I was on the front porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was strange. On an average day a total of fifteen cars might pass the house, but no one ever stops, not unless they live here. And this was late, three o’ clock in the morning. The couple across the street are asleep by nine, and from what i can tell, the people next door turn in an hour or so later. There are no streetlamps in our village in Normandy, so when it’s dark, it’s really dark. And when it’s quiet, you can hear everything.
“Did i tell you about the burglar who got stuck in the chimney?” That was the big story last summer. One time it happened in the village at the bottom of the hill, the pretty one bisected by a river, and another time it took place fifteen miles in the opposite direction. I heard the story from four people, and each time it happened in a different place.
“So this burglar,” people said. “He tried the doors and windows and when those wouldn’t open, he climbed up onto the roof.”
It was always a summer house, a cottage owned by English people whose names no one seemed to remember. The couple left in early September and returned ten months later to find a shoe in their fireplace. “Is this yours?” the wife asked her husband.
The two of them had just arrived. There were beds to made and closets to air out, so between one thing and another the shoe was forgotten. It was early June, chilly, and as night fell, the husband decided to light a fire.
At this point in the story the tellers were beside themselves, their eyes aglow, as if reflecting the light of a campfire. “Do you honestly expect me to believe this?” I’d say. “I mean, really.”
At the beginning of the summer the local paper devoted three columns to a Camembert-eating contest. Competitors were pictured, hands behind their backs, their faces buried in soft, sticky cheese. This on the front page. In an area so hard up for news, i think a death for starvation might command the headlines for, oh, about six years.
“But wait,” I’m told. “There’s more.”
As the room filled with smoke, the husband stuck a broom up the chimney. Something was blocking the flue, and he poked at it again and again, disdloging the now skeletal burglar, who fell feetfirst into the flames.
There was always a pause here, a break between the story and the practical questions that would destroy it. “So who was this burglar?” I’d ask. “Did they identify his body?”
He was a Gipsy, a drifter, and, on two occasions, an Arab. No one remembered exactly where he was from. “But it’s true,” they said. “You can ask everyone,” by which they meant the neighbor who had told them, or the person they themselves had told five minutes earlier.
I never believed that a burlar starved to death in a chimney. I don’t believe that his skeleton dropped onto the hearth. But i do believe in spooks, especially when Hugh is away and i’m left alone in the country. During the war our house was occupied by Nazis. The former owner died in the bedroom, as did the owner before her, but it’s not their ghosts that i worry about. It’s silly, I know, but what frightens me is the possibility of zombies, former townspeople wandering about in puscovered nightgowns. There’s a church graveyard a quarte of a mile away, and were its residents to lurch out the gate and take a left, ours would be the third house they would stumbled upon. Lying in bed with all the lights on, I drawed up contingency plans on the off chance they might come a-callin’. The attic seems a wise hideout, but I’d have to secure the door, which would take time, time you don’t have when zombies are steadily working their way through your windows.
I used to lie awake for hours, but now, if Hugh’s gone for the night, I’ll just stay up and keep myself busy: writing letters, cleaning the oven, replacing missing buttons. I won’t put in a lot of laundry, because the machine is too loud and would drown out other, more significant noises - namely, the shuffling footsteps of the living dead.
On this particular night, the night the van pulled up, I was in what serves as the combination kitchen/living room, trying to piece together a complex model of the Visible Man. The body was clear plastic, a shell for the organs, which ranged in color from bright red to a dull, liverish purple. We’d bought it as a birthday gift for a thirteen-year-old boy, the son of a friend, who pronounced it null, meaning “worthless, unacceptable.” The summer before, he’d wanted to be a doctor, but over the next few months he seemed to have changed his mind, deciding instead that he might like to design shoes. I suggested that he at least keep the feet, but when he turned up his nose we gave hime twenty euros and decided to keep the model for ourselves. I had just separeted the digestive system when I heard a familiar noise coming from overhead, and dropped half the colon onto the floor.
There’s a walnut tree in the side yard, and every year Hugh collects the fruit and lays it on the attic floor to dry. Shortly thereafter, the mice come in. I don’t know how they climb the stairs, but they do, and the first thing on their list is to take Hugh’s walnuts. They’re much too big to be carried by mouth, so instead they roll them across the floor, pushing them toward the nests they build in the tight spaces between the walls and the eaves. Once there, they discover that the walnuts won’t fit, and while i find this to be comic, Hugh thinks differently and sets the attic with traps I normally spring before the mice can get to them. Were they rats, it would be different, but a couple of mice? “Come on,” I say. “What could be cuter?”
