Say Cheese (for G. & H.)

A 30 minute recording of Diane R. Wiener (author) reading the story, “Say Cheese.”

Wet mice and voles crowded the shrine, surrounding effigies of their plummeted leader, larger than life, and, since vertical, also so much taller than them all.  The Mouse King had again been vanquished, but the enemy’s underlings, after kicking over the candles and spitting at every opportunity, could not have anticipated what was to transpire next.  Here, in the late November chill, the vermin refuted their foes’ relentless arrogance by plotting revenge against The Nutcracker.

The mice knew that Nut (as he was known on the streets) and his ensemble were no mere destroyers, were not putting on a show: they meant business.  Nut’s shiny, capped teeth matched his wild sclera glare and his philosopher’s hair, not coincidentally, but as planned, intimidating tactics. Nut’s followers had spray painted “Rejoice!” to taunt the mice, leaving traces of bitter irony, the stench from which undermined the pleasures of the mouse garbage piles.  

The towering wall had for decades underscored a class struggle, a symbolic reminder by the mice to their kin — who added a freshly gilded coat, each year, after the thaw, typically on the vernal equinox — that wealth was always by design a matter of inequity.  Standing at the core of their neighborhood, the wall belonged, in principle, to the mice, not to the rich; the interlopers’ chiding use of red paint was the last straw. Minimizing their stalwart collective bargaining and baiting them politically with corny yet emotional traps was just not funny. The mice had had enough.

For generations before anyone read Art Spiegelman’s award winning graphic tale of Nazis depicted as cats threatening Jews depicted as mice, before Mickey rose to prominence and acclaim, and well before Pixar’s rat chef, The Nutcracker’s followers had been intimidating the neighborhood mice and their vole cousins, disrupting their dens, crashing their parties.  The entitlement and elitism knew no bounds. As Christmas approached, their temerity and tyranny always grew.   

Nut was not a full-on deviant, but he was flavorful — he appreciated a clever argument as much as a great pumpkin pie (he was not without his good qualities, making hating him with impunity downright impossible, an annoying situation for all concerned). 

While many in the dominant world had spent years asserting that dogs co-evolved with people, learning human ways to advantage themselves, the evidence for which called into question whether canine love of humans was a ruse, the mice quietly developed intensive and shrewd understandings of unionization, shelf organizing, and gourmet cooking (hence, Remy), not to cajole or to live either among or alongside people, but despite and in some ways because of them.  

The process had taught the mice a great deal, and the Nutcracker followers didn’t know what hit them when the mice showed up with mesh under armor, ready to rumble.  The mice had also amused themselves over the years by watching the humans’ cinema. The scene of first attack rivaled West Side Story, even approached Glory, but didn’t quite come close to mimicking Apocalypse Now…a bit of admitted disappointment to the diehard mouse cinephiles.  The fights were so bloody vibrant, an underground cable station started streaming them illegally, for the mice had developed their own media interfaces and platforms, too.

Most of the mouse and vole children and certain adults did not miss these battles, although very few of the smaller youth and none of the elders were directly involved.  They tuned in, without permission in the former case and with neither shyness nor conceit in the latter, hoping to learn something, and rooting, no matter what. In the human sci-fi classic, Logan’s Run, a mouse fan favorite, you fight to the death to stay alive after 29, knowing escape is your only hope.  In Nuts versus Mice, staying alive at all was an accomplishment. Gladiator miniatures are after all no less vicious or filled with well-earned vitriol than their macro scale equivalents.

Behind the scenes of this war populated by fur wielding tiny flamethrowers, a few critiqued Nut without weapons or plowshares, for the mice had learned the humans’ testaments, too.  Nut was not understood solely as a wooden patriarch or an ignoble imperialist; rather, he was summoned to tea, pastries, and hushed debates, asked to explain how he could justify a minimum wage of three slices of cheese per family.   Some mice reasoned with him, or at least attempted to do so. Others employed other approaches, including but not only full-on embattlement.

Daily, even hourly, mice young and old had for uncountable years risked their lives for coveted cheese among the humans, surreptitiously.  In contrast, Nut got paid by the humans for his entertainment prowess, had amassed a fortune, then developed a Christmas season monopoly (meaning mid-July to early January), and controlled the profits with the help of his cronies in the context of classic late capitalism.  The mice served several purposes in this nutty system.  

