The mouse saga began the fall after we moved into our house in southern Vermont. My husband had moved in when the trees were beginning to turn, but the leaves were all gone when the babies and I arrived after having spent several weeks with my folks in West Virginia. As I took up housekeeping I began to find evidence of mice scattered about the kitchen. In the cabinet where I stored rice. On the stovetop where I’d left a greasy pan. In the knife drawer where I kept the butter brush.
I hummed Three Blind Mice as I disinfected the kitchen and collected tips on how to humanely dispatch mice from one’s home. Although I fantasized about chasing the mice with a butcher’s knife as I unloaded, scrubbed, and reloaded cabinets and drawers, I thought surely there is a better way.
I tried peppermint oil. I tried sonic waves. I looked for holes. Still they came. I began reading about the best way to kill the mice, then wrangled my two small, bundled children to the hardware store and bought a package of mousetraps from the wall of spring-loaded machines in the Aisle o’ Vermin. The traps came in eight packs. “Why so many?” I thought as I left the store with my purchase.
Each night as I sat nursing the baby, I heard a thunk, then a short struggle, then silence. My husband set the traps, and then carried their dead bodies to the cold woods behind our house. We bought a second set of traps. We made use of the first three, but then hard winter set in and the mice disappeared. I tried not to think about what had happened to them. Did we kill them all? Or did they freeze to death? Or where they shivering in some hole somewhere, unable to make it to our warm kitchen?
I confided my mouse problems to a friend; and she told me of her tick problems. These issues were not unrelated she said—the ticks get the Lyme bacteria when they feed from mice, and then pass it on to larger animals. Thinking of my friend, and her struggles with Lyme disease, the next two winters I hardened my heart and bypassed the homeopathic methods of mouse prevention and put traps out when the weather began to turn cool.
I thought of the mice as a fall problem and was surprised when we encountered mice while camping one spring when the babies had transformed into rambunctious children. We stayed in a small, back-country cabin where there was no electricity, nor plumbing, only a pot-bellied wood stove and sleeping benches jutting out from the walls. We had to pack everything in and everything out.
While we were unpacking, I thought I saw movement in a corner where two rough-hewn logs met the sleeping benches. I hoped it wasn’t a snake looking for warmth on the cool day. My gaze often returned to that spot throughout the afternoon as I tried to convince myself I had been seeing things. It had been a long, cranky hike to the cabin with our kids; so after building a low-burning fire and eating some hot dogs, we crawled into our sleeping bags before the sun met the horizon.
I dozed peacefully for a couple hours, but when darkness fell, the action began. I’m a light sleeper and woke startled to the clitter-clatter of mouse paws on wood. The dogs, alert to the noise, came over to me and sniffed around. I banged my fist on the wall. Scatter. A few minutes passed then the clitter-clatter began again. I banged again. This back and forth went on for a while until finally I grabbed a flashlight and moved it around the walls of the sleeping nook where the kids and I had set up.
Multiple sets of eyes shined back at me, covering the wall above my youngest son. I noticed at the top of the wall sat one big mouse; the others must have been her nearly grown youngsters. Suddenly one of the smaller mice made a break for it and ran down the wall and under my youngest son’s sleeping bag. I yelped and hissed at my husband to wake up and help.
We moved the kids, who were, thankfully, too sleepy to wake up and join in the excitement. The dogs, on the other hand, were more than happy to get at the mice. My husband grabbed an umbrella and tried to knock the mice off the wall and onto the sleeping benches so that the dogs could get them. He succeeded in getting two of them to the dogs before the rest ran away. My husband scooped up the two dead mice in an aged metal dustpan, opened the cabin door, and tossed them into the night.
We waited for the others to come back out, but it looked like they were gone. After several minutes, we turned out the lights.
Because the mice seemed completely uninterested in the floor, the kids and I spent the night curled up around the legs of the wood stove, rather than on the sleeping benches. It was a wise move because within the half-hour I heard the clitter-clatter begin again. On high alert, I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, but kept followed the sound of movement as the mice did whatever it is they do at night on the mouse superhighway along the cabin walls. I lay on my side and turned the flashlight to the wall, following the beam to the top where the big mouse sat staring back at me.
“I’m sorry, momma,” I said as I turned out the light and snuggled with my own sleeping kids.
The next time we went back-country camping we stayed in a different cabin. It was a little bigger, the weather warmer, and we thought it wasn’t likely that we’d have an issue with mice again. When we got to the cabin, we looked in vain for signs of mice. I exhaled, looking forward to a peaceful night. We still had another pack to bring up from the car, so I left everyone at the cabin to explore while I hiked back to the parking lot for the remainder of our necessities.
When I came back to camp my husband, the boys, and the dogs were standing over a family of bloody mice. My four-year-old held one of the tiny babies in his palm. It wriggled and squirmed with its dying breath. My son watched it with detached interest, and when he was about to drop its lifeless body, I helped him find a spot under a bush with long, overhung branches.
