Of Mice and ICE
One week last month, when it was unseasonably cold and rainy—which I loved because I was in a depression—there were suddenly mice flurrying everywhere in the courtyard, in and out of a pneumatic HVAC unit they installed last summer. The mice seemed extra small. Maybe they were babies. Maybe it was because two summers ago we had raccoons in the yard. Then last summer, rats, and a few roaches.
A black walnut tree I hadn’t noticed before fell in a storm, against our old building, breaking no windows. I wondered, when I started to see the mice, if their nest had been in the stump. For a couple of days they ran very happily, or so it seemed, along the insulated tubes, and once I watched one try to climb up the slick steel slope of the pneumatic machine. The longer I watched it, the tinier it seemed, the size of a strawberry. It tumbled down on its back like a kid in a blooper video, helpless, limbs flailing, comic and adorable. The mulch was wet, everyone was sweating, and a mossy patina was sprawling slowly across the concrete panels of the courtyard floor.
I talked on the phone and paced the off-angled seams. “But Mousie!” I said to whoever I was talking to, “thou art no thy lane!” I had forgotten what it meant, except that I disagreed, we were very much ourselves alane, mousie, you, me. Whoever I was talking to tried to comfort me, but I changed the subject. “Kojève said no animal can be a snob.”
As it slipped down again and again, I thought of other mice I’ve known. The one who came out when we showered in our 114th Street apartment, but modestly looked the other way, clinging to the wall, then went back down under the sink while we dried off and combed our hair. The one in London that my brother named Friendly, who loved mashed potatoes, and may have died from eating too much on Thanksgiving when a bunch of expats showed up with their American sentiments.
All summer, a drain pipe from the roof was broken right in front of my bedroom window, so every rain felt like a Nor’easter on a sea-unworthy boat, and I thought constantly of drowning with all the other creatures in our ark. There were fruit flies too, and mosquitoes. Roaches on the stoop, a pregnant spider weaving a web in the strong new sprouts of the black walnut stump. New York in August is dark and feral, and the outside achieves its fullest penetration of in.
About a week before the mice appeared, along the downstairs windowsills flaking with old green paint, I noticed green colored mouse shits that hadn’t been there before. I notice things, especially animal shit, and I’m pretty sure this is true, that they had never appeared before. So, I thought, they’re eating and pooping out this very old and surely leaded paint. I tried to remember the lease rider we sign every year about babies and the lead, but the details escaped me and I didn’t go digging in the file cabinet when I went back upstairs. Nothing good can happen from the mice eating lead, in any case.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O’ what a panic’s in thy breastie!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which maks thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow mortal.
God, we do nothing but justify their ill opinion which maks them startle at us. My friend once told me she saw a dying armadillo, and if she had had a tool would have put it out of its misery. I believed her. We learned later, as she told me this story in a bar, that armadillos carry leprosy. Leprosy or not, I said, I would never have been so brave.
A few days later, the mice started dying in the courtyard, slowly and excruciatingly or so it seemed. One slumped around for almost an entire day at the edge of the rubber mat under the “playground”—a single slide and an arc of monkey bars I didn’t understand how to use—and I did nothing, just watched it and hummed a song of mourning, the only noha I remember from when I was younger, “Thi Sakeena ki sadaa, baba ab shaam hui.” It was Sakeena’s voice that cried, father it’s become night. I tried to remember “Shaheed-e Karbala,” the martyr of Karbala, but couldn’t. It was lame and maybe cruel.
The next morning, another one dead way down beneath my window. That afternoon, another one died alongside the wall. I saw a few climb the high wall beside our building’s trash area.
For Burns, Mousie is not-alone in a particular way; it’s the vanity of making plans when the universe has other designs that she shares with her fellow mortals. You know these lines, if only for the most annoying reasons:
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,
Gang aft a’gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy.
These lines, out of context, make it seem like “To a Mouse” is really about the schemes of men. Maybe it is, but first it is about seasons and refuge, the way our survival rhythms constantly threaten other living creatures. Mousie sees “the fields laid bare an’ waste” after harvest, after the summer’s crop has been put up, but, fatefully, before the last ploughing. “An’ weary winter comin fast” so “cozie here, beneath the blast” she “thought to dwell, Till crash!”
