By Cyrus Console, from Romanian Notebook, a memoir that will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Console is the author of two volumes of poetry. His poem “A Man of Limited” appeared in the December 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
It is loneliness, or a panic brought on by the acuteness of the loneliness, that drives me to the pet store to purchase the mouse, a tiny thing whose potential efficacy against these feelings is plainly zero or close to zero, the low expectations manifest in such a plan classically symptomatic of the depression that marks my third year at the University of Kansas. There is an aspect — later to become all too familiar — of trying to cheer myself up by means that would have worked only in childhood, for example a trip to the pet store, a place I now despise, though once I loved it better than the zoo.
One rainy afternoon a week or some weeks later, probably my last afternoon in the blue apartment on Kentucky Street, I spend hitting the bong and watching the mouse tremble in my cupped palm. After that it goes into the terrarium with the cedar shavings, the months’ supply of water and food pellets, never again to roam, though it travels with me when I move home to Topeka, where, so caged, it abides on a dark shelf in the garage.
I change the water a couple of times and dump more food pellets into the maroon ramekin. I put a whole roll of toilet paper in the terrarium, a stoned idea but not a stupid one. The mouse shreds some of the paper and sleeps, I believe, in a nest or bed constructed of this material inside the cardboard tube. As winter arrives I sometimes wonder if the mouse is cold. I glance at the dark shelf beside me when I open the refrigerator for beer.
Some winters later, against similar contingencies of mood or affect, having recurred once more to my parents’ house, I retrieve another Michelob and try to remember when and how I disposed of the mouse’s body, as I feel sure I must have done. I make the old effort to reassure myself that what the mouse really wanted, what it wanted most, was to be left alone, something doubtless true in its way. One night I leave the refrigerator door ajar and the beer freezes, splitting its fluted golden cans.
Reaching middle age — the rare accomplishment in which I feel I am precocious — brings with it one change, namely that it seems too much work to persist as a vegetarian now that I have married a Romanian woman. I sometimes suspect, without allowing myself to investigate the suspicion, that this is slated to be my life’s great moral failing: to say, yes, so much suffering, an ocean of suffering to which I contribute, whose tide I no longer make any effort to stem; grief, pain, and dread that overwhelm any love in the world and to which with each meal I myself add fresh blood, though I might choose otherwise.
There is a passage in John Cage’s Indeterminacy in which, after a concert whose program notes include a statement about there being too much suffering in the world, Cage remarks to the composer that in his opinion there is neither too much nor too little, but “just the right amount.”
I have a vision of myself as John Baldessari standing in front of a boxy Seventies-era camera and moving my arm minimally, first one way, then the other, turning slightly to face the camera with each gesture, and with each announcing, “I am causing pain,” “I am causing pain.”
In Romania, the urban roadway varies from fresh asphalt to loose cobblestones to rocks and dust, with most everything in between, but the better ones are divided and subdivided by a variety of dashed lines or medians, sometimes distinguished from one another by the length or frequency of the dashes. As in the United States, motorists drive on the right side of the road, but in other respects traffic dynamics differ.
Animals led, ridden, or driven, and horse carts, of which there are many, composites of welded steel and rough-hewn wood, are confined to the rightmost lane. Faster vehicles move in the lane an American would call the left lane, except when passing another vehicle, a maneuver that requires them to straddle the middle two lanes, their own left lane and the left lane belonging to oncoming traffic, so that despite the existence of four lanes, vehicles traveling in opposite directions must frequently, if not constantly, occupy the same two lanes, competing for space in a game of chicken that I find upsetting.
My Romanian friend George is playing some kind of very irritating and, to me, terrifying game against his wife, Alice, who drives in front of us. He speeds behind her, tailgating more and more closely until the cars’ bumpers touch. George, you’re making me uncomfortable, I speak up. He coughs or laughs. Why, he says. He says “why” as if it were an unfamiliar word. Because if something happened, I say, we could have a very bad accident this way. The children could be injured. Wordlessly and after a slight delay that I experience as an affair of honor, George backs slowly off the Škoda’s bumper.
Then on the road from Iasi to Rotunda I see a stray dog crossing, every part of whose body communicates pain, shame, and uncomprehending sorrow. To the base of his tail some person or group of people has fastened three two-liter plastic bottles partially filled with pebbles.
I don’t like this, George says in his laborious English, gesturing toward the animal. And I don’t understand why just to make more evil. This is why I don’t like the hunting.
