Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb’s work has appeared in The Broken Plate, Foliate Oak, Sleet, Spectrum, Epiphany Magazine, Dark Matter: A Journal of Speculative Writing, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Pedestal Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poydras Review, The Blueline Anthology (Syracuse University Press), The Voices Project, Science Poetry (a Canadian anthology edited by Neil McAlister), Entelechy: Mind & Culture, Concho River Review, Midwest Quarterly, Spillway Magazine, The Meadowland Review, and other journals and online forums, with work forthcoming in the anthology 200 New Mexico Poems (University of New Mexico Press), Kudzu Review, 300 Days of Sun, and others. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an interdisciplinary MA from Prescott College and is co-founder of Native West Press, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit natural history press.
Mouse-Rat, Kin, Kind, and the Rodent Mind
We conclude that male mice have some . . . neuroanatomical features thought to be unique to humans . . . .
-G. Arriaga., E. P. Zhou, and E. D. Jarvis
When we first moved into our house, the odor was unbearable, drifting thickly through the wall that separated the bedroom from the main hall bathroom. The nausea-inspiring scent of some decaying thing that used to have life before it fell and became trapped inside the wall prompted us to call a friend, one with a respirator, to retrieve the remains, and thus relieve us of the reminder that something had died in our new home. Often awakened in the middle of the night by the scampering of tiny feet in the attic above the bedroom, we assumed that the dead thing found would be a mouse or a rat.
Tearing into the bottom of the bathroom wall where the scent was strongest, the friend pulled out the decaying body of a chipmunk. Upon further exploration of that area, our friend excavated the skeleton of a rat and no less than eight mice carcasses in various states of decay, as well as a few complete mouse skeletons and some that were merely skeletal parts. After patching the lower wall, he and my husband went up into the attic, where they found and sealed off from the inside a small hole in the roof. Without this unintended invitation to rodents to come in to explore, particularly seductive in the colder seasons, we now hoped the opportunity for fatal falls into the “deathtrap” would end.
In addition, we called a pest control service to see if the experts could enlighten us as to how to bait and trap alive those beasts who were already inside when the roof entrance was sealed off, and who were thus still using the passageways up in the ceiling. The pest guy supplied us with a wire mesh trap, into which we placed sunflower seeds. We set the trap in the upper crawl space of the house. We also bought a similar trap of our own, which we placed in the garage near a possible entranceway to the attic. The pest guy said to check the traps every few days, which we did. Experience taught us, however, that we should check the traps every day. We found, two days after the traps had been set, what looked like a grasshopper mouse in one of the traps. He was, to our dismay, not releasable. He was dead. We assumed the creature had died from lack of food and water, or possibly from exposure or shock. The other trap was still empty, but the door was down and the seeds gone.
We reset this trap, replenishing the seeds, and found our efforts rewarded the next morning. A small, light-colored deer mouse was frantically trying to sniff his way out of his predicament. We carried the little beast into the forest and released him, watching him scamper away into the scrub brush as if he had expected his freedom all along.
But a few nights later, we were awakened by the sound of tiny feet scurrying around above us. And then, silence. Since I was awake, I decided to make a nocturnal trip to the bathroom. Once there, I could hear it – the soft sound of gnawing directly above. I tapped the wall, and the gnawing stopped. The sound of scampering feet replaced the gnawing. The next night the same thing happened. I could tell by the gnawing that the persistent little rodent was unaware of, and more importantly, dangerously close to the “wall of death” drop area.
Terribly task-oriented, by the third night, the beast accomplished what I had feared. I heard him fall. Then there was the pathetic scraping of claws along the bottom of the inside wall. This sound occasionally switched to scurrying – back and forth, back and forth, the tail sliding against the wall each time the mouse came to the end of the small space. Then the vertical escape attempts in the form of jumping would begin – a thump, then claws scraping the side of the wall, thump, claws scraping, thump, scraping. At some point in the morning there was a brief silence, very brief, before the whole clamor of desperation began again.
I didn’t know before I actually saw his nose whether he (if it was a he) was a mouse or some kind of a small rat, so I referred to him as “Mouse-Rat.” This is how I addressed him in our one-way conversations while I pondered what to do about his imprisonment. I listened and talked to Mouse-Rat during his trauma of being caught within the wall.
I could somewhat determine his size as small. He did not sound as big as the pack rat who dwelled in the shrubbery-adorned hole beneath a prickly pear cactus a few yards from the back deck steps. Nor did the little rodent sound as big as the huge, feral, white rat (no doubt someone’s ex-pet) who lived in the garage, and whose home consisted of newspapers, old financial records, and stashed dream journals taken from stored boxes and recycled in a way that we had not planned – shredded and formed into a large, cozy, urine-scented nest. No, Mouse-Rat, relatively speaking, sounded tiny compared to a rat.
