Friday, January 25, 2008

Josephine

Yesterday, I received what I decided will be the final rejection for the story "Josephine." This arrived about four months after I sent it off to several editors. Rather than keep sending it around, I'm publishing it here. This a parody of Kafka's story, "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk." I tried to imagine what happened to Josephine after she left the village in Kafka's story.


Josephine

She was a layer of new snow on the murine grayness of my existence. Not everyone saw her that way. She was feared, despised—at best, misunderstood. There was none other like her in our village. I first saw her while walking down by the docks. One did not tarry in this neighborhood, for its inhabitants were downtrodden, suspicious, and prone to violence. It was one o’clock when I first saw her at the base of the clock tower on Dickory Street. She looked run down, standing by the old hickory pier, gazing into the water. I wondered how one like her had come to a place like Hickory Dickory Dock.

I watched as she turned tail and walked down Dickory Street. She disappeared into the Nude Club. No, it’s not like that. We do not wear clothes, any of us. The bar is frequented by the nude mice who live in this part of the village. They, like Josephine, are different than the majority of the village’s inhabitants. The nude mice are shunned for their lack of fur; Josephine, because her fur lacks pigment. The females of the village speak with disdain of Josephine as unattractive, an inferior being, yet perhaps jealousy fuels their hatred. The males nod in agreement, but do they not secretly desire to have her, to breed with her, to produce piebald offspring?

The nude mice welcomed Josephine, for they had little entertainment in their ghetto. Josephine had been exploited, and so had the nude mice. They lack not only fur but also thymus glands, and thus have no T cells to confer immunity. They are the subjects of immunological experiments, receiving transplants of tissues and tumors from various species. It is said that one of the first nude mice to escape to our village from the laboratory bore a patch of chicken skin with feathers intact, attached in a grotesque experiment.

Josephine likewise came from a subjugated race. White mice suffered in the laboratories of the humans as well, gavaged with noxious compounds, injected with experimental drugs, implanted with electrodes. Josephine had not personally endured such torture, but had been imprisoned by the humans as what they called a pet. She was kept in a cage with nothing to do but run on a metal wheel, living among cedar shavings barely fit for building a nest, stared at by the children of the humans. It was during her captivity that she began to sing. In the darkness of her cage, when the humans were asleep, she began to pipe. All mice are capable of shrill piping, but Josephine refined her piping by controlling her diaphragm, adding vibrato, and modulating the pitch to produce music.

One night, a human child left the cage door unlatched, and Josephine escaped, living for a time in another village, and even achieving a degree of fame for her singing. But she felt the mice of the village did not fully appreciate her. She employed squeakers, the rodent equivalent of barkers, to stand outside the concert hall and coax passerby inside. She thought the villagers did not understand the difference between her singing and mere piping, and eventually she chose to leave. At first the villagers were concerned and missed her singing, but with time, they forgot her, as that is the nature of our species. We are no historians.

I followed Josephine and stood outside the Nude Club. I dared not enter for I would be unwelcome and in danger there. I was at risk just standing outside the club, but when I heard her, I was frozen in my tracks. She sang a song of her own composition, about a field mouse displaced from her home by a Scotsman’s plow. My heart thrummed with the plaintive notes wafting from the bar. Across the street, three nude mice wearing dark glasses huddled together, smoking. Their tails were amputated—the result of a gruesome experiment? I was not certain they could even see me, yet I felt I was in peril. I had to move on.

But I knew I had to return. I had to hear more of this exotic being who turned the mundane squeaking of our species into beautiful music. Occasionally, desire overcame fear and I would return to the ghetto to hear snippets of her song as I paused briefly in front of the Nude Club. At last, one day, I was able to enter the bar, not entirely unafraid, but with hope of blending in enough to hear my achromic angel sing uninterrupted. Back in my nest, I had laboriously shaved all my fur. My hairless skin was lighter than that of the nude mice, but I found that by rubbing myself against a walnut husk, I could darken my skin enough to pass for nude.

I picked a table in a darkened corner and sat alone. Unsure of my ability to converse in the jargon of the nude mice, I wanted to keep contact to a minimum. I ordered a martini with an olive. The waitress asked, “Want that olive stuffed with bleu cheese?” This was one of the oldest jokes in our village. We detest dairy products, yet the humans foolishly continue to bait their traps with cheese. Peanut butter, of course, is another matter altogether, and has lured many of us to grisly deaths. I smiled faintly and replied, “No, cut the cheese.” She smiled even more faintly at my tired rejoinder. Fart jokes hold little appeal to a species accustomed to leaving their droppings randomly around their environs.

