The place inside myself that wishes to remain sequestered from the world resents my niece's tentative knock at the door of the room where I sleep. She is five years old, small for her age, fresh from the loss of her father. She finds, I think, in my own unremitting sadness, a safe place to rest the burden that her bravery has become. Her eyes, too big for her tiny face, are aquamarine, her sparse lashes, clotted with tears. Her hair, all over her head in every direction, is unpredictable, cottony, the color of a fox's coat.
In her little fist that I first unfurled only moments after she was born, she is holding something pale, pink, nebulous and unformed, unfinished and frail. It is only a bit bigger than my thumbnail. It is naked and still and chilly to the touch. It is a baby of sorts, a baby something. Yes, I am pretty certain it is or once was, a living thing and not an inanimate object. I take it gently from her, already irritated by the faint stirrings of obligation I don't want to acknowledge. I scrutinize it with squinted eyes, looking for signs of breathing. I put my finger to my lips as we lean our heads close over my hand, listening, her sweet breath on my cheek. There is a minute bubble of blood rising along what I believe must be a nose. My niece almost never speaks; her extreme shyness creates a need for a kind of sign language we share between us. I look at her, my shoulders shrugging, asking a question silently. She mouths the word 'meow'. I nod. This is the work of the cat.
Before I realize what I'm doing, I tuck the creature into my bra to keep it warm and we move together so closely that she wears my shadow across her shoulders as we gather supplies: tepid water in a cup, a spoon of sugar, an eyedropper, a shoebox, a bottle of alcohol, a wad of cotton, a heating pad. We wash the critter clean and with more care, I can't help thinking, than even its own mother, whatever she was. I don't know yet what it is either, but nudging its back legs apart I can already see that it's a he. This makes me smile for some reason I cannot explain but I grow sober wondering if it will turn out to be a mouse. Rather than a mole or a vole or a shrew. And though I would never tell my niece this, I know for sure there are those who would simply drop this lump of flesh in the trash, in the toilet or toss it outside in the grass.
For the next several days this creature, with its eyes sealed in slits and its ears closed in tight buds, opens its infinitesimal mouth whenever I walk up to its box. This is faith at its most primitive and profound and I find myself honored in a way that has no words. My hand curls instinctively into a soft shell when I hold him, his body bends to mold itself into the folds of my fingers. His moist mouth works hard on the edge of the eyedropper, so rigid compared to the plush, succulent nipple his mother must have offered him. When he is done, his tiny tongue licks milk from his silky whiskers that seem to be growing oh so much faster than the rest of him. I wonder if he dreams of her. Or of me.
More days pass and he grows hair, dark glistening grey, but his nose and his lengthening tail and the pads of his small feet remain impossibly pink for now. And as soft as chamois. Still blind, he begins in earnest to bathe himself after each meal, in long meticulous sessions. His ears will bloom before his eyes open, uncoiling from the sides of his head in translucent petals. His cut has healed but he remains helpless in these hours that he is indeed becoming a bona fide rodent, a deer mouse. I show my niece his mug shot in the mammal identification book.
We set the alarm clock for every two hours, sitting to feed him in the dark by starlight, humming lullabies, her head on my arm, and by day taking him to school and store, afraid to leave him alone. As he grows we give him grapes and nuts and cheerios and make a bed for him from a toilet paper roll that before long he begins to carry around in his terrarium at night. He enjoys rolling the little red jack ball back and forth and climbs the broken piece of branch we put in one corner and stashes food in her baby shoe where he likes to hide. Sometimes I awaken to find my dog and the mouse each pressing a nose up against their own side of the glass, admiring each other under the radiance of the moon through the skylight.
I know now that the time is near.
I pick an afternoon when my niece is in kindergarten. I put the mouse in a carton, drive to the park in my sister's car. I search the woods for what seems like forever, for just that perfect spot. Thinking that if the neighbors knew, they would surely say I was aiding and abetting the enemy. There are crows overhead and their raspy chorus sends shivers down the nerves of my neck and shoulders as if I am the potential prey and not this creature I am setting free. I open the lid. He crawls up my finger. I hold him for one brief moment, seeing my refection in the polished gloss of his beautiful eyes. And then he is gone, leaping down easily into the tangle of autumn leaf litter and dried vine, his calling to the Earth greater than his bond with my heart. I begin to walk, not looking back or overhead, wondering what I should tell my niece about this goodbye and realizing truly, for the first time in my life, how much a mousetrap can be just another kind of prejudice, how much of true love lies in understanding.