Most significantly, rodent labor was the engine of the Nutcracker factories, making Nut replicas who, with their progenitor’s magic, could become temporarily animated to partake in hundreds of ballets, as they were shipped all over the world.  Mouse smarts, speed, and size were ideally suited to their work. Automated systems were certainly in place since the times of industrialization, but the mouse role in subtle engagement with producing the Nut replicas’ faces remained at the heart of the matter, their tiny hands and feet finessing affect in paradox, for the story was, after all, partly about the demonization and vanquishing of mice.   

Only Nut himself, the very first Nutcracker, was sentient.  His minions, the immediate and nasty bosses to the mice, were essentially robots, enlivened by his sorcery to serve him, but, like most artificial intelligences, eventually developed something like personalities, many of which included a disdain for mice.  There were exceptions. At work, the robots looked, talked, and behaved just like people; hence, their successes in the plot. When real humans sought them out for friendship, company, or romantic entanglements, they were always unavailable, providing an array of believable and varied explanations for their disinterest in intimacies beyond employment.   Many of the long-term animated cronies also developed cruel senses of humor, resulting in building effigies of the Mouse King to taunt and harass the mice. Clearly, the robots became adept at using spray paint. A notable few amusingly referred to themselves as the shadowy equivalents of Santa’s workshop elves. 

Nut was also immortal, but no one seemed to know how this was possible.  His endlessless was somehow connected to his origins. There were hundreds of tales and explanations.  Some of the stories were sold, even adapted into multimedia formats that themselves splurged new schemes; other versions were shared by circulation means unencumbered by money.   Mouse folklore was certainly replete with such stories, as were human imaginations. While industries grew continuously around the lore that had no immediate benefit fiscally to Nut, his ever-increasing global reputation of course ultimately had huge and rather immediate advantages.   

Behind the scenes, always mindful of profit margins, Nut’s minions supervised the fleets of planes flown and the trucks driven by humans.  Over the years, other webs of industry grew, creating more mouse labor opportunities, nearly always proletarian, with rare instances of buy outs, bribery, complicity.  At the end of the day, mouse extortion was unidirectional, with the mice sometimes winning at the brutal game, but mostly being the ones disadvantaged and dependent, despite their ferocity and rebelliousness.   

These backstories and more than a century of rage and despair undoubtedly influenced the creation of many human fictions and other forms of creative expression, likewise having contributed to nearly every arena of peopled life, from vulgar Marxist theory to table cloth design.   Most relevant in the immediate is the fact that the exploitation was far more than cumulative. This year, it became exponential — even, as the humans say, it went viral.  

Over time, some of the mice had befriended particular humans who they knew — from the rodents living in what humans called their attics, cellars, and gardens — were clearly or at least potentially on the same ethical page as the mice.  For years, the mice had met frequently in mouse groupings, sometimes also with the voles, rats, rabbits, even the occasional possum. Woodchucks and squirrels were huge allies in guarding, keeping watch, gathering and sharing food, providing shelter.  

The morning after “Rejoice!” appeared in red graffiti on their beloved golden wall, the mice began an updated, seamless and integrated campaign.  Having successfully developed sensitive ways to communicate with the humans who called themselves pantheists, who were often but not always progressive in their politics, critical of climate change, supportive of ecology, and, frequently, followers of vegetarianism and animal rights, the mice were in good shape for fighting back in renewed ways.  

Some of the human comrades had believed their families’ passed down, childhood yarns of mice as friends, not as thieves and rogues (despite many mainstream counter-examples). The books they read when they were little sometimes confirmed the genuine Stuart Little possibilities. In these situations, people needed little more than an extra, gentle push to accept and support interspecies friendships, without a need for any proof other than kindness and respectful co-existence.

The mice’s long-term and emerging partners together schemed in ways far more successful than in years prior, their disgust and anger matched by their strategic efforts in ways that reached a critical mass of activity. The humans designed flyers, left by the golden wall, ready to wheatpaste the wall itself and every other regional surface. Local efforts were paralleled by an unprecedented and ever-growing, digital consciousness raising campaign, aimed at grassroots work somewhat similar to the 99% movement, but led by mice. This movement’s scope and lasting effects, while secular, in some senses echoed the “Keep the Christ in Christmas” intentions and methods. Exposing the truth behind The Nutcracker’s exploits and exploitation, like emphasizing the true origins and point of Christmas (faith and love, not money, greed, and bargains), needed to be brought back to the center.

