My daughter clutched something, and more than once on the drive home I caught my son whispering to her. I asked what she had. The clap of the car door echoed between the wall of the barn and the side of the farmhouse. The corners of her pinny were folded tightly to her waist and my son informed me she had been entrusted with the care of the class pets over the summer.
I queried the plural. ‘Pets?’
They came in pairs but she had four – ‘four!’ – because it was cruel to keep them on their own and the more kept together the better. At the dining table my daughter stood on a chair and settled her pinny on the surface, smoothing the corners over the oak. I’d heard about these. All the rage in the cities. But how were you supposed to care for them? What did they eat?
'There's nothing to it,' my son explained as I took down the old mouse cage from the top shelf in the pantry. They would practically look after themselves. I washed away the dust and scrubbed at the corners of the plastic base.
In a shivering group on the table stood four tiny, pink people. They couldn’t talk and never would, my daughter explained. They had the brains and instincts of rodents but bodies of men and women. Two were male and two female, all naked and clutching each other. I set the cage on the table and one of the men stood forward as if he might oppose imprisonment. He was no taller than three inches but muscular with a beard and tiny dot of pubic hair. We settled them with cotton wool to sleep on and a bottle capful of water.
Later, after my son had fed them droplets of gravy and leftovers from the chopping board and my husband had looked into the cage and grunted, I read in my daughter’s homework diary a note from her teacher: Thank you for agreeing to take the class pets over the summer. Your daughter has been most enthusiastic in rearing them in the classroom and I can think of no better candidate to host them over the holiday. Please be aware the lifespan isn’t always very long – sometimes just one or two weeks. It’s something in the genes. They’re releasing a new version in time for Christmas which is supposed to last longer and I was thinking the school might invest. I can’t take much more of the tears.
The next day I reprimanded my daughter. She smiled at me knowingly. The school would be locked and empty for the next six weeks and I could do nothing except take solace in the fact that in two weeks the little people would probably all be dead. As children do, mine became acclimatised to having their pets at home. The brook at the end of the garden called and the little people lost their novelty. I had never much been interested in the mice when I was young, I remembered.
I thought it curious the day the people in the cage stretched the cotton wool and pulled it over their bodies. Their makeshift clothes were not perfect. I supplied them with more cotton wool and a small terracotta house from an old fish tank. By the end of the first week one of the women had a swollen stomach and I wasn’t surprised when I woke on the Friday to find the four of them cooing over a newborn.
‘Don’t you think there’s something strange though,’ I said to my husband, ‘they’re supposed to be as docile as rodents, but they’ve made him blankets.’ My husband seemed unconcerned. Days passed and other babies came as the tribe developed.
One night we were woken by the smell of smoke and I found the little people cowering against the bars of the cage, the small house ablaze, filled as it was with wood chippings and cocktail sticks and other things my husband had said I should not give them. A cup of water quashed the flames, but shock governed the tribe and I sensed blame had been attributed. The tribe split into two, the dividing line marked by a scar where the plastic bubbled in the fire.
When I went to the pet shop in the village to buy an additional cage I asked the woman behind the counter what could be done. ‘They’re just so angry with each other, since the fire’ I explained. She just looked at me uneasily.
I gave one tribe the new cage and set it in the corner in the living room, leaving the other on the kitchen table. When I returned to the kitchen I found the little people scrabbling at the swollen plastic with their hands, trying to dig, the dead body of an old man – one of the originals – laid out with his hands on his chest.
When my grandfather had kept the mice he maintained a small graveyard below the kitchen window. He didn’t have funerals but did have headstones – un-cracked flints poking out of the soil. Some were still there, I noticed, having taken the cage out into the moonlight. I let the little people watch as I made the first new plot in many years. I marked the spot with a flat stone, although the little people were distracted, looking out over the garden. They stayed at the bars all the way back to the kitchen.
The next morning they had escaped, leaving behind the body of
another of the originals – one of the women. My husband caught a couple of escapees lurking under the hat stand and returned them to the cage, but they only escaped – or were broken free – again. I expressed my concern about the speed of the little people’s development. In just two weeks several generations had come and gone. Each time one of the elderly died they were left out, hands on chest, and we would add them to the mouse graveyard. It did not surprise me that the first thing they built was a church. They constructed it beside the fireplace out of charred wood with stained glass windows of melted sugar.
At this time the children were scheduled to go away to summer camp for two weeks. We said goodbye, and as my husband drove them off in the four-by-four, and I boiled the kettle, I could hear scuttling. A scavenging party. Behind the teabags stood a row of three young men, shoulders pushed back to the hardboard. I ignored them. Better not to knock their pride.
