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The Book of Mice

Home. The only place he has ever known.

By Erin LeonardPublished 2 years ago Updated 23 days ago 20 min read
Runner-Up in Return of the Night Owl Challenge
The Multnomah stone sculpture of Owl head. Era: Pre-contact. Oregon Historical Society

In the Book of Mice, all days on the island farm were good days as recorded by Hector, except for three: the day his mama went into the hospital to never come back, the day Papa was crushed under a tractor, and the day Tom had to leave to go to live with his daughter in Denver.

Hector knows a fourth day is coming soon. He can see it. Sees that silver SUV of hers turning onto the gravel road toward the main house, going slow because she is inside looking at cover-crop fields, but seeing big blocky houses on five-acre tracts.

“Got no place to go,” Hector practices out loud to himself, “you’ll need to go get the sheriff.”

At the kitchen counter, Hector wraps No. 78, as he has wrapped the last seven years of the Book of Mice finished volumes, in brown paper and addresses it to: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Attn: Dale Carter ONLY!

Hector sets the journal on the kitchen counter and goes to the hall closet to put his clean Levi jacket and his nicer cowboy hat on. To himself in the mirror that hangs on the inside of the door he says, “Hello Mr., I mean Dale. I hope you don’t mind that I came in person to drop off the journal. I was hoping you could find it in your heart—”

Hector shakes his head no. That is not how he should talk to a man. Tom told him how to ask.

“Use my name," Tom had said, “just say, Tom Metcalf said I should come by the ODFW office. Straight away, remind them you’re autistic. Then in plain language, let them know that you are about to lose the only home you have ever known. Tell them I had to sell the farm because of the cancer. Tell them, that lady developer wanting to buy the place is going to tear down all the outbuildings. Plead with them. There has got to be some goddamn place in the refuge where you could move your single-wide to considering all the knowledge you shared with them. And don’t forget to bring up the business you have selling the pellets and little creature skeletons. Schoolchildren need you to live here! May God have mercy on my soul for doing this to you.”

“Been nothing but good to me,” Hector says to himself in the mirror.

Hector walks into the barn and stops before Tom’s beloved tractor. A Cockshutt 1555 Row-crop. Most of it still green as the day it was new. Few rust spots here and there. He never asked which part of the tractor did his father die under. No point. Papa loved that tractor too.

Funny, not ha-ha funny, but the other word meaning Hector thought, how Tom knew how to say the right things that Hector could see a way to accepting each death of his parents. Words were problematic for Hector, but never if those words were coming from Tom’s mouth.

Hector was a grown ass man, and he knew he didn’t need to tell Tom anything about his decision not to go to church anymore. “They need to take that man down from the cross,” Hector told Tom, “I didn’t commit any sins. Christ did not die for me. Sin is killing my mother. Sin is killing my father!”

Tom stood on Hector’s stoop, ready to go, dressed like people use to for Sunday mass. “Well then, mind if I come in for a minute?” Tom asked.

“Always welcome here,” Hector said opening the door.

Tom took off his hat and came in. Walked to the middle of the trailer and turned to Hector.

“Not going to argue on the hurt your heart feels inside. Did your papa ever tell you what your mother asked God out loud when the doctors were trying to save her and the baby’s life?” Tom asked.

Hector shook his head, no.

“’God, take me instead.’ That’s what she said.” Tom looked down to the ground. “Fierce woman and good mother. Whatever it took to protect.”

Hector looked out the front window to the tree line. Saw an eagle in flight with a duck held in its talons.

“What happened with your Papa, you blame me, not God,” Tom said, “should have bought a ROI for that thing a long time ago. Your papa was a good hard-working man. Loved him like a brother. That makes you forever family. Got nothing to worry about, son. You always will have a home here. I promise."

Words turn to dust to sweep up, then toss to the wind.

Hector looks up to the nest boxes he knew would be empty. He scans the rafters and the loft. He senses being watched by the hidden owls.

“Don’t want you worrying about me or what’s happening in Denver,” Tom told him when he was telling Hector goodbye, “Tracy’s going to take good care of me while I’m in treatment. Might be like a party almost having all those grandkids around, see? You just stay put here and tend to growing your business, Hector. It’s unique like you. And when I’m in Denver I’m going to get my son-in-law to help find us the best web whatchamacallit to get it so you can have your own pellet selling business on the internet. Science and the natural world aren’t going away no matter what those numbskulls say.”

Hector walks toward the area under the loft and scans available pellets. Owls eating looks regular, he thinks, and that’s a good thing. He walks over to his worktable and picks up the box of aluminum foil and cuts some same sized sheets. He puts on some rubber gloves and starts picking up pellets and stacking them layer upon aluminum layer, like making a cake. And bake this pellet cake he will for forty minutes at 325 degrees to sterilize the pellets before shipping them off to his employer at Hector sees a couple of fresh-looking ones. He grabs a specimen bag from the shelf and using tongs hanging nearby, drops them in the bag to bring with him to ODFW office.

