The three white mice emerged from notes jotted initially after waking from a troubling but intriguing dream. I saw the bars on the pantry door, and the sequence with the cages. But to make sense of them. . . that took a little longer to figure out.
Once there was a little girl who had the same name as I do. She lived all alone in a great big wood with no company but three white mice in a cage. They had been a present from someone who had stayed with the little girl for one night long ago, although she couldn't remember who. Every year or two someone would stop in the big wood looking for shelter and the little girl would provide it, always in return for whatever the traveller decided to give. You could say it was an eminently fair barter system, because it always proved just how much each traveller really desired shelter and a warm meal. Maybe it was even a measure for the degree of civilization of each individual, or perhaps not.
The little girl who had my name had lived in the wood for quite a while. She had built herself a little cottage out of wood and creepers and twisted live flowering vines into the ceiling beams and ran two streams, one warm and one cold, through the pantry so she could have cold butter for tea and a warm bath before going to bed. The house, you could say, was alive, and between it and the white mice the little girl never felt lonely.
On one cold, wet evening during a storm that had gone on far too long, there came the sound of sneezing from outside the door of the little cottage. The little girl had just sat down to her tea, the white mice on the table before her to keep her company through the meal. She stood in her curious careful way and went to open the door. Outside on her doorstep covered in wet leaves and a sheet of rain stood a person. He was bundled from pate to shoe in woollens and leather and curious wovens so that he hardly looked like more than the shape of a man. His head was cocked to one side as if he had been listening for the sound of her footsteps approaching the door, and didn't know she was already before him.
The little girl stood and stared at him in her careful manner.
He seemed surprised to see her, although of course the usual response to a knock on a door is for someone to answer. He looked her over from the top of her head to her slippers, and his eyes softened for a moment. Then he shook himself and took a deep breath, as though he had only by sheer force of will stopped himself from doing something distasteful.
"Well, hello there," said the man. "Didn't expect to find a homely house in the middle of these woods. Could you spare a meal or at least a warm corner for a wet and weary traveller?"
The little girl nodded. "Welcome to Kudra, the Wood Cottage," she said, and stepped aside to let him enter.
"Well well well," said the man, and he took off his leather cap and his woollen and woven mufflers and his woollen and woven overcoats and his leather jacklet and his woollen overslacks and woven cummerbund, and with each article came a flood of water so soon the entry hall of the Wood Cottage was as wet as the ground outside.
"Well well well," said the man again and set his wet clothes out to dry. "I think I smell sausages."
The little girl led him into the dining room and set a place for him. She brought him coffee and chocolate and put a plate of sausages in front of him.
The man looked at the food and said, "Forgive my presumption. I know nothing in the world comes free, and hospitality like yours coming without charge would be a crime, beyond being completely unethical."
The little girl with my name nodded again. "All I ask," she said, "is that you make a present to me of something that is valuable to you."
"Oh, is that all?" said the man. "That will be easy to arrange," and he fell to his dinner with great abandon.
The little girl finished her dinner, drew the man a bath, and went to her bed, setting the three mice on the night table beside her head.
She dreamed a curious dream, in which she sat beside the place where the two streams entered the Wood Cottage. The warm stream ran to her right, and the cool to her left, and the sun kissed her face.
And then the sun inched its way behind a cloud, and she was cold. She put her hand in the warm stream, and took in its heat to replace the sun's. She shivered then, and, looking up, saw it was the man who had blocked the sun, not a cloud at all. He smiled, but it was not a kind smile. Her entire body shivered then. But strangely, it was not an unpleasant feeling.
She woke then, and could not fall asleep again for a long while.
The morning dawned dark as night. A storm raged and the rain came down in sheets thick as waterfalls. The little girl cooked breakfast for herself and the man, talking all the while to the white mice in their cage.
The man came down for breakfast dressed in a curious woven bathrobe with many colours and odd patterns running its length. "Morning, morning," he said. "Don't think I'll set out today, if it wouldn't trouble you to let me stay an extra night."
"Stay as long as you like," said the little girl. "I'll just ask one present of you."
