“Is there really a mouse?” she asked tremulously.
Gerga nodded distractedly. He was looking for food in the refrigerator. The boy was always looking for food; it was as if they could not feed him enough. He swept by her to the table without looking.
“Popo, relax. Dadi will deal with it when he gets home.”
“You saw it?” she pressed.
“It ran across the floor and under the fridge.” Gerga picked up his plate and went upstairs. When he left she was still gripping the note that said láo shǔ in big, awkward characters. They hadn’t had mice here before, ever. How could there be mice in the house now? In Zhōngúo mice were everywhere, fat and detestable, but until this morning she was not even sure if mice existed in this country. The workmen had been around last week. It must have been the workmen, she thought, leaving the doors open for who-knows-how-long and hauling dirt across the floor. The mice had gotten in because of the workmen.
For the rest of the day, she could not stop thinking about the mouse. Every few minutes she would nervously eye the dark slit under the refrigerator for any sign of movement. But after clearing the last of the dishes, starting the rice cooker, putting the laundry in the washer, wiping the floor, putting the washed laundry in the dryer, taking out meat for dinner, folding the laundry that had dried, washing and chopping the vegetables, wiping the floor again, and now, pacing across the living room waiting for Mimi, she finally admitted to herself there had been no sign of a mouse anywhere. She walked back to her house feeling more exhausted than usual. That night she could not sleep for fear of nightmares about mice; when sleep came, she slept like a rock.
It was a week before Dadi could deal with the problem. One, there were no mousetraps at home since they had never had mice before. Two, the nearest hardware store didn’t sell live capture traps, and because Popo was squeamish at the sight of blood, and Gerga thought it would be inhumane to snap the thing’s back… And then Dadi was busier than usual several nights in a row, and couldn’t get to the store with the proper traps. In that time, the mouse managed to sample the contents of two bags of rice—white, and brown—a slightly withered apple, juice from a juice box Mimi forgot on the counter, and even gnawed open a pouch of dehydrated hot chocolate with a picture of a mouse on the front. Dadi used the rest of the pouch for bait. “It clearly likes it,” he remarked, pointing at the picture.
The next day Dadi checked the cage, and let the mouse out on the driveway. When Popo heard the news she made a huge fuss of relief, but she still continued to glance down at the refrigerator now and then. Life carried on as usual—Mimi came home from school, Gerga raided the fridge.
Three days later, the note saying láo shǔ was back on the table.
“There’s a mouse again.” This time, it was Gerga who started the conversation.
Popo froze, one hand in the sink. “What, again? How?”
“Don’t know.” He kept on chewing for a while. “The workmen were in on Friday for the cabinets.”
That night the cage was back in action; the flat metal box set on the counter, armed with a little processed cheese this time. The next day Dadi checked the cage, and let the mouse out on the driveway. The workmen were in again, cutting tile for the bathrooms. “Keep the doors shut!” Popo yelled at them as she walked up to the house. They smiled and waved back at her. “We’ve had mice in the house,” she declared to no one, “and Dadi had to buy a trap and catch it. And it came back! Ugh, mice…”
It was quiet for a day or two, and then Gerga came down one morning—late as always—and said,
This was simply too much. She couldn’t concentrate on the chores anymore; her heart had never been strong, and with the mouse constantly somewhere around Popo felt like she was going to have a heart attack. She complained to Dadi about the unreasonableness of the mouse, about the unsanitary nature of his kitchen, about the better life they had promised her in this place that came to be buried in tragedy—a place that even bred all the pests of the land she had left behind—and so he set the trap again. The next day he checked the cage, and let the mouse out on the driveway.
The workmen had finished with the flooring, but just two days later Dadi was having breakfast when he saw a small furry ball squeeze through the floor vent and disappear into the duct below. “How is it getting in?” Dadi wondered out loud. If there was a mouse-sized hole somewhere in the walls or the floor, that could mean serious trouble. They had better inspect the exterior thoroughly, he thought as he set the trap on his way to work.
The next morning found Gerga and Mimi standing around the cage, peering inside. “Look at all the fur,” Gerga said. Mimi saw Dadi coming downstairs and grinned. “Can we call him Mao?” she asked. He nodded distractedly and took the trap out. “There’s a hole in the house somewhere,” he explained. “That’s how the mouse is getting in.”
After leaving the office early, he spent the entire afternoon combing the exterior of the house for any trace of an entrance, without luck. Perhaps it’s only visible inside, he thought, in the basement somewhere.
Like a morning ritual, they were again gathered around the trap, peering inside. “Is it even the same one?” Popo asked mistrustingly. Dadi squinted hard into the cage. “Not sure…“
“Maybe there’s a family of them,” Gerga smirked.
“Of course he’s the same one!” Mimi exclaimed, jumping with impatience. “He comes back every day to see us.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Dadi gave up on trying to determine the identity of his prisoner and headed to the car. “I’ll drive him over to the park and let him out there.”
“But you can’t do that Dadi,” Mimi whined. “Mao won’t be able to find his way back.”
It was not until June before Dadi finally admitted he was facing the impossible. He had thoroughly inspected every corner of the basement again, and even checked the space between the joists for any hint of a mouse-way. “How the mouse gets in is an absolute mystery,” he remarked at the dinner table.
“I think it gets in through the front door, just like the rest of us,” Gerga said, chewing a mouthful of food.
“Well, it waits until we’re at the door and follows us in. Like a pet.”
When Popo came next week, she was less than happy to hear this news. Before, she would open the door and wait to let Mimi in after school, but now, she no longer dared to go near it. For what if she opened the door and the mouse was sitting there, staring at her with its beady black eyes?
2012 May 8