Eliza Tweetertail’s pregnancy had been so terribly long, much longer than that of the average mouse. But the time had finally arrived and she was looking forward to nursing and snuggling her squirming, hairless litter. But as she spasmed and rolled around and put her head between her legs to help pull the first of the babies out, what she found poking forth wasn’t a squeaking little pink jellybean, but the smooth tip of an egg. And then came another, and another, and another, until she had a little clutch of small white eggs.
“Oh dear!” She squeaked. “I must hide them before my family sees them and eats them all up!” She knew just what had happened, it had happened to Mrs. Grousalong, and from her eggs had hatched a rhumba of snakes. Once the eggs hatched, the snakes could look after themselves, since the other mice would be terrified of them, and the snakes seemed to find their own food pretty readily.
It wasn’t uncommon anymore for a hopeful mother mouse to end up raising a den of snakes right next to her mouse family. For the most part it was a manageable arrangement. As babies the snakes couldn’t eat the mice anyway, and by the time their jaws would spread wide enough to swallow such big prey, they would be more or less socialized to not eat mice.
Being uninterested in most mouse food: strawberries, cherry tomatoes, seeds, or the occasional egg, they went out on their own to find food more to their liking: frogs and salamanders, occasionally swallowing the family Sunday supper egg whole, leaving their mice siblings crying and their parents despondent.
By the time they got to high school, the snakes had started to suspect that mice, their own parents even, would make good meals. They traded stories of the tastiness of mouse flesh, first as crude teenaged jokes, but with increasing seriousness. Some snakes, of course, maintained that they would never eat mouse, and then all the snakes would become very sober and say that of course it was a joke, only a very horrible snake would eat mice.
But the snakes grew up and found jobs, and because they were so slithery, and so fast, and had such little remorse or empathy, found themselves in positions where scaring and sometimes even hurting mice were part of the job description. The were also often handsomely rewarded. Here was a snake who made his living by making the mice do hours of non-mousy menial labor, like running in hamster wheels to create energy to make doodads, and paid them very little grass seed for it. He would dismiss legions at a stroke if he wasn’t earning enough eggs. Having forgotten their mousy ways in the snake factory, the mice would go home and starve.
Here at the mouse jail was a snake warden who, under the veil of snake secrecy (since the jails were often owned by snakes as well), would occasionally wrap a somewhat naughty mouse up in his coils and slip his elastic mouth around the mouse’s little head. Of course there were also snakes in the jail—snakes who threatened to alert all the mice to the terrible danger that lurked among them by eating them whole, right out in the open, and certainly not in relation to any official duty.
There was among the snakes one who was really quite strange, and the mice and snakes alike looked upon him with a blend of amusement and contempt. He puffed and hissed constantly about what a snake he was, how his den was decorated in the most snakelike way, how remorseless was he in dealings with mouse and snake alike. He did many of the same things that all snakes did: forced mice to run in wheels like hamsters to produce frivolities, tricked mice into giving up their eggs (the biggest currency, and the only currency they shared in common), wrapped his slithering scales around lady mice and pretended to eat them. But he did them all very poorly, and nonetheless bragged incessantly about his snakelike instincts. Most mice found it contemptible; most snakes found him terribly indiscreet.
But tensions between mouse and snake increased, as some snakes became increasingly bold, sometimes eating little mice whole in the street, and forcing an increasing number of them to work in the hamster wheels, for which they paid a decreasing number of grass seeds. The mice, for their part, weren’t wholly defenseless, as mice have very sharp little teeth that can take a chunk out of a snake’s hide. But it would take many mice to incapacitate a snake, and mice, as you know, are not pack hunters. They had seen how the wolves worked together to kill animals larger and faster than them, but most mice resisted this strategy. “It’s not natural!” the typical little province mouse would exclaim. “Besides, look at all those snakes do for us! Those hamster wheels may be tedious to run, and we may never get to eat eggs anymore, but look at this assault rifle!” And indeed, they’d never had assault rifles before the snakes became so prevalent.
Besides, most of the mice agreed, the snakes are our own children, and as much a part of the colony as any little country field mouse. This wasn’t entirely true, since most snakes mated with snakes and they mostly laid snake eggs, only occasionally giving birth to a squirming live mouse, which they immediately tried teaching to be more snakelike. But even the rumor, the rapidly spreading murmur along the morning glory vine, rattling the kitchen cabinets, and muffled under the compost pile, was enough to set the snakes on edge, for though they were fiercely cold-blooded and quick as cats, they were still hugely outnumbered. Strange Snake saw an opportunity.
True, he at first thought it only an opportunity to boast, for he wanted so desperately to be accepted by other snakes and feared and adored by mice, and he could not understand that his ostentatious ways—his gold lamé fringed den, his expensive but ill-fitting skin that got looser and more ridiculous with every shedding, his utter lack of concern for the modesties of mouse culture—were precisely what other snakes loathed about him. But now they would all respect him.
The time had come to choose a new leader of the mouse colony, and for decades the leader had always been a snake. The leader snake had a tough act to pull off, since he had to convince both mouse and snake, whose interests very rarely aligned, that his leadership would benefit both. Strange Snake would throw his snake hat in the ring to become leader of the colony, a proposition that most every mouse and snake in the colony found patently absurd.
Like all snakes, Strange Snake spoke two languages: mouse and snake. In mouse language, he explained to all the mice that the real danger to the colony was not the snakes among it (and with this all heaved a great sigh of relief, for none wanted to face the upheaval that driving the snakes out would cause), but the mice from the neighboring colony. These neighbor mice, Strange Snake explained, were a grave danger to the colony. They were greedy and violent little mice who came only to pillage grass seed and were a menace to snake and mouse alike—a common enemy. And it was true that the neighbor mice had long moved uneasily in and out of the colony, running in the hamster wheels and taking grass seed payment back to their own colony, which was very poor in eggs and nuts and other, better mouse foods. Turn back these invader mice at the fencerow, hissed Strange Snake, and the pervasive unease among the colony would disappear.
To the snakes he had a different message, and a very persuasive one. Though the loss of some good worker mice would be painful for the hamster wheel owners, the snakes would now be free to dine on the neighbor mice, without arousing too much fear or suspicion among their own mice. In fact, they would happily throw the neighbor mice to the snakes and cheer when they devoured them whole, right in front of them.
It was a crude and seemingly witless strategy, thought the mice who could understand snake language. And they roundly laughed at his lack of sophistication, imagining that all the mice could see, as they did, what a simple ruse it was.
But in Strange Snake’s plan, many other mice saw a win-win strategy: The snakes got to eat mice, the mice in the colony got a little more grass seed, and everyone in the colony would get along. Needless to say, Strange Snake soundly defeated his main adversary, Matilda snake, whose confused platform seemed to be that snakes didn’t really want to eat mice, and which everyone could see was false. Snakes, whether born of mouse or snake, really want to eat mice.
So strange snake went about his plan. Well, he let his plan happen. See, that was another genius stroke of Strange Snake’s plan: he merely had to let nature run its course. Of course the snakes felt so at ease with Strange Snake in charge that they not only began devouring the neighbor mice, they got so worked up that they sometimes ate the mice of their own colony for convenience. When the snakes got tired of stuffing themselves with mouse meat, and began to demand more rarified delicacies, Strange Snake let them start taking the babies from the neighbor mice who tried to come in, sending the parents back, and eating the delectably tender baby flesh alone. Now the snakes were truly living high in the mouse.
Meanwhile, those mice who had chosen Strange Snake to lead the colony all slept in their burrows, happy and content that, for now at least, their own little baby mice were safe. One day though, when the neighbor mice were finally dissuaded from trying to come into the colony looking for grass seed, and the tenuous social contract between mouse and snake had been eroded, the snakes would begin to slither down into those burrows, unannounced and uninvited.