Post Road Magazine #22

Little Marvels

Julie Innis

The voles arrive by FedEx in the morning and by evening there are problems. "These voles are intractable, they refuse to do my bidding," my brother says.

"When has anyone ever agreed to do what you say, much less a box full of voles?" I say.

"Har, har, very funny, little sister," he says before heading off for the garage. I sit at Dad's old desk and google "voles." According to, voles are indeed intractable, prone to sulking, biters. But, of course, as with most in the Animal Kingdom, voles are not without some redeeming qualities; voles can also be quite loyal and stalwart, trustworthy, and kind. From the garage, my brother yells, "damn it" and "fuck it" and "shit." I quickly press "print."

My brother comes in, flips through the pages I give him, and shakes his head. "The internet is full of crap," he says. "But we can use this to paper their cages, I guess."

"Cages? I thought we agreed to free-range."

"After what happened with the ferrets, I don't want to take any chances."

I follow him out to the garage. Against the wall is a row of six shiny new cages holding a pair of voles apiece, one dozen voles engaged in various activities—eating, sleeping, hamster-wheeling. "I've divided the males from the females. Population control. Look at how happy they are," my brother says as he checks the water level in their bottles.

I poke my finger into one of the cages. "Here, volely, voley," I say, coaxing. It's not that I don't trust my brother with the voles; it's just that he's taken all of the money our father left us and sunk it into this venture. A tiny vole creeps up to my finger and sniffs at it with its tiny pink nose.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," my brother warns just as the vole is sinking its tiny teeth into my finger tip.

"Darn it," I say, jerking my hand back from the cage. "See? Intractable."

Before he left for Argentina, our father urged us to build new lives for ourselves. Life is short and then you die, he said. Live your dreams, he told us. His dream was to live out his days on red wine and red meat. Like a gaucho, thick slabs of steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he said.

My brother and I didn't begrudge him—our mother's life was short but her dying was long. More than once I, too, had thought of walking away, packing up my childhood room, going in on a rental with a couple girlfriends. We'd stay up late, talking about boys, doing our nails.

"Sounds lame," my brother says when I describe it to him. "We all have our dreams," I say.

The front of our refrigerator is covered with postcards—Argentina, Uruguay, Patagonia. "Penguins!" that one reads. All of them close with "Love, your Dad."

"He's not coming back, you know," my brother says, warning me. He is two years older, has always watched out for me.

"I know," I say, even though I don't.

Our business is simple: the voles scare mice from hiding spaces, herding them out to where my brother waits with a Havaheart trap. It's humane rodent-removal, non-toxic, very green. Our voles learn quickly, responding well to kind treatment, frequent rewards of dried apricots, walnuts. The calls flood in. Real estate agents and landlords put us on speed dial. There is a mouse epidemic in Ohio and our voles are on the front line.

We make a good team, my brother and I. My brother is the more pragmatic one, the one who keeps the books, counts our take. "Only our second quarter and already we're ahead," he says, smiling, happy.

I am the more empathetic one, the one who monitors morale, distributes the treats, frets when the temperatures drop. "Ohio winters can be so cold, so dark," I say, frowning, worried.

"They're animals, they'll adapt. Besides, they're covered in fur. What are you going to do, knit them little sweaters?"

My brother says that if we spoil them, we'll lose control.

Still, when he isn't home, I take the voles from their cages and bring them inside, setting them down in front of the fire to let them warm their paws. They roll back on their haunches, exposing their chilled bellies. In the warm room, they groom themselves, each other. We're known for having the cleanest voles. In the light of the fire, their fur gleams.

But one by one, they start slipping free of their collars and leashes and refuse to come out of the mouse holes when called. When they do, they drop severed mouse paws on the floor in front of us, and, once, a velvety mouse ear.

"Offerings to their gods," I say, my voice hushed with horror.

"Jesus," my brother says. "It's like Apocalypse Now. I don't know how this happened, but clearly they've gone rogue on us."

He ferrets out their Kurtz, puts him in a cage of his own at the far side of the garage. "Ring leader. Solitary confinement," he says.

The other voles crowd the fronts of their cages, lifting themselves, their sharp claws scabbering against the wire mesh, quivering noses poke through, assessing. Kurtz sniffs once, twice in their direction then turns shoulder, stalks off.

"Are you sure this is necessary?" I ask.

"Sends a message. They can be intractable, but insubordinate? I didn't sign on for that shit," my brother says.

Neither of us signed on for anything, I want to point out. That's the way it is with families. You're born into someone else's mess, their tics and crannies, their cancers, their travel lusts. We didn't stand a chance, I want to tell him. Instead, I try to comfort the voles by sticking my hand into their cages, letting them run across it, roll in my open palm, nibble at my fingertips. I don't even flinch when nibbles turn to bites. It's their nature, I tell myself. It is who they are.

