Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2010

Fiction: The Heart of a Mouse by K. J. Bishop

I

My kid is crying again. The angel we saw last night outside the town scared the shit out of him. It lay in its own impact crater with its belly to the sky, the nine or ten eyes on its torso still glowing neon orange. Nothing at all for a face. Head like a peeled potato, about the size of a truck cab. It was probably dead, the glow just residual energy, but I couldn’t cross my heart and promise him. Anyway, the safety rule is not to go poking at any angel, even after bactyls have had their buffet and gone. Not that the chickenshit little runt would go near an angel by himself. But I’m trying to teach him that chickenshit and cautious aren’t the same.

I took us up into the woods. By the smell out on the highway as we walked closer to the lights, the town was a kennel. The dogs wouldn’t go for the angel—even a dumb dog knows an angel is about as good to eat as strychnine, unless you’re a bactyl—but they’d sure go for a couple of rodents. I may be a mouse as big as a bear—the Paul Bunyan of mice—with opposable thumbs and an AK to hold with them, but there could’ve been any number of dogs up there, and I can’t shoot for shit in the dark.

So here we are in the ditch I picked for a sleeping place, about a mile off the road at the bottom of a hill covered in beech forest. But I’m well past bright eyed and bushy tailed—actually, my tail is twitching on its own like a spastic snake glued to my ass—thanks to the couple of bennies I popped when I first got a whiff of the angel, and he’s only sleeping in fits and starts, waking up to cry, like a baby. But he doesn’t cry too loud. Maybe he’s finally got it into his head that he has to keep the noise down.

In between the repetition of settling him back to sleep, which I do by mechanically stroking his back, I watch the stars crawl, dig a hole to piss in, cover it back over, and count the pig tins in my pack. There are twenty-eight. Enough for nine days and a morning. I knew that, but I don’t trust this mouse brain with numbers, so I do an inventory at least once a day.

Well into the night, a looping motorcycle drone comes through the air from the over the other side of the hills. So there are volk in the local picture, too. The dogs start up an answering holler, which wakes my runt, who at that point had been asleep for about an hour, so that I was starting to think he might get through the rest of the night.

#

I’ve decided to stay off the road until we’re past the dogs and the volk. That might be a day, it might be three, depending on how big the volk territory is. True, there’s always a chance of meeting a dream in the back country, but with volk around, probably not that much chance. Even assholes have their uses.

As long as we can find water we could do a week on our current food supply before we’ll have to head back down to catch a pickup going to a pig farm, leaving a day’s leeway in case something happens to the regular service and we have to spend another day on the road. I’m leaving that as an option, depending on what fortune brings. If the weather holds good I’m thinking I’d rather rough it up here than pay hard-earned pig for a stinking corner of a hidey hole in a dero town.

I get him up and in the cold foggy morning we start on the next hill, taking a deer path. I feel like shit wrung out of a sheet, and he, my rodent son, is just terrible. Starts going on about his mama. Why did I have to put one in her that day?

I say to him, You goddamn know why, and if I tell you a different story it won’t change what happened.

I say that if he asks me one more time I’ll take him to the next farm and tell the maryjanes he’s a weird looking pig and they can have him for the meatworks, no charge.

I hope he’s too tired to cry, but forget that.

He doesn’t look any more human when he cries, or any more like anything except whatever the shit he is. Which is kind of like a hairless gopher. A roly-poly pocket gopher with no hair except for a bit on his head: a shaved gopher in a toupee and filthy dungarees. With high-strung feelings.

But not a lot of spunk or brains or will.

So that I’m often thinking how, if I’d come out like him, I’d never be able to protect him. But while my brain isn’t what it was, it functions enough to get us from A to B alive every day, and I’ve got more willpower than I ever had. It’s like the god that ain’t gave me just one gift. I don’t think the runt got any gifts, other than having me to look after him.

I try to cheer him up with jokes about the potatohead angel, how we were going to cut off its head and make fries like we used to on our weekends.

Your mama wouldn’t let you eat fries, I remind him. Funny how she wouldn’t let him have fries, or any kind of food that might make him fat, but he got fat anyway. Even funnier how he’s still fat now, when he’s getting nothing but a few ounces of pork a day and walking all the time.

He doesn’t even pretend to laugh when I call the angel a potatohead. He used to pretend. He used to be able to think of his mouse dad’s feelings. Now he doesn’t try, I’ve been noticing lately. I’m hoping it’s just because he’s tired, but I’m afraid he’s still losing parts of himself—like a card was pulled out of a house of cards and now more cards are collapsing. He’s definitely lost some of the social basics he knew back when we were normal, before the you-know-what, the day of hoodoo, the end of reason, the big search and replace, call it what you will.

I’m the only mouse and he’s the only thing like him that I’ve seen. It could be that we’re unique, like dreams—one-of-a-kinds. Sticking-up nails, which the volk will always try to hammer down. Not that we’d look like much hanging on a trophy wall. Anytime I wish I was something badass and fancy I remember that. Sometimes it’s better to be shabby lowlife. She called me that. Now, I won’t say who’s having the last laugh, because none of this is funny. But who’s alive, I might say, and who’s looking after the kid better than just about anyone looks after a kid these days?

#

After the mist lifts, it turns out to be a nice day for trekking through the woods. Clear under a high overcast, with fall colours making everything pretty as a picture. A definitely outdoors day, as my own old mama used to say. She turned pig, poor lady. Which reminds me of something. I point to a squirrel running up a birch trunk.

I ask, Do you eat those?

No, he says.

Right, I say.

Last night I shouldn’t have said that thing about making fries. There’s no such thing as fries anymore, but even so, I’d talked about eating something other than pig. Too many bennies, not enough sleep, and I’m angry at myself for the slip. So I ask, just to be clear, Hey, if I make Potatohead into fries, can you really eat them, or is it just pretend?

Pretend, he says. He’s got a look like he might start up his crying motor again, but he doesn’t. He could be sulking about his mama still, but I can’t be sure, so I let it go this time.

