‘Mousetrap’ by Muhammad Ashfaq (Pakistan)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

That a tiny little mouse would make my life hell without Nadia, I had never imagined.

I thought it was more of a conspiracy than of a coincidence that a mouse had burst into the apartment just after her leaving.

She would go to any extent to torture me and make my life miserable, I reckoned. After all, if she could leave the toothpaste uncapped daily despite my consistent fret, pick a fight with me almost every day on why I had taken bathroom slippers into the bedroom, shout at me if I changed the TV channel without formally consulting her, tipped the maid-servant behind her back, supported Honey when the poor girl had again received a verbal thrashing from her mother for not slavishly obeying her, or reminded her not to switch on the iron-plug with her foot (that subsequently I would with my hand), she could be capable enough to unleash this monster of a mouse on me to give me sleepless nights.

I missed Honey obviously, but the naughty girl had also taken her cat along while moving to her grandpas’ after the decisive battle – when her mother counter-blamed me for being impolite and discourteous to her parents. Honey could not have been a party to the plot against me, if there was any – she was after all a good kid, but with her not carrying the cat along would have helped in that hour of need.

This was a maverick of a mouse – small-sized, intelligent, cocky, insolent, self-denying, engaging, and deft in brinkmanship. As soon as I would go to bed and try to sleep, he would smoothly sneak out of his hideaway and start fiddling with something that would make just enough noise to keep me on tenterhooks throughout the remainder of the dark.

Within days, I realized my performance in the office had started to suffer.

‘Early to bed, early to rise’ had been my motto since early childhood, and had neither experienced nor knew sleeplessness, due to any reason, could be so damaging. I received a warning from the boss, for being sleepy and less productive in the office, but Mr. Mouse would not relent.

“I am really upset; a little mouse has made my life miserable.” I replied sheepishly to Shehla on a friendly query by a colleague concerned. She just ironically smiled. I would not have minded had she laughed; it cut me through. Nadia being not at home, I spoke to a couple of other female colleagues thinking women were more empathetic in these mundane affairs of life. I had always thought that good questions should be good enough to search their own answers – but this time everybody smiled. “Mouse?… huh!” I know it sounded little insulting but there were facts to support my perception of the problem.

Sleeplessness started taking toll on my health, but Dr. Shajee was adamant I should not start relaxants. He again was being guilty of over-doctoring, I thought. I was discussing with him temporary insomnia, and he was probing my family life. I found his search for reasons of my anxiety quite intrusive in tone and tenor.

The situational analysis revealed that his favorite play area was the kitchen and the dining table. Now, even if one is living a bachelor, and has not freshly fallen in love, there would always be something to eat and drink in and around the kitchen and the dining table. I guessed Mr. Mouse made his nocturnal escapades into the kitchen and the lounge in search of dinner; I was rather happy over the revelation.

Believing in the principle ‘live and let live’, I started sparing something on the dining table in the lounge before going to the bedroom for the night. However, since the gratitude is the prerogative of the other people, it did not work out. I found out he was more interested in creating fuss and keeping me awake rather than seeking his own bread and butter. I should not have been cribbing. After all that favor had nothing to do with my generosity and large-heartedness – I had been cowed down into that. It smelled defeat, but I was more stung by his blatant and thankless gulping of my appeasement baits.

I decided to change tactics.

One night, after careful monitoring of his whereabouts, I cordoned him off inside the guest room by meticulously closing the doors and putting some kind of protection beneath them so that he had absolutely no chance of making his escape. It was a comparatively smaller room with less furniture inside. I was somewhat excited, and thought he would be starved to death in the next forty-eight hours at best.

His tenacity had no end.

Instead of behaving and buying his freedom by adopting a mercy-seeking demeanor, he chose to react and revolt. He made my life in bed miserable that night as he took to frantically cutting the wooden door with his teeth to make his way out – it was a terrible noise. The impact of my hitting the door from outside with foot and shouting at him would last only a few minutes, and then he would resume his nefarious activities. At around two in the morning, I had to let him loose to barter some hours of peaceful sleep.

