagnivorovix’s now still body into a plastic bag, tied it up and threw it into the black garbage can which had hitherto been the clan’s food store. The hairy human then placed another tar pit beside the edge of the hole and walked off with the black food store and turned the lights off.
All mice know that their lives around human habitats are fraught with danger. Their life is short and expendable, with humans willing to expend tremendous amounts of energy to exterminate them, deeming them “vermin” and other such insalubrious epithets. Despite this, seeing the life snuffed out of a fellow brother by the hands of another cast a pall over the entire clan. Foraging lieutenants were warned of the dangers of this apartment and it was elevated to Death Factory status. A week passed and the more adventurous of the lieutenants chose to forget the horrors of Gagnivorovix’s demise.
“The house is a veritable cornucopia of dropped foodstuffs”, they argued. “Why should it be cut off from our list, because Gagnivorovix, may the mouse gods bless his soul, got too adventurous and forgot to look before he leaped?”, they cried. Vercingovorious heard these arguments and finally gave in. After all, winter was setting in, the young had to be fed and if a mouse was careful enough, he could avoid a few traps set for him. He chose Retnosovorix, a crafty veteran of a few campaigns to scout the apartment for new traps. Reasoning that the trap was set in the same place, they decided that Retnosovorix should leap right out of the hole, thereby clearing all traps set right under the hole.
The big night came, Retnosovorix was eager to prove his mettle yet again. He was going to leap out of the hole, hit the ground running, run along the west wall and come to a stop in front of the earlier trap that the human had set, but which had been detected by earlier scouts, Gagnivorovix included. On returning, he was to report to Vercingovorious about the new traps, new food stores and other details. Humans often kill a mouse and get complacent, thinking that they have solved the problem, little knowing of the millions of gnawing mouths just behind the walls, eager to take the martyr’s place.
Retnosovorix leapt out of the hole and landed right on a yellow pad which moved. It was the last thing he did. The human had sought the executioner’s help and set a new mousetrap, one with a thick bar that would break a human’s finger when it snapped back. The effect of this thick metal bar landing on Retnosovorix’s skull was all too predictable. It nearly severed his head from his body, with the arterial spray splattering on the walls and the edge of the hole. Retnosovorix moved one final time and lay still, dead as a doornail within five seconds of leaving the mousedom. The sentries watching were aghast and ran back to tell Vercingovorious the terrible news.
Vercingovorious was crushed, but inwardly hoped that this would cure the hubris in some of his more adventurous lieutenants. However, no king has an endless supply of officers and to handle the growing crisis, he called the annual meeting. As the meeting is presently under way, the results shall only be determined within a few days, as news leaks out of the mouse world and slowly enters the human cognosphere. What will Vercingovorious decide? Is the death factory off limits for good? Will yet another brash young Turk try his luck, perhaps leaping twice as far?
Tags: short story
I have always loved the short story. My favorite books are compilations by the greats, the greats of short stories. A short story doesn’t have 800 pages to meander through convoluted plots and familial intrigues. Short stories must pack a wallop within a couple of pages and it is precisely this restraining requirement that separates the greats from the also-rans. Maupassant, Saki, Coward, Dahl…these are all masters of the art. Here is is one of H. H. Munro’s best short stories, who wrote under the pseudonym of Saki. I read this in my English textbook in Grade 8 or Grade 7 and it has remained etched in my memory ever since.
The Open Window
by SAKI (H. H. Munro) (1870-1916)
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavored to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favorite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window–”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who labored under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention–but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
The Fog Horn blew.
And the monster answered.
A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.
“Now,” whispered McDunn, “do you know why it comes here?”
“All year long, Johnny, that poor monster there lying far out, a thousand miles at sea, and twenty miles deep maybe, biding its time, perhaps a million years old, this one creature. Think of it, waiting a million years; could you wait that long? Maybe it’s the last of its kind. I sort of think that’s true. Anyway, here come men on land and build this lighthouse, five years agao. And set up their Fog Horn and sound it and sound it out towards the place where you bury yourself in sleep and sea memories of a world where there were thousands like yourself, but now you’re alone, all alone in a world that’s not made for you, a world where you have to hide.
“But the sound of the Fog Horn comes and goes, comes and goes, and you stir from the muddy bottom of the Deeps, and your eyes open like the lenses of two-foot cameras and you move, slow, slow, for you have the ocean sea on your shoulders, heavy. But that Fog Horn comes through a thousand miles of water, faint and familiar, and the furnace in your belly stokes up, and you begin to rise, slow, slow. You feed yourself on minnows, on rivers of jellyfish, and you rise slow through the autumn months, through September when the fogs started, through October with more fog and the horn still calling you on, and then, late in November, after pressurizing yourself day by day, a few feet higher every hour, you are near the surface and still alive. You’ve got to go slow; if you surfaced all at once you’d explode. So it takes you all of three months to surface, and then a number of days to swim through the cold waters to the lighthouse. And there you are, out there, in the night, Johnny, the biggest damned monster in creation. And here’s the lighthouse calling to you, with a long neck like your neck sticking way up out of the water, and a body like your body, and most important of all, a voice like your voice. Do you understand now, Johnny, do you understand?”
The Fog Horn blew.
The monster answered.
I saw it all, I knew it all-the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps fried on the continental lands, the sloths and sabre-tooths had their day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.
- The Fog Horn, Ray Bradbury