When droppings began to appear on the stove top, in the trays beneath the burners, and, on occasion, deposited in the cast iron skillet, I had to admit we had a mouse. Every morning, I returned with my dog, Cleo, from predawn forays into the dark of the city streets. Before I could enjoy the warmth and coziness of home, I had to confront the night’s damage—all over the kitchen, offerings of rodent scat. Our refuge had been invaded.
As a long-time student of Buddhism, a vegetarian and a self-proclaimed ally of back yard creatures—an aspiring model for nonharming—I was at a stalemate. The mouse had to go. But talk of glue and poison traps made me wince. I refused to take steps to exterminate.
Instead, each night, my husband, Patrick, and I meticulously stored all edibles in the refrigerator, hoping that the now starving mouse would disappear. Yet each morning, we found further signs of our visitor’s revelry. As I cooked breakfast for our daughter, Caitlin, and fed Cleo, I cleaned up the leavings. Wrinkling my nose and holding my breath, I jabbed the pole end of the broom around the hidden pipes behind the stove where I thought I could detect a faint odor of urine. I swabbed the inside of the toaster oven, sanitized the stove top, scrubbed the cutting board—all that I thought might be contaminated.
One morning, when I found droppings in our favorite wedding gift, a wooden salad bowl, I reached my limit. The thought of eating directly from this mouse-fouled bowl spurred me to action. I had to protect the health of my family. We were in danger.
I started my campaign against the mouse with a beeper, whose high-pitched frequency—not even detectable to dogs—was purportedly excruciating to the sensitive ears of rodents. But continued droppings on the stove defied my clever tricks.
Next, I tried Have-a-Heart traps, little plastic boxes baited with tempting morsels. Attracted by the smell, the animal enters, tripping the catch on the door, which slams shut. When cheddar didn’t seem to have the proper allure, I tried peanut butter. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to control this invader from the city streets.
Late one night, Patrick thought he saw something scuttling behind the stove. Gauging the size, he finally guessed that this might possibly be an even bigger mouse than we had imagined. Perhaps we hadn’t caught it because the Have- a-Heart was too small. (“Maybe it’s a rat,” suggested Caitlin, with the obvious relish of a ten-year-old.) So I bought a bigger trap, this time a wind-up contraption, all mirrors, no bait.
One early morning when I swooped through the kitchen preparing for my walk, I noticed that the refrigerator door was ajar. Maybe the lettuce bin had been left open the night before or a hastily shelved casserole was sticking out. Hurrying past, I clicked the refrigerator door shut.
When I came back from the streets, I rushed around the house preparing for a trip out of town. Gathering bread and cereal for Caitlin’s breakfast, I threw open the door of the fridge. There, amidst the tortillas, something twitched. Crying out, I leapt back. From the shelf, a furry rodent regarded me with dark, beady eyes. Its long, spiny tail quivered. I slammed the door closed.
I ran shrieking to Patrick in the bathroom. “Patrick! The mouse is in the refrigerator!” I could see our two reflections in the bathroom mirror, Patrick’s, confused, a bleary mask of shaving cream, and mine, gray hair askew, face pale.
Awakened by my initial shout, Caitlin sped out of her room. “Let’s go see it!” she cried, and then flung open the door of the refrigerator. We all crowded around. This time, I flinched at its hard, trapped look as it seemed to challenge us from behind the yogurt. “Yup, it’s the mouse all right!” said Patrick. And Caitlin, gloating, “It’s not a mouse. I’ve known all along. It’s a rat!”
Bounding backwards, in anticipation of I don’t know what, I herded Caitlin into her room, and once again hurled closed the door of the fridge. Patrick blew me a kiss as he hurried out the front door for the office. “Just leave it there and forget about it. I’ll deal with it when I get back tonight.” Over my cries of panic, he reassured me, “Don’t worry. When I come home, our mouse will either be totally frozen, or fat, happy and very slow.”
Unwilling to leave town with this menace in my kitchen, I got on the phone. One answering machine directed me to the next, from the Animal Shelter to the Health Department. On the 24-hour police hotline, I finally got an actual voice. To my plea “there’s a rodent in my refrigerator!” an officer calmly directed me to Vector Control. Vector Control (it sounded like a cross between Ghost Busters and The X Files) turned out to be the county agency that deals with “vectors”—organisms that carry and transmit disease-causing microorganisms.
I finally reached this agency when they opened at 8:00 a.m., but the inspectors were all in the field monitoring an emergency sewer leak. By my third call, I had worked myself up to a pitch: “‘No’ is not acceptable. I have a ten-year-old and a dog, and I must leave town. This is an emergency!” (any pretense of equanimity, patience or selflessness abandoned).
“Yes, ma’am,” returned the bored voice of a receptionist, maybe paring her nails or stirring her coffee. “We’ll send someone out soon’s they get in.”
