My enclosure was situated by a window. I was awake long before the sun, and I felt—funny. Novel, I suppose you could say. I didn't know why. The memory of something—bright, forceful, painful—dissipated more with each attempt to recall it. This and the assault of smells and the softish terrain and the quickness of my breath made my head hurt. Cold, harsh light appeared somewhere above me, and I bolted for anything that would offer me shelter.
Then, a noise. Movement in the distance. In a lilting voice came the words, "Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home." Presently, the movement became a blurry figure who moved a long object back and forth. He continued making the noise. My urge to flee and the pain in my head lessened. This sound, it was lovely.
When morning came, I felt around my surroundings, whiskers forward and sniffing. I walked over something woody-smelling that depressed under my weight. Four transparent walls surrounded me. The wire ceiling angled down so it was within my reach, and between the wires were cylindrical pellets. Edible, by the scent. A metal tube also stuck from the wire. It dripped water if I pushed or licked its end. There was a distant familiarity to it.
I heard noise, many voices (not as pleasant as the night's song), and saw movement in the distance. The solid boundaries of my enclosure prevented me from smelling much outside of it, and I moved to the wall in an effort to see. The voices instantly grew louder, there was a raucous clomping, and then three fuzzy figures stood by my enclosure. I cowered, but I didn't run.
"Did it work?"
"Let's see. Pick it up."
The wire ceiling vanished, and I was grabbed by something large and fleshy, smelling of oils that weren't mine. Something in me, but not quite me, prompted me to squirm and bite, but though I wanted to, I also wanted to see what came of this. Nothing in the figure's actions communicated hostility. I refrained from moving as much as possible.
"It's almost calm."
The hairless entrapment opened slowly into a cupped shape where I sat. At this distance, I saw a face for each figure. They stared intensely at me, and I looked at each in turn. To my right was a round, wrinkly face with scrunched nose and squinty eyes. Completely hairless. The one on my left, rather, had thick, curling hair and smooth skin. He peered at me through two transparent rectangles that guarded his eyes. The face of the one holding me drew closer. The dark hair on its head looked as short as mine, and his eyes were enormous, set close together deep in his face. The nose looked pointy. More than mine.
"Can you understand me?" it asked.
"Larson, we gave it a soul, not a brain. How could it understand?"
But I did. This Larson spoke again.
"Nod if you understand." The face moved up and down.
I looked at the others, still staring, so far above in spite of my current elevation. I looked into Larson's eyes and imitated his movement.
They were quiet.
"Holy crap," said one of the other faces.
I sat on Larson's flat palm as staccato bursts of searing light appeared from countless directions. Scents—humans, flowers, coffee—swirled in the air. The other part of me said to hide, but I was under strict instructions from Larson to behave during press conferences. His admonitions were unnecessary. I enjoyed the change of setting.
Larson finished explaining the simplified version of how he gave me a human soul, and he placed me on a hard, flat surface in front of him next to a keypad, about my length, that displayed whatever I typed on a screen for the humans to see.
"Would anyone like to ask him a question?" Larson asked the crowd. There was a grin in his voice.
"Do you have any hobbies?" came a voice from the fog of movement and flashes.
I turned to my keypad, pressing the square buttons to spell, "I like to read books."
The audience chuckled.
"What's your favorite kind of cheese?" shouted someone else.
"I prefer fruit to cheese. Oranges are my favorite."
The audience chuckled again and began questioning Dr. Larson. I felt—well, I suppose I felt small. Size differences aside, while the audience's questions were directed toward me, it seemed they weren't about me. They wanted to see the miracle mouse display his intellect.
I pondered this often, this contradiction of simultaneously displaying both interest and apathy toward me. I certainly had no shortage of opportunities to do so. We bustled to many interviews, talk-shows, etc. Rather, Dr. Larson bustled. I played a more passive role in our travels. So he bustled, and I thought. That was our relationship.
When our travels died down a little, I was given a more spacious enclosure. I now had a wire mesh wheel that spun when disturbed, a hard plastic shelter, and the books. As soon as I finished one, I typed on my keypad, attached to the enclosure so that the screen faced outwards, and the finished book was replaced with an unfamiliar one.
Apparently, due to the harsh conditions of soul-transference, I turned out startlingly intelligent. I cannot say what this means, I'm afraid, because the term was never qualified within my hearing. What I know is that in three months, I knew about the solar system, American history, and basic biology. In five months, I had tackled Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen.
