Monday, October 8, 2007

Death of a Mouse - February 2006

At a party several years ago Scott bumped into the contractor who had done the sill work on our house for the previous owners. Leon told a slightly disturbing tale. He explained that when they pulled away a knee wall in the living room, hundreds of mouse skeletons poured forth. For more than 200 years the words “over the wall” must have held an eerie connotation in mousedom hereabouts. Whether driven by a spirit of adventure, the need for food or plain rodent stupidity, many a mousie took a tumble over the edge and died among the bones of their ancestors.

To this I say: “Excellent!”

I’ve been waging war with mice for years and not winning. Our current battleground is the corner lazy susan in my kitchen. Recently I was complaining about my mouse issues to my friend Denise.

“Why do they go in there? We don’t keep anything perishable for them to get into,” I whined.

“Duh,” she said. “They like to ride the thing!” Maybe so. Maybe they regard my lazy susan as mid-coast Maine’s premiere mouse amusement park. Maybe they’re playing mind games with me. But whatever they are doing in my kitchen cabinets, it’s not the end of my problem.

The situation is further complicated by my large-scale hypocrisy when it comes to other species within the clade that consists of rodentia and lagomorpha. (It was easier when I first wrote this piece a few weeks ago and was still under the delusion that rabbits were rodents rather than lagomorphs…but now, to be accurate, I have to go up the taxonomical ladder to the clade, a designation that in 1977 Mrs. Clary did not teach in tenth grade biology. I’ve always been proud just to remember that King Philip Came Over From Germany Saturday.)

Anyway, my troubling hypocrisy with regard to smallish mammals is where Hester comes in.

Each year in August, on the day before school begins, my boys and I go to the Windsor Fair. About 20 miles from home, it’s one of those grand old agricultural fairs with farm animals and tractor pulls and pig scrambles and a midway with games and rides and tattooed hawkers. They give out ribbons for the largest and most beautiful fruits and vegetables. There’s one building dedicated to 4-H displays and another to all-day Beano. At one side of the fairgrounds, several old buildings have been moved to form a facsimile of a 19th Century village where you can duck in to watch a blacksmith or two make cracks to one another and ply their trade. In the late afternoon we always take ice cream over to the grandstand to watch the harness racing. We study the racing form, (“Ah, look at this, Ruby Red won $1,200 at the Union Fair two weeks ago”) and place a few two dollar bets.

Many people prefer the Common Ground Fair in September. Though it’s organic and socially responsible, you can’t bet on horses and they don’t sell fried dough. Also there are way too many young fellows in Renaissance garb juggling apples for my taste. The Windsor Fair makes me feel like I’m still young Fern Arable with two quarters and two dimes in her pocket, though these days I’m more likely to be mistaken for Mrs. Zuckerman.

But last August, as the Windsor Fair season approached, I was less in mind of buying a deep freeze* than of buying a rabbit.

Scott indulged my dog habit for 11 years but when we moved from the country to this house in the village in 1997 he adjured me to go dog-free. His allergies were getting worse and our golden retriever Steve was a country dog at heart. Our other golden, Moozer, the one true dog love of my life, had died of cancer a few years before. Reluctantly I found Steve a new country home.

Since that time the boys and I have tried to think about how to re-introduce a dog into our life, but it’s a no-go.

“I’ll just move to a hotel,” Scott sniffs when I suggest a breed touted as non-allergenic.

Over the past few years I’ve researched an array of pet options – hedgehogs had me interested for awhile but it’s become illegal to import them and the domestic stocks are pretty inbred. Lizards need lots of heat. Gerbils and hamsters are boring. Ditto for fish, plus a nice tank is a lot of work.

Then two years ago at the Windsor Fair we were in the small animal tent when I happened upon this large cinnamon-colored rabbit lying languidly in his cage. He had an expression on his face that said, “Yeah, well, I’ve seen it all, lady.” An index card stuck to his cage read “SOLD.” The rabbit and I looked at each other. I thought a message to him.

“If you weren’t sold, I’d buy you.”

“Right,” he thought back and twitched a petulant ear.

Last August, a few days before the fair, I started doing some late-night bunny research on the Internet. I read about breeds, how to care for them, common medical ailments, bunny behavior, all things bunny. The night before the fair, I broached the subject at dinner.