I had negotiated with a blackmailer for the first time in my life.

With family life in total disarray, I rediscovered my interest in music. One night, before going to bed, I played “The Dangling Conversation.” Suddenly, the persistent noise came to a complete halt. I thought I was mistaken. I replayed it after a while and there was pin-drop silence in the entire apartment again. I tested him thrice over. Each time he shared the sadness and melancholy latent in the lyrics with extreme concentration with the singer – maybe with me. Next day, when I played “Banghara,’’ he with his pecking and noise making, tried to match the melody. I played it again and again and again, and he played to the tune of the song. Who knows, he may have been dancing in the dark, too. Give the devil his due – I was confronted with a Mouse bestowed with artistic faculties.

A fortnight passed. I was angry with both Nadia and Honey for having left me alone to face all kinds of ordeals – food, cleanliness, ironing of my clothes, long queues at the utility-bill counters, communication with the stuttering maid, a bad boss in the office, and to top all – the Mouse at home.

Neither did I meet Honey nor could I do anything about the perennial nightly torture machine.

I was caught in a vicious circle. The whole day long I would be slack and sleepy and return home late, and then hit the bed early only to wake up sometime around mid-night. I, as if, was suffering from paradigm paralysis. Simply did not know how to deal with it and get out of the situation.

This was probably the time for consultation.

The easiest method to get rid of a mouse, the office bellboy educated me, was to poison him to death. However, the plan had its hazards – if he died somewhere in a remote nook, it would smell like hell and would be difficult to carry out an extensive operation to take his body out – not my cup of tea.

I realized Mr. Mouse was not much afraid of me – until then. I found it highly offensive and disrespectful, but he was hardly at fault – after all, most of my attacks on his life had been quite clumsy instead of being life-threatening – throwing bathroom slippers at him, hurling a book behind him, starving him to death inside the store room, and shooting him with Honey’s toy-gun. I really felt awkward. He, instead of getting scared, was enjoying my attempts on his life.

My yearning to see Honey heightened with every single day – I was also probably missing her cat. I called her up, and her grandma told me she was out at the park with her maternal cousins. In the evening, I was told she had gone to sleep for the night. Next morning she was at an appointment with the Child Specialist, then to the market for summer shopping, then for an evening stroll with her mother – so forth and so on. I was able to make out she was intentionally not being put through to me. This was sheer injustice – less with me and more with Honey – and, of course, frustrating.

One evening when I returned from the office, I found out he had spoiled my milk, cookies, bread and whatever edibles were available on the table – that meant he had eaten less and spoiled more. I was furious.

This was time to draw battle lines quick and fast.

This time I decided to take the bull by the horns; I decided to hunt him to death. I took out an iron rod and shut the door of the guest room once again, where he was putting up and started hounding him. I brutally chased and attacked him with the rod, with boots, and at whatever I could lay my hands on. I even tried to crush him under my feet. I shouted and abused him loudly to weaken his resolve. We had a couple of intervals, too. I took a glass of orange juice. This grueling encounter continued until midnight, and was all set to continue further, when the doorbell rang.

“Is everything ok?” my neighbor Maj. (R) Tanvir Hussain asked in a concerned and worried voice.

“Yes, a mouse,” I said taking extended breaths.

“A mouse?” he said without at all believing me.

“Yes,” I said rather apologetically.

“Ah… ok… I thought, God forbid, a robbery… or may be a family feud… again!” he said sarcastically, referring to countless family fights that Nadia and I had been having ever since we had rented this third floor apartment in this lower middle class locality. It was mean on his part; he was trying to cash in on the adversity of a good neighbor.

In consequence to this grueling fight, the room had gone into an extremely bad shape. I was wary of Nadia – if she came back – I had put many scars on the bed set which her parents had gifted. She kept it very dear.

It was now a month I had not seen Honey – I was told to approach the court if I wanted to. This was totally unexpected and bizarre. I called up a lady lawyer who suggested filing a suit for the custody of my daughter, as well as for the visitation rights. She gave me draft suit papers so that I could read, sign up, and return to her in the district courts on my way to my office the next day. Tired, I left the papers scattered in the TV lounge after signing them, and went to the bedroom for the night.

