The Borrowers

by Kristina Saccone

Mother mouse could make herself disappear while still being useful. She used tiny tongue licks to groom her babies without waking them. She knew the spot where the lady of the house left fresh potato peels and burlap scraps for the family nest. The lady, she said, was clean and kind, always sweeping up and leaving us something behind.

Then the gentleman moved in. He came when the lady started losing her hair in clumps. At first we thought it was another gift, long strands of silver and white with the kink of curls to mix into our bed. Then her sweeping stopped, offerings gone. The gentleman boiled potato soup with the peels on and brought it to her bedside. He snacked on walnuts from a barrel, crunching them between brown teeth and spitting out bits of shell.

I was hungry. We were all hungry. And Mother, always silent, found the walnuts. She snuck them back to the hole, one by one, between her top and bottom teeth, the only noise her tail trailing behind. As long as Mother worked nicely, quietly, the gentleman forgot we were there.

But eventually, he noticed. He pulled his giant paw through the barrel and growled over the sound of nut meat knocking nut meat.

“They’re just borrowers,” the lady said from her bed.

“They’re little thieves,” said the gentleman, sticking the other end of the broom into our hole.

We stayed in the corners, scared but untouched. Mother said to pay attention: I was old enough now to know about men’s discontent, the necessity of quiet. Someday, I would be a mother mouse myself.

Soon, the gentleman brought nuts, cheese, and sugar cubes. He never used the sweeping end of the broom. The delicious smells haunted us from the hole. My brother couldn’t resist. We found him, flesh and bone crushed in a trap. It was the first time I smelled my family’s blood.

This is a lure, Mother said, and we must fear it. The gentleman will be nowhere, and still he can trick you into thinking it’s safe in the dark. It is not.

When seasons changed, it was my turn to take over, Mother too old to gather for the family. Instead, she sat in a throne of wet fur, nibbled from her hind legs. She picked and poked with leftover teeth, spitting some and swallowing others.

The lady, too, worsened. She left her potato soup untouched, cold mealy starch on her nightstand, one final offering to my mouse family. All I wanted was the best for my babies, their new warmth as soft as winter woodshavings.

When we ate the soup, the gentleman noticed. He left cheese crumbles in the spot where we lost my brother. I knew better than to take the bait. But something gnawed at Mother’s mind. The hole we shared was humid with drool and droppings. Catching the scent, she pulled her pale paws to standing and looked out the hole with milky eyes.

“It is the lure, Mother,” I said.

She was absent, though. “I’ll borrow just a taste.” Did she not hear or not believe me? I’ll never know.

The next morning, the gentleman slid his stick into our hole. I snuck out to look for Mother when quiet settled over the kitchen. All I found was a bucket of soapy water swirling with the scent of blood and bad cheese.

That’s when I taught my babies: hush, now. Listen for the growl of the gentleman. You must disappear. There are no gifts in this house without giving blood in return.

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