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Perfect Little Death

Repose, for now

Repose, for now

Yesterday was perfect. I saw him, or her, while reviewing the graffiti longstanding on our communal fence. Two planks are gone, making the long gaps of missing teeth in a double-barrier against weeds and freeway. At first there was just wood and some kid’s bubbly spraypaint letters, dust and scum on the concrete foundation. I looked right at him or her and didn’t see the shape. The mind sees what it expects to see.

Thunderstorms flashed and boomed to the east yesterday night, but only castoff drops tantalized the city. The day was not hot but not cool either, sultry with the trapped tropic damp Hawaii was done with. By afternoon radar showed a swirling yellow and orange rain comma lumbering up from the south; the sky was the smeary haze that lives at the ocean, the sun the brightest blot in shapeless decks of grey. Today is trash day, and yesterday I took it upon myself to trim some bushes and dispense, with vigor and prejudice, a blackberry vine establishing itself on the retaining wall. A real fucker, like all blackberries, though not yet terrible. The vine folded up easily as I crushed it into a wad. I sprayed the stems still in the ground with glyphosphate: it’s blackberry, and it was only three squirts. I filled the neighbors’ undersized compost bins (we are all cheap urbanites with the smallest bins) and lugged them to the street, satisfied. I hate yardwork and it was done, so I walked the grounds, looking for more modest triumphs. I thought about finally cleaning up this graffiti and saw her, or him.

Yesterday I froze but jumped inside my still skin. He, or she, was perfect: the coat clean and soft even to look at, the paws poised as if to grip a pen, the line of the mouth as drawn as my cat’s mouth. The eye was mostly closed but open enough to see the black eye, jewel-clear. I thought he, or she, was napping. Many seconds passed before I realized it was dead.

I didn’t take a picture then. Yesterday it had not rained and he, or she, was perfect there, so strangely composed. He, or she, was beyond fluster. Entropy had not yet taken notice. He, or she, was a perfect mouse in every way other than not being alive. Honest: I thought it was asleep. Taking a picture would have woken it up.

August in Washington is free of rain, more dry than Phoenix, on average. Last night’s rain was something out of autumn going into winter: the steady but not drenching patter that chuckles in gutters and makes tires hiss. Months of it make locals crave the sun, but months of sun get tiresome. I was glad for it, even just plain rain with no lightshow. No lightshow is better for the fires out east.

The mouse held on through the evening. I thought about what it would do to him, or her: drenching the perfect coat, making the body sodden. Maybe it would hasten smell and dissolution, but that was clinical thought high up in the cerebral stratosphere. Mostly I thought child thoughts about the poor mouse getting wet in the rain.

Ego endures. Conservative gasbags on the shouting channels rail against the estate tax with statements like When I die, I want my money to go to my children, not the government. We all do this, not just conservatives, but conservatives are least amenable to having it pointed out that when they die, they are dead. There is no I in death. By definition, the thing that wants and needs no longer exists; they can have no wants. But the ego continues to be the star of its own movie, projecting itself into a future where it does not exist, and we pronounce such non sequiturs all the time. We can’t help it. We can’t understand what it means to not exist.

Life is hard outside. Feral cats are said to live five years or less, if they’re lucky. My cat, who lives inside with good food and unappreciated veterinary care, will probably live to be fifteen or so. To be four and a bird is to be a very durable bird. Outside there is disease, cold, hot, hunger, predators, and your own species, who often as not are competitors and assholes. Mice, says Wikipedia, only live for a year. Their problem is predation. Might as well be assholes.

This morning I get up refreshed, determined to get to work, to be productive. I wrote 90 minutes on the book yesterday and surely, despite fatigue and medicine’s icky feeling, I can do another hour or so. I can finish washing the windows, take pleasure in the garbage truck picking up that fucker blackberry. But the first thing I think of is the little mouse, and whether he, or she, got wet.

There is no he or she. I am firm with myself as I get the camera. Outside is grey and heavy with rain’s passage, air thick and not quite cool. Everything seems washed, unbrittled. The dry grass now has give against my feet.

The mouse is there, the it of it. It is drenched, the coat no longer perfect down but sodden and rough to look at, like discarded carpet. For the first time, I notice the separated leg. It is still. The eye is still barely open. It still holds some illusion of being asleep.

On the Fourth of July, I happened to look down at the neighbor’s garage. Fireworks lit and boomed everywhere, deafening and brilliant, and a dark spot darted from one edge of the neighbor’s garage door to the other. It paused there, ran a little more to the front door, then ran back. It was a mouse. Why was it out now? What could it be looking for? Poor little thing probably scared out of its mind, my girlfriend said.

Is this that mouse? No, ego again: was this that mouse? It escaped that terror to find the jaws or beak of another one, one that snapped a leg off and then lost interest. There are no other wounds. Maybe it was scared to death.

I take the picture. Should I bury it? It is an it, now. Does it matter to project human dignity upon it? It isn’t human and never was. It is a fellow creature, though, another mammal on the bus, and we are all on the bus together.

Trucks rumble on the freeway, planes fly overhead. Mammals have been around millions of years longer than either. Trucks and planes will disappear before mammals.

In Ray Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire”, people came to Mercury eons ago, marooned there by a crash. An undamaged rocket lies an hour away, but an hour is too short to reach it during the tiny interval between deadly day and night. Radiation has reduced human lifespan to eight days. I remember this story, one of the first I read: I still have the browning paperback of R is for Rocket. Sped up by radiation, people flitted their lives like vibrating strings during their eight days. The main character, taunted by the other rocket, dedicates himself to finding a way to it. I remember the rush I felt, sitting in bed in elementary school by the bedside lamp, as he scrambles the last yards, grabs the airlock, and falls inside as dawn breaks. Time lurches down a hundred gears, and protected by the rocket his life stretches out. Out the window he can see his marooned race buzzing about their caves in streaks and blurs. He has made it. He cannot go back. The rocket takes him away forever.

I leave it on the cement, in the open. Something will eat it in the way of things. I go back inside to my shelter of vaccinations and antibiotics, cleanliness and nutrition, electricity and science. With luck, these things will outlast me, so I can beat jungle’s odds and ask the jungle questions it can’t answer. Outside things will look in but live too fast to understand.


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