The Mouse

A Palestinian in the maze of foundations and fellowships, a chilling short story by Siddhartha Deb. Images by Benedict Hynniewta                                                                                                      

There was a woman in a white suit who had grown a human ear on a mouse and a curly-haired MacArthur genius who made documentary films on government secrecy. There was a two-man team of economists from Harvard, one of whom apologized for the absence of his companion, who was sick, and for sitting far apart from everybody else because he too was sick, although he assured everybody that neither of them had the swine flu. There was a number theory mathematician, an anthropologist who studied sheep herders, even a Fluxus artist. And then there was Kemal, observing all these people until it was his turn to be introduced to the other fellows of the year-long residency. He walked down the long hallway with its polished wooden floor, the ornate lamps shaped like clubs hanging threateningly from the ceiling, and when he introduced himself and his project, the words tumbled out in a mess, some of them lingering on for a while in the still air of the room. “Ramallah, Jaffa, occupation…” The four Israeli fellows in the audience nodded politely and smiled. They hadn’t been fooled.

The days went by quickly after that. He slept in the studio he had sublet in Inman Square and ate his meals at a loud, garish Indian café. At the residency office building, there were lunches three times a week, where the fellows were unvaryingly pleasant to eaBenedict man 4ch other and unable to remember each other’s names. On some evenings, a fellow gave a talk that ended with wine and cheese. There was always a sprinkling of old ladies with creased faces at these sessions, and one or another of them would often drift up towards Kemal. She would ask him commonplace questions, but he could see, in her angelic eyes, that she had a special message for him. He would wait patiently for the old lady before him to give him the message but, as soon as she began, she would be drowned out by an announcement about the next event, followed by a rush of goodbyes as the fellows hurried out into the Cambridge darkness that stretched all around them like a magic forest. Then, as Kemal stood by himself, taking in the empty wine bottles, bread crumbs and the rubble from demolished squares of cheese, an angry-looking Polish woman in a uniform arrived to clear everything away.

Kemal would step out into the Sunken Garden and look at the office building, empty but blazing with lights, a palace without a king. The building, once a science laboratory, had been converted a few years ago to house the offices and studios of the fellows on four levels, beginning at the basement and working up to the third floor. But when Kemal looked at the building from the Sunken Garden, he could see only two of the three floors. The top floor was not visible from outside. It was either a trick of perspective or a result of the recent remodelling, but it made the building seem larger inside than outside, an alive, constantly adjusting space from which sprang out an extra floor with Kemal’s office when he was indoors, and that vanished the moment he stepped out.

He stayed late in his office. Even though the administrative staff were there only till five, he had twenty-four access with his swipe card, so he could go in and out as he liked. After everybody had left, he sometimes went out to get a cup of coffee from one of the numerous unsmiling baristas who worked in the cafés of Harvard Square. When he returned, he took the elevator instead of the stairs if he felt like company, listening to the recorded voice of a woman saying, “Going Up! Thiiird floor.” He talked back to the woman, saying, “No, don’t go up. Go down. Stop on the second floor. To the basement. Okay, go up to the penthouse.” She never responded.

When Kemal entered his office, he looked carefully for signs that it had changed because of the way it disappeared when he went out. It was always the same. There were grey steel cabinets, desks with particleboard surfaces, a blue armchair and a swivelling office chair. On one wall, there was a motion detector shaped like a small speaker. It had a pair of eyes, one green and one red. The green one blinked constantly when Kemal was in the room, but the red one came on only from time to time, as if to indicate displeasure. There was a videocamera on the ceiling, although it could perhaps have been a sprinkler. Then there was his computer, a large expanse of a Mac that could be controlled remotely.

He had discovered that when he tried to install Skype and found he didn’t have administrator privileges. He called the IT help desk, and the woman on the line, her accent a pleasant but alien Boston blur, said, “Hold on for a second.” Then the cursor on his screen began moving rapidly even though Kemal wasn’t doing anything, minimizing his windows, opening his files, downloading Skype and typing in a password.

“Excuse me, are you doing that to my computer?” he asked.

“Kind of cool, ain’t it?” she laughed. “Kind of creepy too, right?”

Benedict man 2

One day, there was a knock on the door of Kemal’s office. He had been slumped in front of the computer playing chess, wondering if someone with remote access had shuffled a piece when he hadn’t been looking. His knight was in the wrong place, about to be swallowed by the white bishop, even though he had been intending to open up a check when he moved his knight. He hid the chess game and opened the door.

