By Derek Harmening
Ever since the mice arrived, I have given the oven a wide berth. Now it’s cold cuts, microwave dinners, takeout from the dog-eared Thai menu stuck to the fridge. Anything to save me from lighting the gas range. Rodents crave residual warmth, like paupers circling a trash fire.
“Sweet and sour or pad prik king?” I ask my daughter, Marnie, who shrugs.
The first time I glimpsed one—a flick of hairless tail disappearing behind the fuse cover—I told myself I was seeing things. Further scrutiny proved worrisome. Were those crumbs on the stove? Or droppings? Charred bits of pan-fried onion, or signs of infestation?
The torn newsprint behind the broiler, a finely shredded nest of crossword clues and faded obituaries, convinced me. I set to work, plugging the walls with steel wool and spackling paste.
“That’s inhumane,” says Marnie, surveying the glue traps I’ve fanned along the tiled floor. These are the first words she’s spoken to me in days.
I shrug. “It’s all the hardware store had.”
“They fracture ribs trying to escape. They chew off their own feet.”
Where does a twelve-year-old learn these things? I wonder, sometimes, whether she’s the incarnation of some ancient luminary. Pythagoras was a vegetarian, after all, and Marnie excels at geometry.
“If you want to catch hantavirus from your Raisin Bran,” I say, “be my guest.”
“What a way to go. Tossed in the trash. Smothered by coffee grounds.”
I catch the first one quickly, while Marnie’s at school. From the home office, where I sit in a bathrobe, filling out an online dating profile—amateur stargazer, competent chef, prefers the solitary pumpkin to the crowded velvet cushion—I hear a sound like a rusty hinge. Squeaking. The noise comes from the kitchen.
It’s a baby, no larger than a ripe strawberry. It lies on its side, shivering, its pale underbelly working like a bellows. In the wan light, its skin looks translucent.
Swift and painless, the articles implore. Whack it, stomp it, gas it, but for God’s sake, don’t prolong the inevitable. My wife felt the same way. She wanted sunshine, and her rose garden, and family game night for as long as they might comfortably last. Not a minute more.
With a planter’s glove, I seize the trap, heft it into a sandwich bag, seal it off. In the hallway closet I find a heavy work boot. I take it to the kitchen. Beads of moisture dot the bag. Tiny gasps. I lift the boot by its collar, bring it down hard.
If Marnie notices the missing trap, she never lets on. We pass each other wordlessly. Lately she looks gaunt, exhausted—as if the dead mouse’s life force were somehow tethered to hers. As if I’ve crushed her vitality, smeared it, left it twitching beneath the treads of my boot.
I inspect the traps daily, hourly. I am fixated. At night, I float through rooms, wraithlike, bent on employing the element of surprise. I flip light switches, armed with a corn broom, shouting “Aha!” like some farcical horror cliché.
I catch a second mouse, and a third. Babies, both. It seems we have a family on our hands.
Late one night, I dream I am beachside, sun-kissed, bare feet cooking in the sand. I rise, eager for a swim, but my feet are gone; I am balanced on stumps. I waver and fall, dragging myself in circles until the tide rolls in and sweeps me away.
I awake to rustling, loud and clumsy. Perhaps another mouse has died; perhaps its death aroma has attracted some larger scavenger, a raccoon or possum.
A crescent moon gleams through the skylight. Silent, I feel my way toward the kitchen, past the dining room where Marnie and I eat alone, though I still set the table for three.
I feel for the switch on the wall. In a flash of incandescent light, the scene resolves: Marnie, pajama-clad, kneeling on the floor, an uncapped bottle of olive oil in her hands. On the trap beside her is the largest mouse I’ve ever seen. It trembles and squeals, its russet fur slick with oil.
My wife did not despair of the end. “It’ll be just like visiting my mom in Augusta,” she’d joked. “Only forever.”
“I won’t let you,” Marnie says, near tears before I can speak.
“You can’t have her.”
For a moment, I’m unsure who she means. The trap quivers. A sweep of tail. I blink.
“OK, Marnie,” I say. “OK.”
She drizzles olive oil on its paws. She is patient, methodical. She doesn’t recoil when the mouse twitches. She doesn’t let its blind fear stop her from saving it.
It is midnight in a house too big for the two of us, and there are so many things I want to say but can’t.
Our captive, a mother herself, invokes a hysterical strength, crying for her pups, oblivious to their fate. Like Marnie, like me, she is alone. And as she rips free, hell-bent and euphoric, she leaves behind a patch of bloody fur, and I know that the bald spot will mark her forever, even if she manages to forget how close she came to the end.