The mouse graveyard began to grow of its own accord: they buried their own dead and reproduced at a rapid rate. Fires were a problem. The church burnt down more than once. I began leaving the lights on at night to try to reduce their need for flame.
All this time the cage in the corner of the living room had been lagging behind, its little population stabilised at about twenty. This changed one day when, as I often had, I took the cage outside so they could witness the burial of one of their dead. The cage’s inhabitants were attentive and stood at the bars to pay their respects. They still wore stretched out cotton wool, whilst the escapees had developed more complex fashions using scavenged thread and fluff. Some of the escapees came to see what was going on in the graveyard and I felt their gaze as I lifted the cage back inside.
That night saw the launch of a rescue mission. The descendants of the kitchen table tribe broke free the descendants of their enemies. Then the trouble really started. There was something different about the people from the living room cage. They walked with their heads bowed and did not stray far despite their freedom. Physically they were different: their noses flatter, foreheads more pronounced and skin closer to opaque.
Time flew. The little people scavenged everything. When I went to vacuum the children’s playroom I found whole strips of floorboard missing, harvested for industry. Towns sprung up. Our plumbing had been intersected with pipes forged from melted down god-knows-what. The first war was mild; they only had spears and catapults then. Strange religious rituals came into vogue, although my husband seemed oblivious, even the morning he found the cadaver of a young man bound and gagged in the sugar canister. By this point the graveyard had a wall and a gatehouse, and spread deep into the shadow of the farmhouse.
The wars tended to be between the two lineages: those that had dwelt on the kitchen table – well, they all had once – and those whose antecedents had lived in the cage in the living room.
The population of the garden became more raggedy, harder skinned and leaner, whether they were of living room or kitchen table heritage. The architecture became more ornate. They went through a phase of building castles, then shopping centres. I suspected they had melted down my husband’s old tools; he was misplacing things more than usual. They tore through the house like termites, stripping plaster from the walls.
Things began to crumble, and very little furniture remained when the children returned. Their bedroom was not safe. A city floated on the beams and smoke hovered on the ceiling. Although fires were still a problem, in some principalities a fire service would deal with them before I could get water.
‘Where are we to sleep?’ my children asked.
The city in their bedroom had not been wired up, and this made its relocation easier. The grid of electricity pylons downstairs kept tripping my husband and he would get shocks or else would spike himself and bleed onto the streets. I sent him to the builders’ merchant for more floorboards, determined to retake the upstairs.
I tried speaking as I lifted each house, explaining that my babies needed to sleep, that they had always been there, long before the city. This is when I first got to thinking about godliness.
Within an afternoon the bedroom city was outside and my husband had put down enough new floorboards for the children to be able to navigate their room. We salvaged what was left of their raggedy mattresses and blankets. It was enough.
It was only one day later that my daughter came to me from the garden, choking on the air.
‘We only wanted to play, we were only playing.’
My son was shrouded in smoke: they had made a pyre of him. His little fingers were curled into his palm and he lay on his back on a scabbed bit of ground. The left side of his body was dark with fluids and dirt. I dragged him away from the minefield before swinging him onto my shoulder. The planes hurt when they hit and bullets stuck like splinters. Pylons were torn up as I skipped across the yard. My daughter complained of electric shocks but my son had been more badly damaged.
Being so far from the city, and any hospital, I was used to patching up the children myself, but the way his fleshy shoulder was scorched and open like that was disconcerting even for a farmer’s wife. All the same, the squeeze of the white gauze seemed to hold him together. I worried for the scar.
We stayed in one bed that night, the four of us listening to battles rage through the garden and into the house. Islands of plaster slid down the walls and our home smelt like a building site. The garden glowed with flame and I thought back to the first fire: their cowed little faces as they clung to the bars.
In the morning, my son was yellow from the shoulder to the chest, his eyes bloodshot and slow to follow movement. My husband gave his verdict: ‘We’re not having this.’
It was hard to kill the first. Hard to smash and pulp them. But if they screamed it was on a different frequency to our own pragmatic voices. It was as if their pale bodies had no bones, when you squelched them. We took the house in hours. The mouse graveyard was as good a place as any and they all ended up there, although the grave was a single pit and their blurred, watery bodies mulched into one. The builders’ merchant did a good trade that summer in bricks and plaster and beams and boards to get our house back to what it had been.
I am surprised, even now, that not one seemed to survive. I’ve noticed not a single scavenging party, no missing sugar, not one mysterious fire. The scar on my son’s shoulder curls onto his chin in a grey whisper and flints still stand upright in the mouse graveyard. I think on the little people sometimes, looking down from the kitchen window, suds on my hands, or looking up beyond the garden, at the great big ceiling of the sky.
This short story first appeared in print in Popshot magazine, accompanied by the illustration below by Phil Couzens.