When I was a boy, my father drove me in his 1940 Chevrolet pickup truck to the tents pitched in the great field just outside of our town to see the dancing mice of Professor Theodore Krieger.
At first I dismissed his proclamations of the majesty of the display, since he was always prone to exaggerating the mystical qualities of ordinary events. After all, I’d seen plenty of mice in my eight years of life, and these had done little more than scurry along the baseboards of the kitchen. Granted, the mice feasting in the silos of the granaries fled with something akin to an orchestrated dance, though that was probably only an evasion tactic meant to confuse opportunistic farm cats.
So I didn’t believe my father when he recounted the marvelous vision he beheld years before I was born, of the last performance by the Professor in our county. Listening to my father, you would have to believe that a hundred white mice dressed in miniature finery performed an elaborate ballet in the center of an alabaster stage, while other mice, clad in tiny tights, conducted acrobatics across a network of carefully strung high wires and nets. Still more, he insisted, comprised a choir of vocal rodents capable of squeaking a fair version of Ode to Joy.
Had I any confidence in my father’s experiential memory I would have been extremely excited during that ride across the corded roads to the large yellow tents looming on the horizon, but I had been too often disappointed by his fantastic rhetoric to retain high hopes. In short, I didn’t believe his declaration that the experience would ‘change my life’.
My father, you see, was prone to anticipating the wonders of life before actually confronting its prosaic truths. A large, burly man with a flat black beard and small, shining blue eyes, he supplemented his ordinary working life with exotic experiences that peeled away the common veneer of human society and replaced it with a dazzling gossamer veil of magical elementals flitting in and about the threads of the social tapestry. Simple music became a profound spiritual symphony, a bland, but adequate dinner became an incomparable feast, and a large, but quite discernible hawk became a miraculous flying horse that stroked its legs across the firmament of the sky—
I was present for the transmutation of the drifting hawk—my father’s excitement, as he pointed with one hand to the clouds and shielded his eyes against the sun with the other, was clearly unwarranted. I saw only a common bird rising on the warm air currents above the crops; my father saw an impossible transgression of nature, over which he spoke elegantly at the dinner table, and for a good half hour. My mother and I just exchanged weary glances; we were used to such glances, as a means of confirming with one another that, while it was acceptable to humor my father’s enthusiasm, it was just as important to confirm the existence of a rational world.
Which is not to say that my father possessed a flighty personality. To the contrary, he was a very stable man, kind to me and my mother, of even temperament and diligent in his work; his only personal extravagance was his predilection for exaggeration, and a love for seeing the world through an exotic lens.
He parked the truck in the grass, and as I hopped from the runner I got my first look at the small carnival that had crept into town the previous day. Perhaps I had no hope for the wonders of dancing mice, but I did see some interesting sights: jugglers flipping wooden pins high into the air with grace, pretty ladies selling candies from the trays they held as they walked between the tents, marvelous promises of curious performers painted on signs above the tent flaps like ‘The Human Jellyfish’, ‘The Strongest Man in the World’, and ‘The Woman Who Eats Fire’. Beyond these performances lay an enticing row of booths with shooting games, ring tosses and other challenges fascinating to an eight year-old boy.
But as I began gravitating toward these forbidden sights my father grasped my collar and pulled me away from them.
Instead of witnessing the exploits of the fire-eating woman, I was quickly ushered toward a smallish tent beyond the others bearing a garish banner which read: The Dancing Mice of Professor Theodore Krieger! The Most Amazing Display of Animal Talent on the Planet! Come One, Come All, and Observe Untold Miracles!
“This is it!” my father said loudly. “When I saw them raising the tents I drove right over. And when I saw it was the same carnival, I was overjoyed!”
This was information he’d told me five times over, but I didn’t want to cool his enthusiasm by reminding him. Even at that age I knew the joys in my father’s life would never be of the financial variety, so I thought it best to let him take pleasure in his oratory.
“I told myself I would be derelict in my duties as a father if I didn’t bring my son to see this same miracle,” my father continued, pulling my collar so forcefully I thought he might pull my shirt off over my head. I managed to keep pace, gazing wistfully over my shoulder at the jugglers, until we stood before the Professor’s tent.