Laborers with no other choice than to work inhumane hours on “Black Friday” collaborated with their mice brethren in new and exciting coalitions to make such connections, among others.   There were meme generators, multilingual street posters, screen reader accessible alt-text pictures, videos captioned with descriptive audio, songs, chants, and signs in every sign language.   

The mice at war by day were often the same mice engaging in rather different approaches toward protest by night, eliding the false binary between “by any means necessary” and civilly disobedient pacifism that arises often in debates regarding how best to refute oppression. Human children old enough to understand what was transpiring and therefore to make their own decisions, in consultation with adults, quickly became involved in many aspects of the protests, but not in the bloodshed.

12 year old Jay soon became a leader among the children, and altogether, having developed many ways to engage not only with peers as well as with human adults, but with mice of all ages, all of whom came to trust Jay because of Jay’s integrity, intelligences (emotional and cerebral), and patience.  While many referred to Jay as he, Jay, who identified as genderfluid, used several different pronouns, depending upon all kinds of personal reasons that varied weekly, daily, even hourly. Most often, Jay wanted to be referred to as they, or just as Jay.  

Jay was raised within a multigenerational family of rabble rousers and loud mouths, through and within which Jay developed their own style of communication, made vibrant by a combination of humor, unequivocal honesty, and deep listening.   One afternoon, Jay’s leadership led them to be swept into national and global news, both human and rodent. Jay had decided that morning — rather than on the spot, as the rumors later suggested — to grab the bullhorn in the first demonstration to be held in front of the wall, itself.  Jay’s youth, while fierce, was framed by a shirt and pants made from organic cottons, a soft contrast to his bold voice. At that moment, Jay was he, but that wasn’t about the boldness, just the sensibility of the moment, as Jay perceived things. Jay was no misogynist.

“Today,” Jay said, “is a day that must go down in history.  From this day forward, we must stand, roll, crawl, and scurry, side by side, in a cohesive refusal of social violence against any and all creatures, regardless of perceived form or alleged role, for we are interconnected, and each of us has value and a purpose in the whole of the world.”  The crowd cheered and squeaked, the mice clambering up and down the wall, tails a-twitch in their own form of applause. Listening among the hundreds with beaming pride were Jay’s mothers, a biracial couple who adopted Jay from Jay’s father, too heartsick to take care of the premie baby when Jay’s biological mother died in childbirth.

Jay stepped down from the crate and ran to his delighted mothers, flanked by dozens of people and mice who, in myriad ways, Jay thought, expressed to Jay that Jay was well-spoken, not only for their age, but altogether.  More importantly, especially to humble Jay, they were happy to be in solidarity with each other and with Jay. Jay’s recorded speech (#milkcrate), nearly instantaneously captioned and audio described by allies, got thousands of retweets and shares after it was posted on one of many and then on nearly all interrelated websites connected to and beyond the labor initiative, now known globally as MouseWorks.

Nut was of course none too pleased when he learned about Jay, which took about five minutes, although he was on the other side of the globe.  And, the situation raised speculations of unintended kinds, summoning old specters that were far from enjoyable for Nut. One of the many rumors about Nut’s background was vampiric in nature; the second place and equally incorrect theory about his deathlessness was that a charm had been placed by Faustian forces in exchange for the soul of a boy with whom Nut had been friends in his own youth.   

According to this story arc, Nut, at around 12, had befriended several boys his age, but, while they played together, only one didn’t eventually grow impatient with Nut’s far more than ordinary, self-assured style and entrepreneurial aggression.  Only the one boy trusted the friendship and stayed devoted. It was this boy whom Nut trusted, too, and, when one day the boy disappeared, the distraught community members, including the police, questioned, interrogated, and eventually blamed Nut, whose reputation had already grown, so that even his own family could not protect him from his infamy, and they didn’t like him enough to try all that hard, in the first place.  

Rumors changed over the years, as rumors often do, and landed eventually in a place of allegation as horrendous as it was fanciful: Nut, it was said, had killed his friend, first having extracted the boy’s pure soul, coveted by evil spirits who promised Nut immortality in exchange for the prize.  Before then, Nut, who had dabbled in sorcery, could transform himself at will between wooden and human skin, his personhood always retaining its primacy. But, that day, they switched. The Nutcracker was born.

Gossip and intrigue aside, the fact remains that the boy was never found.  His departure remains inexplicable, but the harm to Nut was unspeakable. Nut then retreated further into obnoxious defenses and became impossible interpersonally.  His brilliant conniving and inventiveness were arguably a response to having been an outlier, never understood or supported by his family, then losing the only person whom he had loved, a real friend who loved him in return.  

