From the archives……..
Her son had left to join college the previous week. She was cleaning out the clutter in his room when she saw a polythene bag under some junk in one corner of his cupboard. When she pulled it out, a pair of flip-flops fell out.
As she held them, she remembered that day…the day of the scream, a little mouse and a boy. Her boy, who had learnt his lesson in compassion from two mice – one a big field rat and one a tiny dead mouse.
It was a cold winter morning, especially at 5 in the morning. The boys had to leave for school by 7 am and there was so much work to do! Her husband was away on tour and she missed his help in completing the chores. She hurried with a load of laundry to the wash. And as she came back she saw something in the middle of the room – something pink and very small. Instantly she knew what it was.
She could have sworn that it hadn’t been there a moment ago. But as she looked at it, she wasn’t sure. She had not felt anything soft underfoot, so she couldn’t have stepped on it. But what if……..
At that point, a ball rose up in her throat and in spite of herself, she began screaming. It was not the kind of scream that would have woken up neighbours in the apartment block they lived in, but a strangulated one deep in her throat, loud enough to wake up her 17-year-old son, a strapping young man in the final year of school. He came running to where she was standing, the scream having died down, with her hand pressed to her eyes. She was mumbling something and looked as if she would begin screaming again. He heard the words ‘I didn’t kill it!’ over and over in a pleading voice.
He must have taken in the sight in one glance, for he put his arm around her and took her out of the room and sat her down on her bed. She was whimpering by now. ‘I didn’t kill it, it wasn’t there when I took the wash load.…’ And then suddenly, she kicked off her flip-flops. ‘There must be blood on it! I don’t want them! Oh, the poor thing, I killed it!’
‘You didn’t kill it! It would have been squashed had you stepped on it,’ he tried to reason. That proved a mistake because she started screaming again.
After a few minutes, he went out, quietly removed the mouse and disposed it off in the bushes behind the block. He then poured phenol and cleaned up the place. Perhaps watching her son do something as mundane as cleaning and mopping the place had calmed her nerves. He picked up her flip-flops and brought them back after washing them. It reeked of Dettol. She turned her face away.
‘There is blood….’
‘No, ma. There is no blood. You didn’t step on the mouse. The slippers were clean. It must have died of the cold. They do, you know. You probably didn’t see it on your way out from the room.’ He spoke as if he knew all about little mice and their life cycles.
‘Okay, okay.’ He took off his own flip-flops and pushed them under her feet, as it was very cold. She meekly slipped them on and continued sitting there, as he made tea for her and brought her a cup. They both sipped the tea and he looked at his mother, with her wild stare and the dried tears on her cheeks. He had never seen her like this. Maybe she was feeling over-worked. Perhaps she was coming down with some virus. Whatever it was, he must have felt that she wouldn’t want to remember this day, this incident, or to be reminded of it any time.
He picked up the cups and left the room, closing the door behind him. When he went to his room to wake his younger brother, he put her flip-flops in a polythene bag and shoved it in under some stuff in his cupboard. He would dispose of them later.
It was some time before he came back, his hair wet from the bath and announced that he was not going to school that day. It was not unusual as he used to stay away from school often, to prepare for his entrance exams to the engineering courses. So she left it at that.
‘Why don’t you take a bath and you will feel better?’ he gently pulled her to her feet.
As she stood under the hot shower, she shook herself. What had come over her? She now wondered what her son was thinking about her behavior of a while ago. Had he lost his regard for her ability to fix everything in their young lives? In fact, he used to call her Dr.Fix-it for that reason. Had she become a weak woman with feet of clay in his eyes? Would he ever look up to her? She shook herself resolutely. There was no point in speculating or brooding over such things.
The shower seemed to have restored her self-control. When she came out, The stereo was blaring in his room. He could never study without that infernal noise! She saw that he had hung out the clothes from the wash. She smiled thinking of the dire threats it usually took to get him do the chores.
On an impulse, she stuck her head into his room. ‘How about going to Macdonald’s?’
‘Today? When?’ he jumped up happily. For all his grown up act, he was still a child and she came out, feeling that in some small way, the balance had been restored.
He was a quiet boy who normally didn’t share his feelings openly with her or his father, even when he had been younger. But there were occasions when he did….
…as on that day, when he had been about 12 and they lived in another neighbourhood. That day too there had been a mouse. No, not a tiny one, but a huge field rat. The rodents regularly raided the ground floor flats in the housing society adjacent to the field. They were completely fearless and the only way to control them was to trap them and release them outside as far away as possible.
Trapping them was not as difficult as releasing them later. She was absolutely petrified of them and her husband left home very early. It was left to this boy to do the job. His father taught him how to do it. ‘Hold the trap as far from you as you can, with its mouth facing away and open the hatch. It will jump out and run away from you.’
It soon became a chore and his father said that he would give him ‘chore money’ for doing it. All went well for some time till one day he came running, his face stricken and distraught.
‘What happened? Where is the trap?’ she asked him.
‘Amma, I tried to open the hatch as I always do but the rat suddenly jumped inside and the trap fell from my hand into the ditch! There was water in it! Ma, the rat is going to drown and it will drown inside the trap. I should have held the trap tightly and not let it fall. And it is all my fault. I killed it!’ he was shouting and crying, large tears coursing down his white face. He was suffering so much that her heart ached.
‘It is not your fault. I know how big it was and could have scare anyone if it had jumped like that. Please don’t cry. Maybe someone will find the trap and release it. She knew she was blabbering, but didn’t know how else to console the child.
He missed his school bus that day. After some time he went out to check on the rat. ‘It is not there! I’m sure it was carried away by the flow of water!’ he cried in anguish. ‘I killed it. I hate rat-traps!’ he shouted before banging the door to his room.
She waited for a while and then went and sat beside him.
‘Do you know that people use rat poison to kill them? There are traps that kill them most horribly. We don’t like to kill any creature, so use the box trap to catch and then release them. We don’t even let it remain in the trap for long, nor do we want to hurt it. Remember how last week the tail of one of the trapped rats was caught in the hatch and knowing that it would be in pain, appa had opened it slightly to let it pull it inside?’
He remembered. ‘And the rat instead of pulling its tail inside, turned around, pushed the hatch wider open and jumped out! Appa had jumped back, remember?’ The memory brought a smile to his lips. Seeing it, she pressed on, ‘It was so huge that even he couldn’t do anything. So how could you have today? Perhaps it was the day for it to die. And you did try to reach the trap to release it, didn’t you? I am sure that you would have rescued it had the ditch not been too deep and filled with water.’
That day the young boy had learnt that despite one’s best intentions sometimes little creatures can get hurt or even killed, but the important thing is to do one’s best to save them and deal with them with compassion.
She came back to the present and looked at the flip-flops in her hand. Perhaps on the day of the scream, he had remembered the rat trap and the helpless rage and guilt he had felt. Perhaps he had empathized with her guilt, even though both of them knew she had not stepped on the little creature to have killed it, just as they knew he had not intentionally killed the rat by dropping the trap. While the guilt was the same, the roles had got reversed and the boy had shown compassion towards his mother when she most needed it.
She walked over and switched on the stereo, turning up the volume to the maximum. It had been rather quiet for the past week, she thought. One of his favourite songs was playing and she let the tears flow…
This is a true story.
This had been my contribution to the unique global movement called 1000 Voices for Compassion