Little holes in the bag of rice gave it away. Three and half years living in this place, and here was the first sign of uninvited guests. On our next trip to town, we stopped at the hardware store for traps. Despite Bug’s insistence that we buy the $39 ultrasonic pest repeller, I opted for Tomcat traps. A four-pack for four bucks.
We smeared on peanut butter and tucked it into the cabinet corner. The next morning, we heard a snap. Big brown eyes, white fuzzy belly, limp broken body. “Oh, he’s so cute,” Bug said sadly. Into the weekday rush we crammed this death. We shrank it down to fit. School, work, a morning meeting and already late. I dumped the trap, mouse and all, into the garbage. Another dab of peanut butter on a clean trap, and off we hustled into our overfull day.
On the drive to school, regret hit hard.
Is this who we are?
Out the door, slamming through another rotation of the earth. Spewing waste, eating animals, building up and tearing down, racing to respond to the next screeching need. What does my son take in as he careens forward alongside me? Does he learn to consider impact? Does he practice respect for lives other than his own? In our family, we don’t even pause to say thanks before meals.
Is this how we want to live?
At the red light, I glance into the back seat. “You know what? I wish we hadn’t just trashed him,” I said. “Or her. We could have taken her out and found a place to bury her.”
“I wish we hadn’t killed him at all,” Bug grumbled. “I told you we should have gotten the radio thing.”
We could have. I’d chosen expedience and frugality over attention and care. Even later, we didn’t go back to the hardware store. Forgetting comes like tomorrow. It fades like last week. Other demands eclipse that fleeting sense of reverence — or that lost opportunity for reverence. In any event, our mice problem turned out to be a mouse problem. For months, the second trap has sat silent with is crusting dab of peanut butter in the cabinet. It takes up barely any space in its corner and even less in my mind.
Until this morning.
As I’m rushing to get mango sliced and eggs scrambled, my internal stopwatch races three seconds ahead of the clock. My boy is putting on his pants. I have yet to walk the dog. Somewhere close tings a high, thin noise. A bell? Silence. I stir the eggs. Then, again, a metallic clinking nearby. Oh no. I open the cabinet. Big black eyes, fuzzy gray body. Squirming, twitching. I stare and the terrified gaze shivers back at me.
The clock says 8:20. The bus comes at 8:45. Bug’s consumption of breakfast — still pending — takes place on the scale of geologic time. Getting to school and work rates a bit higher than this creature’s fate, doesn’t it? Against grades and salary and everything else in the catalogue of human responsibility, what does one mouse matter?
The furry body goes still.
It would be so simple to close the cabinet and deal with it later. So justified. My kid wouldn’t ever have to know.
Who was it that said that integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching? Parenting teaches us, against our most earnest wishes, that “no one watching” doesn’t actually exist. Our kids see us all the time. They see in, they see through. And they learn.
We live our values whether we intend to or not. Our private actions and inactions shape the terrain of our shared lives. In the most hidden corners, muddling along and meaning no harm, we create stories that take on momentum of their own. Much like children themselves, our choices walk out into the world and have an impact we can barely imagine, let alone control.
The mouse watches me. Or doesn’t. I turn off the stove and call to the back of the house. “There’s something I need your help with. Grab your socks and come in the kitchen.” I pull a pair of latex gloves from the first aid kit. Bug pads in and peers into the open cabinet. Big silver-black eyes, frozen open, reflect the light.
“Oh,” he says, his face creasing. “Can we let him go?”
“I think she’s dead, baby. Will you help me go out and bury her?”
“No he’s not dead!”
I sigh and reach for the trap. As soon as I pick it up, the critter starts clawing at the air. “Oh geez,” I say, setting it down on a piece of cardboard. “Here, take the cereal out of this.” I push a box of Cheerios towards Bug and he pulls the plastic sack out. Into the box and sprung from her trap, the mouse slides to the bottom.
“I told you he’s not dead!”
“I’m afraid she will be. Probably broke her neck. Let’s go find a place to put her outside.”
Frost on scrubby grass catches morning light. We’ve just shifted the clocks forward. The sun creaks up from branches of trees blooming too early. Out on an edge of the holding pond, we find a spot where a stroke of gold warms frozen earth. A grave under the stones here might work.
We bend and open the box, turning it upside down. Nothing. I shake it. Still nothing. We peer inside and Bug giggles. The mouse hangs at the bottom which is now the top, clinging with all her might to the flap. We nudge her out and she lands in the grass, flips over and looks around. Her fur is torn but all her joints seem to work. She bounces a few steps then stops, quivering, sniffing. Bug slips on a rubber glove and holds his hand down near the ground. She takes a tentative step then another, crawling right up into his warm fingers. Bug grins, lifting her until she’s had enough. She leaps off into the grass, zigging to a stop then zagging at a pint-sized gallop into the icy brush.
She may not last until tomorrow. Our neighborhood harbors foxes, hawks, any number of fleet and night-borne predators. She may not even last an hour. Even so, whatever her final chapter, she gets to zip through it instead of choking under a metal bar on a barren kitchen shelf.
We’re late for school. Late for work. I duck into a meeting already underway. Someone registers this. Or doesn’t.
Inside that offering of lost seconds, this truth:
My son freed someone today. He believed she was still alive. He believed she was worth saving. Against a forever spinning clock, against that bucket of rewards for blindered momentum towards achievement and growth and goals, my son saved a life.
One tiny life, and only for a blink.
Isn’t that all any of us get?
Isn’t that the least we can do?
Image: From A Visitor for Bear by Bonnie Becker