My mother stood over me, a dirty Enosburg Falls Little League hat cocked to the side of her head, her eyes an unsettling red. In one hand she held a grated spatula that, I was convinced, was dripping blood onto my spaceman rocket blankets. In the other she held a trap. A metal, dental-work clamping house of death staring at me, its lips almost drooling. Fuck, I thought, taking pleasure in having just learned how to swear. We’re all going to die.
We had a mouse problem. No, not a mouse problem. An epidemic. A catastrophe. A bonanza. We were living with a herd. We had moved into Two Charles Street a few weeks before and soon realized that we were not the only residents. I don’t know if it was the scurrying feet in the pipes, the small mounds of poop that appeared nestled in our underwear drawers, the holes in our shoes, or, perhaps, the dead creatures that kept showing up in the downstairs toilet delicately spinning as their beady eyes stared at the ceiling, their pupils frozen in question. Go to hell, we responded silently. You are ruining our lives.
Regardless, we knew there were mice. A lot of them.
It was a big transition, moving into this house. My family had the same policy toward homes that some people have toward jeans: after a year or two they got a little tight, the color wilted, the thighs started to rip, and we developed an unfortunate rash. By age twelve, I had lived in eight apartments or houses, distinguished only by their varying levels of shittiness. My brother and I gave them nicknames: Big White House, House with Green Shutters, House on Davis Road, Bad House. In one home with beautiful hardwood floors and serial-killer blue-eyed walls, the sink was held together with silly putty. There, my brother, an angsty fifteen year-old with too much caffeine, experimented with the martial arts by putting his fist through the first two layers of the finest insulated cardboard you would never want to heat your New England home. I could hear my mother inhale through the walls before she grounded him until he died.
This was the house where you could hear people’s secrets. There might have been ghosts crying through the insulated cardboard, but my guess, judging by the number of times I walked in on an unmoving pile of blankets, was that my unemployed mother wasn’t doing so well. She didn’t ask for much from life: a home of her own, stability, a job, normal children. At that moment she was batting oh-for-four.
It was the home she wanted most. She was as tired as we were of moving around, but to my mother, owning her own place represented making it. Survival. Comfort. Those things she’d never had growing up in her own ping-pong childhood. She herself had lived in 14 houses and apartments before the age of 18. We had it easy.
But as so often happens in life, a sweet little package came disguised as something much more sinister. This was the move for my mother’s new job. This was Claw Tub House, an apartment on the main strip in a new town that I was sure was haunted with more than just the loss of my aspirations. It was the sort of community that, when you weren’t looking, grabbed you in an ambitious chokehold until, finally, you relented: you would never leave.
We, as interlopers, did not belong, and we felt our foreignness. My brother and I were miserable, and it wasn’t just the claw-foot tub or its ghosts singing to us through the heating that did not actually heat. My brother started wandering the streets at night in black t-shirts with the outlines of melancholic band names. I got a dog and began refusing to speak to humans. My mother, on the other hand, was thrilled. A year after moving, she found it. The house didn’t even need a name.
We looked up, my brother in black, my hand curled around the dog’s silken fur. It was two colors, a dark tan and a light white, as if the painters had gotten up for lunch and forgotten to come back. The dark green stairs were crumbling at the edges. The fence of the overgrown garden, like an enclosed prairie, looked as if it had been mauled by a half-hearted deer. A tree leaned over an upstairs bedroom window and smacked as the wind blew. That, I was determined, would be my brother’s room.
The inside was not much better. The living room was wallpapered with at least three patterns. The kitchen, much to my delight and no one else’s, was surrounded by a delicate border of chickens. Only one bathroom worked at a time. It was freezing. Things stopped functioning or never started. It was a mess, a wreck. But it didn’t matter, at least not to my mother. It was our wreck. We now owned a home.
But then, of course, there were the mice.
