I arrive late at my writers group, stepping into the silence of pens soundlessly gliding on paper. I am grateful for the concentration I sense: heads held up by hands so that their heavy thoughts have a chance to come out.
But wait, what is this? A mouse? There’s a mouse running across the table. Has anyone noticed? As long as Mumina hasn’t. Mumina’s sister died from an infected rat bite in a Kenyan refugee camp. She’s had a terrible fear of rodents ever since. I know, because we’ve become friends of late.
The mouse stops right in front of Mumina, beside her coffee cup, unsure what to do, even as Mumina’s hands hover over her keyboard. What should I do? I have experience with mice; there’s been quite the infestation in our neighbourhood lately, and our house was not spared. I look around. It does seem I’m the only one who noticed. I stare at the mouse, willing it to disappear as quickly and silently as it came. Mumina lifts her hand, her stare meets mine and – no, it’s not a glance of recognition, not eye to eye; what she sees, God knows, maybe the painting behind me. I dare not move my head to look.
Mumina’s shriek already builds in my ears. But it never comes. It only happens in my imagination.
Mumina looks down again, her hands now moving swiftly on the keyboard. The mouse inches, no, millimetres closer to her, the woman whose sister got killed by a rat. In front of Mumina sits a huge piece of carrot cake. Beside it a beer bottle cap. Where did that come from? The mouse touches the bottle cap; it makes a small clickety sound. My heart stops. Mumina looks up again, seems to notice the beer cap. Her eyes grow large, she returns to her laptop. In the meantime, the mouse has found refuge under the rim of the plate with the carrot cake.
I’m supposed to be writing like everyone else but I can’t. It’s me and the mouse. No, Mumina and me and the mouse, with Mumina, oh, I hope, being a silent, unwitting player, and the mouse, too, not unwitting maybe but please, please, silent. Please, mouse, go away, go where you’ve come from. Use your sensitive trembling whiskers, can’t you tell Mumina’s fear, or mine, take a pick, have mercy, mouse! I’m not afraid of you, mouse – I like mice! – but I’m afraid for Mumina.
Three weeks ago Mumina went out for coffee. We shared stories, important stories, with each other.
“Her name was Khadiija.” Mumina said as she wrote the name out for me; I wondered about the double ‘i’. “It means ‘premature child’ in Somali. It’s also the name of the Prophet’s first wife. You know,” she glanced up at me, a flicker of caution in her eye, “Mohammed?” It was only in the pronunciation of names like ‘Khadijja’ or ‘Mohammed’ that an intonation suggested she was not born in Canada.
“Yes,” I said, “I read a book about him a few years ago. That was the widow, right?”
Mumina relaxed. “Khadi was so sweet, and the refugee camp … I had never been to a place like that … it wasn’t even the worst, we were at far worse places after … there were six of us. My cousin never showed up but he had a friend send a note saying he’d join us at the border crossing. My uncle Joseph, he couldn’t make up his mind whether to go look for him but my father, he was the oldest of his brothers, told him that he must come with us. All through the trip, it was Khadi who kept our spirits up with her giggles and the way she played with that clattery toy she had, and even the way she looked when she slept, her head rolled back, so relaxed … “ Mumina started crying. I got up to get a napkin for her. “Do you still want to continue? If it’s too hard for you …”
“No, no. You’re the first person I’m telling here in Canada. I have a feeling I need to talk about it.” She blew her nose. It was loud and made me think of elephants. Do they have elephants in Somalia? No, not a good time to ask, even though part of me yearned for distraction.
“And then in that camp, as I said, it wasn’t so bad but, well, it was a camp.” Mumina seemed a little more resolved now. “We tried to keep our tent as clean as possible but it’s actually not that easy when you’re not the only family in the tent and all your belongings and food and everything’s there. But we tried. Mostly, we were successful. Mostly. One night, though, oh, I won’t get into it, it was a horrible night, and we couldn’t pay attention to everything that was going on. Little Khadi was sleeping; it’s amazing, she slept through everything, that little one, that little angel. But suddenly she screamed and we looked and I could just see a big rat running away from her. It left a deep bite wound in her toe. You could see the tooth marks. Can you imagine? Rat teeth on that beautiful little toe.” A sad smile formed on Mumina’s face.
“It became infected right away, I guess. The woman doctor was really nice, a blond woman, her name was Ingrid, I remember, she tried but … three days … it was horrible. She became sicker and sicker, our little Khadi—fever, all puffed up, and never complained much. She fell asleep with her clattery toy in her hand. I’ll never forget hearing it hit the ground, clack, and I looked, and I knew. I knew.” Mumina just sat there, her head bowed over her cup, tears dripping into her tea.
And here we are, Mumina, the mouse, and I. Mouse, do your people have compassion? In Beatrix Potter they do. Are you like that, mouse? Nobody has noticed you yet.
The mouse has not moved from under the plate, an interminable three feet from me. The world that’s the mouse and I and my worries about Mumina sit still. Everything and everyone else moves around us. Clickety-clack go the keyboards, with a quiet coffee slurp here, a pen dropped there, a cough, and the clatter of the coffee bar far in the distance, across some invisible border. I move my eyes but not my head, I don’t want to draw attention. Mouse, wherever you came from, can you please return? I wish you well, but please, go back.
And then I have an idea.
I throw myself halfway across the table. “A spider!” I yell. My notebook in hand – the one I was supposed to write in quietly, other hand supporting my thought-heavy head – I swat about wildly. “A spider!” The table bursts into action, “Where, where?” “What’s wrong with spiders?” “Argh!” “What’s going on?” Grey locks bounce, laptop covers come down, glasses are taken off. Frowns, consternation, “Oh, I hate spiders!”
The mouse is gone. The beer cap has landed on the floor; not so the carrot cake. Mumina looks at me, half irritated, half understanding. Someone says, “I wouldn’t have taken you for someone who’s afraid of spiders.”
After a minute or two, everything settles down. “We were at the end of our writing time anyway,” says Neill, today’s chair. “Who wants to read first?”
“I,” says Mumina. And she begins:
“I’ll never get over my fear of rats and mice. It all started in the camp in Kenya. We had just found out that my cousin Adam had been killed. My uncle Joseph, his father, was mad with grief. Somehow he had gotten hold of a crate of beer and he was drinking, drinking, drinking, cursing Allah, this pious man. There were empty bottles and beer caps all over the place. It was late at night. Suddenly we heard a shriek from the corner, where my sister Khadiija was sleeping ….”
I’m not afraid of spiders. But nobody needs to know.
Thank you, mouse, for going back where you came from.
Written by Isabella Mora – Vancouver, Canada