Clang! Clang! goes the town bell and all the mice in the field run to the square, tripping over their own tails in their hurry. Men jump out of the way, cursing, and women lift their skirts in terror. One boy aims his air rifle and shoots the eye out of one mouse. Cats snarl and rage through the flood, until they are overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The bell does not stop clanging. Horses go wild. Doors of houses bang shut and alarmed heads poke from windows. All this time I am lying in my hammock suspended between two trees. It has been a pleasant, clear day, with the wind blowing in the smell of the mountains and pines, the cold snow. I was dreaming of a distant land where I had once played Mah Jong with three naked girls. It is a pleasant memory, but even though the rats interrupt it, I am not annoyed. I am used to interruptions of all kinds. I merely turn over on my belly and watch the mice run beneath me.
“Hello!” my wife shouts from a window in our house.
I lift my eyebrows.
She points. “Mice,” she says.
“Millions of them,” she adds.
I nod again.
“Where are they going?” she asks.
I point to the square, and this time she nods, thoughtfully.
My wife has long smooth arms and unblemished legs. I mention this because her face is ugly, and were it not for those arms and long legs I would never have married her.
Even so, I have not always been satisfied with her. I make her wear short skirts, and the smallest, flimsiest of blouses, so I can see as much of her legs and arms and breasts—for her breasts are nice too, long and pointed—as decency will allow. When we go out she wears a dark veil. Her hair grows long and she combs it over her face. But I am constantly repelled by the face which, even if I cannot see it, I know is there. At times I have considered suicide—her suicide—but there are difficulties involved which offend my naturally languid state. Divorce is impossible in this superstitious country. I do not have enough money to leave, my wife’s salary is the only thing that supports us. Most of that is spent on food and clothes—her special skirts and blouses are expensive and hand-tailored, she needs high heeled shoes to see off her long legs, and silk stockings, since that is the civilized manner, and extra large brassieres which are difficult to acquire in this part of the world. All in all my life is not as pleasant as it could be. Even lying here in my hammock has its disadvantages. When my wife is out working, I have no one to fan me if it is hot. I am afraid I am growing plump and soft. I have always been proud of my hard, strong body, bursting with youth, but now I must gaze at myself with some distaste. Not enough, to be sure, to make me take exercises; but enough to dull what pleasures I have. My neighbors frown at me. They do not like to see a man sleeping and resting, even though his life—my life—has been hard, and if any man deserves peace and quiet it is I—and I resent not being able to get up and poke them in the nose. They are stronger than I. They get up early, and work until late. They are dumb brutes, of course. I do not talk to them. I merely wish I could make them feel their physical as well as mental inferiority by poking them in the nose. And, to make matters worse, there is no one in this town I can talk to. Every other place I have been, there has been at least one person of intelligence, with whom I could talk, play chess, and bask in the sense of erudition. My wife plays chess, but not very well, and I beat her too easily. I often give her an advantage—take my queen off the board, for example. But even so it is no challenge. It is no longer any fun.
“Hello!” my wife calls again.
I inquire with my eyebrows.
“Theyre still coming?”
I look down at the swarm of rats, and nod. My wife shakes her head.
“What's the world coming to,” she sighs.
“The A-bomb,” I say.
“The A-bomb,” I repeat.
“Oh,” she says.
“Have you finished cleaning the house?”
“Well, hurry up,” I say. “I want to come in soon.”
She withdraws her head from the window.
No, I am not a complaining sort of person, but I think I can safely say that life has not given me all I deserve. I am a generous and thoughtful man, I have worked hard all my life, I am intelligent and talented—an excellent piano player, for example, though now we have no piano and I am probably a bit rusty. I miss the bright lights and excitement of more civilized countries. This little valley between two mountains is worse than a country town. We are isolated, cut off from the world. What newspapers I get are weeks late. Mail services are sporadic. Static interferes with the radio. The only music I hear are the tin can bangings of my neighbors, and the drunken howls of their voices.
The mice are still coming, and the panic of my neighbors amuses me. They have boarded up their windows and stand on the roofs of their houses. Some of them are throwing stones, bricks from the chimneys, whatever odds and ends they can get hold of. It is useless, of course, the usual blind fear and rage of the ignorant. From the town I can hear shouts and screams. It is useless to do anything. Like any other plague it will abate, and die. I will continue to lie here, as an example to them of civilized behavior. I have with me two volumes from Toynbee’s works, which I am reading for the fifth time, and occasionally I turn a page. I admire his lucid, clean phrasing. Toynbee is a man I would like to meet myself, and discuss with him the higher affairs of man's life. He is probably a good chess player, and would give me a good battle. It is pleasant to think of that. Check, he would say, and I would move my knight and says, No, my friend—check-mate! I can picture his face falling. My wife would be in the kitchen, preparing snacks. If I could see her face it would be beaming with pride. But that face destroys things. If her father hadnt been rich and so obnoxious the marriage would never have happened. Her father is a clod. It is amazing to me how he ever acquired his holdings. Ignorance, I suppose, is a blessing in business life. I know I could never pursue money with his single mindedness. There are other, more important things to life. One must have peace and quiet, to develop one's mind. I do not like to struggle for my due.