A bit of breeze sends a few yellow leaves drifting down. It’s a good chance to change the subject. After pointing out the falling leaves I start on some of the other things around us. I’m trying to get him to grasp the beauties of nature. I know kids don’t, normally, but apart from eating and shitting they’re life’s only source of pleasure now, and I want him to enjoy them.

I spy with my little eye. Leaf, clouds, tree. He gets those. I try a few trees by name—birch, ash, maple—but he can’t remember those from one day to the next, and he gives up after a few wrong guesses each time. He doesn’t get shadow or spiderweb, either.

He comes up with obvious things like grass, sky, AK. He ought to know it when I pretend I can’t guess. He would’ve known before.

I choose a spot with a spreading cover of pines for our lunch stop. After we’ve eaten I try a little math with him. What’s four plus three? Twenty-one plus five? Eleven minus seven? Right, right, wrong. He can do addition and easy multiplication, but can’t subtract or divide, which worries me. I tell him, you’ve got to be able to say, well, I can live on a tin and a half a day, and I’ve got eight tins, so I’ve got enough for five days and a morning, and within that time I’ve got to get to a farm. When I get there I better understand “kilos of shit per tin” and know how many kilos I need to shovel for the maryjanes and make sure the floor boss writes up the right amount when it’s weighed, because as sure as shit is soft and warm they’ll cheat you if they can.

I tell him meat doesn’t grow on trees. I say like I’ve said before, You think you can survive in the world without knowing how it works?

He looks at me with his stupid little button eyes and I know he doesn’t understand.

I feel too tired to try to teach him subtraction for the umpteenth time or even to be angry at him for not trying harder to understand the things he needs to know. The sun’s getting hotter, even in the shade, and last night’s lost sleep is threatening to find me. I’m thinking I’d better get up before I nod off when he suddenly starts playing I Spy again. He hardly ever starts a game off on his own. I smile as well as a mouse can to show him I’m pleased. I don’t honestly know how well he can read my looks. As far as I can tell, his eyesight’s about as good as mine—all right at seeing within about a hundred feet in daylight. But I’ve checked my face in still water and I have to say, it isn’t all that expressive. For a while I tried making up new gestures to show emotion with my ears and whiskers, but he never remembered them.

Something beginning with P, he says.

At first I think he means me.

Pa, I say. He says no. Pebble? Pack? Pig tin?

Nope, none of those. Not poplar, of course. I figure he’s made a spelling mistake or is just being stupid. If he’s kidding around, that’s at least showing a bit of spirit, I guess.

I tell him his mouse dad gives up.

Potatohead, he says, and points at me. Says it again. Potatohead.

If only he’d smiled or laughed, but the way he said it, I knew he wanted it to hurt. He’s never tried to hurt my feelings before. Ignored them, yes, but never tried deliberately to wound them. But this, it was just as if he wanted to say that he thought of me the way he thought of the angel. As a monster. A big bad thing in his world. I don’t want to believe it, of course, so at first I just stare into his face, beady eyes looking into beady eyes, trying to show the love I feel for him and trying to see just a little bit of it reflected back.

Nada. I’m looking at two bullets in a ball of dough.

So I have to hit him, not out of hurt feelings, of course, but because there’s no way I can look after him and keep him safe if he doesn’t respect me and do as I say. Back before, when we just had our weekends, discipline didn’t matter so much. It matters now. Not just discipline of action, but discipline of the heart. If the inside slips, the outside will eventually slip too. For his own safety he has to respect me, not just pretend to. I shouldn’t have cut him that slack when I thought he was sulking.

I wrap my big hand around his snout to keep him quiet while I teach him his lesson. After I’m done and he’s done sniffling and we’ve both calmed down a bit, I remind him about the discipline of the heart. Every now and then I try to teach him. I haven’t given up hope that he’ll understand one day. Not giving up that hope is one of my rules.

Well, of course he doesn’t take any of it in. Sometimes I get to thinking he must be pretending to be dumb, as a way to cause me pain. It even passes through my mind that maybe he really got a lot smarter and tougher when he changed, and developed his own kind of sick discipline, so that he makes this non-stop pathetic act just so that he can watch my ridiculous mouse body sag as I try to carry the burden of hope for both of us—a hope that’s all the heavier for having no long-term purpose, just a load of my wanting him to be the best he can be and have the best life he can have, even under these circumstances.

I don’t know whether that thought counts as paranoia or wishing. It might be better if he was smart and nasty. Then at least I wouldn’t have so much reason to pity him.

His eyes still look like bullets in dough. Sad bullets now, drooping down at the corners. If you tried to think of a creature that was just made in every way to look sorry and miserable and always fearful, you’d get pretty close with him. If it’s an act, it’s brilliant.

Time to move, anyway. I make like my pack weighs nothing, striding ahead on my strong short legs. As long as I can hear him panting I know he’s keeping up.

II

Life is full of surprises, and not every single one of them is a shower of shit. I discover the hut behind a coppiced woodlot when I happen to notice the wall of trimmed logs through a gap in the trees.

It’s a tiny place, maybe a hunting shelter. One room with a linoleum floor. Two windows. Glass in one, a square of blue oilcloth with a pattern of tropical fruit tacked over the other. The smells inside are all ordinary animal, mainly fox and raccoon. There’s a black vinyl sofa with busted cushions, an empty fridge without a door, and a TV on a stool, all nearly as brown as I am with a coating of gritty dust. For decoration there’s an orange plastic shoe and some dry fox turds lying together in a corner. No sign anyone’s been here in a long time.

It’s the first hut I’ve seen since I upped and went walking with the kid. I wonder if it’s unique, like we seem to be, or if there are more of them around about the place, like there are pig farms and volk rally halls. I can imagine a whole lot like it lying out in the back country, each one with the same sofa, fridge, TV and shoe, too far from roads and farms to be practical for living in.

