Dead or alive
Small things can sometimes cause distress disproportionate to their size. Take mice, for instance. My family and I are currently cohabiting with a mouse. Dead or alive, we don't know, and it hardly matters: the little creature has provoked intense feelings of disgust, restlessness and even a touch of fear.
Our first encounter occurred the other day when my seven-year-old daughter Merna, my five-year-old Mirette and I were in hot pursuit of lost treasure with Barbie via the girls' Playstation. On the brink of victory, I left the mission to my daughters and went off to the bathroom. No sooner had I closed the door when Merna began to pound on it in a panic.
"Mom, hurry, there's a mouse in the kitchen." Not wanting to believe her, I chastised her saying that talk of rodents in the house was no joking matter. But on leaving the bathroom I found the girls in a genuine state of panic.
"I really saw a mouse in the kitchen," Merna insisted as Mirette clutched her hand. "We wanted to surprise you and drink milk without you having to tell us. But as soon as I turned on the lights, I saw the mouse. It ran so fast."
But I refused to believe her. "You're just imagining things," I said.
Merna began to sob, and Mirette, even though she didn't claim to have seen the mouse, followed suit.
"I don't know why you don't believe me. I only know mice from cartoons, but now I know what they're like. I've seen a real one: it was grey, small and it had a tail." With her description, she had me convinced.
"Let's tell Dad," Mirette offered.
My husband Mohamed, who is a journalist, was on the phone with an important source.
"Daddy, there's a mouse in the kitchen," Mirette interrupted, with all the urgency of delivering breaking news. Mohamed gestured to her to wait as he tried to wrap up his conversation.
Meanwhile, the girls showered me with questions. "Does it bite? Will it walk across us when we're asleep?" And so on.
Give them the facts, I figured. "Mice can bite, they can carry diseases and they might nibble our clothes."
That made them as terrified as I was and probably wiped away for good any images of friendly mice they had in their minds from watching TV.
When my husband was off the phone, the girls were all over him, and in tears. "We don't want to be bitten by the mouse."
He tried to calm them, saying, "We'll get rid of it and, besides, mice don't bite."
"Oh, of course, I was just kidding you," I said retracting the information I had given them earlier.
So we all headed for the kitchen in search of the enemy, the girls clutching Mohamed's clothes and I theirs.
But there was nothing to see.
I shot Merna a sceptical look. "But I did see a mouse," she said, her voice tinged with desperation.
Let's take action, I thought, as I dialled the pharmacy to order mouse poison.
"Which kind?" came the response to my query. "There's poison that kills the mouse three days after it's ingested, which is useful if you have many mice since mice test the food first. If the tester doesn't die the others join in and eat the food."
Why was the pharmacist making things so difficult in our moment of need?
"I think I only have one mouse and I would like something that has an immediate effect."
"We need Tom," Merna offered in reference to Tom and Jerry, taking the opportunity to try to convince us to get her the cat she has always wanted.
Mohamed cut up some cheese and tomatoes and carefully sprinkled the poisonous powder on top. Then, taking comfort in the notion that the mouse was locked in the kitchen, we all headed for bed.
But the mouse refused to leave my thoughts. Upon waking the next morning the first thing I did was go to the kitchen to see if our response to the invader had achieved results.
The poisonous cheese had been chewed at, but the mouse had left its calling card everywhere. Contradictory signs, alluding to both life and death.
I refused to use the kitchen to prepare breakfast, declaring it a danger zone. The kitchen door should always be closed, I told the girls; if they wanted something from the fridge, they should ask first.
The kitchen remained largely undisturbed by human beings until the next day when the maid came to clean. I instructed her to turn it upside-down: the mouse must be found. A few hours later, amid complaints of an aching back, she confessed her failure. "It left the house," she offered -- voicing our own unspoken hopes.
Although there was no concrete proof the critter was alive, we could swear that each time any of us entered the kitchen there were strange sounds. We used the kitchen as little as possible, and Mohamed and I continued our vain search for signs of its presence.
Is it dead or alive? I hate loose ends. Of all of the unanswered questions in my head, for me the fate of that mouse is right up there with that of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.