So the man stayed. All day he sat in the big armchair in the cottage parlour, pouring over a little leather-bound tome. The little girl occupied herself with making the house clean and milking her cow and churning butter from the milk. Every time she passed by where the man sat, she found herself remembering the dream, and wondering what it meant. At dusk, she cleared away the dinner things, drew the man a bath, and went to bed, with the three mice chattering in their cage by her head.
In the darkest part of the night, the girl had a dream. She wandered through a huge house, through bands of light and shadow, through ballrooms and giant kitchens, and every room was big enough to swallow her whole little cottage. She walked through the house until she came to a closed door. On it were carved markings like the bars of a cage, and the girl came to the realization suddenly that she was afraid to go through this door, and that this door was the only way out of the house. Her cottage was nowhere in sight, and she knew it was not behind the door. Where was it, and where was she?
Slowly, building in volume, there came a noise from behind the door, and it was a deep growl. And hearing this, the girl slipped into another kind of sleep, where there are no dreams.
In the morning, the storm still raged outside the Wood Cottage. The little girl made breakfast for herself and the man. The man came down to breakfast in his bathrobe with the odd patterns and colours, and he looked tired as if he had stayed up all night. There were lines around his eyes that had not been there before, and his cheeks were hollow.
"Thank you, thank you," said the man, when the girl gave him a cup of coffee. "Your hospitality leaves nothing to be desired. Except, perhaps, your sufferance on a poor traveller who has been wet enough already in his life."
"My house is open to you," said the girl. "Only one price will ever be asked, no matter how long you stay."
"Hmm," said the man, stroking his chin where a hint of beard had formed. "I wonder just what you would like for a present when I leave."
"It's not what I want, but what is of value to you that I ask," said the girl, and she turned to take his empty cup back to the kitchen.
He reached out and grabbed her hard by the shoulder. "I wonder," he said, "what you would like when I leave. What I value may be of no use to you."
The little girl stared at his hand on her shoulder, but he held her firm. "Who," he said, "told you to exact this particular price from your guests, hmm?" And he released her shoulder."I don't remember," said the girl simply, and went into the kitchen, walking in her careful way.
The man went into the parlour to read his leather-bound book.
In the evening, the cottage had grown cold so that the little girl lit a fire in the parlour fireplace. She made toast in the flames for tea and set the plates out on the hearthstone so they could eat in the warmth.
"What if," said the man, "what I value is not only of no use to you, but would put you in danger?"
The little girl remained as she always had, and her voice was clear. But deep inside, she thought of the shiver that had gone through her in her dream, when she saw the man blocking the sun and touched the warm water of the stream. "I am not permitted to reject your gift," she said.
"Permitted! Permitted!" said the man. "Who permits you? Who makes up your rules? Why is a little girl like you living alone in this wood, days travel from any other being? How do you survive? Where do you come from? How long have you been here?"
"When I said 'permitted', I meant that is way things are done here," said the girl.
The man stood. "I will have your present ready for you tomorrow morning," he said, and went to bed. The little girl drew a warm bath for herself and retired to her bed, taking the three white mice and placing them on the night table by her head.
In the morning, the little girl came downstairs to find her guest had departed sometime during the night. His layers and layers of clothing were gone from the hall, his leather-bound tome was gone from the armchair in the parlour. Outside, it was clear and bright and the sun came down in ribbons of brilliance. Inside, in the centre of the dark kitchen, the girl stood frozen. She stood still with her hands clenched at her sides until the sun crested past its highest point, then she went on with her work.
As dusk fell, the little girl drew herself a bath and went to bed. The mice were forgotten downstairs in the parlour. No one had ever cheated her out of a present before in all the time she had lived in the wood.
At the darkest part of the night, the girl suddenly realized she was awake. She rolled over and saw that the mice were not on the table and remembered she had left them downstairs. Putting on her bathrobe, she slipped carefully out of her bedroom and down the stairs.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she could hear the sound of the mice screaming.
