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The Edict of Vilnius

by Clarise Samuels

The opening session of the conference was about to begin, and the general hubbub in the main auditorium began to die down as the speaker approached the podium and briefly checked the microphone. It was the annual convention of the International Mouse Society. The mice were from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, and philosophers. The world’s wisest and most astute mice had traveled from the four corners of the globe to be here in the basement of a convention hall in New York City for five days of sessions, meetings, and lavish dinners.

The president of the society, the world’s most powerful mouse, known as the Chief Wizard, called the room to order and began the keynote speech with these words: “Welcome one and all to our annual International Mouse Week. I hope we will once again tackle the problems of all rodentkind, problems which, of course, are inextricably linked to the dilemmas and predicaments of humankind, who, may the Universal Mouse Spirit smile upon us, do not even know of our concern and our interventions. Let us begin the week with our benediction.”

The entire room arose and solemnly pronounced the oath taken by all mice and other concerned rodents:

“May the Universal Mouse Spirit help us uphold the Edict of Vilnius; may our society continue to evolve and progress; and may our great intellectual abilities be forever hidden from those whom we secretly seek to protect and serve: our benefactors, the humans of planet Earth. And may we forgive them their trespasses.”

Dr. Jerry Gerbilinko, a well-known doctor, looked at his program with interest while the speeches continued. At home he ran clinical trials for the treatment of cancer in rodents which, of course, had implications for human cancers as well. His subjects were mostly rats, and his lab was right underneath a lab run by a prominent human doctor and funded by the National Institute of Health.

Jerry’s rats did not suffer. They were volunteers who had cancer and had agreed, through an elaborate consent process, to participate in the clinical trials that had passed the review of the Rodent Ethics Board. The procedures were similar to human trials, but humans, unfortunately, considered ethical aspects only in regard to human subjects. Rodent subjects had few, if any, rights. Indeed, humans had only recently noticed that rodents had any feelings or intelligence at all.

Jerry sighed as he remembered the International Mouse Society had only themselves to blame. For centuries, no human had been permitted to know that rodents had any emotions or intellectual faculties. But in the 1970’s, a previous Great Wizard finally relented on this point.

When widely publicized studies proved humans treated cats and dogs very well because these animals showed what little emotional and intellectual capacity they had, the Great Wizard made an astounding proclamation. Rodents were permitted to show a small fraction of their intelligence. Shortly afterwards, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and even rats began showing up in pet stores. A new era had begun.

But the slaughters continued, of course. Rodents, for the most part, were still viewed as vermin and carriers of disease. Women still climbed on chairs and screamed while one squeaky little mouse ran across the room for cover. The hysteria and ignorance could not be completely eradicated by the mice, who in fact refused even to try.

The mice did not dare protest too much on their own behalf, for they harbored a deep, dark secret, which could never be disclosed, even if the mouse world faced extinction in order to protect their covert mandate.

The mice were sworn to honor the Edict of Vilnius, issued in 1590 by the first Great Wizard in the city of Vilnius, in Lithuania. The mouse edict, which was later adopted with minor modifications by other rodent groups, proclaimed that humans had failed to provide a safe world for life to thrive and that now the mice would take over and assume responsibility for the fate of humanity.

But attempts to control events behind the scenes were rather bumbling. Mice, and rodents in general, upheld the Edict of Vilnius as much as possible, but they did not want to be viewed as evil geniuses trying to rule the world. Because of ethical issues regarding human fate and free will, the mice often kept a low profile. They had a natural aversion to absolute power, and they were gentle, unassuming creatures. They took action only with the best of intentions, and if the mice had their way, all would be peace, light, and love on the planet. Yet history bore witness to their failures.

Jerry looked up at the slides being shown on the big screen by a renowned speaker. There it was — a photo of the finished statue to honor the memory of Marty Mouseman, probably the most famous mouse who had ever lived.