It was the woman who had grafted a human ear on to a mouse. She had also grown a miniature liver on a microchip, which sounded disgusting, but she had apparently done all this to help people who needed organ transplants. The woman came inside but did not sit down, as if that would be too great a commitment. Instead, she stood in front of Kemal with her hands in her trouser pockets. Kemal also stood, fingering his right ear.

“You look as if you’re not sleeping well,” she said.

“I don’t sleep so much,” Kemal said.

“Mice in a maze sometimes lose sleep,” she said. “But listen, I’m having the fellows over to my house. I emailed you the invitation and directions. Please come to my party.”

When Kemal returned to his computer, he found the invitation displayed on his screen, as if someone had helpfully opened the message and clicked on the attached PDF file so that he wouldn’t have to run through these steps himself. A map that looked like a maze showed the way to the woman’s house. It was a laboratory theme party, and people were encouraged to go in costume. He closed the image and tried to get back to the game but, in three moves, his king was trapped.

Benedict woman 2

Kemal got lost on the way to the party. For a while, he wandered through the empty streets and houses that were so clean that they looked as if they were bathed and manicured every day. As he walked, he wished he had printed out the map and brought it with him. Although there were lights on in each house, bright and furious, he couldn’t see any people except for the occasional driver swishing by in an SUV. After a while, the houses stopped appearing and there were only trees into which he felt he could disappear forever. It seemed to Kemal that he had seen many forests since coming here, even on the train from the pleasantly crowded city of New York to the less crowded, and less pleasant, city of Boston. He had almost expected to see tents or huts in those forests, especially with all the talk of the economy in recession and of house owners walking away from their mortgaged properties. There was so much land, it seemed to him, and so few people. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” he said to himself. Perhaps he should settle down in one of these forests after the fellowship year ended, and if policemen came for him with guns and dogs, he would cite the example of Thoreau who, after all, had done something like that not too far from here.

The woman’s house appeared at the end of a street filled with more trees than others. It looked to him like a mansion, elegant and silent, with the moonlight lying cold and white on its lawns. Inside, the house was modern and dark, and his fellows were scattered around in costumes appropriate to the party’s theme. The MacArthur genius was in a lab coat, but he looked less like a scientist and more like a rather twitchy mouse. “Have you seen his documentary Benedict woman 3on secrecy?” the anthropologist asked Kemal. The anthropologist hadn’t come as a scientist. Like most of the other fellows, he had chosen to be a mouse, with tail, whiskers and large, balloon-like ears, which felt very comforting to Kemal even though he had come neither as scientist nor mouse but simply a brown man dressed in black. The Harvard economist, the always present lone member of the two-man team, had come as a rabbit.
“You’re not American?” the Fluxus artist said to him.

“I grew up in Chile and went to graduate school in Chicago,” the economist said.

“Was Milton Friedman there?” the number theory mathematician asked.

“Was Pinochet there?” Kemal asked, but nobody heard him.

Kemal drank copiously, wandering around from room to room, hearing snippets of conversation that blended into a vast, single sentence: “The world of government secrecy is in the tunnel in Switzerland that is used by sheep herders who must be driven by rational choice theory when they are studying the musical score that is written with lentils because they are the oldest beans in the world.” He went back to the bar, where the crowd was most lively. There was a song playing. The woman who had grown the ear on the mouse was dancing in the middle of the room. It was her party, and she was dressed as a fairy godmother scientist, wearing a lab coat and waving a wand. Kemal could not make out the song she was dancing to until it came to the end, the music trailing off and leaving the vocalist, whom Kemal imagined as a male twin of the woman, reciting a string of sounds over and over again which resolved into the words:

The Mouse Police Never Sleep

Never Sleep Never Sleep

The Mouse Police Never Sleep

Never Sleep Never Sleep.

The woman had stopped dancing. She patted Kemal on his shoulder and said, “Some mice are police, and some mice are just mice.”

Benedict woman 1

Kemal stopped going to the lunches and talks. He walked a lot, even though it was February. He liked watching the stretch of the common where the homeless men lived, their bright blue tents arranged in a circle around the flagpost with an American flag and an American eagle. With snow piled thickly on the ground, it looked – if he squinted in such a way as to edit out the cars in the background – like a shot of an expedition to the North Pole. If he angled himself and squinted even more carefully so that he eliminated the flagpole as well as the cars, then the scene became like an updated version of Walden. But Kemal was careful not to get too close. If he did, the homeless men with red, flushed faces stood up straight, their eyes suddenly grave as if they wanted to tell him something.

