During a winters night in the countryside, an old man was warming his old bones by the fire. He held a little girl in his arms. They were both wearing black clothes and the old man looked like he had recently cried.
– Granpa, the kid squeaked in her high-pitched voice, I miss Granma.
– Me too, my darling, the old man said.
– I don’t understand, the little girl added. Why did God call Granma back to him? Why can’t we live forever? Why did Granma die? I don’t understand what it means, she explained for she was very smart despite her young age and squeaky voice.
The old man sat in the armchair in front of the fire and told her the story of Life and Death and God.
The majestic Green Beetle wriggled nervously on his little white stool. He was furiously puffing on a tiny, white wooden cigarette holder at the end of which a microscopically small cigarette was filling the room with grey smoke.
‘SILENCE’ He thundered in his baritone voice, which still manages to surprise the leading scientists of the Coleopterists Society who can’t understand why a Cicindela Campestris has the vocal cords of a reborn Jean Périer.
– Sci fi glance, a distant voice said.
The two winged creatures who were squabbling a few feet above the ground stopped suddenly. If you looked closely you could recognise two mice, one black and one white, who were floating down while whirling on themselves. Each one clung to what looked like a hang glider. After landing on the ground, well to be more accurate we should call it the marble floor tiles, the mice unfastened their hang gliders and folded them tightly to fit into the small leather bags they were carrying on their backs. The White Mouse cleaned the dust off his shoulders with a face that expressed his disgust quite justly.
He coughed timidly before moving towards the middle of the room, like a gladiator walkg to the middle of the arena. The room was huge. The most accurate and realistic description that was ever made is to be found in the second edition of, “Great Guide of Creation and Other Things” in which the author painted the following image: a great big box of white marble in the dimensions of infinity times two, multiplied by π-cucumberroot. However it is important to note that the π-cucumber system is not particularly common outside the limits of the kingdom, making any conversion to the metric or imperial system absolutely impossible. The experts are still not able to agree on an efficient conversion calculation despite numerous scientific conferences around the world. These conferences are also noted to have closed on a discussion involving fists, kicks, screams and black eyes. The public pays splendidly to watch the carnage, which always leads to the same conclusion: the organization of the next conference. But to go back to our story, the room was very large. The walls stretched so far that it was impossible to know where they stood. Even the sharp eye of a lynx would fail to see the shaft of light from the smallest window, let alone the shadow of a velvet curtain or blinds. It looked like infinity itself in an infinite box of never-ending space. The White Mouse put a small white paw over his eyes that squinted toward the cloud of smoke obscuring the scarab on his stool, and spoke.
– I humbly beg your pardon but my colleague here has stated some opinions that I am compelled to correct based in my expertise in some specific areas.
The Black Mouse sighed loudly and then walked towards the White Mouse, just to smack it loudly on the back of the head.
– Stop acting like the incommensurable sycophant that you are, you sissy!’
‘My dear colleague, would you please be quiet.
– I am quiet. I am quietly disapproving of your enormous stupidity!
The White Mouse span around and violently crushed a tiny fist against the nose of his dearest black colleague. The Black Mouse let out a piercing cry of surprise and dived on his assailant, trying to bite his ears off. They rolled wrapped together on the floor like a pair of hairy burritos and let out a series of burlesque screams that was vaguely reminiscent of an army of constipated ninjas. The Green Beetle shook his head sadly and put his cigarette holder down. He watched the two fighting rodents with the most depressed face it is given to a beetle to pull, which says a lot. He breathed in deeply and shouted at the top of his mighty voice that they should stop immediately if they didn’t want to see their own heads rolling on the floor… The Black Mouse was about to object to this, conjecturing that they probably wouldn’t be able to see their heads rolling unless they were allowed to hold their eyes in their own hands but on second thoughts he chose to remain quiet.
The Green Beetle’s voice was surprisingly powerful for such a small creature. In the distance one could hear the Echo, whose own voice splashed the room with syllables and distorted sounds which sometimes reminded one of very rude words that were not for sensitive ears. But we must add that it was a second hand echo had worn many professors off to get his certificate as an echo. Both mice froze, hugging each other in an attempt to bite each other’s nose.
– I apologize for the inconvenience, Lord, the White Mice began while leaning forward in what he hoped was a respectful bow.