At around early mid-night I woke up to a consistent ruffling sound – the case papers had been minced.

Co-existence had become a doubtful option.

I received a similar kind of message from Nadia, through my mother-in-law. It sent me floating in the air.

I had always been bad at predicting the next move of an opponent, though Nadia always complimented I was good at gathering quick and appropriate responses to sudden situations.

I thought Raza – a schooldays friend – who with the passage of time had graduated into an extremely domesticated husband – certainly a rare species amongst my friends – would be of use for consultation.

“Well… since now you have talked to me when it may already be too late… I am a very straightforward person, you know… my advice has three distinct parts whether you like it or not,” he said rather curtly. It is his wont to feign being methodical and systematic even on the simplest of projects like buying cabbage for the kitchen.

“No… no… I am definitely going to like it… I am in serious trouble!” I appealed humbly.

“Ok, firstly, you are literally living in with a rat so please get yourself vaccinated for rabies,” he said pointing a finger at me.

“Don’t you think you are insulting me?” I retorted but he ignored me.

“Secondly, you immediately get authentic and branded rat-kill pills, preferably tonight… as you simply can not afford to delay it any more.” He injected an extra bit of urgency and seriousness into his tone.

“Rat-kill pills?… Ok!” I responded a little cautiously.

“I share your worries…” Looking at my long face, he continued: “Once he consumes a pill, he would like to run into the open, and that is where he would breathe his last. This is the state-of-the-art technology in the field of mouse killing, you see. How do you like it?” I sighed in relief.

“And thirdly, when the cat is away the mouse can play,” he chuckled. He had always enjoyed my low IQ when I could not understand his labyrinthine and convoluted conversations.

“What do you mean?” I posed a direct question.

He gave me a big five. “Get a girl when your wife is away… make the most of it… otherwise mark my words… you would go mad my dear friend… I envy you,” he said naughtily.

His insistence made me pick a bottle of good rat-kill pills on my way back. I also got myself checked up for rabies, but the third prescription did not find favor with me due to his own doubtful credentials in the field.

I spread killer pills all over the place as per instructions noted on the bottle.

The night felt like hell. All night he kept clattering, as if he were perturbed on something, as if he was not expecting this kind of naked aggression from me, as if on a mission – not to let me sleep. I did not sleep too… thinking firstly about Honey… and then about the poisoning process.

In the morning, I was utterly shocked; not a single pill had been swallowed by him. He had gone reactionary to the plot aimed at killing him – in anger, he had torn apart Honey’s stuffed cat after playing games with her all night.

The court proceedings started, and on the very first hearing, I got my visitation rights restored. It was blissful meeting with Honey – in the midst of the district courts. Looking deep into my red eyes she innocently said, “Baba you miss me so much?”, then fell into my lap.  At the time of her leaving with her mother after the meeting, she gave me an envelope. “It is only a gift from mama”, she responded to my eagerly inquisitive looks! This turned out to be Agatha Christie’s novel “Endless Night.”

I read the novel in one sitting, and realized I was now being engaged in psychological warfare. Nadia had been a good student of international politics; peace though had never been one of her favorite topics.

Although it was a marriage of convenience, yet Mouse and I had started to believe in and practice peaceful co-existence again. This was through an unwritten covenant, the main clauses of which were: (a) I would place water in an open pan and something to eat for him on the dining table before I went to bed; (b) I would not hatch any conspiracies against him; (c) I will not shut him in the store or the guestroom; and (d) I would not go to bed too early. In turn, he would let me sleep after mid-night. The arrangement being completely one-sided was doomed to crumble.

Honey and I were meeting in the court premises after every fortnight, but despite the poor girls’ entreaties, her mother was not relenting to come back to her home.

