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An American Tail

A story about a redoutable rodent (it’s not Ratatouille).

Our story begins in March 2020 in one of those American cities where the rent is too high, the graduate stipends too low and the rodent problem generally formidable. We find our hero – let’s call him Jack – abandoned in his four-bedroom apartment, with a large flat’s worth of dry goods languishing in his cupboards like a ticking time bomb. ‘I remember because there was a shortage of toilet paper,’ he said, his eyes glazing over. ‘We had stashed a bunch of toilet paper in the pantry. So I open the door to the pantry, and – boom! – like 20-odd mice come speeding out!’

He could hear them in the walls and the ceilings, darting across the floors at night. ‘Every day we’d find one,’ he said. ‘In the bottom of the tub. Huddled together in your shoe.’ They were living in the open vent above the bath, fighting with a family of birds.

Something had to be done. Jack bought traps: spring traps, glue traps. The sight of these traps stirred something in his already very tender heart. Was he not like this little mouse, I imagine him thinking, shrieking forlornly, struggling in vain to free himself from a sticky situation? Jack took one mouse in, then another, then a third. But the mice failed to see their harmonious likeness with Jack: they bit his arms when he tried to clean their cage, and not satisfied with this level of violence, they soon took to attacking each other. They had to go.

But when man closes one mouse-hole, God opens another one. One night, around the time he had given up on his experiment, Jack heard a little skitter in his kitchen. ‘A tiny pup,’ he says, with real emotion in his voice, ‘the smallest one I’d ever seen.’ She had only one eye open, having scratched the other one. She was running in a little tiny circle. She hadn’t figured out that that wasn’t straight yet.’ Jack trapped her under a pot, put her in a plastic bin and fed her milk mixed with quinoa powder baby cereal while she healed and grew. Jill would fall asleep in his hand and, when she became more agile, climb all over him: in his hair, on his shirt, up his sleeves.

‘A mouse,’ Jack tells me proudly, ‘is the world’s cheapest pet.’ Jill eats a peanut and half a cracker every day. Her wheel cost him $5. Her home is a little plastic bin, filled with branches and rocks and natural objects he scavenged from the streets. For two years, it cost Jack nearly nothing to keep Jill alive, and she had lived her whole life in the house where she was presumably born. But then he got a job in England, across the Atlantic. And he wanted to take Jill with him.

To most of us, this would have immediately seemed like a non-starter. Jill wouldn’t be allowed to enter the UK unless she stayed in a quarantine kennel for four months – at which point, being two years and several months old, she would have surpassed 138 per cent of the average mouse’s lifespan.

‘But the more immediate problem,’ Jack said, with the typical disregard for law and order that I so love in my countrymen, ‘was getting her across the Atlantic.’ Not a single airline flying out of the 48 contiguous United States will allow a customer to bring a mouse in cabin or cargo. ‘They worry the mice will escape, get into the engine and chew on a wire,’ Jack said, and secretly I agreed that no mouse was worth risking plummeting into the ocean for (or Kansas, for that matter). But Jack was determined. ‘I kept searching and searching and searching, and eventually I put the right phrase into google in quotation marks. Up came Corsair’s pet policy,’ complete with an entire page about rodents. The airline wasn’t listed on any airfare aggregator. But they ran, if only during the summer months, one flight each day between Paris and Montreal.

After many involved phone calls with the Canadian Department of Agriculture, Jack determined that he had indeed found a legal route to bring Jill into the EU: all he needed was a health form signed by a Canadian vet and anti-­parasitic treatment for Jill. He convinced his parents to drive him across the border, where he could see one of the few vets willing to fill out the form for his mouse. Just in case, Jack treated Jill with a micro-dose of the Ivermectin that he had convinced his mother, a devotee of President Trump, not to ingest. When the vet found that Jill was too small to be administered the treatment her way, Trump’s alternative medicine had proven its worth. Jack and Jill were ready to fly.

Jack made it to Paris with, given his outrageous task, a minimum of incident. He held Jill in a cardboard paper towel tube as he stood, palms moistening, in the body scanner. He left and then recovered his carry-on bag from security. He watched French people stare at him, with those physiognomies so perfectly suited to expressing disgust, as he delivered droplets of water into Jill’s carrier through a straw. He maintained his cool as he lied to border control about his sightseeing plans in Paris.

Once in the city, Jack began to unfurl his plan of elaborate and petty deception. He couldn’t put Jill through a baggage x-ray – she’d be caught – and he couldn’t smuggle her through a body scanner, because it would pick her up. ‘I needed to get into England some way where they only had a metal detector.’ There was only one option: the PlusBus.

Like a low-budget spy, Jack set to disassembling important evidence: he distributed the parts of a pet carrier between his suitcases. He put Jill in a cardboard box inside of a cloth bag inside his backpack atop a bunch of his clothes. ‘My plan was, I’m going to get on the bus and, right before customs, hop into the bus bathroom, tear apart the cardboard box, throw it in the trash, then tie the bag under my armpit.’ He had bought two bus tickets so that he wouldn’t have a seatmate to be privy to his machinations. But when he boarded, he found the bus toilet locked and no pair of seats left together. Jack sat down next to the most benign-looking stranger he could find and began to plan his next steps.

He would have to do everything from his seat. While his friendly seatmate chatted away to his mother, blissfully distracted, Jack unbuttoned his shirt and slipped the bag under his armpit – at which point the bus driver announced that the passengers could leave their personal items in the bus while they went through security. As the rest of the presumably law-abiding passengers filed out of the bus, Jack furiously tried to remove the mouse bag from under his shirt. Paragons each of the great indifference and dearth of curiosity that makes the United Kingdom such a blessed isle, not a single person remarked on the flustered, frantic man dressing and undressing while huddled over his backpack.

‘So I get the luggage and I’m going through security,’ Jack explained, ‘and I look back at the bus and they’re bringing dogs on.’ Before he could even pic­ture Jill facing off with a drug-busting Doberman, Jack found himself handling a new and unforeseen problem. In his suitcase was a roll of six expensive kitchen knives (Jack is an accomplished chef, and rightfully wary of English cuisine). Trying very hard to break one law, Jack had completely forgotten about all the others. An argument ensued while the bus driver gesticulated – Jack was holding everything up. He could send the knives to himself from the post office in town, the officers told him, but then he’d have to take the next ferry, while his mouse, if she hadn’t been caught, was about to depart without him. ‘A sacrifice had to be made,’ Jack told me serenely. And here it was: $700 worth of chefs’ knives. That is how Jill crossed the English Channel and made it to UK soil.

It’s been almost half a year since Jack and Jill made their crossing. Jill is almost three years old: she’s calmer now, enjoying her life in England. ‘There are so many different kinds of crackers here,’ Jack says. Jill has nuanced her taste in cheeses, too.

When we began our conversation, Jack told me that a mouse is a ‘model organism’: ‘We know more about mice than we know about ourselves. We mapped their genome before we mapped our own. We know everything about mice.’ It is moving to hear Jack speak tenderly of Jill, with such knowing certainty. As he rattles off mouse facts, I marvel not only at how much there is to know about mice, but how much more there might be to know about people. What science could understand the mystery of Jack, the strength of heart and mind and will required to import a mouse from the United States to France, or to smuggle a mouse across the Channel into England? If there were an art that could plumb the depths of every human heart, who’s to say it wouldn’t find, at the very bottom of each, a tiny wild creature that crept sweetly in?

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