A grizzled little man in a top hat met us at the front flap, a rusty coffee tin held in one arthritic hand. He smiled at us toothlessly and waved the tin.
“Would you be going in to see the most special mice of the Professor?” he asked through a strange, unidentifiable accent. He glanced at me unremarkably, then to my father. His eyes widened then, and he said, “I see by your expression that you’ve seen this miracle before. And you’ve returned!” At this he stared on me again. “No doubt to show this stout lad as well, who must surely be your son!”
“That is exactly so,” my father said happily, “on both accounts.”
How the little man remembered my father after so many years I had no idea; but then, being young I didn’t question the man’s intellectual acuity, I only grinned at his obviously rehearsed showmanship. That my father so eagerly participated in the routine was also hilarious. But I was still certain the promised miracle would be less a miracle than hyperbole.
My father reached into his breast pocket and pulled out some silver coins, which he promptly deposited into the old man’s coffee tin. At this the little man tipped his top hat, exposing a perfectly bald head shaped like a rather large egg. When he returned his hat he lifted the flap of the tent and my father ushered me exuberantly inside.
Within the small confines of the tent stood several plain wooden benches set before a raised platform covered with a burlap cloth. On the top of the platform tiny accoutrements shone brightly in the dim lighting provided by the candles in the paper lanterns suspended high above; tiny tricycles, a thin metal ladder leading to a foot-long tight rope, a minute swimming pool, and ostensibly a small stage on which a choir of mousy bodies might perform.
And, yes, despite the clever assortment of gadgets available for talented mice to exploit, I still held no confidence in the magical display assured me by my father.
A few other people sat on the benches, farmers like my father, a few children my own age peering at the platform curiously, and a single old man sitting with his legs crossed, one arm crossed over the other while his free hand stroked his white beard thoughtfully. I couldn’t believe sane folk would spend their precious coins to see something they could examine with a lantern in their cellars. But their expressions were eager, and my father’s expression was positively radiant with joy. He expected a miracle; I only shook my head sadly at his expectations.
Presently a curtain fell aside from behind the platform and a graying gentleman in a long white coat—a doctor’s coat, perhaps—emerged, pushing a large meshed cage on wheels. Within, cavorting in a positive forest of wood shavings and tins of water, were dozens of white mice. The mice themselves did not seem particularly decorated; I’d seen glass cages filled with identical mice in a pet store once, mice devoid of any talent more profound than running in a wire wheel.
But the man in the white coat seemed to think differently.
“Welcome one and all!” he roared, raising his arms as if preparing an orchestra for a staggering performance. “I am Professor Theodore Krieger, and I have traveled the world collecting only the brightest, the most talented, the most gifted Mus musculus in the world!”
“He means the mice,” my father whispered to me through a wide grin. “That’s their given taxonomic name.”
Occasionally my father would surprise me with big words like ‘taxonomic’, making me wonder after his education, but in this case I managed to puzzle it out for myself.
“These lovely creatures,” the professor continued, gesturing toward the cage, “have been specially bred to cultivate those talents which can only be described as phenomenal!”
A wondering murmur rolled through the people on the benches.
I simply rolled my eyes.
“Without any more preamble,” the professor said, “I now present to you the dancing mice of Professor Theodore Krieger!”
With this pronouncement he deftly pulled two latches at the top of the cage and the mesh front fell down upon the edge of the platform like the drawbridge of a medieval castle. To their credit, the mice began filing from the cage down onto the platform, chiefly, I believe, because morsels of bread had been left behind the tiny accoutrements. Once all the mice had left the cage, the man in the white coat closed the front again and pushed it off to the side.
“This is it,” my father told me excitedly, “you won’t believe what you’re about to see!”
But I didn’t see anything. In fact, the professor stood before the platform nearly overflowing with Mus musculus with his brow knitted and two fingers scratching his chin in bewilderment. He watched the mice for a moment longer before gazing out at his audience. The mice did nothing much aside from scratching behind their ears and sniffing the miniature hardware.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a disturbed voice, “but there seems to be a problem.”
Yes, I thought, with this whole silly premise.