He did not want to hear what they had to say, just as he no longer clicked on the messages that came to his email address. He received a voicemail on the office phone from one of the assistants saying that if he wanted to stay on beyond June, that could be arranged, but to please let them know ASAP. He did not reply. When large, glossy posters appeared around the common in front of the office building, prominently displaying his picture, he veered away from them so that he would not have to read what they said.

He had stopped going back to the studio in Inman Square. He realized he didn’t need to. The office building, in spite of the idiosyncratic behaviour of the third floor, had everything. There were kitchenettes on every floor, with refrigerators and microwave ovens. There were toilets everywhere too, and when he needed to clean himself, he used the shower room in the basement next to the bike rack. When he felt like stretching out, he did so on one of the long couches in the third-floor common area. He lay there late into the night, gazing out through a small window at the Sunken Garden, now covered in snow, wondering why that window was never visible when he stood in the Sunken Garden and looked at the building. He did not sleep much, but he rarely felt lonely, with the humming of the refrigerator and the water fountain keeping him company, the building going about its business as industriously as usual.

Sometimes, he couldn’t find the third floor even when he was inside. The stairs would end at the second floor and the elevator would display buttons for only the basement, ground, first and second levels. “Goiiing Up. Second Floor,” the woman would say. “What did you do with the third?” Kemal asked her the first time. When she didn’t reply, he laughed and said, “Okay, Ramallah then, Jaffa, Tel Aviv.” He usually wandered around the building when this happened, knowing that the third floor would come back when it felt like it. Or he walked up and down the stairwell, breathing in the closed air with its aroma of thick carpeting, tinged slightly with traces of the other fellows.

People left envelopes for Kemal in his mailbox, but he threw them into the recycling bin without reading the contents. If it was evening and he was alone in the building, the electronic bulletin board that listed the events of the day began to flash a number that should be called immediately. Kemal thought it said something about “technical support,” but since he never went close to the board, he couldn’t be sure. Sometimes, an office door would open, and he would glimpse a fellow or group of fellows, dressed in white lab coats and wearing what looked like surgeon’s masks. Their offices seemed very large, but standing in the corridor, he couldn’t tell if they were really as big as operating theatres or editing studios. If he ran into the fellows in the corridor, they looked serious and fulfilled, nodding at him with the camaraderie reserved for a special colleague.

“Going well?” they would say.

“Going really well,” Kemal always replied.

One Sunday morning, the middle of a long weekend, he found that the third floor had vanished. He had just taken a shower and his clothes were in the office. He decided to wander around the basement level. It was much like the other floors, with offices and studios ranged on opposite sides, a conference room, a kitchenette and a bathroom, but it also had two vending machines from which Kemal got his meals. The vending machines always spat back the dollar bills he put in while continuing to serve him what he wanted, and he had of late abandoned all attempts to pay. That morning he chose a red Coke can and a brown Snickers bar, and he wandered around the basement in his towel, munching on the bar and sipping his cola. Most of the offices and studios were locked, but when he tried the one directly beneath his own third-floor office, it opened right away.

At first, it seemed as if his office had changed floors, the grey cabinets, the blue armchair, the elongated desk and the 21-inch Mac having all migrated to this new location. There was the motion detector in the corner, and the video camera – or sprinkler – on the ceiling. “Maybe they moved my office here,” Kemal thought as he sat down in front of the computer, removing the towel first so that the chair wouldn’t get wet. Did he have any personal belongings in his office, photographs or greeting cards or notebooks, that were not present here? He closed his eyes and concentrated. Didn’t he have a picture of his son up in his office, resting on one of the cabinets? A pair of boots that were too old to wear but that it seemed wasteful to throw away? Weren’t there books he had bought, notes that he had made for the residency project? But if all that distinguished his office from this one were his belongings, then what part did he exactly play in the difference?

He opened his eyes when he heard the mouse clicking. It moved busily on the computer screen, rectangular flowers blossoming everywhere, folders opening and closing until there was a moment of stillness and the arrow rested on a folder with Kemal’s name on it.

