The Brink Within

Lately I feel an increasing sense of unease, as if I’m standing on, or perhaps just near, the edge of a cliff with no idea what lies below or how difficult and time consuming it will be to navigate away. We’re living under the controlling, stifling hand of a noxious virus, fires are burning across California and the Northwest, hurricanes are battering the Southeast, and several people I care about have been ill. One is dying. And that’s just in the U.S.

I suspect many people share my dismayed surprise at the sudden appearance of Covid, followed by its insistent lingering. Every day is a roller coaster ride of statistics and changing prophesies, with a glaring absence of standardized or uniform public policy. We wonder how many more people will die (when will it be someone we know and love if it isn’t already?) before a vaccine will be available, and if said vaccine will have a high rate of protection and a low rate of side effects. We wonder if the virus will mutate and become something even more fierce, more transmittable. We wonder if it will ever end, or is this the beginning of one plague after another our modern, overpopulated world simply cannot, universally, overcome.

The fires lend a sense of doom, of further evidence if we needed any that our world is changing quickly, and not in a good way. For the first time in the ten years I’ve lived here I’ve been impacted by the smoke from any one of thousands of fires, 23 that remain “major” for a total of over four million acres burned in California alone. In the past several weeks I’ve grown used to looking out the window and seeing a peachy-grey haze on the horizon. We are in a pocket of sorts here, or so it seems, affected by the fires but not consumed by them. How long can it last? When I saw the photos from San Francisco I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at a post apocalyptic skyline soon to be my future, and ultimately everyone’s future, as well.

And then there are the mice. Is it the smoke? What would provoke them to come indoors when it’s still warm outside? I began hearing the pitter patter of little feet, and finding telltale evidence in my kitchen drawers of their determination to seek out any overlooked crumb in my clean and tidy home. Twice I found a mouse in my trash can under the kitchen sink when I opened the cupboard door, and both times I screamed and jumped back as it shot up into the air and flew out onto the floor, disappearing into a tiny hole somewhere I didn’t even know existed. I’ve used live traps in the past and “relocated” them to a field a fair distance from here but that didn’t solve the problem. A professional exterminator is not only expensive but when I read the reviews it seems it’s only a temporary fix. Eventually new ones invade. I decided I need to make my home inhospitable to them, so they don’t think of it as an acceptable alternative to living in their natural habitat. I need to put the fear of god into them. 

So I went to Ace Hardware and looked at the traps. A clerk walked by and pointed to a black plastic contraption with a hinge on one end and closed on all sides except the front – kind of like a covered standard mouse trap – so you don’t have to see the aftermath of your handiwork. At least that’s the theory. He said he’d used them before with great success. He could see I was reluctant. “Try them,” he said. “They work. You’ll see.”

I bought two. I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner that night, making sure as usual to wipe down the countertops and table, sweep the floor and take out the trash, then I put both traps under the sink and baited them with peanut butter. I had barely sat down in the living room when I heard a loud snap, followed not by silence as I expected, but by squeaking and the sound of the plastic trap being flung against the floor and walls of the cupboard. I groaned and held my breath, waiting for it to grow quiet but it didn’t, and soon I couldn’t stand it any longer. I opened the door to see a tiny little mouse with its entire body outside the trap except for one hind leg, which was caught tightly in its grasp. It was trying in vain to move to the back of the cupboard, back through the hidey-hole into the walls where I couldn’t get to it. 

My choices quickly became apparent. I could leave it there to either chew off its leg the way I’ve heard a fox will do when caught in a trap, or just die from hunger or thirst, which would take hours if not days. I could pick up the trap and carry it and the dangling mouse to some place like the field I’d taken the other ones to years ago, release it, and hope it didn’t have babies inside my walls serving as motivation for it to make its way back, while at the same time hoping it wouldn’t be so injured that it would suffer and slowly die. Or I could finish what I’d started and kill it in some other way. The first choice was beyond consideration. The second choice was tempting, though it felt like both more work and the easy way out at the same time. And it would do nothing to solve my problem. I really don’t want mice living in my house with me. Hantavirus comes to mind, and don’t mice carry fleas? It’s just plain unsanitary, I know this.

I opted for the third choice. I won’t go into details about it, because it was traumatic enough to do it. Recounting it only refreshes my guilt. Suffice it to say I drowned it in my kitchen trashcan, and it did not go gently into that good night. Who knew mice could swim so well, not to mention hold their breath underwater so long? When it was finally over I should have been glad, or at least relieved, but the truth is I felt terrible. I felt like a monster. I felt unkind.

That night I dreamt it was happening all over again, and I could hear it in mouse speak screaming, Help Me, Please help me! I woke up again and again all night long. The next morning with great trepidation I looked under the kitchen sink, and there was another mouse in the second trap. I grimaced, though this time the trap had thankfully worked as it’s supposed to, killing them instantly. His hind legs and long tail were sticking straight out from the bottom of the trap, rigid in death. I quickly disposed of him in a bag then took it outside to the community trash bin closest to my place. There were now two dead mice in that bin, both thanks to me.

I have listened closely for the sounds of skittering in my walls since then. I have waited for the snap of the traps. Silence. And yet I’m a wreck. I was already on thin ice before this happened. I was already crying often, jumpy and anxious, feeling trapped, isolated, paralyzed, and insecure. Now I’m mourning a mouse.

I think how ridiculous I am. I remember seeing children in India who lived in piles of trash that were infested with cockroaches and rats. I think of the orangutans in Borneo who are on the verge of extinction so wealthy people across the world can have palm oil in their granola bars. I think of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the havoc her potential replacement might wreak with abortion rights in this country. Even Ireland, Catholic Ireland for fuck’s sake, is beyond such nonsense. 

Three days later I remove the empty traps from under the sink, clean them and put them away. I wonder if it could be that easy, or if there are more to come. I really want to believe it’s the former. I’m past my threshold, as my grief counselor gently reminds me when I speak to her about it, like so many people across the country and across the world right now. We have enough on our plates already without having to drown little mice.

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