He was, in fact, after the boy’s vanishing, only in communication with birds, but for reasons that remain mysterious, too, he was always unkind to mice.  Nut’s became an inverted Pinocchio life, turned wooden after having been enfleshed. Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” was presumably his favorite childhood story.  He literally became tree-like, a place to serve the birds, predominantly, especially at first, though he was moving, while the protagonist he admired and emulated was sessile, mangled to nothing in sacrificial love.

If anyone knew the truth about Nut, they either didn’t care, because it didn’t excuse his egregious behavior, or they had other reasons for not giving much thought to the tale.  He was not a Grinch with whom to be reckoned, until Jay came along. Nut sent a cadre of robots to fetch Jay and bring them to a meeting place of mutual choosing. Jay’s mothers agreed, and accompanied their passionate and intelligent child to meet one of the most famous capitalists of all time.   

Jay was intent upon talking with Nut about multi-issue versus single-issue politics, finessed in current thinking across ideological spectra, although, wicked smart as Jay was, Jay would not have phrased it that way.  Many geographic borders, which Jay knew were arbitrary, set up to advantage those in power, were being shored up to prevent immigrants from entering, and Jay thought this was immoral.   

Jay knew that Nut had pull and therefore might have some influence in interrupting what seemed to be but wasn’t necessarily inevitable.  Jay would link this conversation to the labor politics of The Nutcracker Entertainment Enterprise, making it possible for Nut to come out as the good guy while engaging in ethical labor practices and addressing global and local issues.  Jay’s mothers supported their child, but cautioned Jay that their plan was both ambitious and hopeful. Nut was interested in meeting Jay so he could flip the child’s idealism into parasitism, finding it unbelievable that a kid could be this genuine and sophisticated.  

Readers of this tale will now have a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of a moment, as the author breaks frame (or, the fourth wall, because this might be a movie or a comic book), shifting tenses and conventions to use the so-called second person, in the present, so you can consider the plausibility of two among many scenarios: Nut, playing Darth Vader, turns Jay, playing Annakin Skywalker, to the Dark Side of the Force; or, upon meeting Jay, Nut is reminded of his childhood friendship, resulting in his heart growing back, referring again to Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, a story which obviously centers the real point of Christmas.  Your author will go there with you, but first, what of the mice?

Back in the neighborhood, aka Rodent HQ, the mice struggled with the conflict between refusing complicity and needing to feed their families and themselves, for human detritus is tiresome, and having some good cheese is always welcomed.  Their boycott and scurry out, accompanied by 24/7 picket lines at various Nutcracker business sites, including the factories, was not resulting in the budge for which they had hoped. Public outcry, the social media frenzy, and international pressure combined somehow couldn’t seem to crack the Nut.  Humans and animals in solidarity should have been enough, some said, dispirited.  

“Preference is supplanted by desire, influenced by habit, and negotiated by temperament,” as the mice axiomatic had been taught for millennia, in mouse-speak.  (The linguistic conventions herein all are translated into human English, which is not universally advantageous, not only to code switching, but to genuinely inclusive, inter-species storytelling.  The author has in this retelling tried her best to honor variances in communication and interpretation.)

The mice had been meeting in private, holding an hours-long caucus by the wall, to think about how they felt about the current and emerging economies, and why they had been, most recently, far more efficacious than the historical examples of mouse-human collaboration had been, generally speaking.  Some grew suspicious while others expressed resolute commitment. More than a few were exhausted, and some admitted it, referring to the human aphorism that life’s challenges are marathons rather than sprints.   

Given the amount of time that they had spent not eating, as well as the manner of living to which some had become accustomed, a further split occurred among the mice along generational lines, crosscut with class.  Not all mice had the same access to life’s offerings, although all mice are surely born equal. This was the tenor that alas further influenced the already disheartened.

From within the rising clamor, infighting, and fatigue, a small voice, not unlike Jojo’s (in another Seuss classic, “Horton Hears a Who”) rang out, or was clarion in whatever way mice might explain or articulate otherwise.  This young mouse called upon her family (for all mice are family) not to lose hope. The elder mice sighed, then lifted up their expertise and wisdom to meet her youthful enthusiasm, and the entire tone of the gathering transformed from tragic and frustrated to assertive and proud.  The group dispersed, talked with certain humans, and the struggle continued, strategizing over a potluck, stereotypes be damned.