“Rabbits have fur,” Scott said dismissively, “but they taste good on pasta…minced with a nice savory sauce. Bring one home and we can eat it.” He smiled at the boys. They smiled back, and I let him think I was kidding.

After parking and walking across the dusty, trampled field to the entrance gate, our first bit of business was to find us a rabbit. In the tent with the chick hatchery, we saw a row of rabbit cages. One large cage had a litter of eight or ten young rabbits. Most were huddled together in a corner but one frisky bunny, cinnamon in color and friendly in demeanor, hopped over to the side of the cage and expressed her interest in our presence. I stuck my finger in the cage and she wiggled her nose at it.

“She’s the one,” I said.

“She’s definitely the one,” said Marty.

“Hello, Hester!” said Colin. (Earlier in the car we had settled on Hester after a faithful, wise and slightly ruthless hare daemon in Philip Pullman’s, The Golden Compass.)

We looked around the tent for a person with some rabbit authority. A stout man in work clothes and suspenders was just stepping into a golf cart at the tent’s edge. I asked who owned these rabbits and if he knew if they were for sale. He got out of the cart and walked over to the cage. “Ain’t you some lucky!” he said. “They’re mine and I was just leavin’.”

“How much?”

“Twenty dollars.”

“What breed are they?

“Oh, they’re mini rexes,” he said grabbing the bunny from the cage with the manner of a man who has grabbed a few bunnies. “He won’t get too big.”

“He?” The rabbit man whipped the surprised bunny onto his back and with a deft push and prod on the little netherparts (that I have been thus far unable to replicate), he produced a tiny penis.

“Boy,” he smirked.

“Right you are!” I said, persuaded.

I gave him $20 and said we’d be back at the end of the day to collect him. The rabbit man showed me the trick of opening the cage and where he hid the pliers to do it.

“Some people will steal rabbits, you know,” he said over his shoulder as he made for the golf cart.

“That’s hard to believe,” I said and meant it.

After some weeks of adjustment which included wild escapes under the deck and our furtive pleading for him to get within grabbing range, surprisingly successful litter box training, and food experimentation, Hester settled into our routine with a cage in the mudroom and limited household access. One day I heard one of our sons say blithely to someone on the phone who must have asked about Hester, “My mom needed a pet.”

Each day Scott taunts us with ideas for new culinary preparations but I also hear him inquire after the bunny’s day when he comes in from the garage each evening. Just tonight he conceded as he was petting him, “He is pretty soft.” He look at me and smiled. “He’d make a nice slipper for a person with one leg.”

All in all, this wouldn’t be such a bad household to live in if it weren’t for the mice.

About a week ago I was eating lunch and going through the mail at the kitchen table. Hester was at my feet. That morning I had checked a mouse trap under the lazy susan to discover that the trap, (one of the new style you pinch to set and release) was snapped but there was no mouse – or at least no mouse that I could see from that angle.

Now, hours later, Hester and I heard a soft whacking coming from the lazy susan cupboard. Brazen daytime mice! The worst sort. But when I opened the door and shone the flashlight beam there in the back was a not-yet-dead mouse. Actually it was a not-in-the-least-bit-dead mouse but rather a pained and highly pissed off mouse. The trap had apparently snapped on the tip of his face and held fast.

The truth is I only want to be responsible for mouse deaths if they are quick and decisive. I don’t want to be an accomplice to any prolonged or complicated mouse suffering. I’m annoyed and inconvenienced by the mice in my house but I don’t hate them and I don’t want to cause them an undue suffering. But here I was, Frau Totenmaus.

Hester placed his paws up on the edge of the cupboard and looked in. This drama held immense interest for him. He hopped in among the mixing bowls for a better view.

“Get out of there!” I yelled, nudging him aside as I reached into the depths of the corner cupboard with needle nose pliers to pull out the trap. My quarry was a very wiggly field mouse, brown with a sweet white spot on his belly. There were dark patches of blood around his snout where it was held fast by the trap. This was a mouse with some corrective surgery issues. Surely his jaw was broken.

I held the trap at arm’s length and made for the bathroom under the stairs, heartsick and guilty and the world’s hugest hypocrite. Hester hopped along by my side, still intent on following this exciting development in our day. He reminded me of Fred, E.B. White’s dachshund whose delight in mayhem and misery is noted in the wonderful, melancholy essay, “Death of a Pig.”