Then the professor bent low to the platform as if listening to the mice’s squeaking conversations. One of the mice climbed partway up his sleeve and he dipped his ear close to it. Then the mouse trundled back down his sleeve and assumed its place among the others.
After this odd confrontation the professor lifted his head and gazed gravely upon his audience.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, his mouth an upturned bow, “but I’ve just been informed that my wonderful, dazzling, astounding dancing mice simply cannot perform right now—and I don’t know how to phrase this with any true delicacy—because there is an unbeliever in the crowd.”
The people on the benches fell silent. They gazed on one another with suspicion, obviously disappointed that someone was keeping them from witnessing an unprecedented display of Mus musculus genius. Who, I thought blithely, could possibly be a believer? Aside from my father, of course, who might believe in any number of miracles occurring over the course of the day. This was obviously a ruse to absolve the Professor of any accusations of misrepresentation.
I glanced at my father, but he only shook his head.
“Fear not,” the professor said, raising his index finger, “for I have a remedy for this very situation. The mice themselves will disclose the skeptic!”
The professor then bent low to the platform and began chirping at the mice. They squeaked, he chirped, in bizarre dialogue that seemed absurd on the face of it. Then he gathered one furry white spokesman in his hand and stepped from behind the platform to the benches.
At this point I still had no notion that anything but a clever misdirection was taking place; or perhaps this was actually the act itself. But the professor seemed to earnestly present the mouse to each person in the crowd, observing the creature’s reactions. The people in the audience seemed to enjoy this excursion, however, and one young girl squealed with laughter when the mouse twitched its whiskers at her. I felt we would have been better served by using those coins we’d spent for admission on a shooting game or cotton candy.
The mouse said nothing when the man in the white coat presented the rodent to my father. But the little beast gave a mighty squawk when the professor moved before me. The mouse ran up his sleeve and seemed to chatter in his ear. Then the professor stared at me gravely and nodded.
“Young man,” he said softly, perhaps to save me from any undue embarrassment, “why would such an innocent child as yourself not believe in the magical abilities of my precious dancing mice?”
When I was older, but not as old as I am now, I thought the professor must have seen the expression of disbelief on my face, and so knew who to select; the mouse was surely taking his hidden command to squeak like a tiny guard dog on its watch. This was the only logical explanation I could summon at the time—but now, I really cannot say.
I sat with my mouth open, unable to speak. Slowly, I turned my head to gaze up at my father, and he returned my stare with a sad, disappointed stare of his own. I blinked several times.
I gazed up at Professor Theodore Krieger and said simply, “Mice can’t dance.”
The professor sighed. He crouched down, the mouse still poised on his shoulder, twitching its whiskers.
I slowly turned my head and realized that the other members of the audience were staring at me curiously, as if I were some oddity for believing in mundane reality rather than fabulous exhibitions. They couldn’t all possibly believe that these mice were going to dance, sing in a choir or perform acrobatic feats, could they? There was obviously some special aspect of the event eluding my knowledge of tent-show protocol.
“For the sake of the rest of the audience,” he said gently, “might I ask you to wait outside so that the performance may continue?”
I simply didn’t know what to say. I didn’t particularly like being singled out from the crowd, so I muttered, “Why should the mice care if I believe they can dance or not?”
“Because,” the professor said, glancing at my father before returning his gaze to me, “disbelief will always destroy the magic. The mice know this, as do I.”
“As do I,” my father said as he rose from the bench. He extended his hand to me. “Come on, son, let’s go outside.”
I took his hand and we moved around the benches.
“You’ll receive a full refund!” the professor called after us, but by then I was too worried about my father’s ensuing reaction to care.
We didn’t even stop to ask the grizzled man in the top hat for our refund; my father walked me past the little man to the shadow side of the tent. Then he kneeled down before me and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Harrison,” he said, “is what you told the professor true? You really don’t believe his mice can dance?”
“Papa,” I said, knowing I couldn’t rightly lie to my own father about a subject as fundamental as belief, “mice can’t dance. Not really. They can run around pretty good, but that’s all.”
“You’ve never heard of waltzing mice?”
From behind me, through the heavy fabric of the tent, I heard the raucous cries of people’s laughter, and the Professor’s voice booming loudly, though I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying while conversing with my father. The crowd, however, seemed to be enjoying itself mightily.
