A Significant, Defining Moment in My Life, Featuring Mice
Sruthi Thekkiam

I was my eccentric uncle's favorite niece and on my eleventh birthday, he got me two white mice. He brought them to my party in a paper sandwich bag and set them free in the living room. Our guests jumped in fright atop chairs and couches and the dining table, so of course I immediately loved my new pets. My mother was nervous about them, but she worked hard and was away a lot, so most times, I got my way through exploiting her sense of guilt.

We kept the mice in a big wire cage that they quickly learned to unlatch and escape from, so we made our house mouse-proof—this only meant that we remembered to keep the lid down on the toilet so the mice would not jump into it and drown, and we always kept the screen door shut so they wouldn't run out and get eaten by a bird or a cat. The boy mouse took to falling asleep atop the sugar jar, curled into a crescent; the girl mouse clung to the side of my head as I watched TV, her tail circling my ear-lobe. Soon, they had babies: twelve of them. Tiny pink creatures that slowly turned to white velvet and grew snouts and ears and noses and tails. And when they were bigger and escaped from the cage with their parents, our house turned chaotic. We found mice in our shoes, in our soup bowls, and mice sunning themselves on the window sills, cooling off inside the refrigerator. Even my mother's extreme guilt crumbled against the inconvenience of it all, and she decreed that the babies would have to go. She had found a place for them, she said: a lab where baby food samples would be tested on them. I thought of the dozen baby mice eating baby food all day, and it sounded good to me so I said ok. One weekend, my mother and I made a box to transport them in. We knew cardboard wouldn't work since they gnawed through everything, so we made breathing holes with a nail on the base of a tin lunch box.

The day arrived for them to depart. My mother planned to be home early from work to take them to the lab. After school and a sandwich, I spent an hour looking for and catching the twelve baby mice, and transferred them into their carrying box. Once they were all in, I don't remember what I did—I've tried to recall it several times, but it always eludes me. Some inconsequential, forgettable activity, no doubt; maybe I painted my toe nails, or watched TV. It wasn't until I heard my mother's car pull into the driveway that I remembered the mice in their box. I realized that the lid was on tight, and that I had placed the breathing vents down against the surface of our dining table, sealing off their air. I hurried and yanked off the lid, and inside, there was a mound of tiny dead mice, still warm, their ears and tails still pink, their eyelids gently shut. And then, at the bottom of the mouse pile, I saw a slight movement, one tiny, feeble paw reaching out.

But this is not a story about whether that one baby mouse lived or died. This is a story about a significant, defining moment in my life, just like the title says. So, what do you think filled my head at the slight quiver—that hiccup—of life among eleven furry corpses? No, not joy for the one life that might be saved. My one thought was, "Die. Die, so I can bury you, too, and forget this."

Sruthi Thekkiam has fiction in or coming from Blackbird and the anthology Million Writers Award: The Best New Online Voices. She is at work on a novel.

Detail of nitrate film frame courtesy of The Turnconi Project.

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