There was havoc in the paddock, the plough turning the earth, upending safe havens for myriad creatures, hovering, quarrelling birds looting the spoils.
The boy running behind the plough was oblivious to the life laid to waste until he stumbled over a clod and spied a field mouse too dazed to elude capture. He pounced, imprisoning the tiny creature in the scoop of his hands before resuming his pursuit of the tractor and plough, unwittingly abandoning her nest of babies to the merciless crows.
The boy grew older and bolder. The field mouse was long gone, fed to his pet python. The snake had stalked the hapless creature before lashing out like a whip to grab the quivering head, its shining body coiling and squeezing until she stopped squeaking. The boy had watched her engulfment with morbid fascination. Only when her pink tail disappeared did he lose interest.
When war was declared the boy enlisted. It was an opportunity for adventure, an escape from the isolation of the farm and the hard labour expected of him. His mother’s tears and pleas, and his ailing father’s harsh warnings were to no avail. He was their only son and he felt stifled.
The boy’s parents were right. War was no adventure. He survived, but the man he became never knew peace. In nightmares he scuttled along trenches or crawled through tunnels as they caved in, crushed and demolished by the enemy’s enormous tanks. He was not killed by the onslaughts, unlike his comrades. Instead he was captured, held as a prisoner-of-war, sometimes in cages, sometimes tethered to trees or marched through the jungle in chains, but mostly confined in a small concrete bunker underground. Tortured, interrogated, starved, perpetually thirsty, incarcerated in filthy conditions in solitary confinement, he remembered the field mouse – recalling how often he’d forgotten to feed her, failed to replenish the water in her water bowl, neglected to change the evil-smelling straw and torn up newspapers lining the bottom of the small, inadequate cage in which he’d confined her, with nothing to divert her from her solitude and misery. Now she was woven into the fabric of his dreams.
After nearly five years in captivity, he was released in a prisoner exchange. Back home he was soon discharged. He did not contact former army comrades, or return to the farm to visit his parents.
His only link with the army was the Department of Veterans’ Affairs where he was receiving treatment for PTSD. One day the psychiatrist suggested, ‘I recommend you get a pet, a companion – a dog, a cat, a bird, even a mouse. Other vets have done so, and they’ve reported that it has been very helpful.’
The psychiatrist was disconcerted by his client’s reaction. ‘A mouse?’ the man exclaimed, then laughed and cried hysterically.
One day she came in through the cat-door carrying something in her mouth. She approached him and laid the object at his feet like a gift. It was a field mouse.
For a moment he froze. Then he picked the field mouse up and inspected it as it lay in the palm of his hand. It was not dead. She had not pierced it with her sharp teeth or mangled it with her equally sharp claws. But it was in shock. The cat jumped up onto the man’s knee and inspected her gift, clearly pleased. As he stroked her with his free hand she responded, arching her back and purring.
He took care of the field mouse, providing it with shelter, a small hollow log, the opening too small to accommodate the playful cat’s curious paws and claws. He also provided the field mouse with suitable food and clean water. If it wanted to escape it was free to do so – there was room under the kitchen door for it to flee. The cat showed no interest in harming the field mouse. Instead, they played together. If the play got too rough, the field mouse jumped onto the cat’s back.
Man, cat and field mouse were content.
The man reported to the psychiatrist that his nightmares had stopped.