Of Mice and Little Boys

Wednesday May 4, 8 a.m.

I had wanted to meet Kristin and her daughter Magnolia in the botanical garden today, to let the kids run around in the fairy houses which I think will only be there for a little while longer. But instead we're here waiting for a maintenance man to fix the grate under the heater which Wally must have yanked off. We've had so many mice lately, and that's supposedly the entryway. I don't know why I didn't think to get it fixed until now.

For a month or so I'd been keeping the mice at bay with peppermint oil. It works pretty well, but it's $30 a bottle. I got tired of the expense and also just the routine sprinkling it around every night. It started to feel like a hassle, to fall into that "one more thing" category. So I dropped off, and presently the mice returned. At night I can hear them stirring around.

In December my parents gave us a humane mouse trap which had worked like a charm for them. I promptly wrapped it in a plastic bag and tucked it away in the closet. It kind of made me nervous. Just didn't want to deal with the mice up close and personal like that. Plus I'm a frequent subscriber to the theory that if you ignore a problem, it will go away. It has a high failure rate. The mice started getting bolder: I found one in the sink; another stared at me from behind the coffee machine. They were like NYC squirrels or visitors from Brazil--comfortable to the point where it's almost an affront. It's like -- shouldn't you be scurrying off by now? Something had to be done.

So a few weeks ago I squeamishly unpacked the trap and set it up with a few Cheerios before I went to bed, and timidly checked in the morning, relieved to see the trap was closed, but empty. Alex must have knocked against it with his foot. I was kind of pleased that I could throw my hands up in a passive "I tried". I set it up again that night, hoping for a similar result. I'd given up even checking when one morning last week Wally came into the kitchen squealing with joy when he found a little brown mouse twitching away in the trap. It did look awfully cute with those giant eyes. Wally kept saying, "Want to hug him. Want to pet him," and crouching down to eye level with those enormous eyes. I told him it was best not to touch him; maybe sing him a song instead. He sang ABC.

It was all going fine and it was a beautiful morning for a jaunt in the yard but when I told Wally what we were about to do (let the mouse go), he burst into tears. Catch a mouse and let him go just like that? I hadn't stopped to think that he might get attached so quickly. But of course finding your own cute little pet mouse in the morning was like me coming downstairs to find a bike on my 10th birthday.  The best thing in the world. And what if after 2 minutes of me oohing and ahhing my mom had said, "Okay, now let's go give it back." Terrible. 

Wally howled in the elevator, sobbed as we made our way past the recycling bins, pounded his fists into me when we got outside and I bent down to open the trap. I tried to explain that the mouse needed to find his mom and dad. That he needed to find his cousins and friends little bed and little bottle of milk. When the mouse ran out of the trap into the bushes there was a brief moment of hope. The mouse was simply dashing off to hide which meant ...Wally could seek! This was familiar territory. Off he went, face blotchy red but starting to perk up. Only all the searching,  all the "Come out, come outs wherever you are" were in vain. Wally started to cry again when I told him we had to go back up, without his not with as much force as before. And he did say, to himself kind of, in a quiet sing-songy voice, "He has to find his mommy and daddy and sisters and brothers and cousins."

The next few times we went down to the yard to play, Wally looked for the "brown mouse", maybe hoping it was one of those marathon games of hide and seek and that the mouse was still tucked away behind a tree, laughing to himself about what a brilliant spot he'd happened upon. But the search started sounded more deliberately imaginary, like the brown mouse was a storybook character whose likeness Wally could conjure up at any time and just as easily let fall away into the ether.


We caught 7 more mice before I finally thought to have the man fix the grate. I had started to feel rustic and self-sufficient, like I could take care of the issue myself. (Next up I'd be chopping my own firewood.) But it was clear that if you build it, they will come. And keep coming. Unless you patch up the hole where they are coming in. During that week Wally got used to the routine and came to enjoy it. As soon as he found the shaky little creature in the morning he would say, "We gotta bring him outside. He's gotta find his mommy. And daddy. And Jules." (That's his therapist.) It came to be a ritual. I'd bring down a mug of coffee and something for us to eat, Wally might bring his wooden frog on a string. He loved to watch that moment of the mouse scampering away and made sure I dumped the remaining Cheerios out so there would be enough food for lunch. But then he'd clatter away with the toy frog trailing behind him, up to the fence and back.

Thursday May 5, 3:30 pm
During that mouse week, I started changing how I watered the plants. I stopped seeing it as a chore. (Oh, God, you're kidding. I still have the dishes and the bills and the laundry and the plants? Do I ever get to sit down? Which is a wild exxageration as I sit all the time and have been for the past hour and have even been known to lie down on the playground enjoying the sun with my neighbor Amy while another neighbor says, "Don't you think you should keep a closer eye on your kids?" Meanwhile we are 20 FEET AWAY from them in an enclosed toddler play area and for two minutes I've taken a break from studying their every move with the rapt attention of a child analyst.) Anyway I started to just be "mindful" about watering the plants, to appreciate whatever little contact with nature I'm lucky enough to have. I realized I had envied people who have real-life gardens, who can go out in the evening with a glass of wine and water their plants and lie around reading Billy Collins (having a garden automatically guarantees leisurely evenings filled with poetry and wine). Now I'm grateful for any contact with the natural world I have.

As I was filling up the watering can last night I told Alex about how well Wally had adjusted to the freeing-of-the-mice and how much he'd learned. I was parroting stuff from Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods about how hands-on contact with the natural world teaches so much more than any kind of traditional classroom learning could.

