There are things you cannot reach. But you can reach out to them...the wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God. And it can keep you busy as anything else; and happier. I look; morning to night I am never done with looking. Looking; I mean not just standing around, but standing around with your arms open.
- Mary Oliver
Living with the rat

Living with the rat


I had a hard time writing the word up there.

Rat. rrrrrraaatttt. rAt. RAT. EuUUughhhhhhhhh!!!       Rat.       Rat.        RaaaaT. 

And yet, I am shuddering a bit less every time I write it. 

First off, I need to explain who I am in relation to the rat. I am a ridiculously frightened, screaming, jumping on the nearest (actually, the tallest) table kind of girl. I am not afraid of much else. Not spiders or snakes or bugs. In my old house (as in over a hundred years old with lots of holes in it) in the country, there was a season every year when palmetto bugs and cockroaches would appear, en masse. I would grab them with my bare hands to kill them, having gotten tired of them putting their invisibility cloaks back on while I was running for kleenex or a paper towel. My ex's new girlfriend, in this same house, uses habitat traps for the cockroaches. But let's not get into that now. We'll come back to all things humane later on. 

The point is, I'm not very squeamish. I have five fly swatters hanging on the back of my pantry door (I have been known to go into a fly frenzy double-fisted.) I'm tough. You could maybe say brutal. Except when it comes to the rat, or anything smaller in that same family. 

This phobia started as a result of seeing my best friend Sally Solomon's mother's lab rats in cages at Boston College. I must have been about nine at the time. I remember each one being about the size of a small volvo, which can't be true, but sure feels about right. The phobia was made worse by my move to NYC at 18, where rats were often scurrying by on the subway tracks while I waited for my train. There were other contributing factors, like the fact (I pray it was actually urban myth) that rats would get into baby's cribs, in run-down neighborhoods of NY,  and bite them in the night. 

For the past forty and some odd years, any encounter with even the tiniest of mice has gone embarrassingly badly. I once sat motionless, curled into a tight ball upon my dining room table for over an hour waiting for my kids and their dad to return from a frog field trip. Right after they'd left, I'd seen a rat run across our living room floor. Why I didn't just jump in the farm van and follow them to watch frogs is a mystery. I love frogs. I'm afraid my brain goes a bit wonky when I'm under the influence of these encounters. 

Or it used to...

About six weeks ago, I was doing the dishes and looking out our kitchen window at all of the birds and butterflies in our idyllic garden (I mean really, it is like a Disney movie out there) when a small mammal appeared, burrowing around in the flower bed under the bird feeder. It was too big to be a squirrel, of which we have hundreds. "Ray," I said to my fiancee, "Look at this thing. I think it's a possum." By the time he'd made his way over to the window, I'd dropped the dish I was washing and had run into a room on the other side of the house. Oh, and I screamed, very loudly, apparently. Ray said that he expected to see Godzilla out there. 

And thus began our relationship with the rat. This is really just a story about Ray and what a hero he is, putting up with my craziness. Once I'd seen this rat (the world's largest rat ever, don't forget) I could no longer water the plants or eat outside or take out the trash... And I needed Ray to get rid of him, or, I announced sincerely, I would need to move. 

Ray, my steadfast man, showed me what he was made of. He bought a walk-in poison trap online. The rat played with it like a hockey puck. It was way too small of a trap. Where I'd realistically seen a small possum, he'd seen a mouse. Ray bought a larger one, with an electric zapper inside that would kill the rat instantly, after his last meal of organic crunchy peanut butter. An alarm in the trap was ringing when we woke up the next morning. Victory! The rat was dead. Until, a few days later, another one (I prefer to think of him as the ghost of the first one, please remember this as you continue...) appeared, again at about 5pm, happily eating the bird seed. This incarnation refused to go into the electric trap. So Ray bought the kind that violently snap down upon them. But, as with the other trap, he thought too small. The rat was able to grab his food, release the bar, and scamper off, laughing, into the hedges. Finally, the next time, this smaller trap did catch him by the foot, but Ray watched as he dragged it away with him and then skillfully shook it off. A larger, claw like, snapping device was purchased next. This one worked, but not completely. He was trapped, but still alive. So, at 5:30 in the morning, in nothing but a t-shirt and underwear, steadfast Ray then tried to kill him with the shovel. It was not quick, nor painless. Eventually, he succeeded. That day, it was decided by both of us, that there could be no more killing of the rat. Knowing that the ghost of the rat would probably be back a third time, a habitat trap was bought. 

Two days ago, it worked. First try. That morning, the rat inside, Ray moved the trap away from our path to the car (we were taking an early morning yoga class) and when we returned, he covered it with my Eiffel Tower dish towel. So that photo above is of the rat. He's hidden to protect my fellow phobics. 

On his way to work that day, Ray drove into the lot of an abandoned church, planning on releasing this latest rat incarnation near this gorgeous old church's sacred, penetrable walls. And there are plenty of grounds outside. The problem was that this turned out to be the lot where many parents parked in order to walk their kids down the street to the local school. Ray sat in his Highlander for about 15 minutes, pretending not to be babysitting a large rat by looking at his phone. Once all the dads and moms had walked away with their sweet, innocent children, Ray seized his opportunity. He put the cage into the grass, pulling off the dish towel with a flourish and opening up one side, only to realize that the rat was going to come out straight towards him, where he was squatting, his central jewels poised to accept the rat's vengeful teeth. Thinking better of this, he turned the cage around and released him in the other direction. It ran like the wind. The rat is out there now, somewhere, free, maybe finding religion.

This was a very long preamble to my real point. I realize I have probably chased most away with so much rat talk. You would have lost me, a few months ago, at the title of this post! The real point is that I can now look out my kitchen window, when the next incarnation of this guy shows up, or when he runs away from God's hallowed halls and back to us, and not scream or run. I can just watch him. I don't think I will ever embrace him. But it is possible that I can search for the fascination. One of the last times he was here, snarling at one of our resident squirrels (gotta love that!) I reached beyond my fear and disgust, to my curiosity. That one time, this worked. On another day, I crashed the shutters closed with much drama.

But I have grown accustomed to him. And through having to think about him so often and have him show up in my dreams, he has become a metaphor for all of the dark things that have popped up unexpectedly in the past four years - the death of my sister, my ex falling in love with an employee, our divorce. I used to think of that employee, farm girl Jeni, as a rat. (Course he was one too. But we do love to blame the women, don't we?) But no. I have now seen the merit in this rat. Because she was able to seduce him, Nicolas and I had to face the reality of us, that we were no longer the best person for one another. This freed me to be here, with my best, steadfast, gorgeous, loving, perfect mate, creating this idyllic back yard. We installed a special wee blue bird box where the Carolina Wrens and then the blue birds nested this spring. There are three bird feeders that attract every species imaginable (even a hawk.) We have planted annuals and perennials and tomato plants from my ex's farm (though every single one of those tomatoes were eaten by the squirrels.)  I am thinking it is impossible to have paradise without also attracting the rat.

Now that we are just going to be relocating him once in a while (and by we, I mean my heroic man) I can live with him. He is a good reminder not to let fear, and its shadows, keep me from noticing the light. 

With love to those also facing their fears,

The previous chapter

The previous chapter

An interesting conversation between long time friends, post Soccer Sunday

An interesting conversation between long time friends, post Soccer Sunday