By this time, I barely cared what they did with the mouse. No matter how, just get rid of it! As I anxiously awaited Vector Control, I conjured up pictures of the inspectors. I imagined two cold gray men (gray uniforms, gray pot bellies, doughy gray faces, with gray pistols in their holsters). I would hear their great gray boots banging up the wooden stairs of our Victorian house, a pitiless knocking on the front door.
But at 9:00 a.m. sharp I was startled by a single pristine ring. In the doorway stood a statuesque young woman—maybe six-foot-four with long, dyed-blond hair, arched brows, painted eyes, cheeks bright with blush. I was taken aback. But here she was. She was, indeed, in uniform, a blue shirt with a badge, navy blue pants. I noticed a few insignia of her trade: dangling from her belt, a set of keys (jailer-size); in a holster, a formidable flashlight; and swinging from one hand, a large wire cage. “I’m from Vector Control,” she introduced herself, holding out her other hand—all rings, with long, maroon polished nails.
“You’re not who I expected,” said I.
She swished her hair and lowered her eyes, surprising me now in a new way, with the girlish purity of her laugh.
“You must get calls like this all of the time.” I tried to make friendly conversation as I pointed the way to the refrigerator.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that exactly. Most often they’re behind the stove or under the sink, or even in the toilet.” Her bracelets jangled.
“I’m in quite a flap,” I admitted.
She looked right at me (did she stroke my arm?) and said, “Of course,” without any sign of judgment. I was unnerved by her empathy.
She pulled on thick vinyl gloves. From the living room, I held Caitlin and Cleo at bay. Through the doorway to the kitchen I could see our inspector kneeling by the refrigerator, holding up the cage. At first she couldn’t locate the mouse. She was following a trail: gnawed tortillas, crumpled Snickers’ wrappers, a half-chewed apple.
“He’s really scared,” she seemed to know. “It’s almost impossible to catch them when they’re frightened.” That gave me a turn. Something about the concern in her voice, the tremble for the mouse .
Suddenly I heard a coo: “Ohhhhhhhhh, there you are. Just look at you. You’re sooooo cute.”
Rounding the corner, I edged up to watch the chase—from the vegetable bin to the dairy shelf, down to the shelf of pancake mixes, flours and sugars. “You can tell from the length of the tail,” she commented, “It is a rat.” Appalled, I watched the scaly, sparsely haired tail disappear into the drawer where we keep our eggs.
The thought that it was indeed a rat exacerbated my protective panic—images of the Bubonic Plague, of the eyeball-eating rats from Orwell’s 1984, of red-eyed rats pouncing into babies’ cribs.
Our four walls, even the confines of the refrigerator, hadn’t kept this rat out. I ordered Caitlin into her room and pushed Cleo, barking, behind her. Meanwhile, our lady inspector borrowed a bath towel and suggested that if she caught it in the towel, she might release it in our yard. “NO, please!” I pleaded. “Nowhere near our home!”
At the same time, on some other layer of response, I kept finding myself touched by this lady from Vector Control as she continued a nuanced conversation with the rat. We could hear her cajoling him—a cadence in her voice that felt wholly genuine.
When the rat was (to my relief) ensconced in the cage, Caitlin and I joined our savior in the kitchen. I took a cautious look at the rat. Lively behind the bars, it had a hearty (and, I admitted to myself, ingenuous) look. Its whiskers and pink nose quivered; its coat was full and soft. The cage swayed back and forth as it leapt around. “It’s sweet, Mom,” commented Caitlin, “Why were you so afraid?”
“He’s a black rat,” our inspector explained, “And I’m quite sure he’s a he. He couldn’t be more than four months old.” So young. Once again, taken short, I took a keen look at the rat. I stared mesmerized by this robust young rodent in his swinging cage. “Black rats are sometimes called roof rats,” our inspector continued. “They’re excellent climbers. They live in tangled vines like ivy or jasmine, or in the walls of a house. They like to nest in the attic or in the roof.” Nervously, I eyed the stairway to our attic bedroom.
Despite the youth and apparent health of the rat, our Vector Control lady suggested a complete cleaning of our kitchen. So after she departed with the cage (to take the rat, she said, to the mountains), I donned rubber gloves myself. Because of the hazards to health, she recommended that I use strong bleach and wear a mask.
Even as she walked out the front door, in my mind, our rat aged and grew in size and virulence. In a frenzy of revulsion, I emptied the refrigerator, every last item—catsup, marmalade, plastic containers of leftover soups —hauled off to the street and into the garbage.
Over the following weeks, imagining the disease-causing microorganisms infiltrating our bodies, I patched all cracks and holes in the walls protecting our home from the street. I bleached and scoured all crevices and corners. But, to my distress, I noticed that my mind was still permeated with rat. I found myself searching the Internet to learn about the rat’s destructive powers: ravaging warehouses for grain, causing floods by tunneling through dams, starting fires by gnawing on matches, and carrying diseases such as typhus and spotted fever, to say nothing of the plague.