One day, I sat in my enclosure upon an open book, A Christmas Carol. When the words ran out, I continued to sit, inhaling the sweetness of the pages. I could never explain the how I felt finishing a book. Literature, unlike textbooks, required strenuous thought to comprehend. How could I account for this transformation in Scrooge's character?
I hopped off the book and followed my scent trail to the wheel. The other part of me grew anxious sitting still for such a time. I took a few bounds on the wire mesh, thoughts battering me. By the ends of these characters' stories, they had become something more than before. It seemed an implicit indictment: as you have read, so must you be.
I slowed to a stop, the whine of the wheel silenced. Had this not happened to me? Was I not more than I had once been?
I would continue this growth. But like the characters, it would be through my own action. I would journey.
That night, when the lab was dark and the janitor would not come for several hours, I pushed my plastic shelter over to one of the enclosure walls. I stood on it, reaching through the wire of the ceiling. Before long, I figured out the simple locking mechanism. I nosed under the lid and pushed myself out into the lab. I stood on my hind legs, sniffing, then dropped to all fours, feeling and sniffing across the hard surface until I'd reached a barrier where the wall and counter intersected. I felt my way along this edge for a while, always watching for distant movement.
I came to a hard plastic barrier, and stood on my hind legs, snuffling. It smelled like Larson, and there were large, square buttons I could press. A giant version of my keypad. I pressed a few more, and intense light blazed forth from behind the large keypad. I jumped, but noticed that within the light was a picture. I crawled up on the keypad, depressing buttons beneath me, and squinted into the light.
There were notations. One said, "Subject continues to quickly digest large amounts of information." There was an image, at the bottom of the light, of some manner of rectangular container with something inside, but I found it difficult to make out. I brought my eyes closer, enduring the harshness of the glare, so close that my nose touched the screen. The image suddenly grew larger, and I leapt back. Now I saw. The something in the container was a mouse, almost too big for the box. There were long sorts of tubes attached to it. New notations beneath the image detailed the events of my awakening, and I read, ravenous.
My ear twitched at the sound of a faint hum. The janitor. He'd be in presently. I hopped off the keypad and retraced my scent back to my enclosure. I jumped on top of it and flattened myself to squeeze through the bars of the wire lid (I had known it would be easier to get back in than to get out). I pushed my plastic shelter back to its original location and re-covered the rut in the bedding that it had made.
Hidden in my shelter, I heard nothing but the distant sound of the janitor's song, the hum of Larson's keypad light down the counter, and my rapid breaths. I'd never felt such exultation. I'd been on an adventure. Each story had a beginning, and I'd learned of mine. Now, I was a character, too. One with daring, and committed to personal growth. A quester.
I was Gawain. This seemed more accurate than my previous name, Subject. I pushed some of the bedding around to make a divot about the size of my body, turned around once, and nestled in to sleep. The next day, and forever more, I would continue my journey.
I pushed on the little ball at the end of my water spout to wet my paws, combing the water into my hair. The other part of me loathed it. However, I knew that I must learn to bathe more like a human.
It had been about a month since my first adventure outside my enclosure, and I had since come to the realization that a true quest would require me to exit the lab. Survival in the outer world would be significantly harder if I could not ignore the other part of me at will. It impaired logic. Thus, I splashed more water onto my head, resolved to end my constant licking.
Afterwards, I ran on my wheel to warm up and dry off after the cold bath. The mineral-supplemented water smelled so entirely foreign to my own scent that the urge to remove it grew more and more insistent. I couldn't take it anymore, and I ran off the wheel onto the roof of my plastic shelter and set to work licking away the wetness. I felt ashamed, but relief that came from my own scent was glorious. I decided that humans' bathing habits must be attributed to the stink of their saliva, not necessarily any superiority in this regard.
Once finished, I sat for a moment, defeated, and thought it best to inquire about my problem. I ran to the corner of my enclosure where my keypad sat, and typed. Above me, I saw the blinking light from the screen that would alert someone I'd said something. I heard the gait of Larson's footsteps grow louder, and his figure came into my vision as he bent to look at the screen.
"No, it's not a problem that you bathe like a mouse. You are one. What's this about?"
"I try," I typed, "but can't seem to get past some of my inhuman behavior."
Larson peered further into my enclosure, presumably at the place under my water spout where the bedding was soaked. He grunted and left my focus. The computer down the counter hummed and glowed. I saw the shadows of Larson's movement and heard the tapping of keys.
"What did you write?" I typed.
Larson came back when he finished.
"That you're showing desires to further adopt human behavior."
"But I can't fully do it."
"It doesn't matter to you?"
