Canada |

Swimming Through Whales

by Shannon Alberta

edited by Kathryn Mockler

I am not avoiding the mouse. I will deal with it—as soon as I’ve woken up, as soon as I’ve had my coffee.

I use his old French press, the one he left, but I wait too long like I always do and the coffee tastes like bits of blown off truck tire.

One more cup, then I’ll deal with the mouse.

What happened was, the dryer in the basement beeped that it was done. I sprang into action because I love pulling all the warm clothing into my arms. The feeling almost cancels out putting the wet clothes into the dryer and how they cling to you like a dying person. But anyway there was this dead mouse, blocking my way, all perfectly laid out at the bottom of the stairs. An Egyptian offering to all the spiders down there. No blood, no movement. I retreated back up the stairs, the dryer beeped, sounding sadder and sadder the further away I got.

I didn’t kill it. I’d never. Why kill something just for being what it can’t help but be? What, do you expect a mouse to put on a striped suit and get a job over on Bay Street?


My first-ever mouse crisis was in my first-ever apartment. I missed my parents so I got a cat and the cat got a mouse pretty early on. The cat got it in the bathroom, between her paws, and being an unskilled house cat, she couldn’t actually kill it. I shut the mouse in the bathroom and the cat in the closet and then I screamed multiple times, which must have been awful for the mouse. I know it was awful for the cat. I called my friend and asked would they please come over and deal with the mouse, which was dead by the time they arrived. “You owe me for gas money,” my friend said.

But anyway, I’m in a house now. And there’s no cat anymore.


Here I am, on the top stair, looking down at the mouse while I pivot on my left foot. I don’t want to go any closer. The lack of blood makes it worse. Like the mouse could suddenly sit up. No one likes a dead body to suddenly be alive again. It is not in our evolutionary setup to enjoy that.

I hear the sigh of my mailbox lid being opened and shut, which gives me an idea. I’ll do the mail first, and then the mouse. I’ll take slow breaths through my nose while doing the mail, which will get my body ready to deal with the mouse.


There is a lot of mail. Some for him, most for me. I do the breathing the whole time. I write RETURN TO SENDER! on the mail for him. I mark the due dates for the cable and the hydro bills on my calendar.

There is a force which is invisible but pushes me hard on the chest and away from the basement stairs. It feels protective like the police officer who will not let you cross the yellow tape and see your obliterated loved one.

For lunch I make a tuna melt. Without thinking, I click my nail on the empty can.

Zero cats come running.


Upstairs, as I scrub the grout between each tile in the shower, I get to thinking that maybe I’m not ready to deal with the mouse on the inside of myself because I’m not ready to deal with the mouse on the outside of myself. I don’t even have appropriate gloves. I have winter gloves, which I need for winter, and dishwashing gloves, which I need for washing dishes. I haven’t scouted a burial location yet either. A firefighter would likely not feel ready to fight a fire without a suit and a hose and a reliable water connection. I’ll get the supplies and proper plans in place, and then I’ll deal with the mouse.

He’s been gone eight weeks, but I still find five of his hairs clinging to the scummy tile in the shower. I line them up along the ledge of the tub.


I walk to the dollar store and buy a pair of purple gardening gloves. Also, I decide on a nice spot for the mouse next to some azaleas. I dig a hole way deep down, past where any nighttime marauders are inclined to dig.


I’m on the third stair down from the top. Progress! I’m looking at the mouse from on high, with the gloves on and a box in my hand. My feet are naked and this is making them frantic. They ask if they could at least be protected via some shoes. Which is a fair point.


He didn’t take the French press with him, because the girl he was going to is so pro at making coffee. For years she used to make little hearts in the froth of his lattes with a toothpick, and I’d fantasize about smashing her head off the counter.


I’m on the second last stair. My throat is threatening to close up, but I don’t listen because the human body is sometimes a liar. The mouse is on his side. Pink tail stretched out. Paws too small to be believed.

The box is too big. It was made to hold shoes. Not the shoes I’m wearing now, but a nice pair I threw up on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He brought me there, third date, to the fourth floor, to look at a sculpture of a man’s face which appeared to be rounded but was actually flat. It hurt my eyes. He wanted me to walk around and be deceived by it at all these different angles. I could tell he thought enjoying art would make us love each other more. I got a migraine and threw up bile the color of Mr. Clean. He called me ‘tender’ and got me the hell out of there.

There is something offensive about the bigness of the box compared with the smallness of the mouse. It was not meant to hold this body. I need a smaller box.


It takes me a while, but I find one. It used to hold the hardware for an IKEA dresser we put together when he moved in.

I am ready. I open the door and descend the stairs, but the mouse is gone. My first thought is that maybe I’m just dreaming. But in my dreams I’d never be in a basement, alone.


While making dinner, I open the fridge and his margarine yells, “I’m heart healthy!” I think it’s funny how a person will take the towel hooks from right off the bathroom door but will leave behind his Becel.


Once, he told me a blue whale’s arteries are so big I could swim through one if I wanted. I crumpled up my nose. I told him I had zero interest in swimming through whales. He said he only meant it was possible, not advisable. Then he laughed and I laughed. This was right when everything first started up. When he would take me out to dinner and impress me like that, with facts.

If he were here, he would probably know a fact about mice and he would say it. He’d know what reason mice have for taking naps on people’s floors and then vanishing like magicians. He would know how small a mouse’s arteries are.

I look for the mouse one last time. Just to be sure. I lift and move the storage bins. I peek under the washer and dryer. I make sounds I think a mouse might find inviting. I carry a piece of apple. I search every part of every room until I am absolutely certain it is empty.


While I brush my teeth, I look at his five hairs. Even still, each one holds all the July sunshine ever made. I said that very thing to him once. He wrote it down on a debit receipt and carried it around his wallet.

Hair is a body part, technically. And to leave behind a body part implies some kind of sick mistake has been made. And to take someone else’s body part when you go? (In this case: my heart, which he dragged away while it kicked and screamed like a toddler.) “People change,” was what he said. And it’s true. I have moles now I didn’t have when we first met. Into the mouse box his hairs go.

Under my bare feet, the evening soil is waking up and squirming. I bury the box in the little plot. The Becel and the French press and the tuna can too. Just under the surface of the planet. In the crust of the earth where all love eventually goes.