The signs were everywhere. Poop. Holes. Scurrying. The sounds of spirits in the walls. Nothing was safe. As soon as we moved in my mother realized that we needed to launch a full-fledged campaign in order to protect us—nay, save us—from annihilation. She started in the kitchen, a necessity, putting all of our food into clear, slick plastic containers. Now our macaroni looked like as if it was prepared for space travel. Somehow, though, the mice got into everything. Dog food. Cleaning supplies. Utensils. We gave up on eating from clean plates or poop-free forks.
Trapping them also seemed impossible. We tried the Have-a-Hearts, but I became a bleeding heart as I watched the persecuted grab the cheese and run. We thought the dog could help, but, when confronted, the sad old fool would stare, cock his head, then turn away morosely and hide behind the couch. My brother and I weren’t so helpful either. If we saw a mouse, I would scream, my brother would scream, and my mother would be so disappointed by her children that she would sigh and go to the computer to play Snoods. We were levied by creatures two-by-two.
The issue, perhaps, was that my mother was not a violent woman. She was raised, partly, as a Quaker and a would-be pacifist. And yet, that morning, I woke up to her standing over my bed, the metal contraption in her hand and her red eyes shadowed by my brother’s old baseball cap. It was war. It was my mother’s war. And she was losing. She spared no expense, got the nicest traps, bought the finest Vermont cheddar. She placed the angry mouths by the dog dish and in the underwear drawers and by our half-eaten shoes. As the carcasses piled up, the faint outline of blood on the floor, our home became a battleground but there was only one general. The other troops were in disarray and she barely saw them, barely recognized their suffering. And still the steps were crumbling, the bathrooms out of order, our three-toned walls buzzing with the sound of creatures uninvited. This was the mice’s game.
One afternoon my brother called my mother and said, “I think you better get home. The ceiling is raining.” This was, of course, suboptimal. The good bathroom had failed and was pouring water into the kitchen, the chickens curling under the impact. My mother shoved me into the car and rushed home.
We walked into the kitchen, its traps littering the linoleum. The flaking ceiling dripped, the wallpaper peeled, the dog circled. My brother ran upstairs to avoid whatever was about to happen and I replaced one pot with another, remnants of spaghetti floating to the top. There is nothing quite like seeing your mother slouched on the floor, crowded by mice traps, her tears mixed with toilet water. It wasn’t just a failure of the good bathroom that was upsetting her; the whole bloody sky was raining. Her son walked the streets in black and her daughter chose an animal over friends. Whatever else the mice did, they provided a good distraction from what was really going on.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, sinking into the cracks on the floor. I didn’t know what to say. Usually by this time she would have retreated to her blankets or gone to play Snoods. It was becoming apparent that this time she wasn’t going to change jeans. Maybe, even, she was going to look at the battles beyond the house with no name, to pay attention to the ones she really needed to be fighting.
And so I did the only thing I knew how to do as a fifteen-year-old on the brink of adulthood but still very much a child: I climbed into her lap. She wrapped her arms around my stomach and stuck her face into my hair, breathing in the smell of Pert Plus. And there we remained until the sun stopped playing off the water in the pots, with the sound of mice crawling through the walls.
Years later, after my brother and I had escaped, my mother called me and said there’s something bigger in the house. It might be a raccoon or a squirrel. Maybe a rat or a badger. Whatever it is, this is beyond the mice. The house on the whole had transformed. My mother took on one project at a time, wallpapering the living room one year, removing the chickens another, replacing the crumbling stairs when they grew too dangerous. Slowly the house took shape. There were still mice but fewer; she had not won but declared a truce. The fact that there was now a badger living in her cabinets was a minor setback.
She lived with the creature for over eight months. Our wars were ones of attrition. She gave me updates whenever she called: it’s moving again; the dogs almost cornered it in the pantry; maybe it’s a beaver. I didn’t experience it for myself, though, until she called me about something else, a different battle. Becca, she said, her voice steady. They found a growth in my uterus. Come home.