My husband said that the mouse family was at the bottom of a tall, narrow ash bucket, most likely trapped. Recalling the misery with mice the last time we went camping, he took the bucket outside and poured the mice on the ground. The dogs killed them quickly. They were dying anyway, he said.
Our big, goofy golden retriever nosed around the massacre sight. I wanted to fuss at her, for needlessly killing the small creatures, but I held my tongue for she was a good mouser when she found the critters scampering near her napping quarters back at home. Silently, I used a piece of wide birch bark to move the dead family safe from the dogs’ marauding and covered all of them with long strands of meadow grass.
Afterwards, as he stirred the campfire with a big stick, my five-year-old looked towards where we had buried the mice and then back at me. “It’s the way of nature, mommy?”
I grimaced and held out my hand to him, “Yes, I guess it is, bud. But sad all the same.”
Those wee deaths were still in my consciousness when I encountered another young mouse family, bleeding and suffering.
The mother lay on the hot asphalt of my driveway, giving birth. Blood oozed out of her left eye, and her impossibly small babies squirmed and oozed from between her legs. She hadn’t been there a moment before, and I could only guess that she had fallen out of the inner workings of the lawnmower as I moved it from our shed to the front yard.
I stood watching in horror until, finally, all the babies were outside her body. I knew she had to be moved. I tried to pick her up, but she panicked and fell out of my bare hand. I looked around for something to move the family together as I worried about the babies’ prolonged exposure to the heat of the asphalt under their hairless little bodies. I saw one of my children’s snow shovels inside the shed and decided it would work. I easily scooped up momma and her three pink, naked babies—babies that looked decidedly human, like one of those 3-D ultrasound images during an early stage of development.
They slid off the shovel and into the tender grass that grew near the fence line. I propped the shovel so that it created a lean-to and stepped back, trying to think of what, if anything, I should do next.
My four-year-old wandered over to see what I was doing with his snow shovel. He looked at me with a sad face and asked me if they were dying. Maybe, I said.
The truth was that I hoped they would experience a quick and peaceful fading away in the cool, green grass. I worried that if they survived, I’d find them in a mousetrap behind the kitchen sink a couple of months hence.
It’s one thing to set a trap for a creature who’s pooping all over your kitchen. It’s another thing to nurse an injured creature back to health only to kill it at a later date. But I knew I couldn’t kill them, then and there, in the midst of a traumatic birth.
I have several friends involved in animal rescue in some way or another—dogs, horses, cats. I knew some of them, in my situation, would get a box for the mice, make it cozy, feed the babies with a dropper, possibly even take them to a vet. I mulled my options and decided to wait and see.
But first I had to move them again because my curious preschooler kept checking on them and couldn’t refrain from touching them. So when he wondered off again, I picked up the shovel and moved them to my wildflower garden. The mother was still bleeding but seemed to be trying to nurse her babies. So I said I’d let nature take its course.
Nothing changed when I peeked at them that evening, and I expected to find them all dead the next morning. But I was surprised. I only saw two of the babies, but momma had dug a hole in the dirt between the long stems of cosmos daisies. The babies squirmed, nestling closer to their momma. The blood had dried on her eye and a little piece of green stuck to her head. I carefully peeled it away.
I felt hopeful, seeing the mother working so hard. I put two things within her reach: corn silk, thinking she might use it for a nest; and the butterfly water, a shallow dish of water my five-year-old keeps in the garden for pollinators.
On day three, I had resolved that I would do what I could to save the mice. Let’s try to save this one, this mother and her children, I told myself. I had talked to my husband, who was away on an extended work trip, and told him of my impulse to rescue the mice.
“Am I crazy?” I asked, seeking validation.
“No,” he said and sighed. “I don’t think so. Just find a box and have the boys help you take care of them.”
Relief rippled through me when he gave me that answer. He is imminently practical, but travel, being away from us always softened him, and I wondered how he would have responded had he been the one to find the mother mouse, bleeding on the driveway.
Grandma was staying with us and I didn’t tell her about the mice for fear that she’d think I was foolish. She would want an explanation and I didn’t think I could put it into words—at least not words that would satisfy her. The only thing I could say about it was that I didn’t want them to suffer any more than they already had. That there was enough suffering in the world, and I wanted to ease some of the suffering if I could. That was all.
Late that afternoon I paused on my way to the garden. Someone had clearly been weeding it. Grandma. She had been weeding the small flowerbed out front the day before.
My four-year-old ran up to me, seeing me headed to the pollinator garden. “Mommy, the mouses are dead. Grandma buried them.”
“Oh,” I said and struggled not to cry. My little one stuck his thumb in his mouth and hugged my legs.
When he pulled away, I took his free hand and turned around, headed back towards the house. I didn’t want to see the spot. I wasn’t sure if the mice had died before they were buried, and I didn’t ask. It was too late for them, and too late for my grand gesture. There will be more I know. More mice. More suffering. More opportunities for one small, grand gesture.
Brandy Renee McCann writes both creatively and scientifically about intimacy, aging, and Appalachia. Her creative writing has appeared in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel and The Dead Mule. Brandy lives in southwest Virginia and is a research associate at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech.