free at last?

It was about a month ago that I started to feel I was not alone. Lounging on the sofa one night I became aware of a tiny moving shadow by the skirting board over by the fireplace. I sat bolt upright and watched as the tiny moving shadow disappeared quickly behind our ancient gas heater.

We had mice. A mouse. Whatever.

Did we?

I once lived in a big old bungalow in Glanmire, County Cork, owned by a local celebrity “Rockin’ Gerry”. He was a transport contractor and a local radio DJ. The house was in the middle of the country, surrounded by woodland and rocks. A family of mice moved into our kitchen cabinets. I set old-fashioned mouse traps in the kitchen every night, and one by one we caught them: the big one (Daddy), the next biggest (Mammy) and then a succession of tinier and tinier creatures, all tempted by the smell of an old bacon rind. I got adept at emptying the mousetraps every evening no bother.

The last mouse I encountered in that house, a tiny thing she was (no, I have no idea how I knew it was a she) halfway down the hall from the kitchen to the living room. My housemate’s black leather briefcase was standing outside his bedroom door. I slammed the briefcase down on the little creature and killed it shtone dead, as they say in Cork.

I didn’t flinch, or care. It was the last one, and I got it.

This time, almost twenty-five years later, it is different somehow. The little fat furball creeps out from behind the fireplace and slowly makes his way to the centre of the kitchen floor. Hardly stealthy: more brazen. Maybe he is not an actual mouse but a tiny marsupial: a bushrat, perhaps, or a bandicoot. I don’t know.

He stands there motionless for a minute or two. Something tells me he is injured, hurt somehow. I look around for a weapon, remembering my innovative use of that briefcase all those years ago.

I look at the study breadboard from which I have just eaten a home-made pizza. It seems cruel and unusual punishment to attack such a small fluffy defenceless creature with a lump of wood. I look over at the draining board and there are a number of containers of varying sizes which I could use to scoop him up and bring him outside. But then he would be outside alive, and that would not be very good either.

The tiny thing moves. He sees me: our eyes meet. Behind him on the kitchen floorboards lies a tiny trail of – something? Blood, I think. He really is injured. My desire to live in a mouse-free house is overwhelmed by the sight of this little living thing, hunched up in the middle of my kitchen floor, brave or foolhardy enough to risk being caught in the glare of half a dozen kitchen spotlights.

I imagine killing him right then and there, feeling his little bones crunch under the strength of my arm. I can’t do it. Nor can I risk capturing him under a mixing bowl and feeling his struggle as I attempt to grant him his freedom. What to do?

Slowly, gently, I move towards the kitchen and feel for the place where we keep the back door keys. The creature looks up and his beady black eye meets mine. Contact.

Floorboards creaking, I creep towards the back door, unlocking the main door and the flyscreen, propping both open whilst keeping a clear eye on my furry houseguest. I step back and within moments he has caught a whiff of fresh air on the breeze. He hesitates for a moment then scurries towards the back door. He hesitates at the threshold, which stands at a quarter of his height. I crouch down and guide him out. He runs for freedom, glancing back for one moment before escaping over the edge of the verandah.

He is free, and I am alone.

I know he is injured, and that I will have to go outside and hunt for a dead mouse in the morning. I realise he might seek refuge in our laundry. Somehow, it still feels like I have done the right thing. He had such dignity in his final moments, our house mouse. I could not have killed him violently. He deserved to choose his own moment.

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