They often describe cancer as a war, and we didn’t want to, but it’s hard not to ascribe the same language when something is growing inside of you that you don’t want, something that could kill you. So instead we used vague medical terminology. Yes, Mama, the surgery, I would say. Not, what are the odds that you’ll survive if we can’t even defeat mice after ten years of warfare? Instead, you’re a fighter, but a pacifist, a contradiction in terms. Not, what happens when a fighter falls and you can’t put on new jeans?
I came home and found her post-surgery drugged and half-unconscious, lying on a fold-out chair, the maroon fabric so deep and thick it wrapped around her legs as if it was eating them, her nightgown unzipped, breasts exposed, eyes half open. Mama, I said. You look gooood. She smiled, or at least I thought it was a smile, and then closed her eyes in what I interpreted as pain. I would, in the coming days, interpret everything as pain. We sat together that evening, me feeding her pills, her shifting in the chair trying to get comfortable, me pushing away the dogs circling in concern, her eyes rolling back, me leaning in close to make sure she was breathing. It was a dance, delicate and profound. And that’s when I heard it.
It sounded like a beaver thrashing in the wall behind my mother’s head.
Mama, what was that?
Fhrow a shooooe at ittttt, she said, her words sounding like a drunken child speaking through tinfoil. I looked at her. I looked at the wall behind her head. If I didn’t do this, it would be neglect. I needed to protect her, to defend her. This was my obligation. I shrugged.
My mother could not duck. She was sleeping in a king size chair that ate her legs. Still, I trusted that I could aim and threw a shoe at the beaver. My mother barely registered this as the boot came tumbling inches from her head. I felt bad, but the noise stopped. I could see what she meant about this being a bigger issue than a mouse. There was a creature, a big creature, maybe a python, living inches from my sick mother’s head.
It continued throughout the evening and the next day. Noise. Okay. Duck. Shoe. Noise stops. Victory. But it was a shallow victory. It was beating us. The war had begun again, but this time, I was determined we would win. I needed to win. I was obsessed. All my thoughts focused on the beaver python. How could I trap it? Could it be trapped? How does one trap a snake mammal? I was scared, but I could do it. Maybe the dogs could help. Forget the fact that my mother was sitting there, eyes rolling into her head, bathrobe barely tucked around her body, hair unbrushed and greasy. The python, surely, was more important.
By the fourth day my mother was able to sit at the kitchen table with some assistance. I helped her walk while she made attempts at conversation, having decided to stop taking the pain medications that made her so sick. As I sat eating lunch and she sat poking hers I saw something out of the corner of my eye. The cabinet moved. It moved again. I swallowed, preparing for the worst, preparing to pull my mother up and carry her and the dogs to our neighbor’s home to collect all the shotguns in the land, pacifism be damned.
And then it emerged: a giant, Templeton-like, plague-ridden rat the size of a python beaver running across the floor. I screamed. It screamed. My mother, unable to move her head, saw me run for the stairs, because rats don’t take the stairs. My grand plans of heroism were destroyed as I left the cancer patient to fend for herself.
I had some time to think about my actions as I cowered in fear. This was not my best moment. I was not the best daughter. I was not the best nurse. I don’t like rodents, but I love my mother. What kind of person did it make me to leave her swaddled at the table unable to move, staring at the trail of a rat that was surely going to return and swallow her whole? What did it mean that she was already so sick? That I couldn’t handle seeing her like that? That instead of listening to her breathe I was obsessed with a rat?
At some point in my suffering, my mother padded over to me, somehow, and looked up. Her face was puffy, inflated from the steroids. Her hair looked as if someone had taken a vacuum cleaner to it. She smiled, or did what at least I interpreted as a smile. She held out her hand. I stepped down to her, meeting at the first stair. And we started to laugh. We couldn’t stop, doubled over as I held my stomach in joy and fear and grief and she in pain, holding each other until we fell into tears in the old crooked rodent-infested house, thinking of the battles that masked the ones we really should have been fighting, the people we should have been caring for. I stroked her head, letting the grease fall through my fingertips, the light of the window becoming a shadow on the wall, the sound of the rodents scurrying through the pipes.