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The Mad Mice of March

Bill Meredith

"Ö and thick and fast they came at last,
and more and more and moreÖ.."
Lewis Carroll: "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

(March, 2013) Until last Wednesday, this had been an unremarkable winter here in the west end of Emmitsburg. Temperatures have been a bit below average, but not excessively cold; precipitation has been close to average, and the few dustings of snow weíve had are nothing like the blizzards that tormented other parts of the country. A few stinkbugs have sneaked into the house through holes in the vent pipe of the clothes dryer and other such crevices, but they arenít as bad as last year. Outside the kitchen window, the usual 12 or 15 species of birds that are always at the feeder have been joined occasionally by a sapsucker, a brown creeper, and a pair of red-breasted nuthatches; but visitors from farther north, like purple finches, pine siskins and white-crowned sparrows, have yet to appear.

I had been starting each day by sitting at the kitchen table and peacefully contemplating the ordinariness of things until, one day in mid-February, it occurred to me that there were no mice in the house. One of the first things they teach you in Ecology School is that, when you notice something unusual, you should always ask "Why?", so I started thinking about it. I had already noticed that there werenít as many squirrels as usual this winter; the black squirrels that entertained us last year moved down the street half a block, and the old squirrel that had become so adept at pilfering my sunflower seeds must have either died or moved away to assisted living, so I postulated that maybe this was just a bad year for rodents in general. That hypothesis didnít actually explain anything, but since the second lesson of Ecology is that you should eliminate the obvious answers before looking for more complicated ones, I allowed myself the pleasure of being satisfied with it. After all, I am retired.

The peaceful, if somewhat boring, routine of life at our house was enlivened last Wednesday when our daughter, Melinda, came to visit from Minnesota. We were having lunch in the kitchen when she gave a politely restrained yelp, accompanied by a gracefully executed jump, and announced that a mouse had just run past her. I had noticed previously that a gray blur occasionally flashed along the baseboard in that area, but I am accustomed to seeing things that arenít there because of a combination of cataracts and floaters in my eyes; so I assured her that she must have imagined it because we have no mice this winter. She accepted this in the best tradition of the Dutiful Daughter, but the next day she said she heard bumps and scratching sounds coming from the cabinet by the sink. My wife and I both listened, but we heard nothing. Melinda said the noise was getting louder, and must be caused by something at least the size of a squirrel, or possibly even a raccoon, so my wife sent me to get my hearing aid. I still heard nothing, but by that time she seemed to be getting into the spirit of things and said she heard scratchy sounds coming from vicinity of the ice-maker in the refrigerator. I knew the ice-maker had been broken for the past couple of years, but I had the tact and foresight not to remind her of that. It seemed a wiser strategy would be to make a show of force, so I went to the basement and dug out our collection of mousetraps.

My wife was spreading peanut butter on stalks of celery at the time, so I borrowed a spoonful, spread it liberally on several traps, and set them in places where I would have been sure to explore if I were a mouse. We then went on to more inviting pursuits and forgot about the noises and the traps until the following morning, when one of them went off accidentally. Thus reminded, we ran the trap-line in the best frontiersman style, and found all of the traps undisturbed, until I remembered that I had put one in the cupboard under the sink. When we looked there, the trap was gone. My wife immediately concluded that a giant rat had eaten the trap, bait and all, and we should call the National Guard, or at least the local Animal Control Department; however, cooler heads prevailed, and I worked up courage enough to look behind some of the containers of cleaning fluids. We found the trap lying upside-down behind a box of Brillo pads. Apparently it had gone off with unanticipated enthusiasm and flipped itself into the air when it was tripped. Instead of a giant rat, it contained two small mice.

After things calmed down and the excitement of the successful hunt had abated, I attempted to reconstruct the scene of the crime. The two mice obviously were teenagers, out after hours looking for excitement when they came upon the alluring scent of peanut butter. The release mechanism of the trap, having been unused for a long time, must have been stiff, for all of the bait was gone; the mice must have been licking off the last residue of it when the trap finally went off. That explanation was a triumph worthy of Hercule Poirot, and I had hopes that it would be the end of the matter; but before the day was over Melinda had repeated the yelp-jump maneuver twice, embellishing it with some comments that she must have learned since she moved to Minnesota. Consequently, my wife made it clear that a state of war existed. It was us or them.

If there must be war, I suppose this is a good time for it. March was named in honor of Mars, the Roman God of War; in Italy, back in those days, March was the time when the weather began to get warm enough for armies to march. And so I have mustered all of the traps I could find and deployed them strategically throughout the house, with hopes that an armistice may be declared before anyone brings small children to visit us. In the meanwhile, I have opened negotiations with the young Cooperís hawk that has been hanging around the yard, making mainly futile passes at the small birds on the feeders. Iím willing to offer him a warm place to stay for a few days if he is willing to change his diet to mice. Melinda suggested yesterday that it might be less messy to get a cat, but I have drawn the line there.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith