I take my truck to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. It’s a 2000 Toyota 4Runner, a big battered muscular machine that’s served me well in Colorado. I’m not a terribly mechanical person. I marvel at the complex innards of the engine when the hood is up, but I don’t have much interest in learning how to change my own oil or diagnose worrisome noises myself. So I am always somewhat at the mercy of car mechanics, and can only try to gauge their honesty and character.
In the Jiffy Lube garage I am standing with one of the employees at the computer where they chart your various fluid levels, your front and rear differentials and so forth. The computer screen is stationed alongside the open maw of my truck, and I’m admiring the tough, dusty elegance of my loyal 4Runner’s motor when I happen to peer down into the hollow compartment which houses the air filter they’ve just removed. Something tiny and pink is moving around in there. I step closer and see a ball of fluffy nest material in the air filter compartment, a mix of laundry lint and leaves. Half a dozen baby mice—hairless, blind, helpless on their backs—are squirming on the hot plastic bottom of the box.
Soon all the guys in the garage are peeking down into this miracle. They are tattooed and Latino and, to my relief, find the baby mice adorable and heartbreaking and have no intention of wantonly destroying them. “Aw man, so cute,” one says.
Then the mother mouse appears, silver-brown and quick; she grabs one of the babies in her mouth and disappears into some pipe leading off the compartment. We all cry out in unison, as if reacting to a clever interception in a football game.
It is decided to remove the nest material, and as the mechanic is delicately extracting the wad a hidden baby mouse falls onto the plastic lip of the compartment’s top, limbs kicking, eyes sheathed in blue skin. I put out a finger to stop it from falling off the edge into the engine, and am startled at its fragility, so soft and weak it has no weight, it barely feels there. I can’t even pick it up between my fingertip and thumb for fear of pulling it apart. I slide it onto a sheet of paper and return it to the litter.
The mechanic forms a plan—he’ll attend to the oil first and wait for the mother mouse to collect all her young, as she seems to be doing. Already she has snatched up two more and vanished into the labyrinth of my vehicle which she seems to know like a maze runner. One by one she will relocate her family—birthed in the amazingly protective air filter chamber, which until now was sealed and mostly filled with the fuzzy white air filter, itself—to some other unknown mouse-sized niche, away from the slowly probing human giants. Once the mother has collected the lot of them, the mechanic will reinsert a clean air filter.
Foolishly—or serendipitously—I did not see the operation through; instead I ran an errand nearby. When I returned I was told the plan had succeeded, and the mother had come back for them all. This meant, of course, that the family was now either nestled somewhere else in the engine, exposed to god-knows-what when the truck started—or that they had abandoned the truck altogether. But we couldn’t dismantle the whole motor to find out. I had no choice but to assume they were safe, and drive home.
Mice are recurring characters in my life. My roommate and I rent a rustic drafty wooden house on a horse ranch a few miles north of Boulder, in a grassy valley of the foothills. A small family of field mice has their run of the place; several generations of the lineage have grown from bald sucklings to adults over the year of our cohabitation. They hide by day and scamper like racing cars over the carpet and counters by night, usually two of them at a time—mates or siblings. They nibble into whatever they can, and leave their tiny black rice-like pellets behind in the oddest places, inside frying pans or shallow cups in the cabinet. It sounds disgusting, I’m aware, but really the droppings are easy to clean and the mice are extremely cute. Neat and brown with huge black eyes, agile and precise, skirting the walls but sometimes making a bold dash across the open floor. Sometimes they’ll lose their traction on the kitchen tile and skid like cars on ice, careening into a table leg or a cast-off sock. My roommate and I have this pipsqueak falsetto voice we give to our little invaders as we mimic their defiance of our rule—jauntily telling us to go fuck ourselves and calling us “pussies.” In these scenarios we are the over-tolerant, beaten-down parents: “Come on, guys, really? In the Scotch glass?”
I know about mousetraps. I’ve seen the aftermath over the years. The sharp snap in the night, the disjointed bloody body in the morning. Or far worse, the odious glue trap, snaring the wretched rodent by the paws and tail and making it shit like a machine gun and clatter over the floor and shriek in terror when you come to investigate. When you use a glue trap you have to perform a coup de grace on the poor mouse, clomping frantically across the floor in futile escape.