Hector stops short of setting the specimen bag on top of wrapped No. 78. Maybe not a good one to deliver to Mr. Carter. This volume was full of rage. Of animals dying. Many times, when recording a passage if Hector closed his eyes, he witnessed fires burning.

Tom called all the volumes Hector keeps, the Rosetta Stone Diaries. “Fella or gal, if anyone wants or needs to understand what goes through that head of yours,” Tom said, “all they got to do is sit down and read one of these Rosetta Stone books of yours. It’s all there looking right back at a person who gives a damn to see.”

Hector freezes when he sees No. 79 had been moved. Hector is certain as Hector always is, how and where, he places the wide-rule composition book after he records each owl pellet he dissects. Once he has written down each indigestible body part: hair, teeth, bone, and feather. He puts the pen under the butter dish lid that long ago separated from its saucer and the book in a silicon gallon-size bag. The book’s front cover is always set face-side down and placed on the upper-left corner of the barn’s table under the loft. The rest of the barn he leaves for the owls and whatever else wanders in, except people. “No Trespassing” is clearly posted on all sides of the falling down barn.

No. 79 is face up and square in the middle of the table. Did that no-good developer woman come in here looking for more to destroy of his life? Wasn’t forcing him to leave with no place to go, enough for her?

Hector walks over, takes the book out of the silicon bag, and opens it up.

Bones give clue to the who of the hair or the feather.

Most times, each pellet is one meal of a rodent or small bird. Sometimes, Hector will find evidence of two animals in one pellet. It is here where the years of collecting, dissecting, and recording of each pellet, as Hector has, is why he can differentiate the hair of a rat from the hair of a mouse, no matter how tight the owl’s gizzard has compressed the animals together.

With each pellet Hector finds, he acknowledges the long hours the owl must wait before it can hunt and eat again, as new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet in the making is coughed up and out, by writing a line of truth.

Mice feed the world.

Hector closes the book and returns it to its proper place. What does it matter if she has read the book? This volume will be about leaving to whoever comes to find it.

Tomorrow is the first day of Spring. He expects he will have to leave by summer’s end. He will mail No. 78 to Mr. Carter. Hector walks back to his trailer and wants to be asleep before the sun sets.

The first pellet Hector found when he was angry and kicking any stone he could find in his path. Mrs. Argus, his third-grade teacher had asked him to tell the rest of the class what his favorite holiday was. Hector did not have a favorite holiday and did not want to say anything ever to anyone in the class, including Mrs. Argus. Mrs. Argus came over to his desk, bent over too close to his face and said, “I bet your favorite holiday is Christmas, is that right?”

Hector didn’t want Mrs. Argus looking so close at him. Didn’t want her telling him what he wasn’t thinking. To stop her, he screamed like the monster he saw in his head screaming too.

Mrs. Argus sent him to the office. Hector sat in a chair staring at a pencil on the floor under another chair until his mama came and picked him up.

When they got home to their house on the farm, his mama said, “Hector, they won’t let us stay in this school if you keep acting this way. Try my beautiful boy to be like the other kids. Just watch what they do. How they talk. Now go and play until I call you for dinner.”

Hector stopped kicking when he saw the pellet. It was oval and grey. When he bent down to look closer, he knew it was poop. Maybe coyote. He wished to be a coyote on the island. Coyotes spoke to one another in a different language that people can’t talk in. Plus, no one he ever heard talk about coyotes, liked them. This made him like coyotes even more.

The poop rock looked dried up. He glanced a few inches over on the ground and saw another poop rock up by a wooden fence post, but this one looked dark and wet. Then he saw another. He picked up the dried one and held it in the palm of his hand. He could see a little bone sticking through. Hector pinched the pellet with his other hand and, in the crumpled pile in his palm, was a small skull and many more tiny bones. Hector put all he held into his pocket.

That night his papa came into his room to kiss him goodnight. Hector hid the shoebox holding the bones underneath his blanket, but his papa right away saw it and asked, “what you got there son?” Hector showed him the box with the bones. His papa shuffled the bones around with a finger and said, “looks like mouse. What are you going to do with them?”

The answer to this question took over a month and many pellet finds later for Hector. When Mrs. Avery asked the class who was entering the science fair, Hector raised his hand. Mrs. Avery looked surprised when she saw Hector’s handheld straight up in the air. “Why Hector, that’s wonderful. Do you know what your project is?” Hector nodded his head but said nothing. Mrs. Avery waited. Hector felt pressure in his chest. He breathed a long breath in and closed his eyes. In the exhale he forced the words, “need a book with no writing on the white pages,” out of his mouth. Mrs. Avery now looked shocked, and when she became herself, she walked to the art supply closet, took a new composition book from the shelf, and gave it to Hector. This would become The Book of Mice, Volume One.