Absolutely unwilling to tear the bottom of the bathroom wall apart again, I noticed that a weak part in the replaced plaster, caulk, and wood at the bottom of the wall had started to give way. This was no doubt with the help of Mouse-Rat’s continuous gnawing and clawing. By early that evening, an extremely small piece of the wall bottom had fallen out. The dark hole behind it was now filled with either the point of a little, grayish pink snout with long, thin, front teeth (hard at work, I might add) or the tip of a paw with its tiny, black claws pushing through. Mouse-Rat had offered a solution to our problem. Given time, he could dig himself out, and the hole, being of an economical size and causing hardly any damage to the wall, could be easily patched again with caulking material. All I would have to do is supply Mouse-Rat with food and water for strength, and supply myself with the trap for when he successfully accomplished our joint mission.
Armed with the trap, as well as sunflower seeds, whole wheat bread crumbs, broken raw peanuts, and an old eyedropper filled with fresh water, I walked into the bathroom, closed the door, and sat down on the bathroom floor. Setting the trap aside, and noticing the rodent’s teeth protruding through the tiny but growing gap in the wall, I attempted to see if Mouse-Rat would allow me to be his accomplice. I offered the tip of the eyedropper and felt a sudden pulling and vibrations caused by what felt like chewing. At first, the water level of the dropper didn’t go down, but once Mouse-Rat figured out what was being offered, he accepted the drink.
When enthusiastic chewing on the dropper edge resumed, I took that as a sign that Mouse-Rat was finished drinking, and I removed the eyedropper. The tip of his furry, pink-tipped nose (temporarily minus any sign of teeth) pushed through the hole. I offered a slender, blackoil sunflower seed. The seed was pulled quickly from my fingers, followed by the clickity sound of the shell being removed – and, no doubt, dropped on his side of the wall. For almost an hour I was Mouse-Rat’s servant, feeding him seeds and crumbs and peanuts, every so often offering him water in case he grew thirsty.
I then sat quietly for another half hour, listening to him work on the escape hole and watching the size of the hole increase ever so slowly. Fixing the trap so that it was placed directly outside the hole and ready for Mouse-Rat when he crawled through, I left to tend other things. Later that night, as the hole became large enough for him to come through, I checked the bathroom often, and even more often in the early morning hours. Both my husband and I were anxious to see what kind of mouse he was.
But by morning, although the hole was large enough to easily accommodate Mouse-Rat’s escape, the trap was still empty. All was quiet within the wall. I gently tapped against the side. This provoked a sudden scampering, the tail of the startled creature slapping the wall. Mouse-Rat had been sleeping. We waited a couple more hours, but the rodent seemed more interested in returning to sleep than to freedom.
About mid-morning, confident that the trap would hold Mouse-Rat when he chose to come through, we decided to let him be, and left to run some errands. Upon our return, we were discussing the best place to release him when we noticed that we had left the bathroom door ajar. Upon entering, we found the tipped-over trap, as well as pieces of sunflower seed shells that had evidently been connected by cobweb dust to Mouse-Rat’s fur and had rubbed off as he fled.
So, I never got to see what my rogue rodent-friend looked like, as he never made an appearance anywhere in the house. However, there was the sudden presence months later of two young, cream-colored deer mice who showed up, looking extremely innocent, in our living room one evening. We watched them as they went about their business, chasing each other around the bookcases, through the air slots in the bricks of the unused fireplace, underneath the couches – occasionally looking up at us with an “Oh, it’s just you” glance. The young mice were indeed innocent in that they were just going on with life as usual; they had obviously seen us before and did not consider us a threat. They didn’t know that we had not seen them until now.
Upon closer inspection of the bottom side of the smaller of two couches in the living room, we realized that the cute, big-headed, little youngsters had been dwelling with us probably since their birth. The corner of the bottom of the couch was ripped, and a pocket was filled with an accumulation of bird seed and an assortment of papers – shredded, of course.
My husband and I each got a small, empty wastebasket and chose our respective creatures to catch. Upon sensing that we were trying to get them, the little mousy things would crawl, not very quickly, and hide under furniture or behind books. When we became still, they would crawl back into view as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Occasionally, one or the other would stand up on its hind legs, awkward and wide-eyed, looking around. Then, once again, the light, furry underside would shift from vertical to horizontal, as the little mouse came down on all four ready-to-scamper feet. We began the chase again and, when they weren’t too occupied chasing each other, they would stop to indulge us in what seemed to be a hide-and-seek game to them. The young deer mice were too distracted by each other to take our attempts to catch them very seriously. Eventually, we captured the youngsters and took them out into the dark night air to the far end of the backyard, where we released them together under the cover of scrub oak, manzanita, and skunk brush. We then went back into the house to clean and repair the bottom of the couch.
Sometimes, our house seems like a kingdom of rodents. It is humbling to know that there will always be some enduring creature here besides ourselves that creates its own place as well. Whether we want this type of neighbor or not. I often wonder, particularly with Mouse-Rat and his kin, if the rodents’ sense is that we have invaded their dwellings, and that they grudgingly put up with the humans who are infesting their territory.