My father rubbed his hand across his beard, contemplating my refusal to abandon reality.
“Can’t we go watch the jugglers?” I suggested hopefully.
“In a little while,” he said. He wasn’t a harsh man; later in life I would come to understand just how wonderful a man he actually was. He patted me on the shoulder. “It’s more important to know why you can’t believe in something as special as dancing mice.”
“It just sounds silly,” I said. “I used to tell the kids at school about the things you’ve told me, but they just laugh and say such things couldn’t be real. Flying horses and such. They just don’t exist.”
“Your friends think I’m lying about seeing a flying horse?”
“No,” I said, worried about hurting his feelings, “not lying. Just that you don’t really see the things you say you see. That you’re making up a lot of it just to make it sound interesting.”
“Your friends tell you this?”
My father smiled. “Your mother is a practical woman,” he said, “a beautiful woman, but very practical. Sometimes it’s best to think of the world in a certain way to ensure you don’t lose your place in it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sometimes people decide what the world is going to be and live the rest of their lives with that expectation. No flying horses, no dancing mice, just horses in pastures and mice chewing through piles of grain. It’s comforting to believe in something that’s familiar and reliable. But the world is full of magical experiences, too.”
I thought about this for a moment, then said, “But how do you tell the difference between the things you really see and the things you just imagine you see?”
“Sometimes they’re the exact same thing. Who’s to say I didn’t see a flying horse? And who’s to say that Professor Krieger’s mice don’t really dance?”
“Do the other people believe in dancing mice?”
“No, Harrison, probably not. They’ve never seen a dancing mouse any more than you have.”
“So why did the professor ask me to leave?”
“I think it’s because the other people in the tent want to believe the mice can dance.”
“What’s the difference?”
“They want to believe that something magical can happen, something that can’t possibly exist in the world they know. And you don’t.”
“No, I don’t think so. I just don’t know why you don’t want to believe in magical things. Do you know?”
I didn’t have to think about this question for long—of course I knew, but I didn’t want to tell him. No, I simply couldn’t tell him, so I just shook my head. How do you tell your own father that you won’t allow yourself to believe in fanciful things because you don’t want to be embarrassed for him when he announces his wild observations to the world? How do you tell him that you don’t want the other children laughing at you anymore because your father tells stories of weird creatures, fairies, monsters and fantastic natural events? That the old men in town wink at one another when you and your father pass by? That the other families make cruel jokes at his expense, for all the magical nonsense he declares to be the true portion of the world?
Or perhaps my father already knew this, because he didn’t press the matter, he simply rose to his feet and said, “The world really is a magical place, Harrison. Some day you’ll come to realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about your beliefs. They’ll sustain you, and make your life special.”
“Yes, Papa,” I said, taking his hand again.
After our expulsion from Professor Theodore Krieger’s tent we watched the jugglers for a while before my father bought me some candy and we climbed into his 1940 Chevrolet pickup truck for the long drive home. I still remember my father’s face as he sat behind the steering wheel; the normal mirth curling the edges of his lips was gone, replaced by a hidden concern that I wouldn’t understand for many years.
And it was many years later, when I was a grown man with my own responsibilities, that I tried finding that traveling carnival again, and Professor Theodore Krieger’s dancing mice. I drove all around the state, through every small town, hoping to hear word of tents newly staked in the fields beyond the buildings and houses. Why? Because of those responsibilities, I suppose, and because of my memories of my father. Before he died, he promised me that I would never be alone in the world, that his spirit would walk beside me and be a comfort in my life. He promised that I would find the magic, too.
I never did find that carnival, which saddens me to this day; but I finally realized what my father was talking about that day beside the professor’s tent.
Sitting in my own car on the edge of a wind-blown field one evening, watching the stars light in the sky like an old-fashioned magic lantern in a small boy’s bedroom, the moment came when I realized I really did want to believe in dancing mice, and flying horses, and my father’s spirit sitting next to me in the car, one large hand resting firmly on my shoulder to reassure me about the magical nature of the world—
I’ll keep searching for it, too, until I find it dancing in the world like the magical mice I dearly wish I had seen.