Mouse Number Six
BY MARGUERITE SHEFFER
I roll my shoulders and touch my toes, getting limber in preparation for my death.
When I die I will bend my back and flop my arms, knock my knees and shiver my heels against the sticky floor so it can be seen from the back mezzanine. Let’s be honest, Nutcracker is a ballet for children, and children want to revel in my demise. It has to be so over the top it goes beyond scary and back to funny again.
I am double-cast this year, my two biggest parts yet: Clara for the even nights and the Mouse King for the odd. Clara is the resume-builder: a real pretty, face-y part, my blonde hair half-up, my pale face made rosy with blush. I’m grateful for the opportunity, I say. These are our big money-making shows of the year. For two weeks in December we get a live orchestra and whole families in shiny shoes. Kids gawp at the big crystal chandelier in the lobby when it winks at them during intermission. After eleven years of training, finally there’s a bigger-than-life poster of me as Clara in the red velvet lobby, cradling the Nutcracker doll to my chest.
But on show nights, honestly, I relish the role of the Mouse King more. Rambunctious rapscallion is more fun to step into than Clara’s little girl innocence. I exaggerate every gesture, play to the very back of the theater. From within my foam head and eye-netting, the audience is a dark hearth, reduced to silence, or tittering, or cheers. I vamp. I’ll do anything to make them laugh. I’ll scurry. I’ll tumble. I’ll pounce. I lead my minions into the fray.
My mice are local second-to-fourth graders bussed here twice a week for cultural enrichment. The San Antonio Boys and Girls Club has partnered with our regional ballet company to deposit the kids someplace between four pm and eight, to “keep them off the streets.” The Club provides the snacks, the transportation, and the additional supervision of Lara, the chaperone.
Most of the company feigns exasperation at the mice, but it’s invigorating, how new all of this is to them: the velvet of the seats, the echo of the stage, the bright lights. With the kids around the ballet is enchanting again, and I am elevated from a tired twenty-something into a wise ambassador.
Lara, the chaperone, is hushing Rudy and Q, who are hitting each other with their long tails and making lightsaber noises. Q slices his tail into Rudy’s neck and Rudy clutches at his throat. He dies epicly, just like I’ve taught them: a little gurgle, limp wrists and elbows, stumbling forward, lolling head. Lara grabs the boys by their mouse-scruff and puts a heavy hand on each of their shoulders. We “teaching artists” are instructed not to touch the kids but Lara always has a hand on them, tapping them on the thigh or grabbing their elbow to turn them around and direct their attention. Mostly she does the hand on the shoulder thing, like a safety belt. Like if she can just hold them in place for a moment everything will gel: their entire young slippery selves will solidify into something more sturdy and prominent.
Onstage the Staulbahm children are unwrapping their elaborate, living presents. Ballerinas unfold out of boxes. Violins pace and swell in the background. Offstage beside me, my mice are illuminated by the upglow of their Nintendo Switches, perched on costume trunks and scrunching their painted-on eyebrows in concentration. I wish they’d watch the action onstage, enraptured. Still, playing Smash Bros on silent is better than when in dress rehearsals they dared to push each other onstage, their little half-torsos momentarily sliced by the curtain and the sharp line of the house lights.
We told the mice not to bother learning the choreography. Unlike the Staulbahm children in their petticoats and the toy soldiers in their pantaloons, the mice did not have to audition. They are only here two days a week. That’s our justification. As mice, they don’t need to be practiced or precise. The more disorderly the better; it’s what people expect to see in their mice, their villains. We just say, mimic the Mouse King, follow behind me, do as I do, slide when I slide, hop when I hop, stab when I stab. The audience finds their off-pace mimicry adorable. Children giggle; their parents guffaw.
I worry about the unspoken, unpleasant racial dynamic that emerges, with the mostly white Victorian children and my mostly Black and Latino mice, but my crew relishes their mouseness and prefers their gray face paint over the foppish wigs. The dance lead offered a few of the more coordinated mice the chance to switch teams. The boys laughed; they shook their heads; they looked at each other like what fools.
The rest of the leads and I are all white, except for Tony, this year’s Drosselmeyer, and in later Acts, the nameless and shirtless Arabian doll.
I don’t imagine the ACLU is going to infiltrate us and come down hard on our regional ballet for discriminatory casting. I think it’s good that we expose the kids to ballet, to the arts, any way we can. But it looks bad, it hangs in the air. Every night the toy soldiers take arms against us, my mice and me. Every night we lose.
Andres, Mouse Number Six, hovers at the very edge of the wings, all of him twitchy with presence, wide with listening. He flickers his fingers like a phantom conductor. When tonight’s Clara spins he twists his shoulders in place so that his felt ears swirl about him. I know from earlier performances that Andres will stay in costume longer than the others, watching the rest of the ballet unfurl long after the other mice have begun to sprawl and eat the Goldfish packets and waxy red apples Lara hauls in.
