Randolf looked over at his twelve siblings, they were all spitting images of Randolf- wee ash grey mice squatting comfortably like furry little pom-poms. All twenty-four of their shiny black bead eyes were wide with raptness, Randolf joined them in their gaze towards the elderly, somewhat scruffy mouse with one torn ear and a kink in his tail.
Grandfather mouse continued when he had all thirteen children’s attention in full, he savored the dramatic pause, the flickering of the fire in the glowing hearth added dramatic shadows to the burrow walls.
He said, “Yes, the summer of 2020. Like you little ones, I too, had had twelve siblings. We lived in a hollowed-out log that was part of the Johnson’s cabin. They started out as just a couple, the cabin their vacation home. They came in the winter to do maintenance on the place, and at least once in the fall. Sometimes they spent whole summers, sometimes just the weekends in the spring. The human female was Rosie, her husband was Frank---"
Serafina said, “How did you find enough food to eat?”
Grandfather said, “Since they did not live there year-round, my siblings and I were taught to value every crumb dropped, and every cake left unattended. We stored enough during the visits to last us when the pantry contained only cans.”
There was a collective ‘grrrr’ amongst the wee mice. Cans were mean.
“The couple had a baby. And we feasted on a flood of tasty droppings. The pantry was stocked with cereals and jars small enough to be pushed from shelves.”
“Watch out for glass slivers!” Exclaimed Randolf.
“That’s right Randy, you’ve learned well… ummmm, where was I?”
“You were about to get to the part about the stinky man.” Said Serafina.
Randolf added, “Yeah, the mean, rotten, crazy one!”
There was a neighbor, through the woods, about an acre away. He lived in the woods all year round. The neighbor was a slob and a hoarder, his yard full of trash bags and Amazon boxes. The man smelled of pee and stink and crazy. The place would have been great for foraging except there were millions of rats, big mean ones.”
The rapt grandchildren mice inhaled as one. Rats were mean bullies, and cannibalistic. The mice shivered.
“The stinky man got a dog to catch the rats. A young, big black lab. The man starved the dog so it would be hungry enough to eat the rats. It grew thinner and thinner, tied to a rope outside, never inside was it allowed. It did indeed grow so hungry that it had to catch and eat rats---”
Millicent squeaked, “Grampa, I thought dogs were mans best friend. To be spoiled and cared for and loved…”
“Yes, sweetheart, but you see, the stinky man was not right in the head. That poor pup deserved so much better. I started going over there daily. Not to forage, there were still too many rats guarding the loot, but to check on the dog. He had bald patches where fleas had wreaked havoc, his eyes oozed with infection, and his dull coat was like plastic wrap over pointy, knobby bones.”
Randolf’s sisters wiped their eyes.
“One day, the poor dog could barely lift its head. He’d given up waiting for a kind word or a loving hand. His depression roiled off his emaciated body in sickly waves.
I had to do something.
I crept through the littered weeds as quietly as I could, to the dog. He looked up at me, but I wasn’t afraid. After all the abuse, I saw kindness, still, in his glazed over, sad eyes.”
“What did you do Grampa?” asked William.
“What any decent creature would. I chewed the rope. It was thick, but it was rotting too, from being outside and all. When the dog was free, I led him away from the fetid yard. He followed me to Frank and Rosie’s cabin. The couple were appalled at the poor pup’s condition.
Frank had said, ‘How could anyone do this?’
Rosie had sobbed and said, ‘It’s that man. That crazy one next door.’
Frank had said, ‘This must be the dog we heard barking last month.’
‘The poor thing is starving! And sick. Oh Frank, look at his poor eyes!’
Frank, Rosie, and the baby, named Josephine, took the dog to the town’s vet.
The next day some men went to the stinky man’s house and took him away. The dog was brought back to the cabin. My word! He did not even look like the same pathetic creature from just two days earlier! His coat was shiny, silky black and his wonderful kind eyes clear. He had steak for supper that night and even given a name. Jagger, named after some rock star, I believe.”
Sherry said, “The Rolling Stones! That’s the band Rosie listens to when she’s baking those yummy peanut butter cookies.”
All the wee mice went “Mmmmmmmmmm.”
Grandfather Mouse continued, “All was good. Everyone in the cabin was happy and healthy.
Then, in the middle of summer, Frank built a barn. A great big thing. You see, the couple were talking of moving into the cabin full time. Rosie was offered a teaching job at the elementary school, and Frank was going to restore old classic cars. He’d continue writing in his spare time.
The barn was rough wood boards, sturdy, and well insulated from the humidity and wet winter weather. It was his workshop, four cars at a time would fit under its high, vaulted roof. There were windows high under the eaves, to let in sunshine.
All was well, the change in plans was a win-win for all, including us mice. Tasty droppings all year round. And dog kibble…not as good as chocolate cake, but nutritious.”
“Ew, I don’t like dog kibble.” Randolf said and made a face.
“Well kiddo, you’d eat it if you were very hungry.”
William said, “I like the liver treats the best!”
“As do I” Grandfather mouse said, “Shall I go on?”
All thirteen grandchildren mice squealed, “Oh yes! Please!”
“Okay…so all was well and good. Then the barn owls came.”