His runtship is happy sniffing around the TV. The excitement of finding it seems to have blown the sulky clouds out of his head. He pushes the power button like he expects it to work. When it doesn’t, he goes scrabbling between the sofa’s cushions.

It won’t be there, I start to say, but fuck me if he doesn’t come up with the remote. Nothing happens when he tries it, of course. He shoves it into my hand.

I look into his poor face, now beginning to show the bruises from the beating I gave him. I show him that I can’t make the remote work any better than he can, doing my best to explain that there’s no broadcaster and no electricity running to the hut, while I flick the power point for the TV on and off. There’s nothing coming through it, I tell him, almost laughing. Maybe if you could steal a methane generator from a farm you could rig it to the fridge and make it work, if you had tools, but nobody has tools, which is a bitch, but not a crisis, because nothing needs fixing anymore, nothing breaks down or wears out.

I start pacing around and waving my arms as I go over the batch of facts I’ve told him a thousand times before, hoping he’ll eventually catch on. I explain the simplicity of the world as it is now. It isn’t exactly an elegant simplicity, but if deros and trogs can understand it, I tell him, so can a mouse and a gopher thing. In the middle of the new world order—and don’t ask me who ordered it—is the fact that maryjanes have pig farms. They make food for you and me and deros and trogs and methane for the pickups and the farm machines. Maryjanes have moms and pops who have stores where you can buy useful staples like bennies if you have credit from jobbing in the meatworks or the shitworks. Deros and trogs and dogs live in towns, cats roam. Dogs and cats hunt everything except angels and bactyls. Volk hunt big game, raid towns and hold rallies. Pigs eat anything dead except angels, and bactyls eat anything dead and anything alive that doesn’t move fast enough to get away. Dreams hunt everything, eat anything. Angels don’t eat, but they kill, which comes to the same thing for you and me. And that’s all. It isn’t so much to keep in your head.

I tell him again how there aren’t any big, complicated systems anymore, no long involved whys and wherefores, therefore no electricity, no TV networks, no shows. I finish by throwing the remote back down on the sofa. Right away he grabs it and tries to make me take it again.

Then I remember our game, where we pretended the buttons did other stuff, like turn my car into an F1 Ferrari, or make us able to fly, or nuke his teacher’s house.

He always said it was just our game, he didn’t play it with his mama.

Is that it? I ask. You want me to push this button and do some magic?

I look at him looking up at me, and as if I’m seeing inside his scrambled head, I know he’s thinking I could use the remote to put things back the way they were. Including her. That’d be part of it, naturally

Or maybe he isn’t so scrambled as all that. Maybe he’s actually making a fairly reasonable guess based on the facts he knows, namely that we turned into rodents, she turned cat, and the world filled with monsters. Given that, is it entirely batshit to think that magic might be possible?

Scrambled or not, I can see this much: While he doesn’t want to believe what I’ve told him about the serious things that really matter and require hard work and endless daily effort, he sure wants to believe in me now that he’s thinking we’ve lucked upon an easy way to fix all our problems.

But I’m touched, all the same, that he suddenly shows this trust in me. He didn’t try to mend the world himself. He gave the remote to me. On the flip side of that, of course, if—when—it doesn’t work, the failure can be my fault. Still, maybe I finally got through to him, and now he’s trying to show he respects and trusts me. I’d like to believe that, though I shouldn’t let myself just yet.

I’m supposed to be the adult, the one who knows shit from clay. But before I can act in step with what I know, I’m stricken with stupidity, just like him. It’s got to be because I haven’t slept enough. But I can actually see, like a madman would, the zany possibility of making our own hoodoo happen. The belief suddenly gets a hold of me like some kind of holy running shits.

Overwhelmed by this diarrhoea of faith, I point the remote at the window with glass, aiming it at everything out there. I put my other hand on his shoulder and close my eyes. Go back, I tell the world, to the way you were before. Or better. But the same would be quite ok.

Since there’s nothing wrong with the yellow and red leafy corner of things that the window lets me see, I can indulge for a moment in the wildly retarded idea that I’ve changed everything outside that needed changing, so that all I have to do now is change us two.

I say, Ready?

His funny face does a funny smile.

Ok, I tell him, we’re gonna go back. Everything’s gonna be just normal again, ok? And after we’re normal, maybe we’ll see what other magic stuff this remote can do.

It occurs to me then that according to the logic I’ve been following, I’ve already fucked up. If I’d changed the world back, then magic wouldn’t work anymore, so we’d have to stay as rodents, even if everything else was ok. I have to stop this bullshit and get back to reality, obviously. But the belief hasn’t run out of me. I let myself indulge just a little longer, closing my eyes again as I point the remote at him and command him, in my big squeaky voice, to go back to being just the kid he was. Smart, no guts. Whatever. To myself I say, Be a man again.

I open my beady eyes. He opens his beady eyes. Well, that’s that. As for the world, if it’s all fixed up, there’ll be a power line running to the hut from somewhere and the TV will work. I only have to turn the power point on and push the button to check. Push it a few times.

Yeah, well.

My ears pick up whining engines in the distance over on the volk side of the hills. Another rally. Early arrivals.

I must be much too tired, or I wouldn’t be slipping like this. But he doesn’t look dejected. Maybe he hadn’t really thought it was going to work.

I tell him we can stay here for a couple of days, so that we can both rest. He nuzzles into my belly. I tickle him under the chin and he lifts his face up. He’s getting a black eye, making him look half ‘coon. It’s hard to imagine what he’ll look like when he grows up. Not that I can see me ever finding out. Something will get one or both of us before then.

He holds out his hand for the remote. I give it. He sits down on the sofa and starts mashing the buttons. He points it at himself. Dog, he says. He curls his lips and snarls, then giggles. He points it at me. I’m afraid he’ll say cat, but he says pig, so I get down on all fours and made oinking noises. I pretend I’m falling down a meat hopper until he covers his eyes and squeaks at me to stop.

I turn him into a volk and he marches around squeaking purity slogans. He turns me into a bactyl and I stick my butt in the fridge pretending I’m oozing out of it. I do a floppy, writhing bactyl dance in front of the TV.

When it’s his turn again he says, Now you’re Potatohead.

But he says it in a cute, funny way. There’s nothing mean in his look. He’s just playing. I lie down obediently on the floor and spread my arms out.

He squats over me, pokes me in the chest and says, Are you dead?

Yeah, pretty much.

Then how come you can talk?

Maybe I’m not quite properly dead. It’s hard to tell with angels, remember?

Well, you can die properly, now, he says. But there’s still nothing nasty in his eyes.

I lie stiff for a bit, sticking my stubby mouse legs in the air. That makes him laugh.

Since he’s starting to look tired, I herd him outside to go to the toilet before he gets really sleepy.

Carrying my gun and pack, I march us for about ten minutes so that the smell will be a reasonable distance away from the hut and supervise him digging a hole with his hands, which are more like paws than mine and have pretty strong claws. We both use it, then fill it up and cover it with leaves.

The afternoon light is sloping through the tree trunks as we return. He’s got a real shiner. I refuse to let myself feel bad about it. He has to learn self-control, and he has to remember that I’m his guardian and teacher, and that he’s damn lucky to have me.

We eat our pig. Inventory of all supplies is now: Twenty-five tins. Ammo: six 30-round magazines. First volk I killed—with my old Dirty Harry gun, before it went down the rabbit hole—I took his AK. Since volk all have exactly the same firearm, picking up ammo is no great problem. Three litres of stream water. Water sanitation pills: Nineteen. Worm pills: sixteen. Bennies: twelve. Antiseptic: not much. Antibiotics: none. Flashlight batteries: four.

I figure I’ll have to work for about a month to earn enough to trade for meds. If there are any meds. Last place, the farm store had nothing. The mom and pop were waiting for new stocks to punch in.

The light’s low now, marshalling gold in the trees—what I think of as the unknown soldier’s prize for lasting another day. I sit on the floor to first pick my teeth with a twig, then clean my gun, listening to the pleasant evening bird chitter.

As for him, instead of sleeping, he plays with the turds, arranging them into patterns that apparently mean something to him. Art isn’t dead.

I look over and see he’s made a neat little pyramid. That’s good, I say. Real good.

He clenches his fists and jiggles them in the air, cheering for himself. He gets up and checks that the remote is still where he left it on the sofa. He can’t find it, of course, because I hid it when he wasn’t looking. I shrug like I don’t know anything.

It’s a little test, to see if he can tell I’m kidding around. Can he put himself in my head, or is he really only ever in his own head now?

I can’t say that I get an answer. He goes scrabbling between the cushions like he did before, and eventually finds the remote, and gives me a gopher’s vertical grin.

But the remote isn’t all he’s found. He gives me something he’s holding in his other paw.

It’s a torn off corner of printed paper from a TV program guide. My best guess is that it’s just part of the decoration. If there are other huts, there’ll be identical scraps of paper caught in their sofa cushions.

Or it might be a leftover. The whole hut might be, even. I suppose that’s possible. It took about a year for all the farms and rally halls and highway towns and all the accessories like AKs and pickups to punch in, and by then just about everything else was gone, but maybe there are still a few drops to shake off.

I sit him down on the sofa, put him on my knee, and read out what’s on the paper. Football, news, current affairs, cartoons.

You remember cartoons? I ask.

Maybe, he says. Then he points to the word. I spy, he says. C.

You can read that?

He gives me a look like he isn’t sure what I mean, but he points to the letters in the words and says them. He mostly gets them wrong, but he knows they’re letters. Maybe I Spy has somehow kept the letter pictures as well as the sounds alive in his head. There’d be no point in trying to teach him to read properly, though. The only thing left to read is what the floor boss maryjanes write, and they just use tally marks.

B, he says. D, I correct him. Documentary, I read out aloud. The Land of Samurai.

Might as well be the Land of the Pus People for all it probably means to him.

His memory of before definitely isn’t as good as mine. Your maryjanes, moms and pops, deros, trogs—they don’t remember anything. When you try to talk to any of them about the past, it’s like they hear you saying something else, and they respond to whatever they think they heard. I don’t know about volk and the rest, but I assume it’s the same with them. Something like a bactyl probably doesn’t have thoughts at all. So if me and him really are unique, we might be the only critters with memories, and his is only half a memory. Not that it matters in the big picture. If there are others like us, I bet they’re just as dead-ended as we are. No reason to suppose they’d be good eggs, either.

I sometimes wonder if we’re dreams, but if we are, we must be the smallest, weakest, least scary fucking dreams in this world.

I’ve never bullshitted to him. He’s never asked where we’re going and I’ve never said anything about it. I always figured that if he asked I’d tell him the truth and say we’re going nowhere in particular. I had an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t bring the subject up, but that if he asked, I could consider him ready to share my burden of knowing we’re going nowhere except the next farm, the next cold night in a ditch or a dero town, the next struggle with evil. And ready to understand me better because of that.

But now something gets a hold of me, like that belief-shits again, as if I’m possessed and talking in tongues and I say, Hey, have I ever told you where we’re going?

He shakes his head.

I can’t help myself, the bullshit flows.

I tell him we’re going to the land of samurai, where there are no pig farms, just rice farms and orchards and trout streams. And all the people there are real people, with proper faces and brains. Every person there is a samurai, strong in body and spirit. They don’t need bennies, and they can eat all kinds of food.

I tell him the most important thing a samurai needs is discipline of the heart. To endure, to be alert, to think of others. And to feel nature in your soul—to be reconciled to the life that falls and melts, and comes back again, but not as what it was before. I kind of start to explain a personal philosophy, putting into proper words the things that go around and around in my head all the time, but that I don’t say all the way clearly, either because I’m trying to dumb things down for his benefit or because I’m too done in or strung out to think clearly. But it’s flowing from me now. Truth all mixed up with crazy talk.