The door to my house opens, and my wife appears on a pair of stilts. It is a ludicrous sight. Her short skirt is blowing up about her hips, and her long legs are naked, her feet bare. I can see already that she has forgotten to put on her brassiere. I have warned her about that. She must always be dressed, she has a civilized man for a husband. She comes forward unsteadily on those ridiculous stilts, carefully balancing a tray with a glass on it. At least she has not forgotten the tray.
“My, look at these mice!” she exclaims.
“Where can they all be coming from?”
“Where do you think?”
She merely smiles—I can see her lips. But the wind disorders her hair, and I catch glimpses also of her face.
“Here is a little refreshment.”
Stilts wobbling, mice running below, she hands the tray towards me, and I retrieve the glass. I sniff at it. “Enough gin?” I ask. “I measured it very carefully,” she says. “All right,” I say, “that is enough. And for God’s sake put your brassiere on. You think I am a savage?” The stilts start trembling. Her long breasts jiggle. “Will you be coming in soon?” she asks. I nod impatiently. “It will be dark in an hour,” she says. “Back to the house,” I say. “Get dressed.”
It is enough to make one angry. I have tutored her, given her the benefit of my experience and education, and still she refuses to learn. At times she irritates me so much I feel like shouting, or pounding her thick skull with my fists. I must admit I would enjoy that, letting myself go, demonstrating to her the true depths of her ignorance, the extent of my contempt. So far I have avoided that. I do not approve of displays of that kind, even in the privacy of one’s house. Nevertheless it might become necessary. Sometimes she even approaches impudence. It would be a lesson to her. I hold myself up as a pinnacle of behavior towards which she should aspire, but if she fails I should punish her. I would like to do the same for my neighbors, and for everyone else in this little village. They are all savages. They cannot control their emotions. They rage, they rant, they laugh and play. I see them clapping their hands and laughing. They smile and frown, instead of keeping their faces neutral. I can see them now, burly figures, with their frightened wives, standing on their roofs, shouting and stamping. They have no effect whatsoever on the gray wave of mice. It is typical, this useless expenditure of energy. However things are quieter in the town now. Some of my neighbors are giving up and going down into their houses. The only steady sound is the rustle of the mice as they scurry along the ground. They are amusing, these little animals. They are held in terror by these superstitious people, and yet they are tiny, one has nothing to fear from their teeth, and if one lives a clean and wholesome life there is no danger of infection. That their sudden flight, today, here, is inexplicable is of no importance. It is no cause for alarum, for screaming and carrying on. One must view these things with civilized detachment.
“Hey!” I shout at my house. I do not like to use my wife’s name. “Hey! Wake up, you idiot!”
It seems strange that when I first met her, I felt rather fond of her unskilled ways. I was, perhaps, too lenient, too ready to forgive. It is a case of virtue becoming a fault, of strength becoming a weakness. I have had to be strict with her lately, and will have to be stricter yet. In the end she will thank me. Is she sleeping now? No, there is the light coming on, another cursed thing, a kerosene pressure lantern. She opens the door and stands there, holding the lantern. She still hasnt put on her brassiere, I can see that from the light. At least she has put on her high heeled shoes, and stockings. I have told her after dark to dress up; a thousand times I have told her we are civilized, even here, and we must pay attention to little things.
“Hey!” I shout again. “What do you think youre doing? Bring those stilts here!”
The mice seem to have increased after the sun went down. There are thousands of them below me, the earth is packed with them, every square inch covered with their gray fur. They make little chirping noises, and their claws scrabble in the dirt. I must admit they are a distasteful sight.
“Are you bringing those stilts?” I yell.
Is she deaf? She brings a hand up, perhaps to cup behind her ear. No! What is she doing? She brushes the hair from her face!
“You fool!” I cry. “You know I cant stand the sight of your hideous face! Bring me those stilts!”
The mice are gnawing at my two trees. Her face reminds me of the face of a mouse, a sharp, pointed thing. Where is she going? She is going back inside! Is she getting the stilts? “Where are you going? You fool! Do you think I’m going to walk over these rats? Idiot!” The door has shut. I am wasting my breath. She is not coming back. I do not think I am surprised. Perhaps she harbors a grudge against me. My neighbors are still awake, I will rouse them, surly brutes, but they will be useful to me now.
“Help!” I shout.
“Help! Mice! Hideous, ugly, monster mice! Help!”
NOTES: I wrote this story, in a rather flippant mood, after I'd returned to the United States from my first, three and a half year, journey around the world. I seldom write amusing stories. Why this one appeared remains a pleasant mystery.