The parlour was dark but the girl knew every inch of her house perfectly. She rested her hands finally on the mouse cage, and shushed them to calm their chattering. The girl picked up the cage and carried it through the hall into the kitchen where there was more light. As she entered the kitchen, she felt a change in the weight of the cage and she dropped it to the table.
The girl moved back from the cage, because although there was nothing in it but the three white mice, the mice were terrified.
She moved in again to the table, and one of the mice screamed again. It rose to the top of the cage, and red streaks appeared in its belly. The mouse screamed once more before its neck snapped and it fell to the floor of the cage.
The little girl screamed and reached her hands to the cage. Now she heard something besides the sound of the mice. There was a low growl that came from inside the cage, and rose and fell like the howl of a dying animal.
Another mouse rose up screaming. Its body flew against the bars of the cage and fell, and was still.
The third mouse crouched shivering on its haunches in the corner of the cage. The girl covered her face with her hands and ran from the room, each footstep seeming to echo with the sound of a mouse's scream.
In the hall closet she found the mice's old cage. It was large and had iron bars. The stainless steel cage in the kitchen had been a present from another visitor.
For the first time in all the years, the little girl noticed the pattern of bars like on a cage on the door of the closet. She stared at them until a shriek from the kitchen brought her back. She took the iron cage from the closet and returned to the kitchen where the growl was growing to a roar.
She crossed the kitchen to the table in a single step. She opened the door of the iron cage, opened the door of the steel cage, and pressed the two doors together.
Now she could see a dark shape forming in the steel cage, beginning to obscure the white and red mice. Who was she? Where were her parents? When had she come to the forest? She usually couldn't remember past the day before, except for certain pictures in her mind, like her visitors. She knew what death was, but nothing had ever died in her presence before. The little girl, with no connection to the outside world except her possession of my name, put her fingers through the bars into the iron cage.
There was a savage howl from the steel cage. Quicker than her eyes could follow, the blur of the black shape was in the iron cage. She snatched her fingers away and slammed the door of the iron cage shut as teeth appeared in the black thing. Then it grew hair, and red eyes, and white claws. It solidified and expanded and the bars of the cage warped and bent until the girl was certain they would snap.
Instead, the black fur whitened. The thing in the cage shrank until all that was left of the nightmare creature was a small, pink-eyed, white-haired rabbit dwarfed by the deformed iron cage around it. Its fur was crossed with red welts from the bars of the cage. It made a queer little sound, like a sigh, and died.
The little girl stood back from the table. There was a movement from the steel cage and one of the white-and-blood mice moved. The girl cradled it and stroked it with her shaking hands, and her legs collapsed from under her and she sat on the floor, huddled into the warm wall of Kudra, still stroking the mouse. Then she set it on her shoulder, where it burrowed into her hair, its trembling matching her own.
But, although she was very frightened and exhausted, she felt something else as well, a kind of elation. And through her surged a tingling, a shivering, very much like what she's felt in her dream. Only now, that shiver had become a part of her entirely. It was half satisfied, half wild, like a lazy cat sleeping off a successful hunt. It curled itself around her bones, and she knew she would never be happy to stay quietly in the cottage again.
Kudra, her home and sanctuary, now looked more like a prison to her. She felt the slight warmth of the mouse burrowed into her neck, and wondered what she would do with him if she left the Wood Cottage. It was such a small creature, so fragile. How would it survive in the forest, in the wider world? It occurred to her that, such a short time before, she had felt the same about herself.
When she was aware of anything again, she found the man standing over her. He was holding the limp rabbit by its hind legs.
"What did you give me?" said the girl.
"Never of value to you, is it?" said the man. "You'd all be better off ignorant. Something hideous it is to you. And you court the losing of it like a rough lover. I told you it might be dangerous."
"What did you give me?" she said again, collapsing as well as she could between her shoulder blades.
"Your innocence," he said sadly. "And look how you've treated it," and he bundled himself in his layers of woollens and leather and wovens and left the cottage.
And the little girl, perplexed but full of the intriguing shiver, began to pack her own bag. She would find a hole near the cottage in which to place her mouse. Maybe it would enjoy trying something new as well.