Of Women and Mice

Annette McGee Rasch

Mice scamper throughout my earliest childhood memories. To teach us kids about gentleness, my parents employed two of these tiny creatures. Skippy and Sylvester soon became full-fledged family members and spent most of their time in our pockets.

Our dog Corky once made a fast grab, poking a tooth through Skippy’s eye. My Lord, how the blood gushed. We all hovered and cried while Daddy performed mouse surgery: torching the tip of an ice pick until red hot, he cauterized the tiny eye socket. Ooh, that was nasty, and a vivid life lesson about how fast play can turn to pain. But Skippy bounced back with great aplomb, also demonstrating how quickly a creature can shed trauma, transcend handicap and get on with the business of life.

Many years later mice re-entered my world en masse, when my mother’s illness prevented her from spending much time outdoors. To keep our shared passion for wildlife alive, I’d developed a deluxe bird-feeding station on our huge front porch. The mice came too, but we didn’t care. Facing Momma’s mortality had suspended the rules of reality. Even after fall’s chill set in, on her “good” days, bundled in blankets and tucked into a big soft chair with a hot cup of coffee, she’d enjoy the day’s drama.

While songbirds flit among the feeders, brazen mice intent on fallen seeds wove between our snoozing old dogs lying around the porch. Sometimes my sisters and  friends mentioned the porch mice, well OK, they brought it up frequently. I’d stay (uncharacteristically) quiet and wait for them to talk about something else, grinning, if they couldn’t see my face. Comfortable with the conspiracy, Mom also developed selective hearing.

You see, our ‘mouse watching’ had become sort of a hobby. So damn cute, how they’d poke their little heads out here and there. So carefully, they’d wriggle and scoot, humble but bold – surely shouting out to the world in some frequency now silent to us: “Please let me live! I don’t want much.” And we often admired their technique. The mice performed great acts of balance and acrobatics, sometimes with Luke, the Great Dane, staring intently, just inches away.

Bold Stellar Jays shrieked onto the scene several times a day, scattering beeping finches, hopping nuthatches, and the chickadees, who pecked around the porch floor beneath the feeders. Every so often a mouse and a chickadee found themselves in direct competition for the same fat sunflower seed. They’d make eye contact and after a moment’s impasse the chickadee usually flew off with the prize; though occasionally the mouse would charge and win the day. The hummingbirds never cared what was going on, they’d dive-bomb throughout it all to get at their feeders and favorite flowers. Only the squirrels had to wait for the humans and dogs to go inside before mopping up the day’s offerings, and on breezy days, the sleeping dogs’ noses would twitch when the impatient squirrels crept near.

Many chores weren’t getting done in a timely fashion during this period, including hauling the garbage away and turning the fresh compost into the piles. We rang the  welcome bell and the mice answered. Even in the barn, I’d poke my head over the top of the dutch-door and there they were, kicking back, sipping margaritas.

In each location the local mouse collectives developed unique operating procedures. For example, in the afternoons, some of the barn mice utilized our dozing horses for cover. Using binoculars, we’d observed a mouse crawl out from under the barn, pause, then make a mad dash over to a hoof, where it huddled while plotting its course to the nearby pond. One morning I found a completely flattened mouse…

Then in late winter all mouse watching was suspended when my beloved Momma passed on. Soon after her wake and everyone had gone home, a big snowstorm knocked the power out and enveloped my world in a silent white shroud. That storm was perfect. Taking to my bed, pitching into sustained sleep – my first in years – nothing much caught my attention for several months.

Come spring, the mice rather nudged me back to life. Opening the front door, yup, there they were, on the porch. Heading out to feed the horses, hmm, they’re everywhere… With fresher eyes, my place looked like one of those rat temples in India. How’d I not noticed the mice crawling up the side of the house, rooting around overgrown gardens, skipping down the driveway and hopping about in the pastures? It was shocking to behold their sheer numbers – while I’d slumbered; they’d multiplied.

But even then, it was difficult to get past my amusement and sentimentality – until they showed up inside the house, on the kitchen counter!! That tore it. A girl’s got to draw the line somewhere.

I felt incredibly awake. While I’ll always treasure the time Mom and I had shared watching wildlife on the porch, this freaky multi-species frat party was over. But then, the dilemma: I don’t kill healthy animals. Still, it was war. So. I purchased some live traps and gently captured 50 mice in the first week. Inside the house, I eliminated their food sources, and thankfully, driven by hunger, mice are easy to catch. Those who got wise to the traps were left with only one option: the spillage on the bottoms of the parrot cages.

Trying to prevent contact between these two species, I’d slathered Vaseline onto the cage legs. This resulted in a great show one night. A mouse tried to make the climb, but kept sliding down. It finally gave up and hid behind a bookshelf, but then, after a few moments, the mouse galloped toward the cage – and jumped! Sailing right between the cage bars, it landed neatly inside. Just before slipping beneath the newspapers lining the cage floor, Petrie, the Macaw, cocked his great blue head sideways and said “Hi” to the tiny creature. Then Barney, one of the dogs – who incidentally looks a lot like Richard Gere – came over and licked the Vaseline from the cage legs, his ears perking up each time the mouse rattled the newspapers. It was really too much.

While the dogs were lousy hunters; the 15-year-old house cat found moves she didn’t know she’d had. The mice were her fountain of youth and she drank of them greedily. It was gruesome, the way she’d toy with them, and impossible to watch. So when mortally wounded, I’d quickly euthanize the creature and lay it on a tree stump out back – to the delight of the neighborhood ravens, one of whom would swoop in, snap and swallow in a single movement. Anyway, the mice were soon evicted from the house. Easy living for the porch mice was over as well, after I’d relocated and downsized the bird-feeding station; and finally, making that overdue dump run and maintaining my compost pile sealed the deal.

So what became of all the mice?

My prisoners (about 200) were comfortably relocated to riverfront property at the end of the road. I’d left them with food, water and a big thick blackberry patch to call their new home. They’d have to rough it, but the view was good. I knew I’d miss them.

I’ll always remember those days of disconnection and transition, how the mice helped keep humor in the picture. But few of us get to duck from reality for long and it was also the mice who brought me back and forced me to pay the piper. And who’s the piper? Had I played a flute, perhaps they would’ve just followed me down to the river.

 

Also by Annette McGee Rasch
Big Brothers for Cows

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