By now, most of my friends know that I have been living for over a year with a mouse which I call Freeda. She eludes capture, has found a cozy home up inside a sofa chair, and every night I put out a saucer of water and another with nuts, pizza pieces, crusts of English muffin, and other such foodstuffs. She stays out of the kitchen pantries, does not leave droppings around the house, and does not chew on my books like the rabbit did. In all, we seem to have come to an equitable living arrangement. But this is not a story about Freeda.
Back in November, I began to hear gnawing sounds coming from beneath my floorboards. It did not seem to have the chewing rhythm of a squirrel and seemed much louder than a mouse, but wood amplifies like a soundboard. I would go to the spot and beat the floor with my cane, jump up and down, shout and curse – my theory being that if the creature thought there was something bigger and badder on the other side, it would go away. The sound stopped, but then, the next day, started again in another part of the house and I again went into my stomping madman routine. After a few days of this, the gnawing stopped. Silence.
One morning as I walked out of the bedroom into the living room, I noticed that the bottom cloth-covering of my couch had been torn loose and bits of cotton stuffing lay on the floor. It looked like more damage than a small mouse was capable of inflicting and I got a little mad. I had given up my chair to Freeda, but I was not ready to give up my couch to another creature of the wild.
That night I set out a couple of humane capture traps, determined to thwart this invasion of my personal world. The next morning revealed some really disturbing evidence. At a closet door in my office/studio was a spew of wood splinters where something had been grinding away at a corner of the closed door. In the living room, one of the traps had been moved aside at least three inches and there were large droppings. A single turd was larger than one of Freed’s paws. I was living with a monster!
Like many people, I have been socially conditioned to hate and fear rats. They carry diseases, destroy property, and are flesh-eating devils that devour babies in their sleep. Against my animal protective instincts and beliefs, I went out and bought giant, dragon-toothed rat-killer traps to end this horror. I baited them with crunchy style peanut butter to keep Freeda safe (I had taught her to stay away from peanut butter, but that’s in the other story). Then I waited for the bloodbath to begin.
The night passed silently. About 1 a.m. on the second night I woke up to a banging and thrashing going on in one of the closets and knew the rat had been caught. I lay there half an hour listening to it flip-flop, beating against the floor, trying to get free from the vise jaws of the trap. I waited for it to die. There was no squealing or moaning or begging for forgiveness… just the terrible beating.
Finally, I got up, resolved to do my humanitarian duty and put an end to its suffering. Turning on the lights, I grabbed my weapon of choice (the cane) and opened the closet door. The trap had caught half of its head in the grip. The rat’s one visible eye met mine and in that single moment, there was a recognition that we were both staring into the same, unknowable abyss of our future lives. It screamed.
The sound was a thousand times greater in amplitude than a rabbit’s scream – not in volume, but in the sheer terror of it all. I brought the cane down, intending to crush out the life of its pain and fear, but the rat somehow flipped out of the way. In the next uncountable moments, I stabbed again and again, always with glancing blows – until I knocked the trap loose. It dashed behind a box that was stored there. Driving the box against a wall, I heard a squeak of pain, then silence. No skittering claws of escape, no squeals of hurt, or screech of death.
Perhaps it was finally dead or perhaps behind the box was a gnawed hole where the rat had gained access and now exit. I was exhausted emotionally and from the receding burst of adrenaline. I don’t know why, but I thought to myself a little prayer or blessing, “Go on, little brother, go to heal or die in whatever place you choose. I’ll not trouble your life anymore.”
It seemed like a strange thought, even for me, but it was a night of mixed emotions. I made coffee and did not go back to bed until the next night. I left the closet alone for a couple of days. When I finally got around to moving the box, there was no body. There was no hole in the floor. There were no further signs of rats in the following weeks.
On New Year’s Day, I was sitting in the living room, reading a book, and looked up to see the rat walking out of my kitchen. I spontaneously shouted, “Hey!” like I expected it to stand up and explain what it was doing here.
It paused and squeaked like a surly teenager shouting, “What… ?!” then, as if I were chasing it with a switch, it dashed behind some boxes stacked in front of a bookshelf.
I began digging into the boxes, but could not flush it out or find any evidence of its existence. I began to wonder if I was hallucinating or being visited by a ghost of Christmas past. The rat did not see me set the trap — perhaps it was grateful that I set it free and thinks I am a friend, owes me a life debt, and therefore it was okay to stay.
Lately, I have been thinking about rat things:
- Rats do not purposefully carry diseases to harm us any more than the Pilgrims carried diseases to purposely infect Native Americans.
- Rats do not destroy things to be purposely destructive; they re-purpose things according to their instincts and needs for survival.
- Rats are used in medical research because their genetic, biological, and behavior characteristics are similar to humans.
- Rats, as humans purportedly behave, avoid actions that can cause harm or pain to their fellow beings.
I am beginning to think that maybe the Tao has brought me a teacher. Perhaps, from the rat, I might learn how to live among my disliked brothers and sisters, how to find and build on compromises, yet keep healthy emotional and physical distances.
No, I’m not ready to give up my couch and I cannot yet see myself putting out food and water for a rat. But I am learning how to face things with caution, but without fear and not to mistake defensive reactions as aggression towards me. It seems that this rat and I are already in some kind of relationship. I cannot guess how it will develop or end, but I will try to stay open and find out what I can learn about the world and myself. I think I will name this rat “Teacher.”
I just really, really hope that God does not send me roaches next time.