In my mind, this AK here that I’ve been cleaning is a sword. A very clean sword now, but I’m still cleaning it in my mind. I’m not just cleaning a sword, I’m cleaning my spirit, keeping it in working order. Making it as clean as the water in my made-up land.

I don’t know where this urge to talk through my ass has come from, but the more I talk, the more I like what I hear myself saying—even despite the fact that like a lousy hypocrite I’m breaking my own rules.

He’s looking at me, but I don’t know whether he’s taking any of it in, the sense or the nonsense, until he asks if his mama’s there, in the land of samurai.

Of all the questions he could have asked, naturally it had to be that.

Yeah, I blather, she’s there. She’s got a job, finally, too. Queen of the samurai. Doesn’t get much better than that.

What the hell, if I’m going to talk bullshit, it might as well be gold-plated bullshit trailing clouds of glory.

III

That’s nice, I say, giving the shrine a glance. Real pretty. Yeah, fuck me if he hasn’t made an altar to her. On top of the TV. The plastic shoe, raised on two empty meat tins: that’s her throne. The fox turds, neatly piled, which he says are her food, and some flowers and feathers and a leaf skeleton, standing for her clothes and whatever other shit he happens to think she needs.

We’ve been here two weeks. I did a stint at a farm, got meat and meds. I figured he was big enough to work, and he did, and he didn’t do too bad. The deros and trogs picked on him but he just kept his nose down and shovelled like I told him to. I hardly dared think it, but suddenly he was acting like I’ve been trying to raise him to act. Sensibly, with his mind on what has to be done.

I guess I was feeling soft on him, since when he begged to go back to the hut I said yes.

It’s stupid to stay put. Something will sniff us out. But right from the start, this place seemed to wake up his mind and his will, so that staying here seems worth the risk of trouble coming sooner rather than later. And I swear, I’m feeling sharper since we’ve been here. Maybe it’s just because I’m not tired from walking and stiff from sleeping on the ground. There’s a stream in the next valley, so we don’t have any worries about water, but I hit on an idea to save on sanitation pills. When it rains, I take the covers off the sofa cushions and put them outside so that they fill up with clean rainwater. I don’t think I’d have thought of doing that before.

So we’re both sharpening up. But now I can see that while he’s regaining an ability to focus, what he wants to focus on is her. For example, he thanked her for the rain.

He’s gotten right into being a samurai, as much as he thinks he knows what a samurai is. He doesn’t believe his mouse dad can keep the bad things away, but the queen of samurai can. Kid’s getting religion, ancestor worship. He thinks this is the discipline of the heart.

I can’t see myself in him. Her I can see. She was into shit like that. Astrology, superstitions, angels. Stuff that doesn’t require discipline to adhere to. Faiths with zero level of difficulty. Too bad she didn’t live to see what angels turned out to be like.

And yet, I can’t help seeing this wacky shit of his as a kind of progress. It’s imaginative. And imagination is the beginning of compassion. I’m hopeful that one day, if I wait this out, he’ll start imagining how it is to be me. I’m also hopeful that he’ll get bored. Right now, it’s as if she’s his favourite toy. But kids get sick of their toys. I’m telling myself to wait and be patient, because he’ll outgrow her. Eventually he’ll start to really think deeply about his mouse dad. And whereas she can’t ever be more than what she was, and can’t talk to him or show him anything new, I can always be interesting. I think he’ll see that. He just has to muck around with this little-kid magic stuff first.

He’s stopped wanting to play the game with the remote buttons. Instead, he comes out on patrols with me. That’s when the samurai business has practical use. He actually tries to do a job out there. He listens and sniffs, and peers into the dark woods, though I don’t suppose he sees any better than I do. I won’t turn on the AK’s flashlight unless I have to shoot something. Most of the time, my whiskers save me from bumping into trees. He does okay in that department, too. I set a slow, almost creeping pace, partly for safety, partly for him to practice moving quietly in the dark. I’ve told him how it’s all a matter of control: controlling your body, controlling your fears.

And now he really listens. At least partly out of respect for me, I like to think. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, anyway.

I remember something about being supposed to consider yourself already dead and not care that you’re going nowhere, but I don’t want think like that, and the people in my land of samurai don’t think like that either. So I’ll just keep the idea in reserve, I’m thinking, in case I ever need to go nuts that way to stop me going nuts some worse way.

Out in the dark, with the Milky Way sprawled across the sky like the mother of the bride after one too many, listening to small creatures scurrying about in the blue-black coffin of the night, I think about a good death, a worthy death. Is there such a thing? And if there is, does it still count as good if no one sees it? My gut tells me of course it fucking does, like if a tree falls in the woods it makes a noise whether Joe Mouse or Joe Volk or Joe Bactyl hears it or not. The action matters, not the witness. Then my gut thinks again and reminds me that the whole point is not to die. Death is always a failure.

That sounds right. But then I’m not sure. I want the kid to hurry up and grow up so that we can talk about it.

I suddenly remember her and her stupid underwear, how she used to care about all that lace and shit.

IV

A dream’s around. It must be that, because the smell’s like nothing else, and the volk are excited. They’re coming further into the hills. One night we nearly ran into a hunting party. I say nearly ran into, but in fact they were making so much noise that we heard them long before they could have seen us. We were able to just turn around and quietly go home. His runtship was calm, a perfect little stoic. That’s how far he’s come.

I’d still call this time to move on, or at least vacate the premises for a while, but it’s getting on for winter now and pouring rain nearly every day. I figure each deluge should be washing away our scent, so that I don’t have to factor that into my weighing up of whether we should stay or go. We’ve been out to farms twice more. I’ve buried our pig supply in a few caches around and about, so that if any intruder comes by the hut while we’re out there won’t be anything to see or smell right there. I’ve been making him take apart the shrine when we patrol. That means he gets to put it back together again when we come back. He enjoys doing that, but I have a bet with myself that eventually he’ll get sick of the repetition.

