“Whether it was that this undulating tester rolled the savage away to far distant scenes, I know not; but he now spoke of his native island; and, eager to hear his history, I begged him to go on and tell it. He gladly complied. Though at the time I but ill comprehended not a few of his words, yet subsequent disclosures, when I had become more familiar with his broken phraseology, now enable me to present the whole story such as it may prove in the mere skeleton I give.”
My mother has been in the sun for weeks, and it has turned her skin nut brown; she has been taking care of my children, and that has made her tired at the end of the day. One recent evening, after I put the boys to bed, I went into her bedroom to say goodnight and found her lying under her covers, only her neck and head exposed, her brown head resting in the center of her white pillowcase, deep creases radiating outward. Her eyes were closed and she was clearly as good as half asleep. Still, as I stood over her, we began to talk about mice.
There is a mouse in the backyard of my new house. I know almost exactly where it lives. When I first saw it, I thought I would have to kill it, that is to say to have it killed. Then, after sitting at the kitchen table and watching it run around and gather things from the grass, I found that it was cuter than I thought a mouse would be, and became attached to it. It became harder to imagine causing its death. But then there would be times when, sitting at the table and watching it run around for ten or fifteen minutes, doing whatever it wanted, I became irritated with its sense of safety and entitlement. So I sent the dog out twice to chase it, immediately regretting this decision both times, because the dog almost caught it, and I screamed at the dog not to do that, and confused her, and so felt bad about the dog, as well as the mouse.
I told my mother that now I wonder, when the dog goes out into the back yard, if in fact she is looking for the mouse in a friendly way, and if one day I might look out and find the mouse stretched out beside my dog on the grass, the two of them enjoying each other’s company.
Mom nodded, her eyes still closed, or maybe open, but with heavy lids. What color is the mouse, she asked, gray or black? (Gray.) Mice can be very cute, she said. She had two white mice as pets when she was young, Herman and Josephine. They had babies, and she had to decide which of the adults was Herman, so she could take him out before he ate the babies. She couldn't distinguish physically between the parents, but it was a fifty-fifty chance, and anyway she had gotten it right. Her older brother John, who wore his hair in a ducktail, had learned to sew so he could taper his pants, and then had sewed pockets on his shirts so he could carry the mice around in them, and bring them to the breakfast table, where they might poke their little heads out during the meal. But the mice were my mother’s: She had gotten them at least in part in order to perform an experiment she read about in Scientific American, which tested depth perception in rodents. You built a series of steps that had a clear plate over the top of it, and saw if the mice would go out onto the clear plate, or not.
I asked my mother what her findings had been.
She didn’t remember. Still sleepy, still just a head, a little sadly, she said: Other people tell stories and they’re complete stories, but I only remember pieces of things.
I thought for a moment about how rarely my mother tells me stories from her childhood. I think I can count her stories on one hand. I said: It’s the same for everyone; everyone remembers only pieces, and if they put them together into a story then it becomes only that story, no matter what really happened. She nodded, agreeing. Then I lay down on the bed with my feet between my parents, so that my father, who had joined my mother there, could scratch my feet while I read. I have been jet-lagged since I arrived on Nantucket, and that night couldn’t fall asleep until 4:30 in the morning.