Sometimes, when the rolling gets on my nerves, I’ll turno on the attic light and make like I’m coming up the stairs. This quiets them for a while, but on this night the trick didn’t work. The noise kept up but sounded like something being dragged rather than rolled. A shingle? A heavy piece of toast? Again I turned on the attic light, and when the noise continued I went upstairs and found a mouse caught in one of the traps Hugh had set. The steel bar had come down on his back, and he was pushing himself in a tight circle, not in a death throe, but with a spirit of determination, an effort to work within this new set of boundaries. “I can live with this,” he seemed to be saying. “Really. Just give me a chance.”
I couldn’t leave him that way, so I scooted the trapped mouse into a cardboard box and carried him down onto the front porch. The fresh air, I figured, would do him some god, and once released, he could run down the stairs and into the yard, free from the house that now held such bitter memories. I should have lifted the bar with my fingers, but instead, worried that he might try to bite me, I held the trap down with my foot and attempted to pry it open with the end of a metal ruler. Which was stupid. No sooner had the bar been raised than it snapped back, this time on the mouse’s neck. My next three attempts were equally punishing, and when finally frred, he staggered onto the doormat, every imaginable bone broken in at least four different places. Anyone could see that he was not going to get any better. Not even a vet could have fixed this mouse, and so, to put him out of his misery, I decided to drown him.
The first step, and for me the most difficult, was going into the cellar to get the bucket. This involved leaving the well-lit porch, walking around to the side of the house, and entering what is surely the bleakest and most terrifying hole in all of Europe. Low ceiling, stone walls, a dirty floor stamped with paw prints. I never go in without announcing myself. “Hyaa!” I yell. “Hyaa. Hyaa!” It’s the sound my father makes when entering his toolshed, the cry of cowboys as they round up dogies, and it suggests a certain degree of authority. Snakes, bats, weasels - it’s time to head up and move on out. When retrieving the bucket, I carried a flashlight in each hand, holding them low, like pistols. Then I kicked in the door - “Hyaa! Hyaa!” - grabbed what I was looking for, and ran. I was back on the porch in less than a minute, but it took much longer for my hands to stop shaking.
The problem with drowning an animal - even a crippled one - is that it does not want to cooperate. This mouse had nothing going for him, and yet he struggled, using what, I don’t really know. I tried to hold him down with a broom handle but it wasn’t the right tool for the job and he kept breaking free and heading back to the surface. A creature that determined, you want to let it have its way, but this was for the best, whether he realized it or not. I’d just managed to pin his tail to the bottom of the bucket when this van drove up and stopped in front of the house. I say “van,” but it was more like a miniature bus, with windows and three rows of seats. The headlights were on high, and the road before them appeared blcak and perfect.
After a moment or two the driver’s window rolled down, and a man stuck his head into the pool of light spilling from the porch. “Bonsoir,” he called. He said it the way a man in a lifeboat might yell, “Ahoy!” to a passing ship, giving the impression that he was very happy to see me. As he opened the door, a light came on and I could see five people seated behind him, two men and three women, each looking at me with the same expression of relief. All were adults, perhaps in their sixties or early seventies, and all of them had white hair.
The driver referred to a small book he had in his hand. Then he looked back at me and attempted to recite what he had just read. It was French, but just barely, pronounced pnonetically, with no understanding of where the accents lay.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
The man clapped his hands and turned around in his seat. “He speaks English!” The news was greeted with a great deal of excitement and then translated for one of the women, who apparently did not understand the significance. Meanwhile, my mouse had popped back to the surface and was using his good hand to claw at the sides of the bucket.
“We are looking for a particular place,” the driver said. “A house we are renting with friends.” He spoke loudly and with a slight accent. Dutch, I thought, or maybe Scandinavian.
I asked what town the house was in, and he said that it was not in a town, just a willage.
“A willage,” he repeated.
Either he had a speech impediment or the letter v did not exist in his native language. Whatever the case, I wanted him to say it again.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But i coldn’t quite hear you.”
“A willage,” he said. “Some friends have rented a house in a little willage and we can’t seem to find it. We were supposed to be there hours ago, but now we are quite lost. Do you know the area?”
I said that I did, but drew a blank when he called out the name. There are countless small villages in our part of Normandy, clusters of stone buildings hidden by forests or knotted at the end of unpaved roads. Hugn might have known the place the man was looking for, but because I don’t drive, I tend not to pay too much attention. “I have a map,” the man said. “Do you think you could perhaps look at it?”