It was this renewed conviction that reached Jay, virtually, before Jay entered a room with Nut, several leading robot advisors, and Jay’s parents, all readying for a kind of arbitration.  Jay insisted, first and foremost, that mice needed to be present in any discussion that influenced their welfare, as this interaction clearly had the potential and even promise to do, from Jay’s perspective.   

The mice were called in, without hesitation.  Two leaders from each of the North American, African, Australian, and Asian mouse cadres were invited via online video and audio feeds, with live captioning, simultaneous translations, and an abundance of kind words.  The European mice factions, with a few accompanying voles, took mostly short flights and trains to meet the group at Nut’s hideaway in London. Nut covered all expenses.  

All seemed to be going well.  The mice took the lead, and those mice who had hitherto not met, seen, or heard Jay were startled by their diminutive stature and truly young age.  Some had only read Jay’s statements and were unaware of further context, nor did they have any information about Jay. Jay wanted to affirm the mice’s centrality, but also talked freely and without condescending to their friends about several labor movements in the United States from which Jay drew encouragement and inspiration.  

Then, the true negotiations began.  After ten days, a three year collective bargaining agreement was drawn up, supplemented by a notarized affidavit promising that bonuses were to be given to all mouse employees on December 1st, and several benefits packages were made available as a menu of options for new and continuing workers.  Jay was appointed the first North American MouseWorks Human Youth Liaison, and soon formed an international organization to mentor and support other people in supporting mouse labor and avoiding the pitfalls of relentless, centuries old speciesism.   

Book clubs started, automobile insurance and rental discounts began, even a grassroots mouse timeshare plan was underway, so mice would know which largely peopled places were mice-friendly.

Business leaders and start-ups in particular began to feel it was necessary to support as well as to develop systems to engage and enhance interspecies communication that did not involve behavioral legacies or other presumptuous methods that were frequently associated with abuse, brutality, and manipulation. The world became more ethical while the mice grew more conspicuous.

Cats and predatory birds watched all of these events and configurations unfold with great interest, for their food supply was gaining in momentum and prominence.  

As many carnivores were judged, civil liberties organizing work began to defend the positions of the cats and birds, who advocated with friends for the right to meet their carnivorous needs.  Many of the mice were connected with domesticated cats and birds, and managed to live awkwardly with the interstitial complexities involved.  

Pets’ rights movements burgeoned and flourished.  Until these movements exploded, the idea of owning a cat, fish, dog, or bird had persisted somehow over the decades, but, even at the very beginning of MouseWorks, no one could purchase a mouse as a pet, and trapping one for amusement carried a weighty fine.  Snakes were the next to suffer as a consequence of the bans, and they formed coalitions with cats, birds, and others, also having known some of these beasts historically and recently as prey. The status quo of years gone by was transformed entirely, while the struggle to achieve equity in a dog-eat-dog world prevailed.   

Nut, meanwhile, indeed softened, because Jay, with whom he remained close for decades, had in fact not only reminded him of his long lost friend, but reminded him of himself as a boy.  Instead of growing several sizes, however, Nut’s heart shattered one bright afternoon and melted into sugar plums. He was found smiling for what was probably the first time in over 250 years, propped on an elbow on his office floor, and no one could understand how immortality stopped one day without warning or explication.  He left a cryptic note, which he entitled a farewell, but he had not taken his life; instead, it had taken him, and he had known his time was drawing near. Nut’s note read, “it started well before 1816,” referencing the Hoffmann story that inspired Dumas, and eventually, of course, Tchaikovsky.  

Although since that fateful negotiation time Nut had donated millions to mouse, vole, and human causes, his remaining still massive fortune was left in a trust. It was set up to split evenly between the mice youth leaders and human youth liaisons. Jay was named as executor. An endowment for radical mouse inclusion in human schools was described in the trust. Nut wanted mice to have even greater access to an array of learning approaches, to become teachers and world leaders. While Nut hadn’t named the thoroughly outlined, international project, including impressive, longitudinal planning for years and years embedded in its design, Jay, who was now middle aged, but no less feisty, called it Say Cheese.

Published by:

Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener (she/they) is the author of The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. She has poetry and creative nonfiction forthcoming in eMerge. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. Diane served as Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Assistant Editor after being Guest Editor for the Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics. Since January 2020, Diane has been the Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, housed at Syracuse University.

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2 thoughts on “Say Cheese (for G. & H.)”

  1. I remember this fine piece from when you first published it for a competition.   Glad you’re including it in your blog! Love, f

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    Liked by 1 person

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