As I stood about to pinch the mousetrap over the toilet, I decided to flush before I pinched so as to make the mouse suffer an even briefer horror.

I flushed. I pinched.

What I didn’t count on was the little fellow’s reaction to the pull of gravity. He hugged onto the trap for dear life. He wouldn’t drop and in the end I had to take the pliers and pull him off the trap by the tail. He plopped into the bowl which, having flushed, was taking its sweet time re-filling. The mouse with his crushed little face was swimming in the rising bowl trying impossibly to scramble up the slick porcelain sides. I vowed to keep my eye on him as the tank continued to fill. It was the least I could do. Finally the water stopped and I flushed again. Whoosh, swirl, a quick squeak of terror, and he was gone. Hester stood on his hind feet with one paw on the lid, his ears pert and looking adorable.

But here’s dark truth about Hester: He chews things. He chews baseboards and electrical cords. He chewed through my answering machine cord twice. He chewed through the TiVo cable. We try to keep him out of the living room but sometimes he sneaks in. One evening the boys were at the kitchen table doing their homework, I was doing the dinner dishes, and Hester was nibbling on a potato chip under the table. Scott had gone to watch a movie in the living room when I heard him yell. It was either “Heidi!” or “Hester!” I still don’t know, but it was something with an “H.” I could hear him going on a tear but held my post. The boys and I exchanged our “Yikes!” expression. Finally Scott bellowed, “That rabbit has chewed on every fucking cord in this room!”

The boys raised their eyebrows and smiled at each other across the table. They don’t get to hear us swear much and this was the high water mark of parental vulnerability…a moment of their childhood to be remembered and savored.

“Whoa, Mom, he’s mad,” said Marty. “You need to keep your bunny in check.”

I didn’t leave the hall door open.”

“You need to control your bunny, Mom. You have a major blind spot where Hester is concerned.”

“Hester’s just doing what comes naturally,” offered Colin generously , my little Rousseau.

I got on my hands and knees and under the table scooped Hester up like a newborn. “Hey, bunnyboy, you’d better lay low or you will be rabbit on pasta.,” I said taking him to his cage.

A caged bunny is a good, albeit bored, bunny, and, after a few days and the application of bitter lime gel on cords and woodwork, we’ve had no further chewing disasters.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s a good bunny. His neutering and well-bunny check cost us four times his original price. Add on his cage and litter pan and chew toys and food (and a hutch I have my eye on at the hardware store come springtime) and this bunny is an expensive pet indulgence.

Certainly the sweetness of having him flop down next to you as the chosen object of his affection or the treat of seeing him do a “psycho bunny 180 disco kick” for no apparent reason counts for something, but what does he have over the poor mice who want to come in from the cold and take a swing on my lazy susan. Frankly, I wouldn’t even know they were visiting if it weren’t for the telltale fecal reminders and the occasional nest of fiberglass insulation we are appalled to find hidden away.

How strangely and horribly human it is to choose and take sides.

When Scott and I were living on the Micronesian island of Saipan in the mid-80s, we saw firsthand, perhaps vividly for the first time in our young lives, the absurd way that racism can manifest itself. The local people, the Chamorros, hated the Filipinos who were the contracted construction workers and their $150 a month 24/7 maids and child care providers. (Work two years straight and you might get a month to go home to visit your children.)

But here’s the weirdest and saddest thing: the Chamorros and the Filipinos claim the same essential gene pool – Asian, Pacific Islander, Spanish Conquistadorian.

We lived in a three room tin house in a Filipino neighborhood, (along with my oldest childhood friend and one of the coolest and funniest people we will ever know, Carol Paez, who is still there working as the nurse-administrator of a public high school health clinic and doing a kick-ass job as a single mom raising her six beautiful Chamorro-Filipino-American children). In cover of darkness, cowardly people would throw rocks at our house, which sound pretty loud hitting a tin roof, because they assumed anyone living in that neighborhood was Filipino. To that point, living in Stittville, New York, or Wenham, Massachusetts, or Bluefield, West Virginia, no one had ever thrown rocks at one of our houses. But I can tell you, it’s scary.

In my little First World universe, here’s the truth: I indulge a rabbit and murder a mouse, small, cute mammals both.

But here’s the scariest part: I don’t know why.

* If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m here to tell you it’s high time you went back and re-read Charlotte’s Web.

Heidi Shott
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