There was no doubt that if he had not lost his balance at this moment and if his backpack had not seized the opportunity to open and spit loudly its content on the marble floor, the bow would have had a great effect. The Green Beetle took his eyes off, rolled them with despair on his lap, and put them back on.
– NOBODY HERE CAN STAND YOUR ENDLESS BICKERING ANYMORE!
The White Mouse sat timidly clutching his backpack against his stomach. The Black Mouse, meanwhile, suddenly found a compelling interest in the contemplation of the isolation joints between the marble slabs under his feet.
The Echo merely repeated anything that sounded close enough to be nearly acceptable. He chose a tone of voice that collapsed into millions of tiny drops of decibels around the two mice as if a rain of noises was pouring on them. The Echo smiled, obviously quite proud of his dramatic effect.
A silence fell, during which the Echo yawned loudly and the White Mouse cleared his throat.
– My Lord, you are well aware that my colleague and I have some divergences of opinion, particularly about the strategy behind our tasks.
The Green Beetle sighed.
– Yeah, right, confirmed the Black Mouse without taking his eyes from the joints between the slabs. This idiot won’t admit that I am altogether more important than him!
The White Mice grunted.
– My Lord, I want to say that obviously my colleague does not understand the essence of my role, he said through his clenched teeth.
– Sure … what one has to hear, really, the Black Mouse whispered to himself with a nasty grin.
The Green Beetle squirmed on his stool while spitting angry smoke rings.
– STOP, he demanded in his loud voice.
– Drop, the Echo answered, scratching his chin absently.
The Green Beetle hit his own head with one of his many legs in despair. He lowered his gaze and seemed to be lost in contemplation of the landscape of marble slabs, that stretched to infinity behind the two mice, for a moment. The time had come to show once and for all that his two most loyal and hardworking employees are equally essential to his business.
– ECHO, he called.
– Ego, the Echo answered, letting his voice bounce off the walls like an excited tiger.
– COME HERE.
– Cold fear, the Echo repeated to infinity.
– ARE YOU GOING TO SHUT UP AND COME, the Green Beetle shouted turning dark brown, then green and red mottled with a delicate brown tone.
The Echo was going to let something incongruous resonate through the room when he reconsidered his position. The cigarette holder in the leg of the scarab was beginning to take what could be described as a worryingly incandescent colour. In doubt, the Echo kept his lips tightly shut and hurried to the side of the Green Beetle, who seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
– I want to send them on a mission of utmost importance, the Green Beetle murmured while gesticulating towards the two mice. Each of them is a vital and essential to the success of things. I hope this mission will show them that they must function as the opposite poles of the same magnet, like an inseparable tandem.
The Echo waited patiently but the Green Beetle had nothing more to say. He seemed perfectly satisfied with his little speech.
– Uh, and what do you expect from me, the Echo ventured.
– It is obvious, you are the puppet.
The Echo raised a questioning eyebrow, thought for a while and then nodded sadly. The beetle asked the mice to approach and entrusted them with the project he had in mind.
– For Chris’s sake, could one of you hold the umbrella over me? I’m soaked!
– No, it’s raining and I’m cold, the Black Mouse replied.
– What I can’t understand is the reason why you didn’t think to take your own umbrella, the White Mouse commented and held the handle of the umbrella tighter against himself, while the Black Mouse clung to him like a leech to keep out of the rain.
The Echo swore. He stood at the bottom of a hole in a graveyard that he was busy digging whilst bellowing like an aroused bull. The rain which had begun to fall was building a thick curtain of wet hair before his eyes. Around him dark mud lovingly entwined his calves. For their part, the mice were watching carefully from a short distance.
– Is it done now, the Black Mouse asked.
– I am convinced that this would be much faster if you were trying a bit harder, the White Mouse advised.
– Totally agree, his colleague nodded.
– Do you regularly dig up dead bodies, the Echo ventured.
– Nope, first time.
– We simply give recommendation as outside observers, my dear.
– Why don’t you just shut up?, the Echo answered while pushing the shovel into the wet ground with a barely contained rage.
– What a bad-tempered person, the mice noted.
– Anyway, why can’t one of you do this?
The Echo’s voice seemed to be coming from the centre of the Earth.
– Don’t be ridiculous! I am Life, you see. My job is to protect and sustain life. I am in no way authorized to do anything else. This is also stipulated in my employment contract, paragraph 2a.
The Echo, in his surprise, stopped digging and leaned his chin against the handle of his shovel.