I nursed the martini through Josephine’s first set. A few customers were scattered around the room, listening, drinking, smoking. The desultory conversation of a pair of males at the bar became louder as they downed more drinks, and I wanted them to quiet down. I couldn’t risk confronting them and betraying my masquerade. Besides, I might be assaulted. The nude mice have a violent streak uncommon among the furred.

Surprisingly, the pair at the bar reached a point of inebriation where they did indeed lower the volume of their conversation. Imagining that my velleity had affected their behavior, I began to wish that Josephine would approach me when she took a break. Trying to convey my need to her, I locked my eyes on her face. Could it be? Her eyes met mine and she smiled—yes, she definitely smiled—before she lowered her lids and ended the final song of her set.

She stepped down from the stage, and looked toward the bar, then turned and walked toward my table. My heart raced. My mind rehearsed and rejected a dozen lines as she approached. She broke the ice.

“Mind if I sit down?”
“Please do.”
“What are you drinking?”
I drained the glass. “It bears some resemblance to a martini. Like one?”
“I’d prefer a Tom and Jerry.”
I hailed the waitress. “A Tom and Jerry for the lady and another one of these for me.” I plucked out the olive before she took the glass. I contemplated the pimento. “Where’d you learn to sing like that?”
“I’m self-taught.”
“Really? You have an incredible gift.”
“And a curse. I’ll never be able to sing anywhere but this dive if I stay around here.”
“Why is that?”
“Look at me. I’m white.”
“You’re beautiful.” Had I gone too far this early in the conversation? Where was that waitress?
“You’re too kind. But only the nude mice accept me, and sometimes I’m not so sure about them.”
Our drinks came. I watched her sip in silence for a moment.
“What are you doing after the next set?” I asked.
“Same thing I always do. Go back down Dickory Street. Run up the clock. Then at one, I’ll run back down.”
I took a swallow of the martini. Then another one. “Want some company?” What did I have to lose?
The same desperation that prompted my question must have washed over her as well.
“OK.” She lowered her lids and studied the steam rising from the mug before her.
Overcoming my amazement at her reply, I managed to keep up a stream of small talk as she finished her drink.
“I’ve got to get back up on stage. See you soon.”

I could barely contain myself through the next set. When the set ended, we went back to her place. I followed her as she ran up the clock. I was winded when we reached her nest tucked in the corner of the clockworks. Josephine wasn’t even breathing hard. Running on the wheel during her captivity had given her stamina.

Our species’ reputation for multiplication does not approach that of the rabbits’, but we indulge in ceaseless breeding. Our perilous existence requires it—traps, poison, glue strips, owls, and cats take a heavy toll. Yes, we mated, there in the shadow of the clock’s gears, but it was different for Josephine and me. We coupled not out of a primal urge to preserve the species. Our relationship was on a higher plane, nestled there above the grime of Dickory Street.

In the afterglow, we lay contented. Sedated by the martinis, I slept as deeply as a dormouse, and didn’t even hear the clock strike one. Josephine ran down to her gig at the Nude Club. When she returned, I was still asleep. She lay down and rested her snout on my back. Suddenly, she shrieked as though she’d just seen a knife-wielding farmer’s wife. I leapt to my feet, startled.

“What’s wrong?”
“You’re one of them!”
“Who?”
“Them!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have fur!”

As I slept in Josephine’s nest, I had grown the rodent equivalent of a five o’clock shadow. She had felt the stubble as she rubbed her nose against me. She knew she was the only white mouse in the village, and therefore anyone else with fur had to be one of the hated majority.

“You’re gray, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes. But you don’t understand! I did this for you!”
“Forget it, Buster! Your kind has no use for me and I feel the same about them. Get out!”

I cried, cursed, and cajoled. She would have none of my protestations. I left and never returned to Dickory Street. I carried on my life day after joyless day. The walnut stain wore off my skin. My dingy fur grew back. I went so far as to bring D-Con back to my nest, rolled a green pellet in my paws, even licked its surface, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. As the days passed, the memories faded. I knew that as the pain of loss subsided, I would eventually forget about Josephine. And so I write this while the memory persists so that you may know the story. Soon, I will forget altogether the sound of her singing, the flash of her eyes, the softness of her pure white fur. After all, we are no historians.

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