With the return of the cold weather, the mouse sought comfort in the house. The small pile of crumbs the older man had on the counter disappeared whenever he left the room. The critter was very active at night, running about in the walls, building a nest or cacoon to huddle in for warmth.
The older man's days were long. He spent them out in the harsh elements tending to sheep and maintaining the general upkeep of their habitat, fixing fences, finding lost members of the flock, and so on. In the evenings, He got drunk and did so with more and more regularity.
The ancient farmhouse was simple yet quaint. It was slowly losing the family ambiance, and the feminine quality disappeared overnight. Everything was still; even the dust that settled did so with the knowledge it would be a permanent resting place. The dining table stood in front of a bookshelf. He'd take down a random book and read while eating his morning porridge and sipping his strong black coffee. During these moments of clear-headed sobriety, the framed picture on the shelf, entirely out of place amongst the books, sat just outside his peripheral vision; if chosen, he could quickly blink or turn his head, and it would be gone.
In the evening, he would sit directly in front of the shelf and look drunkenly at the photo. Then, bleary-eyed and intoxicated, he'd look at his family looking back at him. It was old, stained from age—an ever-fading memory of his wife, daughter, and a man he could still recognize if he looked close enough.
One frigid and rainy night, the mouse was bold and came onto the table. The two watched each other. Slowly the older man slid a tiny morsel of cheese toward it. The mouse studied him with large, bulbous eyes, mirror-like and endlessly obsidian. Scurrying over, it sniffed the cheese precautionarily, then began to consume it with great pleasure, never once taking its gaze from the man.
When it had finished the cheese, it looked expectantly at the man. This time, he placed a tiny bit in the palm of his hand and held it out, laying it flat on the table to prevent his intoxicated swaying from frightening the little creature. With great caution, the mouse waited, approached, and stepped onto his hand. To the man's surprise, it sat there and ate the cheese rather than scurrying away.
"It's my fault. I told them to get on the ferry," said the man. After months of not speaking, his voice was hoarser than he remembered. "It was all my fault." The mouse continued to stare at him with those all-seeing eyes. "I wanted to see them, to see my wife and daughter. So I told them to get on the last ferry." The mouse nibbled the cheese and held the man's gaze. "The storm came in faster than anyone expected, you see?" he asked the mouse, half expecting it to answer. "I wanted to see them. The ferry and the storm..." he trailed off. "Did I kill them?" He again asked the mouse, hoping it would answer and absolve him.
Finished with its meal, the mouse cleaned itself vigorously, briefly breaking its gaze on the man. The man studied the little critter, still holding its delicate body in the palm of his hand. Then, slowly, he moved his other arm up, took another morsel of cheese, and gradually brought it to the mouse. "It's okay, little one. Here you go," he said. The mouse took it. He stroked the mouse's tiny head slowly and gently with his forefinger. He chuckled, "if Clara could see this, she'd love to hold you, too. She'd..." he trailed off, lost somewhere. "But I can hear Susana now, 'William, get that thing off my table!'" He continued to stroke the mouse with the care and kindness one might use to handle a newborn. "Oh, but Susana would take one look at you," he began, then started to cry. "She'd take one look at you and say, 'he's adorable; what should we name it?'" He slowly moved his free hand and used the backside to wipe his eyes."She was an angel."
Tenderly, he tilted his hand and let the mouse scurry onto the table. They watched each other momentarily before the man began to methodically brush all the crumbs and bits of cheese into a neat pile on the tabletop. The mouse watched him with immense curiosity."I must see to the lambs," he said with firm resolution.
Without putting on his boots or oilcloth slicker, he stood, walked to the door, and stepped outside. He paused momentarily and tilted his head back, soaking in the freezing rain and wind; it sobered him instantly and reaffirmed his decision. Turning around, he saw the mouse was still holding his gaze with those vast, ink-black eyes.