Saturday, April 23, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Wee Tim'rous Beastie

Netuske of a Mouse (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     In 1980, I lived above the Sherman Snack Shop in Evanston in an apartment dingy in the way only undergraduates can create. One evening I was watching our small portable black and white television when a mouse scurried past. I was on my feet and out the door so quick I neither put my shoes on nor took my key. The door locked behind me. That memory slumbered for decades until Caren Jeskey's essay today prodded it from its lair. I'm sure it'll raise murine memories in you too. Enjoy.

By Caren Jeskey

     A glass was knocked over in the kitchen very late the other night, clattering onto the counter top. The problem is I was home alone, and not in the kitchen. Instinct kicked in and I dashed into the dark room and flipped on the light. A tiny gray flash of fur flew across the counter at warp speed, and skillfully curved its little body around a sharp corner before it disappeared behind the stove. 
     It was too late to do anything about it so I went to sleep. I wore a skull cap and a huge silk eye mask, and wrapped the sheet around my head for protection. Still, I had nightmares of little mousey sniffing at my nostrils. I did not get much sleep that night.
    For such little guys, mice and other rodents possess an incredible ability to torment and otherwise engage the attention of humans. 
     The Three Blind Mice were a metaphor—betcha didn't know that—for 
Protestant loyalists accused of plotting against Queen Mary, called blind as an insult by their rivalrous religious persecutors, almost demanding kindly farmer’s wives resort to bloody violence with carving knives.
     In her 793rd poem, our isolated and astute Emily Dickinson pays homage to the power of these creatures. “Grief is a Mouse—And chooses Wainscot in the Breast For His Shy House.” They are hard to see, easily hidden, but can capture our hearts. Or freeze them, during night terrors, as we imagine them clawing our eyes out.    
     Poet Robert Browning shared a tale of woe from A.D. 1284 when their big cousins, the rat, overran the town of Hamelin Germany. The Pied Piper showed up to lead the dirty vermin to their deaths by drowning when they followed his hypnotic flute music to their demise in the local river. When Mr. Piper returned to the town for his exterminator’s fee, the mayor refused to hand it over. Mr. Piper retaliated by luring 130 local children into the mountains, never to be seen again. Pesky rats causing trouble once again.
     They also inspire pity and affection, most famously:
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle …
      — "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns (1785)
    This poet was also a farmer, and apparently unearthed a mouse family’s den while tilling his soil. He finds himself feeling badly, contemplating the unfortunate plight of these nervous little beasts.
     For my little problem, I decided to go the humane route. A friend lent me a metal mouse motel, which I baited with crunchy organic peanut butter from Trader Joe’s. Trap set, pest control arranged to come out in the morning, I went to sleep. Didn’t sleep well again.
     When I woke up the next day I peeked into the clear plastic top of the mouse house and saw a tail. Then another, and then one more. Three mice huddled together, taking a nap or maybe frozen in fear. I shuddered and ran out of the kitchen and around the house a bit, shaking off the heebie jeebies.
      Wesley the mouse guy arrived. He plugged up holes behind the stove and around the perimeter of the house with copper wool. Before he left, I asked him to walk with me to a hiking trail a couple blocks away to let la petit ménagerie loose. He kindly said he’d do it himself, and off he went. When Wesley got back he let me know that one of the three had refused to run free. It was hiding in the tunneled part of the trap and would not budge.
   I had a couple hours free before an early dinner date, and I had an idea. I placed the mousetrap into a paper shopping bag and walked over to the fire department.
     I put the trap down, wide open (hoping he’d run off) in a patch of grass, crossed the parking lot full of giant pick up trucks, and headed to the patio. I passed a picnic table and big gas grill, imagined the fatigued firefighters enjoying a well earned meal, and gave the station door a few loud knocks. 
     A tall, slim, balding firefighter pulled a curtain back and peeked out of the glass door. I smiled. He opened up. “Hi. I have a mouse stuck in a trap and I need help getting it out.” He looked surprised. “So you came to the fire department?” I explained the situation, and that I don’t know many people in the area yet. It was sounding a little silly to me even, but he stepped out to help. His name badge read "Tom."
     We approached the trap and Tom peered inside. The mouse’s long tail stuck out from one end of the tunnel, his teenie paws and nose peeking out the other side. It took a good ten minutes of prodding and pulling before our little friend was finally pried out. Mice are strong and agile, and he did not let go easily. I think we hurt his paw a bit because he limped a little, but once released he took just a moment to get his bearings. When he realized he was free he scampered away into the bushes.
     I thanked Tom, made a mental note to drop off some cookies and a thank you note and headed home, hoping not to have a repeat performance. Tom would have a story to tell.


  1. During my career as a retired fire-medic we would occasionally be asked if we actually rescued cats from trees. We were taught in fire college that when asked that question to respond, "Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?"
    With that being said we did have a lady drive up to the fire station saying she needed our help removing a cat. We asked where it was and she said it was in the engine compartment of her car.
    We went to look and, fearing we'd discover a dead cat, were relieved to find a little kitten hiding in a corner of the compartment. We took it out using our fire gloves so as not to get scratched or bitten.
    The kitten was more docile than we expected and one of the guys adopted it right there.

  2. Caren, you need to adopt a cat. Hope fully one that's a good mouser and that likes to hunt. A couple of winters ago, our middle-aged all-black Onyx was a heroine. She did what kitties are born to do...HUNT AND KILL...and she did it well.

    We were watching TV one Saturday night, when a MOUSE came out from behind the stand it rests on. Ran across the living room. Freaked me out. Neither kitty even bothered to move from their comfortable spots. It must have gone back behind the TV stand, because after a while I saw it peeking out again...mouse-sized with light-colored feet.Still no reaction from either kitty.

    After a couple more hours of TV, my wife finally went to bed, and I sat at the computer desk. Suddenly I heard a big crash and scrambling noises behind me. I turned around to look, and Onyx trotted past me with the damn thing in her jaws, looking as cool and as nonchalant as hell, like she killed mice every day. The mouse made no noises, and hung limp. She went into the kitchen and killed it.

    I was pissed at her for not chasing it, but she just waited it out, and pounced. She bided her time and finally made the kill. YAY! At least she doesn't like to torture them first, as other cats do. Waking up and finding a mouse full of tooth-marks is no fun.

    Turned out that was only the beginning. There was a whole family of mice. She ended up catching seven of them. Notice I saif catching seven, not killing seven. Some she just laid at our feet, still alive and twitching. I had to finish them off, and hear their final squeaks. And then I had to take them outside and bury them.

    Onyx caught another one only last month, and again I had to dispatch it. She's twelve now. Age doesn't stop or slow down good mousers. One of our previous feline companions killed a mouse just before he died of liver failure. It's what they do. Others, not so much. They just watch the mice run by, yawn and stretch, and take a nap.


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