"Not really." He went back to whatever he'd been doing before. I heard the squeaking of other mice—soulless thus far—that he never seemed to notice.
"Did you use my real name?" I typed. The light blinked.
Larson sighed and came back over.
"It's a lab report. I'm not going to call you Gawain in a permanent record."
"You don't ever call me Gawain," I wrote, but he was already on his way back to his work.
I went to my wheel, running to build up the speed and endurance I would need after my escape. How could I truly better myself when even Larson, the head scientist involved in my awakening, refused to assist me? I ran faster, my paws hitting the wire mesh, one oppressive thought eclipsing the others: leave and do what? Living outside was not an option. I'd read biology books. I knew a mouse's place in nature. But then, it would be impossible for me to take up any sort of human occupation and be accepted—and not returned to the lab.
With each successive bound, my sense of injustice rose, and it became anger for Larson. But I remembered the stories. It wasn't often that a character's growth and anger were compatible. Anger must die or growth be compromised. I stopped running. Even Elizabeth Bennett treated Wickham with civility, despite his wickedness. If my journey demanded I play the nobler part, I must embrace it. I would wait for a plan before my escape, but in the meantime, even if Larson refused to, I would be good.
I scurried about my cage, restless. I despised Monday mornings. Larson opened the lid of my enclosure, and reached inside. I climbed on his hand in dread, and he raised me out and braced me with his fingers. I felt cold, narrow metal stab my right flank and couldn't help but squeak. I'd received the weekly, mild antibiotic ever since my awakening. Larson put me back in my enclosure and replaced the lid. I sat, quivering, resisting the urge of the other part of myself to furiously lick and scratch the area. Fortitude would be imperative after my escape and thus must be cultivated. Next Monday, I'd try not to squeak.
I tried to distract myself until the stinging dissipated with a drink of water. Rather than licking the metal ball, I instead wet my paw and drank from that. Across the room, I heard the clink of glass on glass and liquids being poured. I detected the distant light of a burner and even in my enclosure, the scent of something acidic floated through the air. As usual, Larson worked hard in the laboratory and paid me little attention.
Then, there was another sound. High-pitched. Was Larson making it? It was lovely. I had never discovered any clue that he appreciated artistic things such as music. He usually seemed to prefer things of a measurable quality. But perhaps I'd misjudged him.
I ran to my keypad and typed a question. A few minutes passed, and Larson never seemed to notice the blinking light on my screen. I retrieved a food pellet from my bowl and repeatedly hit it against the enclosure wall.
"Could you hold on a minute?" There was a sharpness in Larson's voice. He walked over and read my message. "Yes," he said, "I'm whistling. There's a song in my head, driving me crazy, and I'm trying to get it out." He opened his arms, palms up. I'd never seen a gesture like it before. "Anything else? I've got a lot of work to do, and I'm not going to run over every other minute."
I typed as quickly as I could. Larson read the message and paused. "What do I look forward to?" There was scorn in his voice, as if he couldn't believe that I'd ask such an irrelevant question. "Getting my work done before this deadline, for one." He started to turn. I typed madly, and he stopped. He read my new question. "Outside of the lab? Seeing my wife, I suppose."
I went to type another question, but was interrupted by a, "Wait." I looked up. Larson didn't talk for a moment. His arms were crossed in front of his chest. "What makes you curious about outside the lab?" I stayed completely still except for my rapid breathing. "We wouldn't be considering venturing out, would we?" He lowered his face so that it came into focus, his enormous human eyes boring through me. His presence was overwhelming. I bobbed my head the smallest amount possible. Larson reached up, slowly, deliberately, and grabbed the sides of my enclosure. He gave it a single shake, and I fell on my belly, my face landing on the buttons of my keypad.
His voice was a hiss. "Do you know how expensive you were? What is it you think you're going to get?"
I regained my feet and typed, "I must become better. I have to grow. I cannot do it here."
He was silent.
I typed again. "I have already. I must continue."
Larson grunted. His anger seemed gone. "Why?"
"Because I must."
"Hm. So you're going to become, to use your word, 'better.' A better what, exactly?"
"A better person."
Larson regarded me for another minute, considering. He seemed promising, and I felt hopeful. He walked over to the computer and began typing. He murmured, "Subject displaying existential thought."
This couldn't be. I felt no surprise, and therefore couldn't explain my hurt. I pounded my keypad.
"You have fame and authority because of me. I've read and have grown and I cannot stop growing and—"
"Who gave you those books?"
I froze, not looking up.
"Who taught you to read?"
The silence burned. I wanted nothing more than to hide.