We are digesting a breakfast of pork chops, George and I, but I decide not to air the radical and probably disturbing view that industrialized production of a pork chop is incomparably crueler than shooting a deer through the lungs. Meat production in Romania is less industrialized, maybe not at all industrialized; for the moment George and I might agree that seeing this dog has caused us more particular discomfort than any idea of the fate awaiting faceless deer or pigs.
As George’s car manages the noisy transition from asphalt to the gravel surface of the village road, I try to ease the emotions — which I am not sure even how to name — provoked by the sight of the dog with the three bottles tied to his tail. Pity and sorrow, if I can use such terms for a bodily state significant chiefly because I find it intensely uncomfortable, a discomfort I now try, as I say, to alleviate — the only effort I make, as opposed to some effort to change the world. The bottles are visibly abraded and battered, as though attached in this manner they have traveled long distances. I try to visualize the dog finding shelter and with deft front teeth gnawing the poly cord that binds them.
I try to visualize some kind person helping the dog, tempting his approach with a piece of meat, catching hold of him firmly but gently, and cutting the mortifying bottles free. But of course the dog has been tempted in this manner once before.
I visualize the tail blackening and falling painlessly away at the ligature, the dog feeling relief or joy at having been thus freed. But a sound like thousands of plastic bottles scraping the ground intrudes on the rumination and I find myself surveying an infinite abandoned city of the Eastern Bloc, a version of hell in which huge packs of dogs run ceaselessly, dogs of all pedigrees, each trailing a cluster of plastic bottles.
I observe that the discomfort of having seen the dog is not so intense now as in the first moments and it is this thought alone that brings me some relief. The image is fading, I think, though I can still see it vividly and painfully, the dog crossing over and over with the three bottles tied to his tail. The feeling is diminishing, I reassure myself. The pity is going away.
The next night as I lie in bed, I notice that it has been more than twenty-four hours since I’ve remembered the dog with the bottles tied to his tail. Not even when I took my daughter across the street to see the neighbor’s cow and pigs and we saw the chow mix thrashing at the end of a chain just long enough to reach fully into, or fully out of, the scrap-lumber doghouse, onto the bare earth turned continually by these exertions, did the dog with the bottles tied to his tail come to mind. I think of a German shepherd I saw sometimes in Topeka, standing always on top of her plywood doghouse, presumably since that was at least something to do or somewhere to be.
Which dog suffers less? And how much less is the suffering of the pigs in their dark pen, or the cow in hers? What to these creatures are light and freedom, weighed against security and food? At least they will be spared the long and terrifying ride in the stock trailer, the only place I ever see American pigs, their loose stool threading the wind, streaming out from the punched aluminum sides, the animals so crowded they cannot lie down, a percentage dying in transit.
I think of the research animals — mice, dogs, pigs, primates — on whom our present comfort depends, creatures who do not so much give up their lives as accept living hells in order that we might have toothpaste or shaving cream or cell-free fetal-DNA studies.
The new thing is that the suffering does not have to be also mine. I look away, figuratively and literally, from the dog on its chain or the civilian with a blasted daughter in his arms; I can acknowledge this pain without choosing to feel it empathically, without feeling any part of it after the very first shock of its recognition, which is not even really palpable, more like drawing back from a hot stove, a subcognitive neurological process that never ascends higher than the spinal cord.
The worst feature of this lapse is the calculus that I, too, will have a share in the suffering; not in the distribution of it but in the receipt of it, that my portion of suffering is to come, that in the long view I will be one of the victims, no meaningful distinction between me and the other animals marked for slaughter, no slaughter on my behalf.
What draws my thoughts again and again down into the topic of suffering is not compassion so much as fearful conviction that suffering is pure, unalloyed participation.
I don’t believe I ever gave the mouse a name, the one I left to die in the garage, though lately in my thoughts I refer to it as the “depression mouse,” as contradistinct to the “compost mouse” living in the bin behind our house in Kansas City, the happiest genetically unmodified mouse in the world, who presides over a network of tunnels in the kitchen midden. Every day, sometimes twice a day, I dump banana peels or mango seeds or stale tortillas. Ferment keeps the compost warm all winter, not that there is a winter to speak of anymore. When I lift the lid I see the mouse’s hindquarters disappearing into the mouth of one burrow or another.
It would be stupid to think of the new mouse as compensating for the old one, even stupider to think of it as atonement, but to catch sight of her fills me with relief and even joy.
Eventually the compost mouse relocates to the kitchen cabinet, where, with a noise like icebergs calving, her gnawing keeps us up at night. Then, foreleg pinned under the hammer of the trap, she wakes us one last time with the sound of thrashing and something like a scream, more of a piping I guess. After a moment of eye contact, I break a wooden spoon over her head. Small danger, I think to myself, small mercy.