– I can’t decently go near this hole, my dear. I have absolutely no skills in this area.
The Echo ignored this remark and pulled himself out of the hole. He walked toward the White Mouse, grabbed the umbrella and slipped the shovel in his hands instead.
– I am not an expert in holes, he mused, while the Black Mouse was putting all his energy into trying to disappear into the ground.
The White Mouse took his courage and the shovel in both hands and hopped nimbly between the puddles towards the dark opening in the floor.
– It will never work, the Black Mouse muttered between his teeth.
The Echo felt a sudden itch in his hand, the one that wasn’t holding the umbrella that is. It was like a strong need to slap the mouse in the face but he chose to ignore it. He had a proud smile on his face, which would vanish in the next few seconds.
The White Mouse crouched at the edge of the hole to jump to the bottom safely and also to win a bit of time before having to land in the muddy puddle that stretched visibly to form a viscous pool at the bottom of the pit. He had barely put one knee on the ground when the hole disappeared. In its place was a green expanse of lawn covered with flowers.
In his surprise, the Echo dropped the umbrella, which evilly hastened to roll on its side, exposing the little band to the extremely wet rain that was pouring over the cemetery in Dijon that night.
The Echo put his hands to his forehead and screamed like a hysterical young woman who has just discovered huge discounts on Louis Vuitton’s bags. The Black Black Mouseignored the overdose of decibels and ran to the umbrella.
– I warned you, the White Mouse said darkly, trotting toward the umbrella as well.
The Echo had fallen to his knees, still screaming.
The White Mouse joined his colleague under the umbrella and they started to complain about the weather. The conversation quickly ceased.
– Can’t hear a thing with him, the Black Mouse noted.
The Echo had begun to roll on the ground while yelling like a lost child. The Black Mouse sighed and left his dry shelter.
– Erm, erm, coughed the Black Mouse.
– Yes? The Echo replied as if nothing had happened, as he rose to his feet.
– I am Death.
– Yes, I know. And?
– In theory, I do exactly the opposite of whitey. I think I can reverse the situation.
– Ah, this is comforting … I do not exactly want to re-dig the hole, you see.
– I had noticed.
The Black Mouse walked with a firm step toward the fresh grass covered with colorful flowers. He had barely touched the surface with a fingertip when the hole reappeared in front of his eyes.
The Echo screamed.
– For heaven’s sake, my dear, shut your trap and get back in your hole.
The Echo jumped into the hole, that his miserable companions considered his, shovel in hand. He noted a few scattered bones that were not there a few minutes earlier.
– I found some old bones, he cried with excitement.
– Ah, that must be me … it happens all the time, the Black Mouse said.
The Echo stuck his head out of the hole and looked at the two mice under the umbrella.
– Honestly, ignore the bones.
The Echo did not move.
– Look, I am Death, what did you expect?
The Echo considered the answer for a while then eventually accepted the logic and got back to work. Long minutes passed in wet silence, if not for the sound of the pouring rain.
Suddenly the Echo uttered a new cry.
– I found him!
– Delighted to hear it, dear colleague.
– Open the coffin, we’re coming, the Black Mouse said.
The old coffin lid gave away without much difficulty and discovered a sinister skull with a toothy smile. The Echo shook with fear at the sight of his first dead body … especially when this body had been dead for several centuries. Both mice joined him and pushed him with varying degrees of delicacy on the side. Echo fell back in a small puddle of mud which had apparently been placed there just for this purpose. He remained in the pool, without daring to move, while the two mice were busy fussing around skeleton with fast murmurs. The White Mouse handed a sheet of paper to his colleague that the rodent glanced over and signed on the bottom right.
– Remember to put your initials, dear colleague, Life kindly remembered him.
The Black Mouse drew the letters ‘TD’ on purpose in the middle of the contract.
– Uh, TD?, the Echo who did not lose a crumb of the events, asked
The Mice ignored the interruption.
– TD?, the Echo insisted.
The White Mouse turned to the skeleton and put his hand in the coffin, out of sight of the Echo.
The Echo coughed discreetly.
The Black Mouse threw a black eye at him, which exploded in the air by releasing a cloud of dark smoke.
The Echo coughed again, a little louder this time.
– It’s The Death, the White Mouse squeaked through his teeth. Now, be quiet, please!
– I see, the Echo said.