Kemal did not want to get the computer messy, so he decided to finish his Snickers bar before opening the folder. He sat with his knees up on the chair, wondering whether he had lost or gained weight since coming here for the fellowship; it was somehow hard to tell just by looking at himself. If there was change visible in his body, it was on the two bumps he seemed to have, probably from ingrowing hair. There was one on his right inner thigh, the size of a coin, and another on his left arm that looked almost like a budding ear, with grooves spiralling out from a black void.

When he had finished the bar, he smoothed out the wrapper before throwing it in the trash can. Then he opened the folder with his name on it. There were hundreds of files of different kinds: Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and movie clips. There were graphs and charts and maps, all indexed with his name. There was one that measured his blood pressure in the months he had been here, one showing the cigarettes he had smoked and the cups of coffee he had drunk, another that tracked the calories in the chocolate bars he had eaten; there were other charts that looked so complicated that he could not understand them, with headings that said “Stochastic Opponent Modelling Agents (SOMA)” and “Minorities at Risk Organization Behaviour (MAROB) data set.” There were files with mathematical equations that ran on and on, footnoted papers on “Rationality and Welfare Measurement Under Conditions of Stress” and “Nomadic Behaviour of People in Occupied Territories.” There were slideshows, PowerPoint presentations and short blurry films that showed: Kemal sitting in the office on the third floor; Kemal, asking, “Was Pinochet there?” at the party; Kemal playing chess; Kemal lying on the couch in the third floor lobby; Kemal looking at the building from the Sunken Garden.

Kemal closed the files and sat back. He had sensed for a while that his project at the residency was himself. This was why it was no longer necessary for old ladies or homeless people to try and tell him why he was there. Now it seemed that not only was he the project he was working on, but that he was the project everybody else was working on.

He closed the folder and went up to the lobby. The sunlight was soft on the blanket of snow that lay over the yard. He walked out of the building, approaching the snow that looked so inviting, especially in the places where it was unmarked by the footprints of animals. Kemal spread his towel on the snow and lay down. He didn’t feel cold, and the sun, so bright just a few minutes ago, became obscured by grey clouds as if to protect his eyes from the light. More snow was falling, soft white flakes that settled on his chest and groin and face, flakes coming down from the sky and making him feel weightless, as if he were a fish swimming in the ocean, looking up at the surface that must never be breached.

He was a fish. He was a mouse. He was the mouse in the experiment, he realized as he lay with the snow covering him. This meant that he either didn’t have to worry about doing anything other than what he felt like doing, or that he had to be especially responsible because everything depended on him. There was still one thing, however, that puzzled him, and that was the purpose of the project. What would be shown, demonstrated or proved by using him as the object of study?

Benedict man 1

When Kemal woke up, he found himself lying on the sofa in the third-floor lounge. Someone had brought him in, dressed him and covered him with a blanket. When he went inside his office, he found that it had been cleaned in his absence. The clothes he had carelessly discarded in a pile under the desk had been laundered and folded. His trash can had been emptied. Even his old boots had been polished.

He put the boots on and decided to go for a walk around Harvard Square. As he walked, he thought of a visit he had made to a friend in Ramallah just before coming to Cambridge for the residency. Kemal had been away before that in Germany, and when he met his friend, he was surprised by how much the man had changed. He lived in an abandoned house, one of the many cinderblock structures in Ramallah, most of the windows boarded up, the wall sprayed with graffiti. It didn’t look all that different inside the house, where his friend had restricted himself to one room and sat surrounded by empty paint cans, as if he had been marking his own walls with abuses and slogans. Kemal asked him to come out for a meal, but he refused. “Not after dark,” he said. “There are people watching outside, waiting for me to come out after dark.” “Why would there be people waiting for you?” Kemal said. “You’re an artist, you’re not political. What would they do with you? What would be the purpose?” His friend shook his head. He hadn’t washed for a while, he had grown a long, unkempt beard, and he smelled as if he had been marinating for a long time in his sweat. But he wanted Kemal to get him some cigarettes so that he wouldn’t have to leave the house the next day.