Eight of the grandchildren mice cried, “No!” The other five gasped.
“Oh yes. Huge pale birds with razor sharp talons and wicked curved beaks. They swooped out of thin air like silent ghosts. They were evil, evil things. Sooo fast they were, by the time you saw them coming it was too late. There were two of them. They’re eyes were huge and rimmed with fire, nothing escaped their searching, keen, eyeballs. The eyes of devils.
Early in the day, my mother and father went out to the yard. They never came back. Later we got thirsty, our parents weren’t coming home, ever. So, eight of my brothers and I fetched some fresh puddle water from the dripping garden hose. I happened to look behind us and saw a shadow gliding over the yard, coming our way. I said, ‘RUN!’ And us nine raced as fast as we could. Not fast enough. Four brothers were snatched from the right of me, the other four at the same time from my left. The owl’s banshee screeching nearly shattered my eardrums.
When I made it to safety, into the drainpipe against the cabin, I looked up into the sky. It was just getting dark; the two killers were pale fliers like airplanes in the purpling light. I heard my siblings’ death shrieks, high pitched and full of terror. Each soaring killer had two wriggling mice in each wicked claw, Desmond and Dewey were pierced through their bellies but still screaming. The nasty claws were dripping with my family’s blood. The owls were laughing as they flew into the barn. It had been madness we now call the ‘Season of Slaughter.’ Only my sister Sophie and I were left of our big happy family.
“Grandfather, we won’t be able to sleep now.” Said Randolf.
Grandfather Mouse said, “Go have your Granny Sophie make you some warm milk.”
High in the rafters, in the nest of twigs and grass and soft green moss, an old barn owl with cataracts in his eyes and sparse tailfeathers sat on dry, cracked feet. They’d once been a healthy supple yellow, but with age had turned brown. His head nodded down to his chest as his large golden eyes slid closed.
“Grampa, Grampa! Wake up! You have to finish the story!” Cried a fluffball baby owl the color of cappuccino and milk.
“Yes, yes Caplan…I’m awake, just resting my tired ole eyes. Where was I?”
“Just getting to the Feast of August!” cried wee Caplan, his heart shaped face eager for the climax of the story. His eyes glittered with youth and joy.
“Ah yes yes, the feast. Let me see…well, your parents had just been born, they were our only owlet kids. They were voracious. Always had their beaks open the minute we came in through the window or big barn doors.”
Caplan looked down at the big double doors, nearly the entire front wall disappeared when they were both open. They had to be big, all those old cars had to fit through them. The human male, Frank, did not park under the nest. Simon felt badly for him but when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Grampa Owl continued, “The day started out fine indeed. We caught two of those stupid little mice, they live in the wall in the cabin and come outside to fetch water. They are dumb, but very fast---”
“Yes yes, mighty tasty, always been a favorite of mine. Anyways, we snatched up two of them. They were older mice, a little tougher than the young ones, must have been the parents. We figured that was it for the day. Then lo and behold, nine in the yard! Fetching water. I suppose they’d gotten so thirsty when their parents didn’t bring any home that morning.”
Caplan nodded vigorously, his mouth was watering, his shiny eyes glowing luminescent amber.
“Yes yes, so, there they were. Down by the garden hose, drinking from the puddle under it. Your grandma and I were quiet as kites, soaring in the twilight sky. We flew into the stars where the mice couldn’t see us, but we could see them. Oh yes yes, those were the days. We could see for miles around---”
“And even tiny mice far on the ground below…”
“Yes yes, our famously great eyesight runs in the family. So, there they were just lollygagging about…when suddenly, the one in the middle looks up and behind him. He spotted us and screamed. Then they ran for the cabin as fast as they could. They nearly got away, but I tucked in my wings like a bomber plane, and dove. Your Granma Elsa did the same. We were dropping to the earth at a million miles an hour!
Just atop those plump little mice, we spread our wings and soared back up…each with two mice in each claw.
“Wow. That’s so cool. Eleven in one day. Eight at one time is legendary!”
Frank’s honey colored workbench top was warm and polished by years of hand rubbed care and cleaning with an oily wood polish. It was scarred and chipped and smelled of the citrusy solution. A row of six red metal toolboxes lined the wall behind the bench. There were mugs and a collection of vintage steins holding paintbrushes and drafting pencils and small office tools.
‘If the old mouse was smart, he would be eating his snack on the bench. He’d be too fast for me up there, at finding a hidey hole.’ Thought the barn owl as it landed clumsily on the smooth cement floor. ‘Ouch. Not as spry as I used to be.’
The old barn owl hobbled over to where the old mouse sat, nibbling a tiny crumb from Frank’s lunchtime sandwich. It was yellow with mustard and smelled of ham.
The mouse looked up and said, “I heard you telling your grandkid about the Season of Slaughter---”
“Ha ha, you mean the ‘Feast of August’.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll eat you now?”
“You won’t get the chance.”
The old owl was crumply with age, his bones creaky with arthritis. But he still believed mice were stupid. He lunged towards the old, nearly white mouse. The mouse was as old as the owl but had always been faster on the ground, he scootched backwards in a blur as the huge black dog caught the owl in his frosty colored jaws.
High in the rafters, a young barn owl screeched in distress.