This first book never made it into the science fair. Mrs. Argus talked him out of it. Suggested instead that he glue the found bones on poster board and write a few paragraphs about how owls hunt and how many stomachs they have. “Some pellets could also be part of the display,” Mrs. Argus said, “but these stories…why they remind me of “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” by Beatrix Potter. Have you ever read that book, Hector?” When Hector shook his head, no, she said, “Well, it’s fiction. Meaning made-up stories and make-believe can’t get along with truth, such as science. Does that make sense?” Hector nodded his head, even though it did not make sense. Those stories told the truth of what it was like to be him. Hector, the mouse.

Papa had asked Hector if it would be okay if Mama took the first book with her to heaven because she loved the book so very much. On the day of her burial mass, Hector held his papa’s hand tight as they stood with the priest to meet the pallbearers bringing the casket into the church. When the priest said, “eternal rest grant to her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her,” Hector felt comfort seeing what only he could see inside, Mama holding the Book of Mice to her chest.

A coyote howls for the pack to return hours before sunrise and the song wakes Hector. He rises, dresses, and walks to a cottonwood tree where a mated pair sometimes perch before roosting. Barn owls form pair bonds for life, and these two roost in the barn. Hector waits and listens for the call. Chuuuureeeeech. He turns towards the sound, closes his eyes, feels with his heart, the bird returning home in silent flight to the other waiting nearby.

Hector would return with a mouse in his beak as a gift for his mate. Papa often gave his mama gifts. Hector thinks he would be good man like that too if he were to ever meet someone who might want to know who he is everyday living like he does on the farm.

A barn owl will eat approximately eleven thousand mice in its lifetime, saving approximately thirteen tons of crops.

Hector walks into the refuge as the sun rises. He lays down on his back on the earthen dike and watches the flocks of ducks and geese take to the air to begin their day of foraging. The Sandhill cranes never left this year for warmer wintering grounds, and he sees a small group fly over sounding their echoing talk that sounds like singing while gargling to him.

The developer woman’s face comes to him in one of the pink clouds above. Same puffed-up cheeks and swollen looking lips.

“I see at least five gentleman farm estates along just this river, what’s the name again?”

“The Willamette,” he had answered, “but do you see the eagles nest right in front of you? One just flew in. Think they are already sitting on eggs.”

The woman looked in the direction of where Hector was looking.

“Right.” She said, “So, how long have you lived here?”

“All my life,” Hector answered.

“Right.” The fancy woman looked at him, Hector thought, like he was a crippled duck, defenseless for what was to come once it got dark.

“Mr. Hernandez, rest assured that after closing, we will give you plenty of notice of when you must vacate your outbuilding. At least sixty days.”

Hector looked to the river. “Know what I see when I look over there?”

“What,” the lady asked.

“I see cedar longhouses, large enough to house fifty people,” Hector answered.

Fancy woman laughed. “Wrong zoning.”

Hector looked directly at the woman. “Year round, this island was home to two thousand Chinook. During harvest time, that number would be five-fold.”

“So now we are talking about fish, are we,” she said.

A joke or a question, he couldn’t tell by her facial expression. “People. For ten thousand years, people lived here until smallpox, then malaria so bad most died. Bodies everywhere. Hudson Bay Company was across the river across the river at Fort Vancouver. Men came and burned bodies and longhouses. The few surviving Chinook fled. I see fires burning when I hear your talk of plans for the future.”

“Right,” the woman said, “maybe time for you to buy a lottery ticket? The deal’s not done yet. I’ll check back in the next couple of weeks.”

A mouse heart beats six hundred and thirty-two times a minute.

Hector walking at the pace he walks now, has the heartrate of ninety-one. He doesn’t know what the resting heartrate of barn owls is.

Hector understands mice. Understand that their size does has something to do with how many beats per minute like hummingbirds do compared to owls, but so does fear. Mice smell fear in other mice. When Hector woke this morning, his heart banged in his chest.

Before Hector enters the barn, he waits outside the entrance and listens. No breeze moving inside those the open spaces. He looks past the pasture with the burn pile to the cottonwood trees to gauge wind.

Go inside, he commands himself, keep moving to what you have to do.

Hector opens wide both barn doors. He walks to the structural post with notch that keeps the key, takes the key, and stands before the tractor to take a good long look at her.

This morning, the tightening in his chest returned with the feeling of not being able to swallow when he looked out his trailer window. He saw someone walking and dressed just like Tom towards the barn. Had to be Tom. Nobody else has that long-legged gait that looks like they been walking on saturated ground all their life. The man stopped and faced Hector’s trailer. Hector held his breath. The man waved. “He’s gone,” Hector said to himself, unable to swallow, unable to stand, he fell to his knees.