There’s a lot of time to watch Andres, to watch the other dancers, to theorize. I mean, not a lot of time, a lot of moments. Short spans when I am frozen in place backstage, already in costume but not yet in character, when I can’t do anything else because I’ve got minutes or seconds to entrance, so from the shadows I watch my shiny strong colleagues onstage and for a second I see it, the thing the audience sees, the thing I think Andres sees too, the glamor, the cocoon of the theater, the shield of it against all the daily bullshit, the enchantment of ill-fitting costumes, of the garish lights and stage makeup. It is a miracle, this thing that’s brought us all together. The ballet is better than any of us, with its powers of conjunction, of conjuration, of hypnotism. From all this human mess, something grand and majestic.
Lara picks some fluff off of Q’s ears. The kids do love Lara, I think. When they rush offstage they whisper to her did you SEE that? And she looks each of them in their eyes and says gravely yes of course I did I was watching the whole time.
She tells us things about the kids, salacious things, like their lives are her soap opera. She whispers but the kids can obviously hear. They are right there. Of course Felix can’t remember his cues, his brother was just deported. Or, you know Leroy’s mother is in prison so he gets distracted easily; just show him one more time. I do not ask. It seems easier to let it lie. To let the mice abandon all that at the stage door and embrace being fully mouse and nothing else, a mouse among their own kind. That’s what the ballet offers: the chance to sink into a temporary selflessness.
Andres is running the edges of his costume—his ears, the hem of his gray fur-shirt—through his fingers. I get the sense he’d like to chew on his tail, but knows that would be childish. He keeps his costume tidy. No wrinkles; he must hang it when he gets home rather than dropkick it into a corner.
Even when I lead the mice in our most embarrassing warm-up exercise, the groin stretch, all spread and splayed barefoot on the glossy floor, Andres isn’t one of the gigglers.
None of that, Lara tells the others. They wrap their hands around their little feet to force them together. Maybe I should do more to teach them discipline, but my time with them is so short. I try to be kingly, to mete out praise, all cold nods and nicely done, Simon. The mice are already in costume by the time I see them, and I’m not entirely sure how they get home after the show. I only know them for this odd interval between afternoon and midnight, rehearsal and performance, curtain up and curtain down. In the corner there is a pile of their abandoned sneakers: so many colors and sizes, some shiny and new, some dingy. I don’t know which shoes go with which boy. To me they are all my mice.
Now Andres scrunches his pipe cleaner whiskers and tries to plié, but his bare feet won’t make a straight line and his torso wobbles uncertainly above.
He does a minor jeté and asks, like this?
Yes, very good, I nod. Very mouse. His face splits into a grin.
Ninety seconds to entrance. Lara helps the mice line up behind me. I breathe in and make myself larger and more wicked. I can feel Andres’ breath against my wrist, a half-step behind me, first in line.
I’ve been thinking I should promote him to Mouse Number One, a purely ceremonial title. He tries to copy me so exactly, always at my right elbow. Each night when he leaves the stage he is out of breath from high-knees and scraping the air with his claws. Now that we have only four performances left, he anticipates my steps. He’s memorized my patterns.
The other night he brought in a newspaper clipping from the Express-News, a pointillated photo of the Nutcracker and I facing off in black and white. I wasn’t sure what to do—sign it? I thanked him and tucked it into the mirror frame in my dressing room. Every night during makeup I consider its edges—perfectly straight but not scissored, just a little fuzzed: folded, licked, carefully torn, to preserve the fragile newsprint rectangle.
Onstage, the Christmas tree has grown to immense heights. The tinsel and lights rise and rise to the rafters.
It is our time—Entrance.
I run flat out to center stage. I do a cartwheel and my mice tumble roughly behind me. I wave my scimitar high. I pace the stage like I saw a leopard do once at a zoo, deadly softness in the paws. The toy soldiers take a knee and fire at us but we twirl out of the way.
We are the sly piccolos; they are the righteous trumpets. They advance, we retreat.
After several volleys and early casualties on both sides the music rises in volume, in pace, in shrillness. The Nutcracker and I circle the stage, circle each other tighter and tighter, looping into our inevitable final confrontation.
I prepare myself to get stabbed, to feel the whiz of the wooden sword past my armpit. I hold still, arms in front of my face in mock-defense and cowardice.
My attacker never comes. I look to the Nutcracker, who is still several paces away, bent in half, reaching down, grabbing at something. It’s Andres.
Andres has wrapped himself around tonight’s Nutcracker, Brett, curling around his muscular calves, locking his ankles together. Brett tries to shake him off. But Andres holds on, flailing and flopping as the Nutcracker stumbles and his great head wobbles. The other mice are already offstage; it’s just the three of us now in the light. Only we can hear Andres say, no, no, stop it. Andres’ pink limp tail dances with each strain against him.
