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:

  1. Rats do not pur­pose­ful­ly car­ry dis­eases to harm us any more than the Pilgrims car­ried dis­eases to pur­pose­ly infect Native Americans.
  2. Rats do not destroy things to be pur­pose­ly destruc­tive; they re-pur­pose things accord­ing to their instincts and needs for survival.
  3. Rats are used in med­ical research because their genet­ic, bio­log­i­cal, and behav­ior char­ac­ter­is­tics are sim­i­lar to humans.
  4. 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.

  • Bernard Fraley

    Winchester native Bernard Fraley has worn many hats, includ­ing author, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, painter, poet, reporter, news­pa­per edi­tor, and more. Find some of his books on Amazon.