In my home, I saw my continued skittishness, triggered when I opened a drawer or a closet. And outside in our yard, I was wary. I hesitated as I passed the tangled jasmine along the deck, as I raised the top of the trash can or the broken lid of our compost bin. On my walks with Cleo, I sidestepped trash-littered gutters and storm drains, vaulted over stagnant pools between broken railway ties, and hurried past an open manhole releasing steam from beneath the street.
But that was not all. It started with Cleo. At dinner I felt her under the kitchen table nuzzling me; she looked up into my face and I back into hers. Hopefully eyeing my plate, she sniffed. There was something unnervingly familiar. Her long face, her quivering whiskers and wet nose, the dark glow of her eyes took on a disturbingly rat-like cast. I shook myself.
A few days later, it happened with a human. I was sitting in a meeting. Right in the midst of a conflict, I looked at my friend Tom, his cheeks sucked in with worry; his dark eyes scared, a hint of the trapped look I now knew. The rat.
This pattern continued, with a fellow parent on the soccer field, a merchant in a store. Then, late into the night, in bed with my husband Patrick, it happened again. We were sleeping peacefully, his buttocks resting in the curve of my belly, my knees tucked into the backs of his, my arm wrapped around his chest. With my open palm, I caressed the hair on his chest. I felt it as fur.
One evening, standing at the refrigerator, I combed the shelves, seeking the perfect snack to quell a roving hunger. Alarmed, I recognized the rat in myself. The next day, I caught myself in a fit of anger about to take a rat-like pounce. As rats began to seep into my dreams, swimming through twilight sewers, I decided it was time (maybe a little past time) to reflect on the rat “image.” Somewhere in the circling of rat-thoughts, I remembered hearing the writer Andrew Harvey talk about a temple in India where rats are worshipped. I wondered, could this image be redeemed?
After a day on the Internet, I found the Rat Temple, north of Rajastan, in India. Here people pray to the rats and a goddess who, according to one legend, had arranged to have children dying from a plague reincarnated as rats. To this day, barefoot supplicants enter the temple to honor the 20,000 “rat children,” to feed them grain and milk, to protect them, to bless them and receive their blessing.
Three weeks after her initial visit, the rat lady came back to help us rat-proof our house and yard. She arrived calm and cheerful. When I questioned her about it again, she assured me that, indeed, she had taken our rat to the mountains.
But I wanted to know more. “How do you think he got into our house?” I asked her uneasily.
“Rats travel through the sewers, in and along the pipes, electrical cables and wires,” she explained. “Someone in your neighborhood may have done a spring cleaning, neatened up a woodpile or compost heap, trimmed back the ivy, and the rat, seeking a new home, found a secret channel into yours.” Chilled, I braced myself. And at the same time, as I listened, I found her tone unexpectedly kind, even soothing—somehow attuned to the pain and needs of the rat.
Continuing her free lessons in epidemiology, our lady inspector told me about the migrations of rats all over the planet. Some black rats are known as ship rats. These stowaways came from Southeast Asia to Europe many centuries ago, voyaged to Central and South America, while others traveled to Jamestown with the early colonists and spread across the North American continent. As she spoke, I shuddered at the specter. But there was something else: an amazement at the fertility, at the extent and creativity of these migrations, crisscrossing the planet through its most intimate channels.
On the advice of our inspector, we sealed the holes around our pipes and trimmed back the jasmine. But one month post-rat, I find that I am still uneasy. I am haunted by images of the rat on the move, stealing into our house, bringing with him the microorganisms of the street. Like his cousins who travel the sewers into toilets, our rat entered where orifices are open—into the kitchen where we eat. Just remembering this, fear tightens my throat. I see that the barriers I count on to help me feel safe, barriers between outside on the street and inside the house—or even inside the body—barely exist. The cozy enclave of the home, the sanctuary of the body, cannot be separated from the veins and arteries of the street—the electrical cables, the water pipes, the sewer tunnels.
Despite the lengths I go to keep the rat out, I’m not altogether sorry it got in. Through my encounters with the rat and guidance from the rat lady, I continue to dismantle old assumptions, to rat-tle concepts about what is truly going on. With each meeting, I dare myself: learn to bless the “menace”—all that is dark, furry and uncontrollable, from which I am inseparable, outside and in.
At the close of her second visit, my lady guide left me on my hands and knees to scour the dusty, urine desecrated nest behind the stove. Just before she went out the door, she turned back towards me with her disarming smile, “I know it’s really scary.” Her laugh, as she descended the stairs from my house to the street, was light and kind.
Thanks to early-morning walkers Loie Rosencrantz and Sue Bender for their insights.