A couple of weeks before the mouse situation started, nineteen years after I moved to the city, I went to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for the first time with my dad and brother. Therese Patricia Okoumou’s protest on July Fourth, centrally to abolish ICE, inspired all three of us. I didn’t think it was possible to bring back Lady Liberty for me. I’m about as fed up with hexagonal republicanism and white women’s virtue as I am with American jingoism.
The ferries on the Manhattan side were sold out, so we drove to New Jersey where the people in line looked more like us and the child fashions were ace. We went through a surprisingly intense security process, but because basically everyone was brown, and the security agents were employed by the parks department, it felt less menacing than the usual TSA jam. I asked if there was heightened security after the July Fourth protest and a gentle parks employee told me no.
As we toured the abandoned quarantine hospital on Ellis, where mice and lice and viruses and amoebas and rats and cats and plants and seeds landed along with millions of immigrants, I thought about Fievel Mousekewitz, the Ukranian immigrant (mouse) whose adventures and tribulations in New York probably had a disproportionate impact on my decision to move here, down the Hudson, rather than through the harbor.
My mother-in-law’s mother is one of the voices on the oral history phones at the Ellis Island Museum. I hadn’t picked up one of these pay-phone type receivers in a while. I didn’t know her, and I couldn’t recognize her voice, except from imitations by her progeny, impressions of the person most often described as a “spherical Sicilian woman with a weird love/hate thing for Connie Chung.” Given her reputation for melancholy and a family orientation toward death, I guessed hers was the story about how moving to America in 1920 took the color from her cheeks. “My mother told me: your rosy cheeks are gone since the boat. It was very sad.”
Last week, mouse shit appeared in the cupboard under my sink. Though I am an expert in doodoo forensics—a reader by nature—I don’t really know what to do when a critter enters my apartment. A few years ago, a cardinal walked right in the open window and I came quickly to the decision that he just lived with me now. I once spent a night on the couch so an enormous moth could have the bedroom to herself.
Mice can be a menace, and I didn’t want what was happening downstairs to be happening in my cabinet, so I Googled “what does mouse hate the most,” and it turns out to be things with pepper. Peppermint, red pepper, black pepper. I considered writing the word “pepper” on a few chits of paper and leaving them around the house, since these things seemed otherwise unrelated. Then I felt disgusted about whimsical behaviors, and scolded my brain for having the thought.
These shortening days are still hot, and I’ve seasoned my home into inhospitality with peppermint-oil-soaked cotton balls in every crevice, black pepper around the stove, Kashmiri chili powder on the rim of the trash can.
There are evidences of his continued residence: a tuft of dust trailed out from under the oven, tiny crumbs of sawdust or sesame seeds that weren’t there when I went to bed. If I find him, I will catch him and take him out. I feel this as a profound wickedness. If he isn’t tempest-tost and poor, he is surely tired of this hiding life, these smells he hates, with which I have surrounded him on purpose. I am no Mother of Exiles, and I’m not eager to forgive myself for this. Especially not now. I want to put the mouse in my pocket and go back to Liberty Island, set him gingerly on the crown, a tiny sign in his hand: MICE AGAINST ICE.
Burns’s tender anthropomorphism takes a violent turn at the end, undoes itself in a distancing interval that breaks my heart. Until the final stanza (which, if we remember that stanzas are rooms, is the one in which the mouse is doubly unhomed) the speaker and the mouse are bound in one world: “fellow mortal,” “earth-bound companion” in “social union,” each one preparing for the coming cold. And then a disavowal, a disowning, a second expulsion:
Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
This betrayal makes me hate myself anew, and Burns, and people. Human animals are inveterate snobs, and worse. We see her foresight as a link to us until we can’t. Suddenly she has no past. Suddenly she trembles not at the future, but because it’s how she simply is, a “tim’rous beastie.” Perhaps the poem demands this, if it is to be the record of a mind moving. Where is the volta if we linger in total identification? Burns leaves it by breaking the worlds in two: compares to alchemize his shame.
I saw a bald eagle in the wild a few years ago, and to be honest, it looked, even as it flew over the snakey river and the murmuring pines and the hemlocks—Canadian trees, according to Longfellow, whose “Evangeline,” is a poem of exile I adore—like a bigot. Later that fall, not far from my window, I found an abandoned sparrow’s nest about ten percent of which was made with my own hair.
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb grew up in Albany, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she also earned a PhD. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 3 Quarks Daily, Discourse, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookForum, Boston Review, Triple Canopy, the Bennington Review,...