Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Tale of the Ambivalent Adult

Yesterday morning, I was in my half-with-it-before-caffeine state, making coffee, when I heard something heavy thumping around under the kitchen table. I always assume this is Francis the cat, but, nonetheless, I always glance nervously in the direction from which such noises come, half expecting what? A baby dragon that's been living under my kitchen table and is learning to fly? Anything else (mice, for instance), don't make that much noise, and (although I would love it if we did), we don't have too many bigger things (like badgers or gophers) around here that might, somehow, get into the house, especially without our knowing it.

As the other half of me expected when I turned around, there was the tell-tale streak of marmalade fluff that scurried out into the dining room. Nothing the least bit alarming. When Francis isn't asleep in some spot for 12 hours straight, he tends to spend most of his time chasing after imaginary friends (I've never been quite convinced that cat food manufacturers don't put tabs of LSD into the food).

I went back to making coffee only to hear him come scampering back into the kitchen. I turned back around to greet him, which is when I noticed that, unless toothpaste manufacturers had put tabs of acid in my toothpaste, he was actually batting around something that was not imaginary. It didn't look like one of the usual suspects: hair ties or old shoelaces.

No, it looked like a little mouse. Francis batted lazily at it, as if he now couldn't care less about it, and it didn't move. Quite obviously, it was dead. But then I moved closer to discover that it was still making some half-hearted attempts to move. The other half of the mouse's heart must have decided to move into the cushy softness of my own heart, increasing its size.

I am 45 years old. Why does such a scene still make me feel as though I am watching a poor Beatrix Potter character, Mrs. Wee Winkle, say, suffering at the paws of Fierce Francis? Why can I see her poor children, now left back in their nest to wonder what has happened to good old Mama? She's never gone this long, and they have been waiting forever for her to return with those tasty crumbs she promised. They are hoping she also might have found one of those huge, plump raisins she often brings them as treats.

We do not have a cat because we wanted a mouser. In theory, though, I am very glad we have this pet, because I am convinced he helps keep our home from being overrun by mice this time of year when they are all coming in from the fields. In practice, however, every time I am aware that he has killed one, the child in me who used to conduct elaborate funerals for dead bees and spiders (because my parents must have hidden the dead rodents our cats often presented before I could find them and weep over them) wants to go in search of a little box and shovel.

The adult in me finds this ridiculous. She loudly talks over the child, insisting this is the natural order of things. That mouse knew exactly what sorts of risks it was taking, coming into this house where there is a cat in residence. Would we choose to move into an alligator's nest, just because it was warm and the fish in that area were abundant and easy to find? The child in me wants to know if maybe mice parents warn their children all about these huge beasts with claws and fangs that move and pounce at lightning speed. Did they have an old Uncle Harry who still limps because of his half-eaten leg, but who proudly tells the tale of how he managed to escape one of those awful beasts?

"Of course they do," the adult in me says. "And any mouse who didn't heed those warnings and who decided to go skittering about in some human's house, taunting one of those beasts, deserves whatever he gets."

"But maybe it was trying to be a Big Brave Mouse, like Uncle Harry," the child wails.

"Nonsense," says the adult. "Only a fool would consider that sort of behavior brave, the sort of fool who enjoys playing Russian roulette."

The child glares reproachfully at Francis, who has all but lost interest in his prey, while the adult says, "Good Francis. What a good cat to kill that nasty little mouse, probably carting around Lyme-disease-infested ticks and who would probably have chewed through our phone wires, costing us a fortune in repairs." (Not that she speaks from experience or anything.) While praising him, she goes in search of the dust brush and pan, so she can scoop up the offending creature and take it outside.

The child notices it's still moving a little. They ought to call a vet. It's freezing outside. The poor thing will never survive out there. Maybe they could get an aquarium and nurse it back to life. But the adult, as adults always do, callously takes it outside and puts it on the ground, the child making sure she at least does so gently, while worrying now that some other beast, like an eagle, is going to get it. She has to keep resisting the urge to check on it, to see if it has gotten up and run away after that spectacular "playing dead" performance.

The adult assures her that that mouse was not playing dead. The child consoles herself, then, with the thought that the mouse is now beyond feeling. It is blissfully unconscious and will have no idea if an eagle swoops down and swallows it whole (or whatever eagles do). And besides, who says it was really Mrs. Wee Winkle? Maybe it was a horrible mouse, an evil mouse, one that deserved to die. That's it! The child goes in search of Francis who is busy nonchalantly licking his paws, as if he has no idea what a hero he is,

"What a good, good cat you are," the child strokes him and tells him. "You just saved the whole mouse kingdom from Evil Dick Cheney Mouse."