I also have to figure that there’s danger in leaving, too, with volk running around in the woods. My head says it’s actually better to stay, but I’m troubled by the fact that it’s telling me what I want to hear. A man gets attached to a place. A mouse too, it seems. Maybe I’m starting to believe in this little hut like the kid believes in his samurai queen. I’m thinking of how good we’re doing here. But I also have to consider that it could be some trick of the world’s to trap us here, turn me soft and lazy, make me lose my simple clear purpose to keep going and never stay put long enough to get noticed.

I try to listen to the voice of discipline. But it’s been losing its definiteness of late. It’s getting to be like two loud voices telling me different things. One of them says I should stay in my house and defend it, while the other says I’m only using that as an excuse to stay here.

This worries me badly. I know I’m getting smarter, but what if I’ve only gotten smart enough to think my way into trouble and not out of it? Suppose I’m getting more complicated—maybe that just means more ways I could fuck up. I’ve only survived and kept my kid alive in this world through clear, simple thinking. The second discipline voice says that if staying here is making my head less clear, then we have to go, and not come back.

But just this morning the runt woke up with a cold, and it’s pissing rain, so that today, for his sake, we have to stay put.

#

Come night, the rain’s stopped and the sky’s cleared up. There’s a nice fat moon like a giant bennie, big enough to keep you awake for the rest of your life. I leave him on the sofa and go out by myself. I don’t go far, just check the caches and note the volk assholes blundering around on a couple of hillsides and the pong of the dream like bad breath on the night breeze.

When I get back he’s awake, staring out the window.

I ask him if he heard something. Nope, he says. He asks if the change happened out there too, in the sky, and I say I don’t know, I hope not, and I tell him how there used to be plans to go all the way out there into the never-never, and how we did in fact walk on the fat moon.

I know, dad, he says. Which kind of blows my mind.

He goes to sleep on my long hairy stomach, breathing through his mouth, while I lie on the sofa. I think about how happy he is here. Well, not really happy, maybe, but not shit miserable by any means, and I’m wondering if I’ve got the right to take him away from here for the sake of survival, if it should come to that.

Despite how far he’s come, I still can’t see how he’s got much chance of ever being a man—or a grown up gopher—whatever the fuck. Sure, I’ll always try to protect him, but I’m going to fail one day. I must face that. I will fail, and he will die of something, be it violence or sickness or accident.

Before we came here I wasn’t thinking like that. All I could think was survive, survive, day by day, but now I’m in one place and I see the seasons moving, I see time, that stops for no mouse and no runt gopher thing, and it comes into my mind that this hut would be a good place to live in until we die—even if living here means that we die here. I’m thinking of it in the light of a last stand.

This seems like my old way of thinking coming back, the way I used to think in the days before, making justifications and excuses—murky, weak thinking, pretending to put others first when actually I’m only trying to look after myself—deceitful, slimy thinking. The thoughts a bactyl would have, if it could.

That’s what the second voice is saying when I smell the cat. Fuck, you move up into the woods for a quiet retreat, and the whole social scene follows you.

Now I am clear. First light tomorrow, we’re heading down to the road.

Would have been. Long before first light, he’s got a bitch of a fever and the rain’s pouring down icy cold. Mid-morning it’s still pouring and he’s raving. He’s seeing Potatohead, bactyls, dogs, even bloody werewolves. I swear that’s what he says.

So that we’re not going anywhere, after all.

V

He’s been pretty much out of it for a week. I’ve used up half the new meds on him. Which might have been a waste, since I have no idea what kind of bug he’s got. But his fever’s coming down, and he’s stopped hallucinating. He’s pretty washed out, but he’s alert again. I’m just waiting for him to smell the cat.

I’ve been thinking about going out to look for its lair in daylight and catch it asleep. I give myself pretty good odds of avoiding volk patrols if I go alone. He’s okay enough that I could leave him here for a few hours. On the other hand, the sound of me shooting might get even stupid volk minds wondering, if they were to figure out it wasn’t one of their own kind letting off a few rounds.

Then there’s the fact that your average cat is a big animal. I killed my ex with one shot, but I still had my Dirty Harry gun back then, and it was at close range.

He was with her on the day. I was at work. Doing a drug bust, in fact. The assholes I was shooting at turned bactyl. My partner turned volk. He was still shrieking his head off about blood and soil while the bactyls absorbed his legs.

My car had vanished. Punched out in the first wave. I found another with its engine running. By the time I got to her house, she was batting the runt around the floor like a toy.

The one outside’s a tom. It sprays. For all that my kid has come so far, I’m ready for him to freak out and start bawling when he sniffs it.

That isn’t what he does.

When the moment comes—he’s sitting quietly on the floor, round about noon, practicing stripping the AK—he gives the air a good sniff. There’s a wind blowing, and the smell comes in on that. Then he gets a look like it’s Christmas and someone gave him the best present of his life.

He thinks it’s her. He says he can smell the samurai queen.

I tell him it can’t be, because it’s a tom and she’s dead.

He shakes his head like he knows better. And goes on taking apart the gun, grinning with halfwit faith.

No, not faith. It isn’t just that. I should know. I tell him a samurai can’t be having any truck with self deceit or even wishful thinking. Those things are enemies of a clear mind and therefore enemies of survival, I say sternly. You think you have enough brains to sort bullshit from fact once you get them confused? What happens if you start believing bactyls are nice or that you can eat whatever you want? But I can see he isn’t taking it in. These ideas are too much for him.

I’m getting ready to try again, and if necessary to beat some sense into him, when the sound of all hell having its teeth pulled erupts out of the wind damn near over our heads.

I don’t know how many mouths it takes to produce a scream like that. More than one.

Quite a few more.

It can only be the thing the volk want for their trophy wall. The dream. The cat smell must have masked it. And the AK’s in pieces.

