Chapter Sixteen – Autumn: The Kindness of Mice
After the piglet race, the leaves in the forest and the magic garden began to turn brown and cold winds whipped across the treetops with a whistling that alerted all who lived in this special place. Stores were being collected and added to special chambers in the bowels of the royal palace. Seeds, dried summer fruits, flagons of amber nectar and small hessian bags of the finest flour, milled along the river to the south of the forest. The Storyteller had recommended this particular mill because of fine qualities of Herbert who ran it with his son Calum.
One night as he joined the queen and her husband for a light supper, he related the story of how mice, which are usually the much preyed upon pests in most mills, were actually protected and revered in this particular grain crushing establishment.
It is common for mice to be caught up in the hand threshing at harvest time, and be swept into the back of horse drawn carts that transported the grain to the mill. Usually several cats, and rat-catching dogs, would patrol the building and its surroundings; grabbing any unsuspecting rodent silly enough to hitch a ride.
However, Herbert was a very kind and gentle man, and did not want to cause unnecessary suffering to these little creatures. Before any crushing of the grain was begun, he removed small stones, leaves and other unwanted materials through giant sifters. There were usually four or five of the little rodents left running around looking for an escape from the high sided prison. They were scooped up by a leather gloved hand and placed gently into a wooden box with holes drilled into the sides. At the end of each day, the miller’s son Calum would harness their horse Ned to the cart, and head off to the next county. There he would open the lids, tipping the mice out into a wild meadow that would never be mown, and was covered by luscious wild grains and flowers.
You might think that this is rather laborious, and that a couple of feisty farm cats, would have made short shrift of the forty or so mice that the miller caught every day. However, there was a special reason for his thoughtfulness.
When he was a small boy, his parents had been very poor. His father had broken his leg badly during harvesting one year and could no longer work. His mother would toil in the fields instead, but if they didn’t save enough or grow enough in their small garden, it would be a very lean winter. One Christmas night the little boy was huddled in his cot, shivering with hunger and the cold. In the flickering candlelight he saw movement on the old stool by his bed. At first he thought he was dreaming, but rubbing his eyes in amazement, he saw three mice scurrying back and forth up the legs and down. When he looked closer he saw that they were leaving little morsels of bread and bits of apple.
As you can imagine he wolfed down the food, and through the night it kept coming. In the morning he told his mother of this strange event and she felt his forehead fearing that he had caught a fever. She went down stairs to boil some water to give him, and was astounded to see that the kitchen table was laden with all sorts of crumbs and bits and bobs of fruit, including some late blackberries. By the fire were hundreds of small pieces of coal and with a shaking hand she placed some on the fire with a few sticks collected from the forest. She went out to the shed where their one hen was kept safe at night to find an egg still warm to the touch.
She found a little drop of brandy in the bottom of a long discarded bottle, and took out the packet of lard and a small pack of flour she had managed to buy for their Christmas dinner. Putting all the offerings and the scraps she had found into a large bowl, she mixed it together with the egg. She used a little lard to grease an iron pot and poured the mixture in, tying muslin over the top to seal it. She put a large pot of well-water on to boil and placed the bowl over the top to steam.
That Christmas lunch was the best ever, and the pudding was delicious. The family sat back with full stomachs for the first time in weeks and all of them gave thanks to the little rodents that had showed such kindness to them. It was clearly a change-of-luck gift, as the day after Christmas, a knock on the door startled them as they sat eating the leftovers in front of the fire.
Herbert’s father limped across the stone floor; partially opening the door so as not to let the cold wind into the house. He found a tall man, finely and warmly dressed, on the doorstep carrying a large hamper and who, smiling at the bemused man, asked if Betty was home.
On hearing her name she ran to the door and flung herself into the stranger’s arms. ‘Oh my goodness, can it really be you, Ciaran… I thought you had been lost at sea?’
The tale took two hours in the telling, but to cut things short, since I know you are keen to know more about the mice. It turns out that Ciaran was Herbert’s uncle, who had been shipwrecked many years earlier and given up for dead. In fact he had been washed up on a beautiful desert island, and in the course of his explorations, had discovered a chest of treasure. He had been rescued this summer and had returned to Ireland a wealthy man.
You see what I mean about the change-of-luck gift from the mice. Ciaran bought and renovated the local mill and Herbert’s father worked alongside him. Once he left school he joined them, and when they passed away he was left with this excellent business. As his father had done before him, he swore never to harm a mouse, and over the years thousands had been rescued from the grain instead of being put through the hopper onto the grinding stone.
Eventually, fewer and fewer mice found their way to the mill. The areas that Calum deposited them in were left wild and undisturbed, with plenty of food all year round and plenty of safe places to nest and bring baby mice up safely. Offers were made to buy the land by the farmers in the area, but they were always told that the land was not for sale at any cost.
If you are wondering where the rest of the treasure went that was found on that far of desert island, wonder no more. It bought many acres of meadow where not just mice, but animals, birds and insects thrived whilst enriching the surrounding countryside with their pollen gathering and droppings.
©Sally Cronin image 2018 –
I hope you have enjoyed and will join me tomorrow for more adventures in the magic garden.
My latest short story collection is Life is Like a Bowl of Cherries: Sometimes Bitter, Sometimes Sweet.
One of the recent reviews for the collection
I’m guaranteed to experience laughter and tender emotions when I read a book written by Sally Cronin. In her latest, Life is Like a Bowl of Cherries, she shares a dozen or so short stories and a few poems that focus on the absurdities of life and all the moments that live to teach us something new. I try to convince myself to only read one each night, but an hour later, the book is finished. Perhaps her next collection will include a theme of patience!
Undoubtedly, my favorite is the first story in the lot. All the rest had something amazing to live up to: Sometime in the future (hopefully VERY distant), an automated device is hooked up to EVERYTHING the narrator does. When she wants to order a few grocery items that might have a little too much sugar and fat in them, everything falls apart. Seriously… how many times have we all had this scenario happen in the most briefest of moments — the one where someone says, “Buy the diet item” or “You don’t really need to eat that, do you?” Take it up or down a million notches in this story. No matter what angle our protagonist tries, the computer has her beat.
Life is definitely like a bowl of cherries. It is sweet and sour, you’ve got to go through a hole bunch to find the best one, and if you consume too many pits, I hear there’s an arsenic concern to consider. Luckily, if you devour this particular bowl of cherries, you’ll have some witty stories to share at a dinner party or a fun little tidbit to announce on your next conference call. Cronin completely had my in hysterics over what happened in the first story, and at other times, I smiled and laughed… teared up a bit at the generosity of some and the thoughtfulness of others.
This is everything you want in a short collection of tales about the reality of life. Well worth the purchase and download. Highly recommended. And it reminds me why I’ve grown to love this author’s work. We all need a little bit of her wisdom and humor.
You can find out about my other books and their most recent reviews: Sally’s books and reviews 2019/2021