"So what did he learn?" Alex asked, not in a challenging way, just in a curious one which surprised me, a request for elaboration being a rare gesture for the male species. I'm more used to a grunt and nod acompanied by the face that clearly means, "Now can I be excused to go watch Ultimate Fighter?"

What did he learn? I hesitated. Wally didn't learn about the kind of mouse, its eating habits (other than Cheerios), its social structure, its habitat. He didn't even learn that there are humane ways to rid yourself of mice. I don't think he would have looked at the situation that way. He knew only that the mouse was in our house for some reason that he didn't question, that we caught him for some reason that he also didn't question, and that for the mouse's good we had to set him free.

Alex was still waiting for an answer. Ultimate Fighter could wait.

Well for starters, he learned that you might want to hug something but it might not want to hug you back, in fact it might want to bite you -- good to know for adventure hikes (or walks around NY). He learned that mice are tiny and fragile (Robert Browning's "small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast") and that we should treat them gently. That you can search and search but you might not find what you're looking for. And most importantly, that just because you love something, doesn't mean you get to keep it.

Friday May 6, 12 a.m.
Many creatures are stirring on the streets below, but for now at least, I don't hear any mice. Wally checked the trap despondently this morning, the routine disrupted. "No mouse." Sometimes in the afternoon during the mouse week he'd say, "We cannot catch mousey" because I would say, "Let's go check the trap" as a way to get him to come inside for a nap even though I knew it'd likely be empty. But today he seemed to intuit that it wasn't that we couldn't catch the mouse, but that there isn't one to catch. 

It had been okay to say goodbye when the next day there'd be another (in his mind the same?) little brown mouse. But Wally adjusted the empty trap equally as well. He had learned that when it comes to a wild animal, that proverb about when you love something, set it free might end there. Don't wait for it to come back, or to finally give up its hiding spot. Simply, set it free.

I remember when our dog Sky was missing for two days. I was a mess, putting up signs, approaching dog-owners while tearily holding up pictures, searching every inch of the park, every scrap yard, calling shelters (the ticking clock of knowing they euthanize dogs within a few days), shouting her name into the void. At night we put her bed in the window -- something we read you should do, so the dog will smell it and find their way home. We slept in the livingroom so we'd hear her. In between searching, in my braver moments, I comforted myself by thinking maybe Sky simply could not be confined. She had heard the call of the wild and went in search of it.

And yet somehow we found her, and I still pinch myself that we did. A Russian couple called us and led us up a windy, woodsy path along the southwest corner of Prospect Park. Sky was huddling in the underbrush, scared and shaky but jumping all over us for joy when we arrived. Then again that wasn't all that different from her everyday greeting. Still, it was such a joyous day. A tortuous game of hide and seek with the most incredible ending. The way Sky ran--and writing this makes me think of the post about how it sounds apocryphal but Wally really did hold his head up from Day 1--but Sky just ran faster than almost any dog on the planet except maybe a star greyhound at the top of his game. So we figured a minute or two of running away from that Deli where I'd tied her up and she was already so far away from home she couldn't find her way back. 

We never figured out how she got out of her harness, though getting out of devices meant to restrain clearly runs in the family. But by some miracle of fortune we got her back, and then four years later willingly gave her up. I still daydream about bringing her back to live with us. But Alex tells me that wouldn't make her life better, that it would only serve us. She lives with four dogs now and the owners (who let her sleep on the bed, just like we used to) just happen to own a doggy daycare and doggy agility course. Plus she's never alone; with us she was alone all the time (no intentional reference to the Bush song). And she has tons of space. How could you keep a dog like that in an apartment? Take them on tiny, looping walks around city streets? It's not a humane thing to do. A dog like that who whenever she could ran as fast as caninely possible and in her years made hundreds of park-goers stop and stare. She was just so graceful. There was just so much space between her feet and the ground. She was like some kind of mythical creature, destined to live up to her name.

Maybe the lesson of setting something free is written into Wally's primal memory. Sky was his first real companion. I will never get over that moment she lay down underneath his bassinet when we arrived home from the hospital. It wasn't without sadness. She moped and dragged herself around for at least two weeks. She did not want to give up her role as the designated baby, but she didn't hesitate to assume the role as Wally's protector. I still don't understand how a creature like that exists anywhere, let alone happily living among us. A creature that really would trade its life for yours in a heartbeat. And they all do that. Like I said in my dog book, any old schoolyard mutt would fight pretty much to the death for its owner. How could I not sacrifice the joy of Sky company so that she can live a happy, free dog's life?

I wrapped the mouse trap back up in the plastic bag and tucked it away in the closet. I'm so tired. It feels like there have been so many different lifetimes, in just a few years. Wally's three and, like he says about the plants that he helps water, "growing so big". What did he learn from releasing the mice? Maybe not as much as I did.


  1. Great title; great post.

  2. This was really sweet, so I hesitate to point out the other important lesson of the week - that mice don't belong indoors! eek!


  3. I wonder if the brown mouse was able to find his mommy and daddy and paula.

  4. Thanks Anon. Rhonda--I tend to feel that way too (obviously). Though I was just reading about them as pets. Are the pets the same kind of mice as the pests? Eli--I wonder too. I hope so.

  5. Love my girl and my son, now may I please be excused to go watch The Ultimate Fighter?


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