Instinct makes me hit the floor and pull him down beside me. The roof shudders. I hear giant sheets flapping on a washing line.

My heart hammers like it’s got the shits and my ribcage is the door to the only toilet in the world. The kid’s gone stiff as a log, but his heart’s banging too. He feels like a bomb ticking in my arms.

And then the monster passes on, and we’re still here. The cat smell isn’t so strong, is the first thing I notice. It must have run for its life. But the shoe has fallen off the TV. He picks it up so tenderly, I guess that’s what breaks me.

One upside his head, one smack on the snout. His nose gushes blood which he catches on his fingers and wipes on his dungarees.

I’m expecting a reaction, but all he does is lick his fingers and whiskers clean. Then he fixes up the shoe and arranges everything else on the TV the way he likes it. I’ve already got the AK halfway back together. He’s picked a bit of foam out of a cushion and he’s holding that under his nose. He’s solid, like a funny little rock. He doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s got it into his head that she’s taught him not to cry. She makes him a little bit strong. Not strong enough for the real world, but enough to stand up to his mouse dad some. Or maybe just proud. Yeah, that’s it. Weak, but proud. Well, I can understand that. It’s how she was, anyway. Vain creature. Wanting someone to look after her but never wanting to be obedient or altruistic. Yeah, that’s the kind of power she’d give him if she was real.

He’s finished arranging the altar. Now he’s kneeling in front of it, whispering. It’s all about the land of samurai, everything I told him, all that bullshit. Bushido. Bullshitto. Rice farms. His mama.

Same old fucking broken kiddy record, just a different track. My fault. He adds the bit of red foam to the collection of objects up there. I’m clear now. This place isn’t really making him better. It never was. He can’t be made better. We’ll go tonight. As soon as darkness comes, I’ll go round the caches and get the tins.

#

No can do. Plans busted again. The cat’s back. I should just go out there and kill it, while there’s still a bit of light, but the dream’s still in the picture. It’s pouring again and the dream smells like garbage in the rain. I can hear volk shrieking and a couple of bursts of gunfire, but there’s only silence from the sky, so they didn’t hit it.

At least the runt’s quiet now. He’s just curled up on the sofa, kind of dozing. But when the cat smell is strong he opens his eyes.

After dark it gets a lot stronger. For the first time I actually hear its big body brushing through the trees. A creature that size can’t be silent in the woods. I think it’s after us. It must have gotten scent of us by now, and we must smell like food.

Gotta be quiet as a mouse, I tell him. Quiet as your mouse dad—got that?

He nods. I think he knows it isn’t really his mama. He’s confused between what he knows and what he wants, I guess. Maybe if he sees the damn thing he’ll get clear in his mind.

I should’ve gone out and killed that cat long ago. I want to blame this mouse brain and body for the fact that I didn’t. Maybe I’ve got mouse guts when it comes to cats.

I think a big cat could probably pull this hut apart, but whether it would bother to is another matter. Maybe it wouldn’t normally, but it’s got to be hungry, I’m thinking. With the dream hanging around, and all the noise the volk have been kicking up, its hunting must have been disturbed.

Suddenly this all reminds me of the times before. All the higher-ups making a big show. The only thing missing is that we can’t watch it on the TV. It’s probably too much to hope that they all kill each other in a daisy chain of carnage that doesn’t include us.

So here we are, two rodents, in the dark, me with the AK ready, him trembling, useless. Quiet at least. But no spunk.

I hear the wings of the dream. It’s circling. I find myself drawing imaginary circles with the muzzle of the gun, following it.

Then there comes a ruckus outside, thin trunks in the woodlot snapping. That’s the cat. At last. Maybe it just thinks now is a good time to eat us, or maybe it’s trying to hide from the dream and sees this hut as its best chance for shelter. Could be it’s even smart enough to think of driving us out so that the dream will take us instead of it.

The cat springs at us, throws its tabby paw right through the oilcloth window, so I go to shoot it, but the kid screams no, and I make the mistake of whipping my head around to look at him or yell and I see his fucked-up face, tortured in the soggy moonlight, and I can’t, I’m afraid of losing him—losing him so bad that I’ll have to kill him. So I just beat the paw with the butt of the AK, which does fuck all good, just enrages the beast.

The paw pulls out and comes right back, punching through the glass window. Does that look like your mother? I scream. Do you think that’s her?

It’s only a paw, and I only need to fire a couple of rounds into it. The cat roars and pulls its arm back outside, dragging splinters of glass and wood with it. I’m already at the other window.

It doesn’t matter that my night vision is lousy. The cat’s so big and so close that I’d have to fire backwards to miss it. With the AK on three round bursts, I empty half the clip into puss’s face and chest, hoping it will just drop, and it does. My victory, a win for Mouse Dad. There’s only one voice in my head. It says I did well, and better late than never.

I turn around, ready to deal with the runt.

But he isn’t here.

My kid isn’t here.

The door’s swinging on its hinge.

He wouldn’t look very badass on a trophy wall, but maybe he’d look funny. And I’m thinking of all the things the volk might do, just for kicks, as I run out of the house, blundering through the trees, trying stupidly to look for him when I can’t see more than ten feet in front of me in the rain.

I yell for him. Fuck it if the volk hear me. No answer. The smell of the cat’s blood is so strong that I almost can’t smell anything else. But my nose does it, in the end. My runt has pissed, and I can smell that.

I’m going for it now. I remember to yell purity slogans so the volk will think I’m other volk.

And I hear them—their voices, volk jabber, and his, snuffling and yipping. They’re over a rise ahead.

His mouse dad is going to save him. That’s how this is going to be. His mouse dad is going to save him, and he’s going to be so grateful that there won’t be any more talk about his mama, or any more prayers. He’ll see that the land of samurai is right here, in my heart, waiting for him to come and join me.