Kemal went out by himself, thinking he would pick up cigarettes and food and share a meal with his friend. It was dusk, and the alley felt like a canal, the shadows of the gutted buildings like waves rippling from end to end. There was a row of cars parked on the right side of the alley, making the passage in the alleyway even narrower. None of the cars had been there when Kemal arrived. As he walked past them, he felt there were people sitting inside, not moving very much, their silhouettes visible through the rolled-up windows. A streetlamp flickered on, and in the light, Kemal saw a man walking ahead of him. The man wore white, pointy shoes. They looked out of place in the rubble and refuse of the alley because they were so clean and elegant, as if their owner was heading to a party. The man also had a pistol strapped to his waist. Kemal slowed down, but the man, without turning around, adjusted his pace, so that Kemal remained the same distance behind him. Without quite breaking into a run, Kemal sped up, hoping to pass the man, but the man increased his speed too. Behind him, he heard a car engine roar into life. Then he heard another, and then another, and when he looked behind him, he saw the cars pulling out of their parking spots and coming down the alley towards him in a convoy, moving slowly enough so that if he kept walking he would be able to stay just ahead of them. Kemal kept walking. He would have run if it had not been for the man with the pistol, whose back was lit now in the headlights of the convoy behind them, and whose white shoes glittered in the blaze like two white fish swimming in a bottomless ocean, or like two white mice gliding along a maze. Kemal walked on, the cars behind him moving at their relentless steady pace, while in front of him advanced the man with the pistol. When they came to an intersection, the headlights behind him were extinguished. The engines died and the silence and darkness seemed to stretch on forever even as Kemal remained rooted to his spot, drowning in the darkness of the alleyway, unable to tell whether he was alone and the man with the pistol had walked on, or whether at this very moment, they were closing in around Kemal, from the front and from behind, and the last thing he would see would be a pair of white shoes shining like fish, shining like mice. Somewhere, a dog howled, and the sound shook him out of his reverie. He began to run. No one followed him. “Why would anyone want to take you?” Kemal had asked his friend. “What would be the meaning of that? What would be the purpose?” His friend had not answered, and since Kemal did not go back to give him the cigarettes, he was not able to ask him again.

In front of the Au Bon Pain café, Kemal bumped into a man. It was the Macarthur genius.

“Looking forward to your presentation,” he said.

“Looking forward,” Kemal replied.

He walked by the Grafton Street bar and saw the anthropologist and the economist and the woman who had grown a human ear on a mouse sitting at the window. They saw him too, and raised their glasses.

Kemal turned around. He stopped when he reached the homeless man outside Harvard Book Store, the one with the “Desert + Storm + Vet” sign and a Starbucks Christmas cup for his change.

“Why?” Kemal asked him. “What is the meaning of the project? What is its purpose?”

The Desert Storm vet looked past him, mumbling, “The project, the project.” Then he gathered his thoughts, looked at Kemal, and said, “Something wants to hurt you. Somebody wants to give you pain.”

They stood there for a while in silence, watching the door of the bookstore open and close as people stepped in and out. The Desert Storm vet spoke again, slowly and carefully, as if he was afraid that Kemal had not understood him. “The purpose of the project is your pain,” he said.

“Some mice are police, and some mice are just mice,” Kemal replied.

Benedict manThere was a woman in a white suit who had grown a human ear on a mouse and a curly-haired MacArthur genius who made documentary films on government secrecy. There was a two-man team of economists from Harvard, one of whom apologized for the absence of his companion, who was sick, and for sitting far apart from everybody else because he too was sick, although he assured everybody that neither of them had the swine flu. There was a number theory mathematician, an anthropologist who studied sheep herders, even a Fluxus artist. And then there was Kemal, observing all these people until it was his turn to be introduced to the other fellows of the year-long residency. He walked down the long hallway with its polished wooden floor, the ornate lamps shaped like clubs hanging threateningly from the ceiling, and when he introduced himself and his project, the words tumbled out in a mess, some of them lingering on for a while in the still air of the room. “Ramallah, Jaffa, occupation…” The four Israeli fellows in the audience nodded politely and smiled. They hadn’t been fooled.

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Siddhartha Deb Written by:

Siddhartha Deb grew up in Shillong. Deb began his career in journalism as a sports journalist in Calcutta in 1994 before moving to Delhi to continue regular journalism until 1998. His first novel, The Point of Return, is semi-autobiographical in nature and is set in a fictional hill-station that closely resembles Shillong. His second novel, Surface, also set in Northeast India, is about a disillusioned Sikh journalist. His first non-fiction book, The Beautiful And the Damned: A Portrait of the New India was published in June 2011 by Viking Penguin. He has also contributed to The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The Nation, New Statesman, Harper's, the London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. He currently teaches creative writing at The New School in New York.

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