Published in  
January 13, 2024

The Postman and the Mouse

...once in a while, the shockwaves of syncopation travel through the city, upsetting the neat order of the senses, upturning the aesthetics of the polite.

In a fascinating and popular tale told by the Brothers Grimm, published in 1812, an old hardworking shoemaker and his wife fall on very hard times.

Down to their last strap of leather, barely enough to make a pair of shoes, and with their bellies sprouting cobwebs, they retire for the night - not knowing what the next day might bring. In the morning, instead of a mournful patch of leather staring back at his tired eyes, the shoemaker lands his gaze on the finest pair of shoes he has seen in a good while. During the day, he is able to sell the pair to an eager customer who fancies his feet more than he does his purse, paying the grateful cobbler more than is normally due.

Stumped by his sudden fortune, but delighted to be able to afford more leather to make more shoes, the shoemaker makes a purchase, reverently and quizzically arranges the patches on his worktable, and retires for the night. When the sun rises, it shines its goodness upon even more shoes. New shoes. Perhaps more beautiful than the last pair. Desiring to return the favour to their invisible benefactor, the revitalized couple stay up late, peeping from the shadows, only to find to their eternal shock two small naked men sneak into their store, gather the materials, toil and sweat for hours, and cobble together new pairs of shoes.

I remembered this story quite fondly when I read about Rodney Holbrook, 75, retired postman, and resident of Builth Wells, Powys, in the country of Wales. Rodney and his wife woke up every morning to find their apartment cleaner than he left it. BBC News reports what Rodney did to solve the mystery: "After regularly discovering that things from the night before had been mysteriously tidied, he set up a night vision camera on his workbench." The footage he obtained depicted a house-proud mouse dutifully clearing away things, diligently putting them away, keeping the Holbrook household clean in its scurrying business. "I don't bother to tidy up now, I leave things out of the box and they put it back in its place by the morning," Rodney remarked to the BBC.

"I think he would tidy my wife away if I left her in there."

Like the fictional "elves" in the cobbler tale, and the red eye mouse in the Holbrook footage, there were once Black slaves who carried away the faecal matter of the more prestigious residents in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They were the aspiring city's inaugural public latrine system. Their bodies were so marked by their terrible task that their skins curdled into gnarled stripes and leathery hisses, earning them the nickname, 'Tigres'. But it mattered little what they were called. To the city, which longed to replicate the metropolitan successes of European counterparts, when its eminent inhabitants sought to take a shit, hidden figures were there to cart away their blush, their bodies metabolizing the abjection of the discarded.

The neurotypical marks the expectation that when we walk, when our feet land on the ground, our footsteps will be upheld by the ground's sturdiness. You might think of this expectation as a simple faith, an anticipatory modality necessary to the business of living. Switch on a phone and dial a number? Why, that mere act - by the very 'laws of nature' - should summon an expected other! Nothing to it. It's just merely "practical". But even this "simple faith" is political, shrouding an uneasy entitlement that is subsidized by hidden figures, curdled skin, rodent imperatives, and bodies that live in the fissures of the dominant tendencies that make up the familiar.

Phones don't "merely" work; they often trace out cartographies that are ignited by the bodies of Congolese boys mining cobalt to power batteries and telephonic conversations. Donuts don't "simply" taste good; their saccharine sweetness enmeshes the decimation of Malaysian and Indonesian forests, which in turn powers vegetable oil production necessary for frying the pastries. And shit doesn't just disappear.  

Behind the curtains of the sensorial familiar, tucked within the folds of habituated expectations, nourishing the ritual of entitlement, backgrounded by the vicissitudes of common sense, are hidden lives and hidden deaths. Hidden arrangements. Something wide-eyed and queerly breathing. Prosthetic bodies rendered abject, unpronounceable, outside the thesis of the useful.

But then once in a while, the shockwaves of syncopation travel through the city, upsetting the neat order of the senses, upturning the aesthetics of the polite: postman meets rat; cobbler meets elves; citizen meets vagabond. And civilization meets its monsters. We could rehabilitate those monsters when we meet them. You know, pull them into the hospitality of inclusivity. A more thrilling prospect is one of radical accompaniment, dancing with the monstrous into stranger solidarities. Into the cracks where miracles are bred.

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