The Tale of Two Tails
Several years ago, when I was living in Vermont, I spent a fair bit of time imagining what my armorial bearings would look like. I’ve been fascinated with heraldry for a long time, ever since I read an extensive article on the subject in my parents’ Encyclopædia Britannica. I tend to become obsessed with ideas, and this was one of them. It so happened that we had a family coat of arms floating around, but it was for the Van Valkenberg’s, and as I found out, nothing that could apply to us.
A coat of arms, you see, is not like tartan, which applies to a whole clan or nation or even corporation. A coat of arms is a unique identifier for a person, or at least it was. Naturally, I had to have one of my own.
But what? My parents didn’t have anything, so I couldn’t marshall theirs together, and in this day and age, a fascination with a full-on coat of arms is often reserved for a certain group of folk, with whom I did not want to associate myself. I was not interested in this so much as historical recreation but as carring history forward. Therefore, any bearings I’d attach to myself had to be true to myself, not hearkening backwards in any way.
I got to practice a little by executing the logo design for a group I sang with, but it took a long time for it all to come together for my own device. Ultimately, many sketches and many years later, I had something that made sense. The catch, however, is that I don’t qualify for a full achievement of arms, not being noble, nor having served in any capacity. So, a helm is out. But a crest can go on top, and after the night of the second story below, I knew what that had to be.
When I was a wee lad, we raised goats on our “ranch” in rural Colorado. Gusty Gulch we called it, somewhat optimistically at the time, but in retrospect, that name has a certain dry tone that was more emblematic than we knew. Dry, however is what the Colorado plains are. It’s no joke that water is almost as precious as Frank Herbert described it on Arrakis. Which makes raising goats an expensive proposition, since the native brush and grasses simply won't support a confined herd. Perhaps if we were more nomadic?
All of this is to say that we supplemented their diet with what we always called “goat grain,” a mixture of various rolled and dried grains and molasses and other assorted goodnesses. I think it was a Purina product, actually.
The goats loved it. So did the mice.
We kept the grain in plastic garbage bins in our root cellar for the several years that we kept that going. One summer day, we found 5 mice in the goat grain. To my mind, the mice were pocket wonders of speed and stamina. They were trapped in the plastic bin because they couldn't jump out of it, and they kept sliding down the sides.
To my parents, they were pests of Victorian proportions.
It wouldn’t do to relocate them, since they would simply return another day. They had to be dispatched. Fortunately, one of our cats was a master huntress, so it was a simple matter to toss her into the bin. After a quick half-hour, two mice remained. No amount of encouragement would get her to eat them, so my mother delegated the job to me.
When you’re an eleven-year-old kid, having never killed anything more complicated than a grasshopper, the idea of killing these mice didn’t sit easily. How do you kill a mouse? I protested to no avail. I had to do it.
Mice, I discovered, want to live.
In ignorant desperation, I resorted to a kind of barbaric cruelty that has haunted me ever since. Time slowed to a standstill as I literally crushed the life out of those two tiny creatures. In their black, jewel-like eyes I saw the darkness of my soul, and that eternal moment has been a tortured touchstone throughout my life.
The annual slaughter of our goats and chickens never hit me in the same way. Partly, perhaps, it’s that I never did the deed myself. But in all of that, I learned that animals are fundamentally animals—they are not little people with horns and hooves or feathers and beaks. I became comfortable as a carnarian, knowing that we are all part of the same world, participating in an ancient circle of predator and prey.
The mice gave me a glimpse of the spirit world, as it silently cried out against my unnecessary act. I have been grateful to them, and ashamed of myself, ever since.
I found absolution, of a sort, many years later in Vermont. It was around the time that I was immersed in my fascination with heraldry, and so perhaps, I was uniquely attuned to possibilities around me. Working at The Putney School, I spent hours of my free time with my good friend, Wendy. She and her mother lived in one of the campus apartments that barely felt like it was on school grounds. At one time, the lower farm was indeed a separate property, but the school purchased it and built a theater and this apartment into the barn.
Jack and Thunder, the mighty cats of the household, did most of their hunting outside, and given the cold of the Vermont winters, it’s little wonder that there weren’t more mice in the house. The thing with mice, of course, is that they are quite adept at being both around and invisible. Occasionally, we would hear scampering in the rafters, and of course, the detritus that inspires health inspectors to close restaurants and food shops, but the idea of seeing a mouse never occurred to us.
Until, of course, we did.
As all moments of magic imprint themselves in our minds, this moment stays with me. While we lay on the couch, suddenly, there in the kitchen doorway, a field mouse sat, looking at us. Her gaze felt … aware, in the way that seems to motivate many vegetarians. I was so en-raptured, I got up to offer her my greetings. Naturally, she scampered off. But moments later, she returned from behind the stove, and looked me full in the eye once more before going home.
The gaze of any wild animal is a remarkable thing. The gaze of that mouse felt miraculous.
My sense of being blessed by that tiny creature is hopelessly irrational, but in those few moments, I truly felt that the burden I had carried since I was eleven had been, well, recognized. Mice are such remarkable little beings, and I have always been just astonished at how much they mean to us, for better and worse, for how small they are.
The fact that two such emotional moments in my life were driven by experiences with the humble mouse is the genesis of my identification. I don’t know if I’ll ever do more with that coat of arms, but I will always think of the little guy, as it were, as life moves forward.Biography