The mouse’s eyes darted around. He had been maneuvered into a corner and there was no way out. He looked up and up again. There towered a great gray cat with evil and hunger in its eyes.
“Oh, please, please, Mr. Cat! Please don’t kill and eat me!”
The cat was amused. “Whyever not? I am hungry and you are food. This has been the way of things since our kind first shared the earth.”
“Please! I … I could pay. I could get something for you that you wanted,” the mouse pleaded.
“You are what I want,” the cat replied reasonably, and he lifted his right forepaw for the coup de grâce.
“I could get you another mouse. A bigger mouse!”
The cat stayed his paw at the top of its deadly arc. “A bigger mouse?” he mused.
“Yes! Yes, I know where a bigger mouse is. He would be far more filling than I. Please, let me go get him for your meal. Only let me go afterward.”
The cat gently replaced his paw on the ground and sheathed his claws. “You interest me, mouse, and I will grant your request. What is your name?”
“My name … is Anicet,” the gray cat said, and was pleased to see it meant something to the mouse. “You know of me. Good. Go; get this bigger mouse and bring him here. I will let you live. But if you do not return with a bigger mouse, remember my name and my reputation. You would consider death a blessing, Leor.”
“Yes, Anicet.” And Anicet permitted Leor to leave.
Leor scampered straight for the home of Onny, a bigger mouse Leor had never liked. He tried to think of how to get Onny to follow him back to where Anicet waited. Leor stopped short; Onny was coming out of his home.
“If you didn’t have so many children I wouldn’t have to always be finding more food!” Onny yelled over his shoulder.
“You know whose fault that is!” a woman’s voice yelled from inside. That was Moncha, Onny’s wife. Onny had no reply for Moncha other than slamming the door. Seeing Leor, he unleashed a little of his frustration.
“What are you doing so near to my home?” he yelled at Leor.
Leor tried to act as he normally would. “What is it to you where I stand? Perhaps I enjoy the entertainment.”
Onny grumbled. “I can’t waste time with you today. I have to find food.”
“So I heard. Not that I care what Moncha thinks of you, but your children shouldn’t starve because their father is an idiot. I saw a large pile of food not far away.”
“I don’t need your charity,” Onny groused.
Leor shrugged, as if Onny did not mean life itself to him, and began to walk away.
“Wait,” Onny said. Then, quietly: “Where is this food?”
Leor made a show of thinking whether to go ahead and tell Onny. “Come on; I’ll show you. It’s nearby.”
Leor led Onny back the way he had come. He looked around as surreptitiously as he could to see if he was being watched. “Just around that corner there. There’s some cheese and a few crackers some human dropped.”
Onny started around the corner, then stopped. “I don’t owe you anything for this,” he asserted to Leor.
“That suits me,” Leor said.
Onny disappeared around the corner and Leor heard him scream once. Leor made himself go around the corner. Onny’s blood welled up around Anicet’s claws.
“Well done, Leor. You may go.”
“Thank you, Anicet,” Leor said quietly, and he scuttled off before Anicet could dine.
Although he had never liked Onny, it took many days for Leor to absolve himself. He told himself, and mostly believed, “It was self-defense, self-preservation. Everyone has that right. And Onny was a schmuck. It’s hard on Moncha, but she’s not such a prize. That’s why Onny ‘ran off.’ And she and the kits are being cared for by the community, so it doesn’t matter.”
Leor was deep into this litany as he foraged and was not as careful as circumstances should have taught him to be. A heavy paw on his tail stopped him and he squeaked unmanfully.
“Why, Leor,” Anicet purred. “I was hoping to see you again.”
“Anicet, oh, Anicet,” Leor wailed. “Please, please let me go. I-I’ll … I’ll …”
“I know what you will do, Leor,” Anicet said. “I am counting on it. And as you see, I am not alone.” He lifted his paw from Leor’s tail and indicated a beautiful cream-colored female cat nearby. “My companion is also hungry. A single mouse, however large, will not be sufficient. Don’t be long, Leor.”
“No, Anicet; I won’t be long.”
Leor ran off, wondering how he would find two mice to satisfy Anicet and his lady. To his dismay, he encountered his friend Coskun and Coskun’s father, Tuwma. They had always been kind to Leor, but Anicet was waiting. To Leor’s further dismay, he knew immediately what he could tell Coskun and Tuwma to get them to follow him.
“Why, Leor,” Tuwma said. “Good foraging, I hope?”
“Yes, but not of the kind you mean. I have found Onny.”
“Onny!” Coskun said. “Where?”
“He’s back this way. If you come, perhaps you can talk sense into him and make him come back to Moncha and the kits. He always respected you, Tuwma.”
“Of course we’ll come, Leor, of course.” And father and son followed Leor to their deaths.
“Very well done, Leor,” Anicet said. “My companion and I are pleased. You may go.”
“Thank you, Anicet.” And Leor fled the bloody scene.
Leor holed up in his home for many days and talked with himself at great length. At last, he was able to make peace with what he had done to his friend and his friend’s father.
“It was self-defense, self-preservation. Everyone has that right. Tuwma had lived a good life; he didn’t have so long to go. And Coskun” – it had taken much practice before he did not choke on the name – “was a nice fellow but not terribly bright. His father still helped him forage. They may still be out there foraging. And the community is caring for his mother, so it doesn’t matter.”
For Leor, the good thing about luring Coskun and Tuwma to their doom was that the memory of what he had done to Onny was not so sharp any longer.
His store of food began to run low, and Leor was forced to go out of his home to forage again. He kept a close watch when he knew himself to be in Anicet’s territory. But he heard the unwelcome voice.
“Why, Leor,” Anicet said warmly. “I haven’t seen you for so long I’ve had to resort to capturing my own meals again. Come closer and see,” he commanded. And he nodded toward the mouse he had cornered: Nydia. She was younger than Leor; the community had always admired her feisty spirit and her willingness to help anyone in need.
“What do you mean by that, cat?” Nydia demanded, apparently unconcerned about her imminent demise.
This amused Anicet. “Why, only this: that twice before it was Leor under my paw. And on both occasions he bought his freedom with the lives of other mice.”
Leor paled to hear the charges read against him.
“Onny,” Nydia said, realizing. “And Tuwma. And your own friend Coskun!”
“Possibly,” Anicet allowed. “I didn’t ask their names, but the count is correct.” Anicet had an amusing thought of his own. “Leor, she is rather small. I don’t suppose you would care to buy her life with your own?”
Leor’s eyes flashed between Anicet and Nydia. Then he looked down and drew within himself as much as he could.
“No,” Anicet laughed. “I thought not. Well then…”
“Wait,” Nydia commanded. Anicet was slightly less amused by this. “As you say, cat, I am small. You can’t possibly sustain your activities on me alone. So eat Leor first; I’ll wait here and will be your dessert.”
Leor’s eyes grew huge as Anicet considered the menu. “Nydia! How can you?”
She stared back fiercely. “How can I not?”
And she saw what Leor did not: a flash of long, furry leg with gleaming claws at the end. Leor squeaked in pain and horror, and then was silent. Nydia kept her part of the bargain and waited patiently as Anicet dined. Then she joined Onny, Coskun, Tuwma, and Leor.
The mouse community was deeply saddened by Nydia’s disappearance; they knew something terrible must have happened to her. Two days were set aside to mourn and remember her.
As for Leor … well, he foraged mostly for himself and wasn’t that helpful to the community, so, as they said, “It doesn’t matter.”