• Paul Burnham

The Mouse that Became a Man

We’re trapped here. The two of us. I hear the sigh of faraway water rushing down the canyon, echoing off these sheer sandstone walls. There are no handholds, no purchase, no way up. But no one will drown today. With the initial flood comes entire cottonwood trees, pitch-poling down the narrow corridor, and boulders the size of French cars. No time to drown; the river will simply crush us in an act of mercy.

We gambled when we started up this canyon—hours ago. Clear blue skies showed us the odds, and we took the bet. We’ve almost made it to a series of ledges—only a quarter-mile ahead. These would allow us to climb above the approaching barrage of debris. With another five minutes, we could be spectators to the devastation, not participants.

I have sometimes guessed at my response to a mortal threat. Fight or flight? But the canyon only gives us the classic Hobson’s choice: flight or nothing at all.

We can’t outrun the flood. Not downriver. Maybe we can close the gap—the same way a ship’s captain races

toward a torpedo that is not yet armed. We’ll run headlong toward the flood, beat it to the ledges.

We sprint—packs bouncing on hips—and only slow to traverse a trough of thick and putrid mud. The mud sucks at our knees and ankles and threatens to steal our shoes.

A column of sunlight reaches the canyon floor on the other side. We stand here for a moment, scrapping ten pounds of mud from each leg. The flood has not arrived. A hot wind comes down the canyon. Wind. We listen again for the flood. Wind. We see the ledges a hundred feet ahead. There is no flood yet. Only wind.

We scramble onto one ledge and then another, working our way up a kind of natural staircase. Others have passed here. Coyote, mule deer, rattlesnakes, mice. The canyon wall lays back, and the upper ledges are wide enough for a tent. In the evening—on a nearby ledge—we build a small fire with pieces of greasewood and sage that have fallen from the open country. The hot wind has turned to a cold breeze now. We sit closer to the fire. No flood today—only the wind, tricking our brains. We are safe tonight, above the canyon floor, out of the way of floods.

A kangaroo rat comes up from below, batting his nose at the fire. He sits back on his haunches and stares at us with giant obsidian eyes, as though considering his company and hoping for friendship. We chase him away, out of instinct.

But he returns, only seeking what we seek: refuge from floods, from cold, from isolation. We don’t chase him away this time. I consider the diversity of our fellowship, our tolerance and acceptance of each other, and our shared resources. I recognize three members of the same tribe, and I hold hope for the human family.