A great horned owl calls into the cold and clear predawn air.
I know that on a morning like this I will find a brittle layer of ice left atop the water bucket in the barn.
The ground is frozen firm.
We are in the dead of winter.
While the house is dark and still, I slip downstairs and through the kitchen to the laundry room, gently sliding the door aside and peeking tentatively inside. Separate from the hustle bustle of the household and warmed by the water heater within, this small, quiet space has become a sanctuary for our newest resident.
If I am lucky, as my day slowly begins, I will catch her in her last hour of wakefulness, watch her as she wraps up her nighttime routine snacking on walnuts and scurrying about inside the small plastic box on top of the dryer.
She was the first gift of Christmas—a little Christmas mouse.
At the height of holiday preparations, with just 2 days till Christmas and relatives soon to appear, I discovered while cleaning, that the smallest of house guests had already arrived. Tucked behind boxes of decorations still waiting to be spread across an empty tree and cowering in the corner of the back staircase, she was almost entirely overlooked—her small, brown form barely the size of the tip of my thumb. Defenseless and with her eyes still sealed firmly shut, she made no attempt to run from the advances of the vacuum. In fact, aside from a constant tremble, the tiny mouse scarcely moved at all.
Hoping that this inconvenience would magically disappear from my workspace as mysteriously as it had appeared moments before, I went on about the business of Christmas. After all, there were beds to be changed upstairs, groceries to be brought in from the car, presents to be wrapped and festooned with bows…and what of the dozens of cookies? There was simply no time in all this for a mouse—especially a mouse that was missing its mother.
When I returned an hour later and found her unmoved and still trembling in the spot that I had left her, the human guests now enroute from the airport, relocating her seemed the only option. But to where? White-footed Deer Mice live in the woods and fields all around our old house and often seek shelter inside as the weather turns cold each fall. To turn her out now would be uncharitable, at the very least. More likely, to one so young, a certain and frosty death.
I nudged her gently with one finger. She rolled onto her side on the hardwood floor and curled into a ball, quivering and listing with any attempt to walk. Realizing it had probably already been too long since she’d had nourishment and warmth, I scooped her up. Her tiny white feet were icy cold, and she wriggled into the warmth of my hand as I closed my fingers around her. At the very least, she needed heat. But, there would be no heroic measures. There simply was no time for a mouse.
From the over-stuffed laundry basket, I retrieved a warm and wooly orphan sock--one long-awaiting its mate and unlikely to ever find it buried beneath a pile of clothes. Snipping off all but the toe and folding it back to make a cuff, I soon had the perfect cozy, dark sleeping sack, which she immediately disappeared into.
Christmas morning, she devoured a juicy blackberry, and by noon 2 bright, black eyes had opened to greet my frequent visits.
The boxes filled with Christmas have been packed away.
The busy rooms are quiet once more.
The house guests have gone to their homes, except one--
a little Christmas mouse.
I am waiting for the ground to warm, for the path to the woods to soften.
For I know the perfect place where she can be just a mouse, again—
beneath an old apple tree, where the ground is littered with black walnuts, and the field is filled with blackberries.
It will feel like home.