Every now and then in our ranch house, one of our mice will die of “natural” causes, occupational hazards. One got crushed in the mudroom by the heavy hiking boots strewn about. Another fell into the tall garbage can while we were away for a few days; there was no bag in the can and the poor thing clawed and smashed itself to a pulp against the walls of the plastic oubliette. When a death occurs, there is a brief cessation of nocturnal activity, and my roommate and I will jokingly take credit for the elimination and mimic the bereaved cowed falsettos of the mice: “They got Louie! These guys aren’t fucking around anymore!” But soon enough the nightly circus begins again.
Most people would call the exterminator. “I mean, they’re vermin,” said Tom, the ruddy jovial maintenance man for the property, when I asked him about the problem. Vermin is an ugly word. We reserve it for the animals we regard as dirty, inconvenient, serving no immediate purpose. Mice are quite clean, however, far more fastidious than the large slobbering shedding dogs people keep in their homes. And mice do serve humans a purpose. It’s a noble and horrible service that we do not like to consider.
My younger brother Andrew is a scientist, working through the PhD portion of his MD-PhD in a prestigious lab studying Regulatory T cells which modulate the immune system and help prevent autoimmune disease. He conducts his research on mice, as do thousands of scientists around the world. Mice are particularly conducive to disease research. They have essentially the same organs and cell types as humans, and the genes and proteins are conserved between our two species, meaning that the processes by which we develop diseases are often similar. Mice are small and storable in great numbers, and they mature and breed with rapidity; generations can be bred and studied within months. And the genes of mice are also, interestingly, easy to manipulate; it’s easier to insert or to “knock out” a particular gene in a mouse than in a rat.
Andrew is studying a fatal autoimmune disease called IPEX, related to the Foxp3 gene which mice and humans share. His work seems insanely complicated, god-like. Basically he has been engineering a very specific sequence of DNA that drives the production of a certain protein; this sequence was originally spliced from a strain of bacteria designed to carry random chunks of mouse DNA. This carefully assembled DNA strand is “electroporated,” fused with electricity into mouse embryonic stem cells and these stem cells are injected into an early stage developing mouse embryo which is then implanted into a female mouse. The offspring of this impregnated female are called, wonderfully, “chimeras,” composed of both normal cells and cells that contain your engineered DNA. The offspring of those chimeras or their offspring might eventually produce a mouse that carries your hand-crafted DNA in every one of its cells.
My brother once gave me a tour of his lab, first the airy high-tech upper floors and then the windowless basement levels where the mice are stored. Each set of parents and their brood were housed in what looks like a shallow rectangular Tupperware container. The mice were tiny and gray, neurotically twitching in the bits of woodchip. One of the miniscule pink babies was dead, and my brother gently removed it. Sometimes, he tells me, the mother mouse will devour the whole litter, usually her first batch of offspring, like a trial run at procreation before the real race begins. The Tupperware containers are stacked on rolling metal racks such as you see in cafeterias. There are regulations about how tall these stacks can be. This is where the mice live, millions of them sealed in their plastic highrises. They are given injections and tumors and obscure diseases. Often they must be dispatched for dissection or just elimination; my brother has described the uncomfortable expedient of snapping their fragile necks. Blood must be drawn frequently, as well: Andrew has described an “orbital sinus” procedure which involves popping out the mouse’s eyeball with a pipette, so as not to overuse the other viable extraction points like the tail, paw, or jugular. The eyeball does retract back into place when done correctly. But needless to say, from the point of view of a mouse the lab is a nightmare, a sterilized concentration camp. Andrew is a gentle soul but he accepts the necessities of his studies, as do the mice. Like creatures of science fiction they endure their existence so that we can evade death a little longer.
The “rightness” or “wrongness” of all this is impossible to separate from the entire way humans live on this planet. We see everything here as available for us to use as we like. We invent complex ethics to help us make distinctions between organisms, and we ascribe a level of consciousness to each living thing to guide our determination of what is appropriate. We assume that trees feel no pain, that insects experience no joy or grief. Cats and dogs are exalted; we would never allow them to be the subjects of medical experiments. But mice are small, and we tend to link consciousness to animals in proportion to their size. Mice can feel pain and discomfort and fear, we acknowledge—but we seem comfortably certain that they don’t understand suffering, the misery of the imprisoned soul. They don’t know any other life, they’ve never tasted natural freedom, so they don’t have a point of comparison.