"Kurtz is gone." My brother stands over me, shaking me awake. "What time is it?"

"It's time we fix this clusterfuck of a situation." He hands me a flashlight, holds his under his chin, and turns it on. "We have to find him before he finds us."

"How about we let him find us while we go back to sleep? Problem solved."

"Are you crazy? You saw what he did to those mice." I reach for my ears, my hands cupped like seashells. I think I can hear

the ocean, but maybe I'm still dreaming. "This is just a dream, right?" "No, dear sister, this is a nightmare."

Voles are nocturnal, except when engaged for purposes of commerce. Now that Kurtz has flown the coop, he's most likely returned to his old volish ways, my brother explains, angling his flashlight beam into the backs of cupboards, along the floorboards, behind the fridge, the washer, the dryer. "We sleep, he prowls. We prowl, he sleeps. Finding him could take days."

Finding him takes thirty minutes. I find him curled into a tight ball at the back of my sock drawer. I wasn't looking for him. My feet were cold. Instead of a sock, my hand closes around something soft and warm. Gently I scoop him up. As I hold him up to my face, he blinks open his eyes and yawns, his pink tongue curled.

"Why hello there Kurtzy," I whisper.

My brother yells from the bathroom. "I found a pile of shredded toilet paper. This is a bad sign. He's bivouacking."

At the sound of my brother's voice, Kurtz freezes, his body rigid, black eyes wide. He sniffs cautiously at the air before tucking himself into a tight ball, as if the tighter he makes himself, the more invisible he'll be. In the center of my palm, he quakes.

"It's okay," I whisper, running my fingertip down his curved spine until he stops shivering. "I'll keep you safe." I slip him back into my sock drawer, closing it all but a crack, for light and air.

"What's bivouacking?" I call back.

From the bathroom, I hear my brother sigh.

Days pass. I sneak sunflower seeds and bits of apple and scraps of stale bread to Kurtz. When my brother is out, I take Kurtz to see his friends—they tumble, play chase, burrow beneath the cedar chips until I hear my brother at the door, and Kurtz in hand, hurry to secure the cage before depositing him back into my sock drawer.

The longer Kurtz is missing, the more depressed my brother becomes. There is no way for this to end well, I tell myself. "You shouldn't have separated him," I say.

"He separated himself," my brother says.

In the middle of the night, I hear my brother's heavy steps, watch the flashlight beam sweep up and down the hall.

Business without Kurtz goes back to normal. We send voles in and they bring mice out, humanely, no slipped collars, no missing paws, no missing ears. The voles flank the mice, herding them out like cattle. Our clients thank us, tuck bills into our hands. Little marvels, they call the voles, so efficient.

My brother nods, but doesn't say much. He's become laconic, like a cowboy, I think, then correct myself. Like a gaucho, I think, and wonder, as I follow my brother out to the van, what our dad is doing at this moment, if he would be proud of the people we've become, my brother with a trap full of mice in one hand and a cage full of voles in the other. We drive across town where there are open fields far from any homes. Here we deposit the mice. They tumble out in pairs, cut quick paths through the grass, their fur the color of fallen leaves.

"Come on, it's getting late," my brother says.

"It's good now, right?" I ask him on the drive home. "Without Kurtz. The voles are back on track."

My brother doesn't say anything, headlights from passing cars cut across his face, his eyes sad, his mouth in a tight line.

"Back to normal, right?" I say.

He shrugs. "If you can call this normal," he says finally.

Then later, after we've changed the bedding in the voles' cages and we've put out fresh food and water, we tuck them in for the night, all voles accounted for, all but Kurtz who I've trained to wait until I come for him, who trusts that I'll release him from his drawer when it's safe, let him run freely through the furrows I make for him with the comforter on my bed. "Was I so bad?" my brother asks, pausing at Kurtz's empty cage, lacing his fingers through its metal weave. "Do you think he'll ever come back?"

I know who he means, but I know not to ask. "It wasn't you," I tell him. "It's his nature. Instinct can't be overridden."

He looks at me, shakes his head. "That's a load of crap and you know it," he says.

I let him go on ahead of me, tell him I'm going to sweep up, to leave the light on. But as soon as he leaves, I switch the light off and stand stock-still in the center of the dark garage until my eyes adjust, my ears pricked to the soft sounds of the voles as they settle into sleep. Soon the room is quiet except for my breathing.

"It's a miracle," my brother yells from the garage the next morning. "Come quick. Kurtz is back." I don't move from my bed. Instead, I smooth the furrows from my comforter, and then stare up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks in the plaster, the crooked borders of countries I wonder if I'll ever know.

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