The Black Mouse walked away from the coffin and stood alongside the Echo.
– You’re sitting in a puddle of mud, he said simply.
– What is happening?, the Echo asked, ignoring the remark.
– I gave him my use rights, the Mouse Black said. He is not allowed to call that poor guy back to life without a contract, he continued, noting the eyebrows of the Echo were running away from his eyes as if they were ready to take off and leave his face to fly to a fantastic adventure of their own.
– Of course, what was I thinking, the Echo answered by adjusting the mud around his backside in a more comfortable position.
Before them, the White Mouse kept his hand in the coffin while reading aloud the text of the ‘Official Proclamation of Resurrection’ in a language that the Echo could not fully identify.
Life finally removed his hand and took a step back.
The Black Mouse lit a cigarette.
– Are we good? He asked while blowing out a delicate smoke ring that was strangely reminiscent of a skull.
– What happens now, the Echo interrupted.
– Company! Excellent! Good evening, the skeleton said happily while sitting up in the coffin.
The Echo tried to think of something clever and witty to express his surprise and opted to gesture in response. He collapsed with no dignity in his puddle of mud.
– Oh dear, it seems that your friend is experiencing a mild discomfort. Has he eaten enough today?, the skeleton continued.
– Oh don’t worry, my dear. How do you feel?, the White Mouse hastened to ask.
– How extremely surprising!, said the skeleton who noted only that two giant mice were staring at him with a barely contained look of pride, I am talking to two huge rats.
– When was the last time that you’ve looked in the mirror, you bunch of old bones, the Black Mouse replied.
The skeleton turned the two gaping holes that had long ago been his eyes toward the brown velvet suit that concealed his bony body. In places, the costume had been eaten away by moths. His ribs were playing hide and seek under the fabric of his jacket.
– Ah, he said, I have been dead for longer than I thought.
– Yes, Death said.
– And I gave you Life, Life said.
– Could you not have revived me a little earlier?, the dead man complained.
– It turns out we didn’t need you earlier.
That’s when the Echo recovered consciousness. He shook his head as if to put his ideas back in place and pulled out a small notepad from his pocket. He ran carefully through the words written on the page.
– Well, well, he muttered more to himself than to anybody in particular, probably because he was long used to the rude deafness of his rodent colleagues.
He looked up and spoke directly to the skeleton.
– Let me brief you quickly. You were dead. You are alive again.
– I think our bony friend knows that already, without wanting to jump to easy conclusions.
The skeleton folded his arms and leaned against the wall of clay behind him as if it were a leather sofa, or at least as if it were a wet, dirty sofa with an especially high back.
– We offer an alternative to death, but it is essential that you sign a contract specifying your consent. The contract grants you a posthumous existence, with 25 days leave per year and an all-expenses paid apartment. We want to use your services and expertise in exchange. Obviously, we are ready to give you time for consideration. You have 2 hours. Once this period has elapsed, if you decline our offer, it goes without saying that you will go back to death and to your coffin, recited the Echo.
The skeleton, if he had had that opportunity, would probably have raised his eyebrows as a sign of surprise. But he just let a moonbeam pierced his eye sockets, not knowing how to react.
– I’m not sure what there is for me here, began the skeleton.
The mice did not let him finish. They walked toward him and each of them grabbed a radius. They dragged the skeleton out of his pit and crept quickly along the paths of the cemetery. Behind them, the Echo followed.
On leaving the cemetery, the mice took the first street on the right and disappeared into a maze of narrow streets before reaching the door of a French bistro. The Echo, who trotted behind, joined them – out of breath. He pushed the door and chose a table at the back of the room, away from prying eyes, which were quite misty at this late hour. The regulars of the place threw him a vague glance, staring at his long nose and his toad eyes with an intensity that their rough education allowed and dived their noses back into their respective glasses. The skeleton crossed the room with anxious eye sockets at the attention of other customers, including an elderly gentleman who looked particularly suspicious.
– Relax, said Death, no one sees us.
The jaw of the skeleton fell into a silent scream.
– I can confirm that my colleague is right. We are not part of their world. They don’t see you. They don’t see us, the White Mouse said. However they are likely to ask questions when the Echo orders his four beers. Unless you prefer a glass of wine, perhaps?
Life gave him a friendly look, like a host offering his guests a drink. The skeleton shook his old bones and dropped them without any ceremony on a wooden chair around the table.