Ahh, but Francis does know. Do you think that cute little kitty (named after a saint), now curling himself up on the rug, would kill any mouse other than an evil one?


Anonymous said...

Thank goodness we have tenderness in our hearts for small and frail creatures. However, having had mice, many mice, due to said tenderness, I can assure child and adult that after cleaning up winrows of mouse poop, I got a guy in to get rid of the mice.

Watson Woodworth said...

In 1992 I was living in my sister's house and she had a terrible mouse problem.
I can't remember what was more disturbing, the live ones scurrying across the floor like little furry tumble weeds or the ones that would scurry no more.
She's kept a cat ever since. With few exceptions so have I.

Stefanie said...

Oh Emily, this was delightful. I laughed out loud about the evil Dick Cheney mouse. I'm sure Francis would never hurt Mrs. Wee Winkle. We haven't had mice in the house so our cats hunt bugs. I feel no remorse when they swallow flies or centipedes but I feel badly for the spiders and will sometimes provide a rescue for them before it is too late. It is a good thing they don't go outside because Dickens has thrown himself at both the screen door and the sliding glass door several times trying to get at a squirrel.

litlove said...

My mother-in-law's house seems to be reverting to a state of nature, and often welcomes in mice, rabbits and a huge array of bugs. I love them all dearly when they are outside the house, and consider internal deterrents a good thing. Lovely post, Emily! Congratulate both your personas on it.

Danny said...

I wish our dogs would kill mice, but like you, I'd be horrified and guilt-stricken if I saw a half-living one in our pit bull's mouth. But more importantly, you've just outlined your next children's book. Sure the whole cat-mouse thing has been done a million times but not with your wonderful perspective and gift for detail. I, for one, am especially looking forward to the illustrations of Uncle Harry!

Parts of this post also remind me of an interview I recently heard with a Holocaust survivor. He was being gathered in the ghetto with his relatives and others for the next train to Auschwitz. As they were forcing the Jews on the train towards their certain death, this man slipped and fell and broke his leg. Inexplicably, the Nazi in charge sent him to the hospital to repair his hurt leg and from there he was able to escape into hiding, the only survivor from his town.

Bob said...

As long as it was not Firmin, I think you (the adult) did the right thing. If it was Firmin, you should have given it artificial respiration, call the EMTs and get a defibrillator.

Anne Camille said...

I sat as still as I could for 15 minutes the other day, lights out, in my kitchen, waiting for the mouse to make another sound so I could figure out which cabinet he was in. Silly me, I only needed to pick up the box of cereal that my son bought before returning to school in August to find that it had become home & food for a little mouse family. I cursed at them, threw the box in a trash bag and set it outside to wait for trash collection the next day. Of course, I secretely was cheering that they'd chew their way free and decide that the 10 degree weather in the woods was much better than the mean human who threw them out in the middle of the night (and now has deadly treats and traps placed under the sink & in cabinets).

Emily Barton said...

Lilian, thank you for the assurance (I think the adult needed that more than the child).

Nigel, I lived in a house like that during my last year of college, but when I discovered that my chocolate Easter bunny had been nibbled by one of the tumble weeds, I began to think that maybe the ones that scurried no more weren't quite so heart-wrenching.

Stef, Francis doesn't go outside, either, but boy does he keep his eye on the squirrels (and birds) from any one of his favorite windowsills. I'm pretty sure the squirrels purposely taunt him.

Litlove, thank you. Both personas are blushing.

Danny, why is it that dogs couldn't care less about mice? It was while living with a dog that wouldn't chase mice that we had a mouse chew through our telephone line. (That's the adult speaking, of course.) I hadn't thought of a children's book, but you've definitely planted a seed, and I love the connection you made to that Holocaust survivor. (Every single Holocaust survivor story I've heard points to some sort of goodness in some particular human, which gives me hope, because it's so easy to focus on all the evil.)

Bob, Firmin was the first guy who came to mind. But I'm pretty sure this was Dick Cheney. I mean, Firmin would have been in our library, not our kitchen.

Cam (says the child), "Oh, go, mice, go! Chew through that garbage bag and go find a new, warm home away from horrible humans!"

knitseashore said...

This would definitely make a wonderful children's book!

My cats have all decided that since they live indoors, they don't "do" wildlife anymore. Anything that scurries across the deck is there for through-the-window-amusement only. And truthfully, I buried enough of the poor souls when I lived home with my parents, and our cats then could still go outside. I don't miss that part of the "old days" at all!

Pete said...

Great post, Emily. This made me squirm with embarassment since I once put a mouse out of its misery when it had been similarly batted around by our cat. Why didn't I just take it up the road and put in the bush where it could have taken its chances? Anyway, lovely writing. Thanks.