Mouseman had been raised in a Jewish home in Germany in the 1930’s. He invented a poisoned dart, which was meant to be used to assassinate Hitler. The poison would have dissolved and created the appearance of a death caused by a natural heart attack. Mouseman had planned every detail of the assassination, but at the last possible moment, just as Mouseman had Hitler in his sights, an SS bodyguard took a step backwards and squashed Mouseman. It was a sad day for human- and rodentkind alike.

The mice were plagued with systematic goof-ups, unforeseeable outcomes, and general operational malfunctions. But they were nevertheless optimistic about the future. They tried to remember their successes rather than their failures. Abraham Lincoln received much practical advice from a field mouse, and Winston Churchill had long discussions with a house mouse who lived in his basement.

The stress of living with their secret in a hostile human world meant that the mouse lifespan was very short: a few years was the most they could expect, although Jerry’s grandfather was now five years old and still going strong.

To reduce stress and promote longevity, the Great Wizard had introduced Zen Buddhist meditation as a recommended rodent practice. Jerry noted there were several sessions on the conference program devoted to meditation and Zen theory.

The speeches were over, and the room arose in enthusiastic applause. There was wine and cheese in the lobby and some Japanese delights, a special delivery straight from the admirably pristine trash cans found at the Japanese restaurant next door.

As the crowd milled about the room and slowly headed for the lobby, Jerry looked around to see if he recognized any colleagues. He gasped involuntarily when he saw Sasha Souris on the other side of the conference hall. As far as he could tell, Sasha had not yet spotted him.

Theirs was a long and problematic relationship, which had ended several months earlier. A love affair based on desperate passion and lust, both Jerry and Sasha were married to other rodents, and both marriages were troubled. When the pair first met, their passion for each other was so great that they spoke of divorcing and eloping together.

But they both had families, and they were both conservative doctors. Divorce would have caused quite a scandal in high society and, of course, the mouse gossip columnists would have had the proverbial field day.

Jerry knew he had hurt Sasha very deeply when he broke up with her, but he had no choice. His wife had started making pointed remarks about his friendship with Sasha, and he understood instinctively that she was suspicious.

And Jerry had more important matters on his mind than illicit romance and wild, passionate love-making. The human world was in dire straits, and if humans destroyed themselves, they would bring the rodent world down with them. For his part, Jerry was doing brilliant work in his lab, and there was hope for a cure for cancer.

Sasha, like Jerry, was also a noted physician and researcher. She served on high-level advisory committees to the Great Wizard and specialized in diseases of the rodent tail, an interesting line of research but of little value to humans. Sasha had always been resentful that Jerry’s work was considered more important than hers.

Jerry had been avoiding Sasha for months; he had even canceled his registration for Rodent Disease Week, the prestigious annual medical conference that every mouse doctor attended. He could not face her, but now he could not avoid her. She had spotted him.

“Well, Jerry, do you think you can find the courage to talk to me?” said Sasha as she approached him.

“Sasha, please,” Jerry said softly, “I don’t want to fight with you.”

“I noticed you didn’t show up for Rodent Disease Week,” she said pointedly. “Were you avoiding me?”

“No, no, it’s not always about you, Sasha. I told you I am very busy. I’m closing in on a cure for cancer. Can’t you understand that?” Jerry was getting tense. These were the recurrent themes harking back to a difficult period in their relationship.

“Yes, of course, you are busy,” Sasha repeated, unable to hide her contempt. “Too busy to look me straight in the eye and tell the truth. Too busy to face your own cowardice and your own shortcomings. How many times did you lie to me? How many times did you make promises you couldn’t keep? Jerry, I am well rid of you.” She turned her back on him and walked away.

He watched her as she joined some hamster friends, now laughing and feigning high spirits. Jerry sighed and made good his escape. Sasha’s bitterness was palpable, and he knew he would be tormented by her presence for the rest of the week.

