THERE ARE MICE IN THE CABIN. In the loft, the drawers of the built-in dresser are sprinkled with little seed-turds, and the closet, angled under the A-frame’s steep roof, reeks of their grain-fed pee. I lie awake listening while tiny feet scuttle on their mouse-ish rounds, teeth gnawing somewhere behind the paneled ceiling. It’s a rasping noise that seems to be almost nothing but consonants, something from a language family I’ve never encountered. What is it talking about, that sound? Work, work, work, work, work—the teeth are excavating a hole in the wood somewhere, five or six feet from my head. Work, work, work, work, work. I swept up sawdust from the floor hours ago; clearly a load of artisanal replacement shavings is now underway. Work, work, work. I snap on the light. Nothing. I read several pages, maybe half an hour’s worth, and turn off the lamp again. The mouse waits cautiously, judiciously, but not quite long enough for me to fall asleep before the gnawing starts again.
I remember other times I’ve lived in the company of mice.
Long ago—the summer my family stayed in a cabin in Colorado and my mother scalded her leg pouring the kettle of creek water she’d boiled for drinking—there were mice. One night when my father lit a fire in the stone fireplace, little mouse babies tumbled from the chimney, squeaking like the sap in a just-lit log. For a day or two we tried to nurse them back to health, offering warm milk from an eyedropper, but the tiny things died of their injuries, so we buried them outside in the granite-flecked earth.
In a one-room cabin in Idaho that was lousy with mouse turds, the man I loved couldn’t stop thinking of plague or hanta virus, and he tallied his symptoms with increasing alarm until I drove him over an hour through winding roads, down one mountain and up another, crossing the pass to a logging-town E R, and after the examination—there was no wait, we were the only patients there that afternoon—the doctor said he was fine, he just felt bad because he really, really needed to move his bowels.
Another cabin, this one in Montana, where one night a wood rat suddenly appeared from the baseboards and my sister-in-law yelled and threw her shoe. We crammed steel wool into the hole in the baseboard (it had once been a splendid place, built with actual wainscoting in a tiny parlor); each morning we found the wool scornfully shoved back into the room, leaving the hole once again agape. Ratty, as we called him, knew he would outlast us; we were only there for a week.
In the house my partner Dave and I bought at the edge of town, which sat empty between closing and moving day, scatological rodent evidence appeared under the sink. We set out wretched snap traps which, euphemistically, seemed to do the trick. When another rodent began building a nest in the grill on the deck, Dave borrowed a Sherman live trap and relocated the animal a mile or so uphill. Occasionally, we still wonder, hopefully, whether it found its way into the neighbor’s house with the odious political yard signs.
These encounters mostly take place around the margins of my normal life, on the frontiers of domesticity. Bio-historically, that’s where mice have always expanded their range, in the outposts where people arrive, look around, and begin to set up housekeeping.
I remember an animation at the national museum in New Zealand. The first rats arrive as livestock, meat animals brought in tiny cages by the Polynesian explorers. Time passes: Māori people build villages, plant crops, and then European sailing ships come to float in the bay like no kind of sea bird the South Pacific has ever seen. The ships’ dinghies and anchors all dangle ropes that seem designed specifically for the rats to race along them and disappear into the trees. More boatloads of British immigrants arrive—settlers, homesteaders, colonizers—and the animals sneak ashore as well, invisible to the colonists busy with their tasks. The rats fan out until the facsimile landscape in the museum’s hall seems to ripple with rat fur; a surround-sound system broadcasts their squeaks and footfalls in the millions, billions, until, made creepily anxious, the viewer decides she has to step away.
Roiling in packed proximity, rats can sometimes get knotted together by their tails, unable to scurry free. A rat king, such a cluster-yuck is called. I once saw one in a museum in Dunedin, desiccated little mummy-rats in a tangle, all facing outward, as if arrested a split nanosecond after some rat Big Bang: the very image of an expanding universe of rats trapped in the stasis of an old-fashioned bell jar in a cabinet display.
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ELIZABETH DODD’s most recent book is Horizon’s Lens (University of Nebraska Press). She is the nonfiction editor at Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, literature, and science and society at Kansas State University.