But I do. Quality of life slides along a spectrum like an abacas bead. It’s hard not to see the mice in my brother’s lab and the mice in my house and my truck as occupying the polar ends of the spectrum of rodent existence. Compared with those suppressed sickly chimeras in their Tupperware cell blocks, “our” mice are like immortals, fast as ninjas, free-range, organic, intrepid and inventive. They have forsaken the tall grass fields of their ancestors for the civilized indoors, where there are no hawks or snakes or foxes, only two benevolent giants who leave tasty morsels everywhere and laugh at their antics. How could we kill them? There seems something almost karmic in the mouse spectrum that connects my brother’s life and mine, like an invisible chord linking New York and Colorado, his lab and my home. We aren’t twins, but people often ask. We are very close, best friends, with a similar quirky artistic disposition, an uncanny reflection in our voices and facial expressions. Yet we also occupy the extremes of another spectrum, the range of our inherited skills and inclinations: Andrew the scientist and Daniel the writer. Our father is a scientist, our mother is a writer and academic. How their genetic coding recombines to produce the two of us—twin-like and yet antipodal in terms of how we spend our time—seems a process both impossibly random and meticulously coordinated. It’s the story of biology, the narrative of life. Andrew and I try to tell it from opposite ends.
There is an epilogue to the Jiffy Lube incident, thank god. Later on that day, after my oil and air filter change, the orange “check engine” light flicked on in my truck. Then it flicked off. I eyed the dashboard suspiciously. The next morning I needed to drive into town. I pulled from the ranch’s dirt road onto the winding two-lane Foothills Highway, gunning the gas with a rattle of pebbles to meet the speed of traffic. My truck lurched and then the power seemed to cut like the wind had suddenly died in its sails. I guided the asthmatic vehicle onto the shoulder, then managed to turn around and coax the huffing breathless thing back up the dirt drive. I called AAA and requested a tow to Hoshi Motors.
Hoshi is a wonderful garage, staffed by kind, honest, efficient people who keep old-fashioned paperwork and view each vehicle’s problem as an interesting puzzle. I told the man at the desk the story of the mice in the air filter compartment. “I have a few ideas,” he said, “but I don’t want to make any predictions yet.”
He called me within an hour. “So, I don’t like to use this word,” he said amiably. “But those dumb-asses at Jiffy Lube didn’t put your air filter back in.”
Hoshi Motors had opened up the air filter compartment, and they had found no air filter inside. But the plastic box was not empty. There was a fluffy nest in there, and a mother mouse with all her newborn babies.
“They came back?” I cried.
They came back. From whatever safe temporary chamber the mother had found, the whole family had returned to their original nursery. And somehow the mother had brought the nest along—or scrounged up fresh nest material in the interum, from where I cannot imagine. But that nest material, without the benefit of the air filter, had been sucked into the air intake running off the compartment and was clogging up the circulation. Possibly some nest stuffing had been sucked into the engine, as well.
And how did the people at Hoshi Motors solve the mouse occupation redux? They lifted out the entire air filter compartment and carried the box, with the nest and the mice inside, over to the little creek that runs below the edge of their parking lot. Among the leaves, in the sylvan oasis below the busy roadway, they tipped out the tiny remarkable family, to become whatever their hybrid environment would make of them.
My truck was fine, the engine ultimately unaffected. Jiffy Lube took gentlemanly responsibility and reimbursed me for the services. Every player involved in the minor drama came away with a different angle on a funny, incredible story of resourcefulness and triumph and motherly love. The world is filled with these stories, the epics of survival and peril and regeneration unfolding among myriad creatures, all beneath our notice. The human saga is too all-engaging and blinding, the myth of human dominion too deep and pervasive to allow us to think that “lesser” animals might have stories and adventurous lives. But the stakes are the same for us all, and the fundamental impulse to survive and bear fruit drives every organism onto the stage of its thrilling drama. It creates the very concept of storytelling, itself, without which all is plotless chaos. Nature is a story, the universal omniscience spinning its yarn at every level, from electrons to galaxies and everything in between, all wanting to be, to exist. It’s important now and then to tune into these other frequencies, the tales beyond the mighty human realm, lovely and strange and fascinatingly like our own.
Daniel Levine is the author of The New York Times Editor’s Choice selection Hyde. Levine studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Brown University and received his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Florida. He has taught composition and creative writing at various universities. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives on a ranch outside Boulder, Colorado.