– What can I serve you? the waitress, whose makeup was applied as delicately as suburban graffiti, asked.
– Three lagers and a large glass of red wine.
She stared at the Echo who smiled back.
– I’m very thirsty, he added.
The waitress walked away, rolling her eyes.
– Can I have peanuts too? Echo cried as she walked off toward the bar.
The waitress returned a few moments later with the drinks on her tray. She lined up the glasses, which showed a dubious cleanliness, in front of the Echo, who reminded her that he also had ordered of peanuts. The waitress pretended to take note of the order and returned to sit behind the bar, where she was able to comfortably ignore the customers.
The Echo and the two mice took the opportunity to explain more clearly to the skeleton the various benefits of the afterlife.
– All my friends are dead, said the skeleton, when they had finished.
– Can you resurrect a few?
– Ah, the skeleton replied.
He was beginning to miss his coffin.
– Drink up, the Echo advised.
The skeleton considered this suggestion for a while. He imagined the waste of alcohol and mentally pictured the wine running down his old sad bones, spreading on the table and the floor around him like a pool of fresh blood. He hesitated. The Echo waved encouragingly at him while drinking his own beer. Both mice were too busy removing the foam from their whiskers to take part in this signed dialogue.
The skeleton raised the glass to his toothy smile and drank.
He felt the liquid sensually tapping his palace before gently flowing along his esophagus.
He had forgotten the taste of wine, he had forgotten the magic of the human body, at least the magic of a living body.
– It’s extraordinary, he exclaimed.
– No, just one of the benefits of the contract, Death answered while emptying his own glass.
– You get ALL the benefits of a physical body, you see, the slightly intoxicated White Mouse insisted.
– Another drink?, the Echo asked, gesturing at the waitress.
When they left the bistro, the skeleton had accepted the offer of the mice but it must be said that he would have probably accepted anything, judging by his clumsy gait … and probably also because he tried repeatedly to plant a French kiss on Life’s whiskers.
He was still unsteady on his bony legs when both mice and the Echo brought him back to the palace.
The Green Beetle was waiting, sat on top of his white wooden stool, wearing a top hat and a three-piece suit. Both mice were used to the forced formalism of the first meeting. The Echo was biting the inside of his cheeks to prevent laughing hysterically. The Beetle called him to his side with a gesture of one of his legs and the Echo obliged by placing himself on his right.
The Green Beetle cleared his throat to attract attention, in case the image of an insect dressed for a night out was not be extraordinary enough.
– My dear friends, he announced, allow me to introduce François Pierre de la Varenne.
The Echo repeated nonsense. He felt within himself the urge to report that he did not need an introduction, now that he had dug François Pierre out of his tomb. But he concentrated on his echo role instead.
– Francois Pierre is a French chef of the 17th century.
– Wrench left from Kentucky, the Echo said.
– Francois Pierre is a bunch of bones, the Black Mouse whispered from under his whiskers.
The White Mouse pretended to be absolutely fascinated by this piece of information.
The presentation speech lasted another couple of minutes, during which the skeleton laughed silently. The Green Beetle told at length the epic adventure, involving bloody battles and other romantic flirts, that led the skeleton to the palace. The cook assumed correctly that the Beetle, in his desire to make a good first impression, was probably a little carried away with emotion. At least that was the only explanation that justified that nothing of this whole saga had happened. But he particularly appreciated the episode where two young French ladies were fighting in the streets to gain his favor.
The Green Beetle insisted strongly on the teamwork of Life and Death, who could walk together hand in hand and were therefore, in his view, of equal importance. The mice smiled proudly, sticking their torsos out, convinced of having saved the kingdom.
– What can I do for you, my Lord, the skeleton asked at the end of the speech. How can I put my skills to your service?
– Well, our cook resigned yesterday and I’m hungry, you see, the Green Beetle said with simplicity.
The mice gave a cry of rage.
Francois Pierre walked away to the kitchen, leaving the two mice rolling on the floor of marble slabs trying to bite each other’s nose. An attentive spectator would probably have heard their respective rants about a stupid mission they wasted their time on and about each other’s useless role in it.
– For you see, my darling, Life and Death don’t have a clue what they are doing and God is a self-centered asshole, the old man concluded.
The little girl looked at him with big eyes full of expectations.
– Now be a nice girl and bring me the bottle of whisky.