I have to be quiet now, which means being slow, and I’m grinding my teeth as I creep uphill, wet branches scraping me, a pain I hadn’t even noticed till now in my foot—it feels like a glass splinter, in the ball of my left foot, and I must have driven it in deep while I was running.

So I count the slow stabs of pain as I climb, and I don’t stumble. I reach the top of the hill and I see them in a ditch down below. Two torches, jerky movement, ugly sounds. I’m halfway down before I can see. The torches are on AKs hanging off the shoulders of the two volk. One’s holding my kid and it looks like the other’s pushing something into his face. The runt’s making choking sounds that turn my guts to water.

My brain feels like it’s stuck in a swamp of adrenaline. The need to act versus the need to act intelligently. Kill them, miss him—it’d take some fucking luck even if I wasn’t purblind. First I decide to put the AK on full auto and try to sweep through their heads. Then I undecide. What are my chances of hitting them that way? I’ve never even used full auto—waste of bullets, too much noise. For all I know the mechanism will jam.

I don’t have time to think, so I have to use the first plan that comes into my head. First I piss down my own leg so he’ll know I’m here. Then I turn my gun torch on and hold it in front of me so that I’m behind the light and shout a couple of slogans as cheery as I can.

They turn. They jabber.

And I’ve fired, and I’ve missed—missed them both.

Now there’s bullet hail all around me, chips flying off the trees, and I can’t see shit but muzzle flash.

The trees are skinny, no solid trunks to get behind. I drop to the ground and turn the fucking torch off. If my kid has any sense he’ll run. If he can.

Then one of them howls and his torch beam swings down suddenly. He’s doubled over, clutching his crotch.

My runt. His gopher teeth.

But now the other one’s going to shoot him dead, just put him down for his bravery. I hear myself holler and wail as I fire.

It isn’t just me.

The wings of the dream are like a ship’s sails booming in a storm. Immense. Romantic.

I can’t see it clearly, and for that I’m grateful. The volk hear it too, and their instincts tell them to shoot it, that’s what they have to do, they can’t think of doing anything else. I dimly see them grabbed by their heads and lifted up, up and away.

There’s more gunfire and muzzle flash in the air. Sonofabitch. The monster lets out a mighty multi-shriek, a slaughter floor mixed up with a playground at lunch time, and I’m worried the wounded thing’ll fall right on top of my kid, but the firing stops and the only sounds after that are the wings flapping away and a hairless gopher making a noise like a cat bringing up a hairball.

I don’t know if it deliberately took the volk that hunt its kind, or if it was only thanks to luck that it didn’t take my runt too. Maybe it just went for the two biggest pieces of meat.

My kid is shaking and coughing, puking up dirt. That’s what the volk was mashing into his mouth. So he still might die. Anything but pig…

I pick him up and carry him. Not to the hut. Not with the fucking dead cat there. I know these woods pretty well now. I run until I’m over two more hills, checking him every so often to make sure he’s still alive.

The ditch is full of bracken ferns. He’s stopped upchucking. I wipe his face. He’s beaten black and blue, much worse than I ever beat him. He’s in no state even to cry, so I just leave him be while I dig the glass out of my foot. That’s a whole lot of fun.

I’ve got time now to be proud as hell of him for biting the volk. I’ll tell him so later, when he’s more together. We stink for every critter in these woods to smell, so I mustn’t sleep—as if I could.

I lie on the AK to protect it from the rain.

VI

My pack’s right where I left it. We found our way back easily, by the smell of dead cat. It’s foggy and freezing. I’m not complaining about the cold—it numbs my foot.

My pack’s there, but not the hut. The tins and the turds and the feathers are lying on the ground in mud puddles. The TV and the shoe are gone along with the rest of the stuff from the hut. Even the woodlot isn’t a woodlot anymore. The trees are there, but they’re not coppiced, though a couple have broken branches, so at least in some way they’re the same ones as were there before.

I explain to him about leftovers, how some things took a while to punch out, and how the hut must just have been taking its time. He doesn’t make a fuss about it. He doesn’t even make a fuss about the cat.

He looks at me like he knows how I feel—the whole works of being relieved we made it yesterday, exhausted despite popping a couple of my faithful bennies this morning, sorry we’ve lost our home, worried about the future. What I’m worried about most of all is that now we don’t have the hut anymore, now we’re back to where we were before, he’ll change back, lose the brains and guts that last night’s episode proved he’s grown, and the sensitivity I’m seeing in him now. And that I’ll lose what I got back too. I don’t think he understands that, though. He’s only a kid. And I’m not going to mention it. He’s got enough monsters in his life without me adding namby-pamby abstract ones.

The volk have cleared out. I’m thinking they must have got what they wanted—and they have. The dream’s lying beside the road in a field of weeds a couple of miles past the kennel town, its tail snaking across the asphalt. It’s bigger than the angel. It has a lot of broad shorn-off stumps where big heads used to be, but the volk have left the little heads and the faces without heads.

It isn’t dead yet. Its faces all look pained, in a badass, I’m-not-going-to-show-this kind of way. Twenty-odd pairs of eyes are looking at us. It would be humane to kill it.

It saved us, says my kid.

Yeah, so it did.

I don’t even know how to kill it. Actually, I’m fucking scared of it and I want to get out of here.

Studying the faces, I think I can see glimmers of real intelligence in some of them. But maybe I’m wrong, since when I lift the AK and mimic firing, cocking my head to try and show that I’m asking a question, they might as well be the faces you see in clouds for all that they show they understand.

I tell the runt it’ll be a big waste of bullets, and even if I shoot every forehead, I don’t know if that’ll do the job. And it’ll be noisy.

He says, So what?

Vomit with a fart chaser. Bactyl. Coming from the hills across the field. Which means everything else around here will clear out or lie low. So I can risk making some noise.

We count the bullets off together. Twenty-two. And now at least it looks pretty dead. It, they, I don’t know.

With our whiskers shining in the morning’s frozen sun, it’s time to go further on down the road to wait for a pickup.

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