Winter Holidays - Story 6 - Christmas Social Science by KB Nelson

A white mouse named Adam peered through his spyhole behind the living room electrical outlet.

“Be alert, Douglas!” he whispered. Pale whiskers shivered as his pink nose sniffed out every detail of the scene unfolding before him.

Douglas scurried up beside his fellow researcher, long tail lashing with enthusiasm and tangling with Adam’s. This was his first field assignment. He was now a true Field Mouse!

Just like every day for the previous few weeks, they observed a pajama-clad couple in the morning light, sipping from their mismatched mugs. But today was it, the culmination of all the tedious hours and days of study. Douglas’s excitement escaped in a squeak, fortunately covered by the sound of the man’s words.

“Merry Christmas, Mabel.” His silver hair reflected lights from their Christmas tree.

The woman smiled and smoothed his multicoloured cowlick as she whispered, “Well don’t we look fancy.” With a gnarled hand on his shoulder she raised herself from the couch and moved into the kitchen.

A quaver became obvious as she raised her voice: “Johnny, the top plug by the fridge ain’t working neither. That’s the third one now.”

“Oh well, the wiring in these old apartments... I’ll talk to the super after the holidays.”

Behind the wall Adam quietly admonished his protégé, “You know what to do. Breathe, observe, make note, and above all, not a peep!”

“Right, got it, just listen and sniff.”

A plastic bag rustling. Some metallic noises. Presently, the warm smell of toast. And, oh my, the aroma of peanut butter. Plates clicked as they were set on the kitchen table. Two enthralled mouse noses inhaled the intoxicating fragrance.

“Note the extravagant breakfast, indicative of the holiday,” murmured Adam.

The mice had been pursuing this research project since early December. Data accumulated from previous generations of white mice indicated that Christmas centered on family (especially children), redistribution of material goods, and religion. The White Mouse Database (WMD) consortium had chosen this couple for study because they had no family, displayed no religious beliefs and had little money. The goal: to determine the significance of Christmas to them.

Relevant activities had started gradually. Christmas cards arrived: from the paper boy, from their dentist, a few from cities afar. The mice had noted the discussions which followed receipt of each card.

“Betty’s daughter done took her to Reno! She sent a picture; lookit, don’t she look happy!”

“This here’s from Margaret and Bill. Sounds like Bill ain’t doing too well.”

Mabel would read the card and any accompanying letter out loud. Then she would pass it and the reading glasses to her husband. The cards were hung from a string which was tacked to the living room wall, the glittered ones displayed most prominently.

Ten days prior, John had brought home a small amputated fir tree which generated inordinate excitement in the couple. They brought out a cardboard box. It was labeled Black and Decker Toaster Oven, but the frayed corners and layers of yellowed tape revealed its repurposing.

She had cut the most recent tape and carefully, almost reverently, untangled and passed a short string of lights to her husband. A complicated ritual followed regarding the correct placement of lights, glass balls and other items of unknown function. Now, on Christmas Day, the fully decorated tree had a few parcels beneath it.

The mice heard Mabel call from the kitchen, “Come and get some breakfast, John, then we’ll open up the presents.”

Douglas shot Adam an inquiring look and received a nod. Off he zipped, negotiating the paths through the insulation and arriving behind the kitchen spyhole just as the subjects settled at the table.

Adam could hear the humans’ breakfast conversation.

“They say it’s gonna snow a bit later.”

“You suppose the bus’ll be on time?”

He stayed in the living room, allowing his junior research partner to watch the kitchen scene. After a few moments the couple made their way back to the living room and started to open their gifts. Mabel’s first was a package wrapped in a grocery bag tied with a green ribbon. It contained mittens and a scarf knitted by the apartment-bound lady downstairs.

John nodded and smiled. “You’ll like them. You can wear them today when we go out!” He unwrapped a box of tea from an old friend.

“Ooh, that there’s some of that Earl Grey stuff you like so much. Ain’t you the lucky ducky!” Mabel struck a pose and mimicked sipping tea as she tried to extend her crooked little finger.

Adam whispered over his shoulder, “Douglas, note how, as each gift is opened, the observer appears to be more enthusiastic than the recipient. Douglas?” He looked around for his research partner; nothing but pink fiberglass. “Rookies!” he grumbled as he turned his attention back to the humans’ conversation.

“Oh Johnny, ain’t I gonna be just la-dee-da! Thank you!”

The next parcel contained a collection of lavender bath salts, oils and bubbles. The mice had noted the disagreeable fragrance as soon as John had put the parcel under the tree, but she appeared to be truly surprised. He beamed at her reaction.

He was next, opening a compact package to find a slightly distressed novel. “Zane Gray, The Rainbow Trail. I been looking for this!”

“I knew you’d like it. I been checking stores for it all year!” Mabel giggled and kicked her feet.

Once again, the subjects had been oblivious to the smell of the package, in this case clearly indicating a used book. And once again, the giver appeared as pleased as the recipient, if not more.

Adam heard a little scurry behind him and heard, “What did I miss?” His stern look silenced Douglas. The mice continued to observe the humans as they unwrapped an umbrella for her and new socks for him.

With one last “Merry Christmas, honey,” they hoisted themselves from the couch. She said, “I’ll tidy up; you go get yourself dressed. We got to be at the shelter by eleven. It’ll take maybe an hour to get there, with two transfers. I think we’ll be peelin’ spuds this year.”

Adam whispered, “I’ll follow him, you stay here.”

The woman opened her umbrella with a guilty glance about. She closed it and started to gather up the wrapping paper. “Bah, it’ll wait,” she said, then headed after her husband.

Douglas watched her leave. He focused on the array of odors—quite the dizzying composition, underscored by the leftovers of toast and peanut butter.

Mabel walked into the bedroom where Adam watched her say, “I’ll put the kettle on so we can take us a thermos of tea. It’s so darned cold when we open up that kitchen and their coffee is... well, I drank better mud.” She headed back into the kitchen.

Her sudden shriek brought John running and generated a few mouse droppings behind the bedroom wall.

“A mouse! A gosh darned white mouse in my kitchen!”

Douglas froze in the middle of the kitchen floor. He had been so sure that he would have a few moments alone. And that peanut butter just smelled so good!

He darted towards the access hole beside the coat closet, but a large slippered foot slammed down in front of him.

“I knew I been hearing something in them walls,” shouted John as he chased Douglas into the living room. The terrified mouse scurried under the Christmas tree and up into the safety of its branches.

“Come out of there you little rascal!” John shook the tree. Ornaments flew and shattered against the wall. Douglas leaped to the Christmas card string and tumbled down with several cards. Sparkles glinted from his back as he zigzagged back to the kitchen where he slammed into a glass wall.

“Gotcha!” The woman peered through the side of the juice jug she had plunked over him.

He had never seen a subject so close before. Still trembling with the terror of being discovered and the frenzy of the chase, he was nevertheless fascinated. He stood up on his hind legs to observe more carefully. He was unable to discern any helpful scents and sound was a bit muffled, but he was able to make out her words.

“Oh lookit John, ain’t he the cutest little thing! He must be someone’s pet. You know white mice ain’t wild. I’ll just ask ‘round the building. But if no one claims him, we just got to keep him!” With a start, Douglas realized he had been effectively Field promoted from Observational to Experimental White Mouse.

As an EFM, his observations would be forever enshrined among the highest-level data in the White Mouse Database. His heart swelled. He, absent-minded, easily-distracted Douglas, would be contributing at the same level as the most revered Lab Mice.

No time to waste. Replication being essential to any experiment, he once again posed on his hind legs, nose twitching, whiskers a-shiver.

“Oh lookit his little nose!”

“You’re right, he is a cute little dickens. And you know how I miss having a pet. I suppose if we can hide him from the super it’ll be okay. But if it starts stinking ‘round here, he’s gone!”

Douglas settled down and began mentally cataloging the various permutations and combinations of the “cute little dickens” pose that he would need to start testing. With and without twitchy nose, quivering whiskers, upright posture. Time of day. Subjects alone or in each other’s presence.

Collecting information without desensitizing the subjects would be a delicate matter. Douglas anticipated he would have time to gather a significant amount of data, unless it started “stinking ‘round here”, which seemed odd considering their olfactory insensitivity.

He had never before felt so purposeful. His contributions would be his gift to all future mousekind. With swelling heart he had a flash of insight. What he had observed in human behavior was part of mousekind as well—the one who gives sometimes reaps as much joy as the recipient.

He could understand why the whole point of Christmas had been eluding the WMD for so long, never quantified, never recorded. Beyond religion. Beyond family, wealth, virtue, even transcending species, affecting both human and rodent, right there in front of their noses: it’s apparently all about the giving!

***

Eleven and a half months later…

“Be alert, Elwyn,” Adam whispered to his new partner as they crept out of the mouse hole and across the pantry of the large, modern kitchen. “Pay attention. You’re part the most ambitious research project in the entire history of the WMD.”

Navigating this large, busy family home across from Central Park was quite a challenge compared to his last Christmas assignment. Sticking close to the wall and avoiding hazardous strands of fallen tinsel, the mice made their way up the staircase. Adam’s eyes, ears and nose were on high alert for the cat.

Once inside the bedroom, Elwyn couldn’t contain himself. “Mr. Little, Mr. Little, I’ve heard so much about you, I’m so honored to meet you. Can I please get your autograph? It’s for, um, my niece.”

“Rookies!” grumbled Adam.

---

KB Nelson is a Canadian who started writing poetry as a young child and has continued to do so all of her life. One of her childhood influences was hearing her father read the poetry of Robert Service when her family lived in the Yukon. When not writing poetry she dabbles in writing short fiction including slice of life and speculative fiction. She has won awards in both poetry and short fiction. KB has lived in Ontario, Yukon, Alberta, New Brunswick and New Zealand. A mother of two grown sons, she lives with her husband in Greater Vancouver.

Comments

  1. Still love this story -- KBN is an awesome author and poet!!

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