The orchestra is swelling, triumphant, signifying that the great battle has reached its apex and order has been restored. The familiar story goes on without us.
The audience is laughing. Andres—well-behaved, quiet Andres—has broken the ballet. We are off script, off book, off note, off tempo, off canon.
Brett has enough muscle to kick hard, but must be thinking the better of it. He gets one leg free and sweeps the other, dragging Andres on his mouse-belly across the floor.
I am the Mouse King.
I cannot stand inert, my tail dragging on the floor. I start prancing to the rhythm of the notes to gain some time. I improvise a pirouette. I stand up straight. I salute Andres, my best mouse soldier—I’m not sure he sees, this is more for the audience—accepting his sacrifice, and dash off stage.
The audience cheers. A higher power—Julie up in the wires—calls it, and closes the curtain on the two of them, looming Nutcracker and little mouse, still grappling.
Brett escapes and rushes past me offstage to costume-change. As he shoulders by he yanks off his foam headpiece and gives me a quick shake of his red face, a can you believe these kids type-gesture.
Andres is alone for a moment on the stage, between the curtain and the scrim. He takes his time getting to his feet; he looks up to the ceiling, to the rigging concealed there.
Lara should go get Andres. I look behind me and she’s busy barring our director from getting any closer to Andres, nodding ferociously. Of course he won’t be allowed to return. Of course I’ll tell him. I’ll talk to my boys. Yes; I know. It won’t happen again. Andres lingers at the edge of the stage for a moment. Andres hears this; Andres is always listening.
He looks like a boy who is about to yell but he is quiet. I think he is trying to hide his crying by not crying at all. He must have practiced this before. Behind the scrim, stagehands are muttering and fussing. The ballet is still moving forward, like a leaky battleship.
Once Andres does cross back over he is embraced by his mouse compatriots. They tell him it was epic and slap him on the back of his head. We are all stripping off our fantastic parts, unpinning tails and peeling off clawed gloves.
Andres turns his face into Lara’s side. I’m sorry, he tells her stomach, I didn’t—I just wanted us to win.
Shush, Lara says. I can see Lara will defend Andres from anyone. From me if she has to. She does not have to. I try to tell her this with my face, but I realize I’m still wearing my mouse headgear. I take my head off.
Andres looks up to me and searches my face, that way children have of letting their hurt hinge on your reaction. We are all breathing hard. It is hot and tight and frantic and hushed back here.
I’m not good with words. That’s why I dance. Andres’ gaze is a greater spotlight than when I play Clara, alone on stage in just a thin nightgown. His eyes are watery and he is holding his hands in fists, waiting for a blow from someplace. It’s clear I need to say something. Andres sacrificed himself to save me, to protect his kind. We all bend for the ballet—ask my hard pink feet, my tight waist, my practiced toothy smile—isn’t that what we’ve been teaching them during these too-brief rehearsals? Submit, play the part, take the hit, join the chorus, die. But Andres believed in the ballet, the battle and his part in it so much, so deeply that he believed there might be a different ending. He did something we’ve never taught them.
I have to get into another character and be ready to dance the dance of the reed pipes.
I bow, low and theatrical. The gesture is not as noble as I’d like, given that a gaggle of sugar plum fairies bumps their way between us. My mouse head jostles. When I stand up straight and raise my gaze, Andres is already looking away from me, to where Lara is cradling a pair of small, tidy, gray off-brand sneakers. She hands them to Andres. Really I don’t know Andres very well but even I can tell those shoes are all wrong. He never would have picked them himself. Now he is gray from head to toe. All the adults in his life, we have prepared this costume for him.
Tomorrow’s performance will be back to normal. Mouse Number Six will be absent. The audience won’t notice one less prance and high kick. I will be Clara—receiving bouquets, cheering on the Nutcracker—Andres will have to watch from the sidelines, if he shows up at all.
But right now I want to know Andres’ ending to the story; I want to know what happens next to the surviving Mouse King. None of my training has prepared me to enter a world in which we get to perform his version. No groin stretches will get us there; it would require a flexibility of something beyond the tendons.
As Andres is being ushered away, the triumphant soap flake snow is released from the plastic tarps against the ceiling. The Nutcracker has regained his composition. He is nobly landing all his jumps. Yet, from the darkness of the theater, I hear a murmur of laughter. Something is still off about the performance; something that can’t be stilled and folded like Drosselmeyer’s human dolls. Something that can’t be put back in its box.
There are 1460 seats in this theater. 1460 souls. They will remember; the children in the audience, those who are seeing this for the first time. They will think this is how the story goes: a valiant mouse soldier, a stumbling, fallible Nutcracker, and a Mouse King escaped, back to his mischief, licking his wounds and lurking along the edges, beaten perhaps but not defeated, living, learning to live, gathering strength and numbers in the wings.