"Don't look in my school bag," Una told me as we left Guides on a cold dark Wednesday evening. "I have a surprise for you."
I did not look in her bag.
When we got home I took Avery (who had fallen asleep in the car) to the bedroom and tried to resettle him. Una went straight to her bag. But it was Martin, not forewarned in the least, who intercepted "the surprise". I entered the lounge to find Una howling and Martin interrogating her. In his hand: a dead mouse, wrapped in a tissue.
Una and her partner in crime, the grade one girl (singular, Una is the prep girl singular so they were destined to be friends) found a dead mouse at school. It was under the water fountain on the concrete. So cold. Poor little mouse.
We have had something of a mouse plague this year, all the rain I suppose. Our own house has been Visited by them - squeak squeak scratch scratch - and one was kind enough to die in my ugg boot, which puts the ugh in ugg boot I can tell you. I will not tell you the story of how I discovered this mouse because I haven't recovered from the trauma yet. I will say there was a pop, a smell and a strange sensation between my toes, but, unfortunately, not all at once. There now. My trauma is your trauma.
Anyway, Una's mouse was at school, and Una and Isabel wanted to have a little funeral for it. Erica, their teacher, put the kibosh on this plan for all the usual reasons adults think children shouldn't play with dead mice. Unbeknownst to Erica a tissue was procured, the mouse was stealthily wrapped and hidden away in Una's bag. This much we determined, because as soon as Una realised she was in trouble, she began to fabricate - insisting, for example, that her teacher had suggested she bring it home. (She rapidly reversed this story when Martin bluffed that he was going to call Erica.)
Oh, I understand the fascination and in writing this down we seem to me to be cruel parents. In early autumn that other star of children's stories the butterfly proliferated in our area (funny how one doesn't say "a plague of butterflies"). Una found a dead one at school, a perfect specimen, and brought it home to show me. We put it in the magnified bug catcher and studied it closely, marvelling at the scales on its wings, the hairs of its body, the inquisitive proboscis. This mouse was as perfectly interesting to Una as the butterfly had been, and perhaps if it hadn't been a Guide night, if we'd had a bit more patience or energy, if it hadn't been dinner time and we hadn't all been hungry and cold we might have slowed this down a little, taken the time to talk through it, paid the mouse some respects. As it was Una clung howling onto Martin as he gave the mouse a quick burial without ceremony. It was, after all, almost seven o'clock and we hadn't yet eaten dinner.
"Everyone says you get sick from touching mice," Una wailed at me as I took her on my knee and tried to comfort her, attempting to explain the difference between mice and butterflies. "But I'm not sick and it isn't true." Una, a gifted and easy liar herself, is terribly self-righteous in the face of other lies - whether they are her friend's whoppers (Miss Grade One Singular is adorably prolific in the tall tales department herself), a grown up's kindly intended white lies or even generalisations or exaggerations, though Una is fond of a little hyperbole herself.
It was a moment where adult and child's worlds were impossibly divergent. We simply could not capture the child like wonder at the intimate smallness of the mouse corpse, its static dollhouse perfection in death. She could not comprehend our disgust, our loathing.
Still I am touched by their collusion. There was something so tender about that white tissue. Lies are revealing, sometimes they are truer than bare facts. Behind every one is the truth of Una's self, the clarity of her spirit, revealed in her wide blue eyes. And I am touched by her guileless act, the gift of the mouse (like a cat), and by her utter disbelieving dismay when this gift was so rudely rejected. I am reminded at how when you are a child you live in a parallel world and it can be hard to slip between real and imaginary, it is so utterly painful to have this space intruded upon by the giants of this world: us. No wonder her heart went out to a mouse, so small in the face of death.