“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself . . . we are star stuff harvesting star light . . . Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation is to survive....”
— Carl Sagan, astrophysicist
One in Billions
A muffled sighing or singing caught my attention. A whispering. It was in the pauses, when my husband Terry stopped speaking, staving off a sob with a deep swallow. There, a high-pitched chattering.
Rubbing a tear into his grey beard, Terry grappled with scraps of paper, the draft eulogy for his mother Rose. I knew what he was thinking: Why this much emotion, this depth of loss? It was time, she was ready, we saw it coming, she was 94 . . . and a half, she would have added (bits of time matter when you’re very young or very old). I stroked the hair at his temple, hugged his arm.
He begin reading the eulogy again, practicing, until a swell of grief forced another pause. There, again, the high-pitched chattering. Our big male cat inched his way into the kitchen, crouching to stare at a baseboard.
Even in the midst of grief, neither of us could ignore the curious call of something living in our kitchen. On hands and knees, we crawled along the baseboard, listening. Naturally, silence. We watched cat ears navigate like separate satellite dishes, honing in on any sound.
Then, above the range of my husband’s hearing, but audible to mine, a squeaking. Striped tail whipping, the cat pawed at a low drawer, and Terry pulled it out, sitting it on the floor. While the cat rattled through the serving dishes and pie tins looking for a good chase, we peered into the cabinet to find a deer mouse, surprised against the back wall, her soft white belly almost luminous, the liquid specks of her eyes shining out of the darkness.
Terry coaxed her into a handkerchief, "Hello peromyscus," admiring the length of her tail. He saw the crease of worry across my brow, and nodded, heading for the door, that tail dangling from his cupped hands. Into the brisk air, he released her to the dense shelter of salal below a redwood out back. After cleaning the drawer, its contents, the cabinet, we returned to the eulogy, the scent of bleach lingering in each breath. Terry began again, his voice deep and comforting, an occasional tremble when it was time to say, my mother.
On the counter, above the mouse drawer, a headline on the cover of The Economist announced, “Now we are seven billion.” Seven billion minus one, it occurred to me. The year Rose was born human beings numbered less than two billion, and in the years immediately following her arrival on earth, about 3% of the human population was killed by the first H1N1 (swine) flu pandemic.
But human beings don’t give up easily. “Now we are seven billion” and growing. Now, against such a massive collection of people, each death, it seems, is that much less noticeable, more inconsequential. “We float like a moat of dust in the morning sky,” scientist Carl Sagan said before he dissolved into his cosmos.
Sadly, it’s true, our smallness—there are so many people we’ll never even know exist. Who are they? Happily, it’s also true: we’re large in at least a few lives. One in 7 billion matters. Yesterday I felt that fact, picking up the phone, out of habit, then setting it down quietly to stare out of a window.
Terry reached nearly the end of his tribute before he had to pause, swallow, glance up from his handwriting. Then, surprise, that high-pitched chattering again. The cat sat in front of the drawer, green eyes pleading up at us, and moaned.
Out came the drawer, but no one there. Then I noticed a faint trail of iridescence inside the cabinet—a residue, perhaps the subtle oils of the mouse’s fur—leading to the upper drawer. We slowly opened it, stuffed with summer table cloths, embroidered napkins, velour tea towels, other gifts we rarely use, and a suddenly more urgent squealing that sent the cat leaping, tongue rattling, onto my husband’s back, ready to lunge.
Terry pulled back the tea towels, and a basket of grey fur came to life, whiskered noses probing into the fresh air, black-pearl eyes catching their first glimpses of human faces. Miss mouse was a mother. We both felt a surge of joy, strange and welcomed, that sent us laughing and crying, and hugging the cat close out of gratitude . . . and to keep him from pouncing on the moving mass of fully fledged mice.
Each mouse was perhaps a half ounce or less. We both thought: they want their mother. Then wondered if we were being anthropomorphic. “Well at least they have each other,” I whispered as my husband, an only child, counted the siblings. I once read that there are 36 rats for each person in new York City. Does that ratio apply to deer mice and non-New Yorkers? I multiplied 36 times 7 billion. We were admiring 7 of the 252 billion possible deer mice nesting around the globe. If human beings are anonymous, deer mice live in oblivion.
“Namaste,” I said seven times, looking into each nearly identical simmering face, trying hard to see them as individuals. “Well, some hungry screech owl is going to get lucky tonight,” Terry quipped to the cat, now squirming in his arms. Grief at bay, Terry shifted into to his owl biologist self.
I frowned and offered a box. Terry herded the mice in, and I held the box while he searched for possible escapees. I listened to 28 delicately clawed feet in confused motion, scrambling and scratching the cardboard. The room filled with their downy will to make sense of their suddenly changed circumstances.
Through the window, I watched Terry step into the night with his box of brand-new mice. Only a few stars were strong enough to pulse against the glare of a gibbous moon. Salal leaves shimmered, already dewy, when he bent and tilted the box into the understory. The seven soft forms slipped into the shadows, quick as an exhalation. Terry spoke something, rose and looked into the sky for the next several minutes, then turned back to the house.
“Were you talking to the mice?” I asked. Terry smiled, “I just said ‘you’re on your own, guys’.” We remained at the window, watching below the redwood for movement, but there was only a light breeze low to the ground stirring leaves. “So what were you looking at?” I continued. Both of our cats crowded into the box at our feet, sniffing every corner, side and flap. “I was thinking about calling in an owl,” Terry answered, “but decided not to.”