"Who called you into being?" He bent down again so that our eyes were level, but I didn't look up. "We've got another trial set up for later this week. You won't be the only mouse with a soul for much longer. There will be ten other cages lined up on this counter just like yours. So, I suppose if you're going to insist so strongly—" he removed the lid from my enclosure and set it on the counter, "don't let me stop you."
Larson didn't stay to watch what I'd do. I was fast, and escape would be no problem. But I still had no plan for my outside life.
Larson finished his work, hung up his lab coat, and left. I sat where he left me, in the dark, in an open cage.
The next day, I slept in my plastic shelter. And I groomed myself. And I licked at my water spout. The janitor had seen my cage open in the night and replaced the lid, relieved that I hadn't gotten out on his watch. He had no reason to worry.
One of Larson's fellow scientists, curly-haired Belfield, entered the lab to show him a report about something.
"Hey," he said. "Is the mouse okay? He looks almost sick."
"Oh, he's fine. Just a little humbler," Larson said.
"Are you sure? I can go get a little blood from him, if you want."
I pulled myself up onto the book in my enclosure and pretended to read it. A stabbing could only worsen my mood. In my act, it was inevitable that I caught a few words. It was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. My namesake mocked me today. This had been my favorite part, when Gawain realizes, after his expended bravery, that he won't die after all. The Green Knight spares him. I licked my hind paw and used it to scratch a place on my shoulder. My Green Knight wouldn't spare me. Not in any genuine sense.
A shadow came over the book, and I looked up. Belfield was removing the lid of my enclosure.
"Belfield, I told you he's fine."
"I just want to look at him." His hand came into the cage within my focus, palm up. I sat on my book. When he brought it closer, I darted into my shelter. I kept my nose trained on his hand and watched it the best I could. Next he'd take the shelter and try to grab me. I'd bite him when he did. Instead, he withdrew his hand and rested his arms on the counter, peering at me.
"Kind of out of sorts, aren't you? Bad mood, huh?" I turned my head away, but my ears clung to the voice. There was a quality about it that Larson's never had. It hurt, and yet, I needed more of it. His footsteps retreated, and he talked in an undertone to Larson.
"I think he's depressed."
"I'll add it to the report."
"Why don't you take him home for a few days?"
I heard the swivel of a chair.
"It's still a mouse. You know that, Belfield."
For a moment, I only heard their breaths.
"You're right. His body is still a mouse."
Quick footsteps faded, and sounds of Larson's work resumed. I turned around in my shelter and tried to nap. For about an hour I stood, pushed aside bedding, and lay down again. But the painful sweetness of Belfield's voice echoed in my ears.
Creeping out of my shelter, I listened to Larson's hurried typing, clinking, and rustling. I kept an ear on him as I stole over to the keypad. Slowly, I typed a message, then took a few steps back. The blinking light went unnoticed for a while. Several hours. He finally came over as he was about to leave for his lunch break.
"This had better not be like yesterday," he mumbled. I was on my wheel and slowed to a walk as he read. He left to type something into the computer.
"The goal," he said from down the counter, "was to do it with something bigger. Cats, dogs, whatever people want. After we can find out how to cut production costs, there'll be a huge market."
"But what did you intend for me?"
He finished typing and returned. "To study you and improve the experiment."
"Then we run more trials."
"No. What am I meant to do after?"
The enclosure shook slightly, and the lid vanished. Larson's scent flooded in. He snatched the keypad out from under me, knocking me backwards. I stood on my hind legs and pressed against the wall, squeaking as he pulled the display screen off the cage's exterior. There was the sound of a drawer opening and a raucous clattering.
Then cage bedding and book pages rustled. Sir Gawain. I ran and leapt onto Larson's cuff as he tried to remove my book. He flicked me off with his other hand, and I fell backwards into pine bedding. Panicking, I jumped as hard as I could, only to hit wire bars and fall again. I ran to the cage wall, squeaking as Larson's footsteps disappeared. I hit the wall with a food pellet until I grew woozy and fell over.
Lying there in the pine shavings, my breathing slowed, and a strange calm overtook me.
Before, I didn't know how. All I knew then was that I must.
That night, I snuck out of my enclosure. I found some paper and the lead of a mechanical pencil, and I left a note.
Larson may have assembled me. Educated me. But he did not create my body, and he did not create my soul. I do not know where I am bound, but what I know is that I will grow. For I, too, am human.
Meghan Peterman is a student at Loras College majoring in Creative Writing. While she isn't writing, she is teaching violin and viola lessons to around ten students.