The peace treaty worked well until that fateful night, when I attacked him with the iron rod again. In fact, I was provoked. At around 10 pm, while sitting on the floor mattress in the TV lounge, I just dozed off, and he bit me on my left toe. Could not have been in love; and the bite was severe and sudden enough to snap the entire co-existence arrangement between the both of us.

My negotiations with Nadia and the mother-in-law collapsed as she refused to come back until and unless I gave her guarantees that I would not quarrel with her again – again I was being offered a lopsided agreement, which, of course, I did not take.

The moment of decision had reached as to who would stay in the apartment – he or me. I discussed the matter again with Raza, who was astonished at the revelation that his earlier prescription had not worked, advised me to adopt a more crude and agrarian method, which incidentally went well with his personality.

“It is bound to work… now he is destined to die!” His sheer faith in the ominous design was reassuring.

“What should I do – tell me straight!” I was somewhat lost at his suggestive way of discussing a serious matter.

“Get a mousetrap!” There was no limit to his gruffness.

“Wherefrom… and how I am going to make it work?”

“Easiest, oldest and most tested method – fix something inside it… as bait… and place it where he frequents most, and you would get him!”

Next morning, I waited for Honey in the city courts for over a couple of hours and she did not turn up for reasons unknown.

On my way to the office, I dropped by the market to get a mousetrap – just wanted to be on sure footing. It was the best and most high-tech mousetrap available. It cost me 65 rupees, although I could have opted for a cheaper one. This time I did not want to take any risks. The laying down of the trap was rather more painful – it went off while fixing the bait, and almost took my index finger along, but my determination to get him was unshakeable.

I kept waiting excruciatingly for his travailing death shriek when the trap bar would fall on his neck. He did not stir at all – it was as if there was a silence of death in the entire apartment. I could not sleep but it certainly was not because of his noise or activities. I happened to recall the night my father had died – he was having broken breaths, was unconscious and half-dead, and the entire family kept awake – helplessly waiting for the final whistle.

I did not remember as to how and when I slept.

When I woke up, I expectantly rushed to the guestroom – where the trap was laid.

His body was lying cold along the trap, with a little drop of blood flowing from his right nostril, and a string of his long moustache still caught in the fallen trap bar. I had absolutely no idea how fat and big he had grown over the weeks. There was an eerie and somber silence in the house; I could not move for minutes. I left the door of the guestroom ajar thinking dead-bodies are not to be left unattended. I did not switch on the music while shaving; didn’t iron my shirt, didn’t use scent, didn’t jell my hair, and before leaving for the office I put his body on a piece of paper, and threw it down through the terrace door into the open compound.

Climbing down the stairs, I could see his body lying in the dust and dried grass. All day I was dull and drab in the office. The boss was his usual bad self, but I neither cribbed nor retorted to him on any matter; it was a kind of low blood pressure running in my firmament.

In the evening when I returned from the office, I could clearly see his body still lying safe and sound in the fading twilight. Towards midnight, I realized that he was gone but my sleep had not returned.

Each time – leaving or returning home – I would see from the staircase his body lying intact. The compound sweepers, vultures, and crows had to be extra smart to catch him – even dead. Astonishingly, his body did not deteriorate for two good days.

The trap, too, kept laid at the same place, as the room was not in active use.

I lost my case for Honey’s custody as, in the judgment of the court, a lone man could not ensure proper welfare of a minor. Nadia too filed a suit for declaration of divorce and dissolution of marriage.

It was the fifth night since his strangled death. I was restlessly pulsating in my bed when I heard from the dining room a kind of noise I was used to. I rushed out instinctively, and switched on the lights. It was a baby mouse – exactly like him when he had entered the apartment – tiny, cute-looking, with sharp animated eyes, and brave to the extent of being stupid. We were eye-ball to eye-ball and I blinked. He too then jumped from the dining table like a little lamb and disappeared into the darkness of the guestroom.

I stood still, thinking for a moment.

Next morning when I was leaving for the office, I saw the mousetrap lying in dust exactly where his body had been lying.

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Muhammad Ashfaq lives in Pakistan.

Initially published on www.millionstories.com
but subsequently removed to make way for “new submissions.”

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