He stepped from the van and I sawthat he was wearing a white naylon tracksuit, the pants puffy and gathered tight at the ankles. You’d expect to find sneakers attached to such an outfit, but instead he wore a pair of black loafers. The front gate was open, and as he made his way up the stairs, I remembered what it was that I’s been doing, and I thought of how strange it might look. It occurred to me to meet the man halfway, but by this time he had already reached the landing and was offering his hand in a gesture of friendship. We shook, and on hearing the faint, lapping noise, he squinted down into the bucket. “Oh,” he said. “I see that you have a little swimming mouse.” His tone did not invite explanation, and so I offered none. “My wife and I have a dog, “ he continued. “But we did not bring it with us. Too much trouble.”
I nodded and he held out his map, a Xerox of a Xerox marked with arrows and annotated in a language I did not recognize. “I think ?’ve got something better in the house,” I said, and at my invitation, he followed me inside.
An unexpected and unknown visitor allows you to see a familiar place as if for the very first time. I’m thinking of the meter reader rooting through the kitchen at eight a.m., the jehovah’s Witmess suddenly standing in your living room. “Here,” they seem to say. “Use my eyes. The focus is much keener.” I had always thought of our main room as cheerful, but walking through the door, I saw that I was mistaken. It wasn’t dirty or messy, but like being awake when all decent people are fast asleep, there was something slightly suspicious about it. I looked at the Visible Man spread out on the table. The pieces lay in the shadow of a large taxidermied chicken that seemed to be regarding them, determining which organ might be the most appetizing. The table itself was pleasent to look at - oak and hand hewn - but the chairs sorrounding it were mismatched and in various state of disrepair. On the back of one hung a towel marked with the emblem of the Los Angeles County Coroner’d Office. It had been a gift, not bought personally, but still it was there, leading the eye to an adjacent daybed, upon which laid two copie of a sordid truecrime magazine I purportedly buy to help me with my French. The cover of the latest issue pictured a young Begian woman, a camper beaten to death with a cinder block. IS THERE A SERIAL KILLER IN YOUR REGION? the headline asked. The second copy was opened to the crossword puzzle I’d attempted earlier in the evening. One of the clues translated to “female sex organ,” and in the spage provided I had written the word for vagina. It was the first time I had ever answered a French crossword puzzle question, and in celebration I had marked the margins with bright exclamation points.
There seemed to be a theme developing, and everything I saw appeared to substantiate it: the almanac of guns and firearms suddenly prominent on the bookshelf, the meat cleaver lying for no apparent reason upon a photograph of our neighbor’s grandchild.
“It’s more of a summer home,” I said and the man nodded. He was looking now at the fireplace, which was slightly taller than he was. I tend to see only the solid stone hearth and high oak mantel, but he was examining the meat hooks hanging from the clotted balck interior.
“Every other house we passed was dark,” he said. “We’ve been driving I think for hours, just looking for someone who was awake. We saw your lights, the open door...” His words were familiar from innumerable horror movies, the wayward soul announcing himself to the count, the mad scientist, the werewolf, moments before the changes.
“I hate to bother you, really.”
“Oh, it’s no bother, I was just drowning a mouse. Come in, please.”
“So,” the man said, “you say you have a map.”
I had several, and pulled the most detailed from a drawen containing, among other things, a short length of rope and a novelty pen resembling a dismembered finger. Where does all this stuff come from? I asked myself. There’s a low cabinet beside the table, and pushing aside the delicate skull of a baby monkey, I spread the map upon the surface, identifying the road outside our house and then the village the man was lloking for. It wasn’t more the ten miles away. The route was fairly simple, but still I offered him the map, knowing he would feel better if he could refer to it on the road.
“Oh no,” he said, “I couldn’t,” but I insisted, and watched from the porch as he carred it down the stairs and into the idling van. “If you have any problems, you know where I live,” I said. “You and your friends can spend the night here if you like. Really, I mean iy. I have plenty of beds.” The man in the tracksuit waved good-bye, and then he drove down the hill, disappearing behind the neighbor’s pitched roof.
The mouse that had fought so hard against my broom handle had lost his second wind and was floating, lifeless now, on the surface of the water. I thought to emptying the bucket into the field behind the house, but without the van, its headlights, and the comforting sound of the engine, the area beyond the porch seemed too menacing. The inside of the house suddenly seemed just as bad, and so I stood there, looking out of what i’d now think of as my willage. When the sun came up I would bury my dead and feel the empty bucket with hydrangeas, a bit of life and color, so perfect for the table. So pleasing to the eye.
© David Sedaris - Dress your family in Courderoy and Denim
Little, Brown & Company, 2004
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