He wills himself to move and goes over and pick up No. 79. He takes the notebook out of the bag, goes to the tractor, and hoists himself up on the seat. Hector sticks the key in the switch and turns it. The old girl roars to life right way. Hector puts her in gear and chugs along out of the barn and onto the pasture to the burn pile of brush.

Good day to burn. No wind. The ground is plenty wet.

Once at the brush pile, Hector sets the hand brake and leaves the motor running. The composition book falls to the grass. He picks it up and without looking at it, breaks the book’s spine and crushes pages into wads as he walks to the brush pile.

He brings to mind the day that Tom brought the tractor home. Big party to christen the tractor, Tilly. Mama made tamales for everybody. Must have been over twenty workers back then. Papa was so happy, dancing, drinking beer, toasting to Mr. Metcalf, to Boss, who just told him he was keeping him on year-round for as long as Papa and Mama wanted to work with him. “We’ll build this business together,” Papa said Tom had told him.

And it was the truth.

Now, Hector stands here all alone.

Hector takes the lighter out of his pocket. He bends down to the space in the kindling at the bottom of the dried wood pile and lights the pages of the book on fire. He waits until he cannot hold the burning book any longer.

At any moment, you may be eaten. You must be wary and always on the move until you are safely back in the nest. Always something is looking to eat you. The hunted understand the want they serve--the hunger that permeates the world.

He tosses the fireball into the waiting space and stands up.

The fire quickly catches onto the wood.

The sound of tires moving on gravel gets Hector’s attention. He sees an ODFW pickup coming his way. Legal day to burn. Could be using the lane as access for getting to a hunt station. Hector returns to the tractor and climbs aboard.

He considers turning the motor off. To wait until the truck passes by and the flames, higher. His heart pounds in his chest. To wait is a mistake. Hector pops off the break and stomps on the gas pedal. The tractor roars forward, head-on into the fire.

Hector hears screaming. A truck horn blaring. He calmly jumps off of the tractor and turns toward the truck.

Dale Carter is already out and running toward him. Dale is yelling something that Hector can’t hear. Hector hears party goers singing as Tom plays his guitar. His parents laughing as he turns his attention back to the fire. To the explosion when the flames reach the gas tank.

“What in the hell are you thinking?” Dale says when he reaches Hector.

“Of better days,” Hector answers and points to white shapes moving through sky. “Smoke must have spooked them.”

Dale watches the owls head toward the tree line. “Hector, Tracy called me-”

“Already know,” Hector interrupts. “Tom’s gone.”

Dale puts his hands on his hips. “Never made it to Denver. Decided to take a walk in the desert instead. Found his body the day before last. I’m so sorry, Hector.”

Hector looks back to the burning tractor and nods.

“Should have a phone living out here alone, Hector.”

“No need. No one to talk to,” Hector answers.

“Well, Tracy wanted to let you know before knowing this, that they had talked about this beautiful place and what was the right thing to do.”

Hector nods again, “he’s giving it back, I bet. I know him.”

“Well, depends on what you mean by back—”

“To the ones who still live here,” Hector answers.

“Tom, with Tracy’s blessing, deeded most of the farm over to the state. All will be added to the wildlife refuge, yes. But the acreage where the house and outbuildings sit goes to you.”

Hector shakes his head. “All of it should go. I don’t need it.”

Dale cocks his head, hands still on his hips, and looks directly at Hector. “Suspect that is up to you and a conversation with an attorney with what you want to happen when you pass on. For now, I have to tell you to put out that toxic fire. What’s gotten into you?”

“Memories,” Hector says, “fires burning in my head, seeing no place to go.”

“You weren’t planning on staying with that tractor if I hadn’t pulled up, were you?” Dale asks.

Hector looks back at the fire. The blacken frame of the tractor.

“Wanted to find a new home but couldn’t do it. Too afraid,” Hector answers. “Just because mice feed the world doesn’t mean they are willing to accept the suffering they must endure to benefit others.”

Dale takes a long look in the barn’s direction. “Know what Hector, I don’t need to be back in the office until late afternoon. How about I give you hand with this fire?”

“Will you help me bury it?” Hector asks.

“Bury what?”

“The tractor. I think Tom would like that.”

Dale looks reluctant but nods his head anyway. “Let’s get on it. The day is a-wasting.”

A-wasting. Hector commits the word to memory as they walk back to the barn. Hector points out to the owls moving back up the tree line in the barn’s direction. “Missing their beauty sleep,” he says, which reminds Hector. He wants to show Dale his recent spectacular find—a bat found in a pellet the size of a fig.

Short Story

About the Creator

Erin Leonard

As a writer, I enjoy writing short stories, screenplays, and poems.

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