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"What is the chief difference between a mouse and a bear, Ernest?" his mother inquires in the worn cellar, advancing wickedly upon a cornered mouse. His suit is well-tailored, a brown coat over a blue suit and a top hat that he lost beneath Ernest's bed. He has all the trappings of innocent civility.
Ernest, still in his bedclothes, begs against tears that sting his eyes. "Don't kill him, mama, please! He didn't do anything wrong!" The mouse stops, for he has retreated as far as he can go; terrified, he is surrounded by earthen walls on either side.
"I asked you a question, boy," she says coldly, and crushes the mouse underfoot just before he can cross his heart for the last time.
His apartment overlooking the rue des jours isn't quite all that bad.
It's not as cozy as his old home, where his parents wither from age and set a china cabinet where the piano once was and leaves an outline of dust against the wall. The wallpaper curls at the baseboards; mold grows in long cracks in the ceiling that Ernest does not have the money to seal; his bed creaks and groans like a living thing, elderly and overwhelmed with rust. Stacks of sheet music and plays crowd his walls in unorganized heaps. It is not as accommodating as his old home in the woods, no, and it can hardly be considered a home. But it's his, and only his.
Ernest sits at the bench next to the window and plays the piano he took with him, hoping beyond hope that the notes will reach the assorted pedestrians. His fingers move instinctively to their places, and he merely shuts his eyes. Hunched over the keys and dimly aware he is playing at all, he imagines himself onstage, serenading the lofty ceiling of the theater down the street to a crowd of patrons. The music is so beautiful, they will say, and the women will be moved to weeping, the men to quiet sniffling. All of them there, in that auditorium, dressed in their finest clothing, and his mother and father will enter just as the room erupts into applause.
He opens his eyes. The music trails softly off into silence. He sighs and twirls his hat in a mock-bow.
No applause from the shabby apartment for him. He looks out at the street, the men and women walking arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, and there is no one beneath his window to listen. He thinks of what his mother told him, all those years ago: Music is a waste of time. To garner true attention, he must give up the foolishness at once and take up a reasonable practice of some sort.
There is a hole in the wall above the piano just eye-level to Ernest, where once— just once— he opened his eyes to find a small audience of mice congregated for him. He thinks back to that day; he played them his best songs, laughed with them, went to bed that night glad to have felt just a little bit less alone in the world. He imagines their return home: They must conjure excuses and lies to hide their associating with a bear, all for his music. All for the simple beauty of enjoying it. The thought deeply honors him.
The chief difference between a mouse and a bear, she told him all through the years until he finally took his frustrated leave of them, was that bears were stalwart people with good characters; Mice, on the other hand, were cowardly thieves, living in the sewers on the teeth of the bears alone. Her eyes burned with rage against them when she said this, piercing into his tender soul as though to plant her seed of anger inside him. He never succumbed.
Lost in thought, his right hand habitually smooths out an arpeggio. He casts a wary look to the worn wood of the piano and compliments it with another. And another. His left hand begins playing also, a living thing of its own, and soon he shuts his eyes again and smiles softly.
Suddenly, he is there again, a child in his bedclothes crying at the foot of his bed, a sea-blue top hat cradled in his hands. His father is downstairs, cleaning away the entrails of the poor mouse with a washrag. His mother snores in the bed next to his, unrepentant.
He wonders just what the mouse had been doing in the home when he mistakenly awoke Ernest's mother. Had he been intending to steal a tooth? To steal two teeth? Had the mouse been there for any of the evil agendas his mother spoke of— to chew through their sheets, or to burrow holes in the freshly-painted walls, or to steal their food to feed his family?
Was there a family waiting in vain for their father to return home?
Ernest stops playing abruptly, eyes red and puffy, unsettled. He takes in a shaky breath, hunched over the instrument, and he catches a shout from the street: A bear dressed in shabby street-sweeper's clothing tells him loudly to keep that infernal racket down. He does not look at the voice, but sniffles once and releases a shaky breath before he notices the mice there in the wall again, clapping quietly.
(He smiles and mock-bows for them, and they cast tiny coins into his upturned hat, and it is with this that he finally learns the chief difference between a mouse and a bear.)