Leaving the lobby, Jerry walked down a hall where the first sessions of the conference were already beginning. He glanced at his program and quickly ducked into the room for the session titled “Now and Zen: Ten Easy Approaches to Mouse Meditation.” The instructor was sitting cross-legged on a cushion in front of the classroom. The session was poorly attended, partly because Zen had not yet caught on in the general mouse population despite being well endorsed by the Great Wizard.

“Take a seat, Dr. Gerbilinko.” The instructor knew Jerry from previous classes.

“I need a lot of counseling,” Jerry confessed as he pulled up a meditation mat. “I am very stressed.”

“If you are stressed, then you are not meditating enough,” the Zen master said simply.

“It goes beyond that,” Jerry noted sadly. “We mice, gerbils, rats, hamsters, and even the degus have taken on too much. We want to cure diseases, reverse global warming, save the whales, the polar bears, and anyone else on the verge of extinction, and just for good measure, we are trying to help humans set up a utopian society. We have bitten off more than we can gnaw upon. I am trying to cure cancer, and every day my waiting room is crowded with patients suffering from classic symptoms of stress.”

“Take heart, young mouse,” said the Zen master. “At least we do not have to fear our own extinction. We are out there in record numbers. We even survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Our early ancestors hardly noticed when the meteorite hit the Earth. We merely burrowed underground, where we were safe. Nothing can get us.”

“Yes, we are safe, but humans aren’t,” Jerry lamented, “and we have habituated ourselves to a planet filled with humans. If they go, we are doomed. Can you imagine this planet without humans? Our super-intellect was a magical process, which somehow occurred through a mouse-human symbiosis. Even the Great Wizard doesn’t quite understand how the symbiosis came about. Only the mystics have even a glimmer of how it all happened. We can never go back to being rodents underground. Without humans, we will all die of a broken heart.”

“We will survive,” insisted the teacher. “And so will they. Have a little faith, my son.”

Jerry sighed. “My ex-girlfriend is here,” he abruptly confessed.

“I thought you were married.”

“Precisely.” Jerry looked into the instructor’s eyes with an intent expression.

“Ah. I see. Well, keep your heart open, and all wounds will heal, even the wounds you’ve inflicted on others. Now please assume the lotus position,” the master said in a no-nonsense tone.

Jerry obeyed, and he began to breathe in the traditional mantra, the word “om.” He started to relax almost immediately. He let go of the stray thoughts flitting through his head, and the tension caused by his meeting with Sasha began to dissipate.

Jerry knew Sasha felt she had suffered an injustice at his hands, and he knew he had broken an unspoken commitment to her. His guilt plagued him, but now a sense of peace overcame him.

Suddenly he saw a flash of light, and all things were known to him. He saw it all: world peace, the planet in perfect ecological balance, a just and humane society. It was distant, so distant, but it was there in the remote future. There was hope, and all of rodentkind would prevail.

Jerry was now completely relaxed, and for the first time in ages, he did not feel as though the weight of the entire world was sitting on his shoulders. He would face Sasha at the gala dinner that evening, he would talk to her, and maybe even find it in his heart to ask for her forgiveness.

He knew she had lost all her respect for him, and he understood now that he deserved it. He would make more time for his family and try not to complain so bitterly about his wife and their boring sex life. Divorce was not an option for a mouse as old-fashioned as himself; he would have to resign himself to his lot.

Jerry would find the cure for cancer, and he would whisper the solution into the ear of his benefactor, the human doctor who toiled away in the lab above him. Jerry did not care about receiving credit for his work; the mouse world would bestow accolades upon him, and their recognition would have to be enough.

Human hatred and intolerance would somehow be resolved; the wars would stop; and someday the mice of the world would approach humankind and tell them their simple truth: we are here for you, and we have always been here. Someday humans would be able to accept the genius of the rodent empire and the innate wisdom of the Great Wizard.

And that day would be the beginning of paradise.

Copyright © 2009 by Clarise Samuels

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