I was not completely honest with my husband the other night. He, from the living room, asked me, on the deck: Who are you talking to? I’m not, I said. You’re talking, he said. I’m just saying words, I said, I’m not having a conversation. This may or may not have been true depending on your definition of conversation. Because in fact, he had overheard me having an informal exchange (verbal on my side) with a mouse hunkered down in the belly of our grill.
She’d attempted nests there previously, but I’d diligently removed them, hoping to convey that she and her future progeny were not welcome. But then we went away for a week, and that first evening back, I lifted the lid to get the fire going for some kebabs, and there she was.
Living in the country, I’ve become accustomed to critters of all kinds around and within my space. Infestations of Asian ladybeetles and creeping box elder bugs. Population explosions of chipmunks. Bats in our roof finding their way down the woodstove chimney into our living room. Voles and moles, deer, rabbits, skunks, and woodchucks. Raccoons with their clever opposable thumbs foiling every booby trap I set on the lid on our compost bin. Even the elusive moose and a lanky black bear have found interest in our yard. But this particular encounter with the mouse in the grill was different.
I can only imagine what she saw: the dark overhead sky of the grill-top suddenly peeled away, a giant looming face squinting at her through the greasy grates. A mouth moving, communicating something that was certainly not friendly. But she didn’t flee, as mice are apt to do. She held fast looking directly into my eyes. Terrified? Defiant? Stupid?
As we stared each other down, I was drawn to thinking of all those mouse characters in so many stories. Aesop’s Mouse pulling the thorn from Lion’s paw. Stuart Little. Tucker in Times Square. The Rescuers’ Bianca. Bear’s small and gray and bright-eyed visitor. Even the ever-weepy Angelina Ballerina. Small creatures surviving on pluck and determination in a big world.
The grill mouse continued to hold her ground. That’s when I noticed that her sides were lumpy, bursting with babies about to be birthed. That’s when I tried to reason with her, one mother to another (possibly in labor at that very moment). That’s when my husband sought to know with whom I was speaking, and I misled him so he wouldn’t compel me to torch this curious creature.
Before you call me soft, let me set the record straight. In my house, I squash the spiders. I trap the squirrels. And yes, this summer alone, I set the traps that snapped the necks of nine mice, and I disposed of their mangled carcasses.
Still, I opted to cook our kebabs inside, blaming the rain that was barely a drizzle. And I left the grill lid open, thinking the exposure would spur mother mouse’s interest in finding a more suitable home.
The next morning, she was still there, still not spooked by my presence in any obvious way. I’d given her the night to leave or give birth. She’d done neither. This seemed unreasonable. So I lifted the grate. Again, she stared at me without so much as a flinch. And it seemed entirely possible that if I held out my hand, she would crawl up into my open palm. So I did.
She bolted through a hole down into the aluminum drip pan. Like that, the spell was broken. When I tugged out the pan, she leapt away, falling a good four feet and landing hard on the planks of the deck.
Moments later, I got out the lighter and torched the dry, grassy nest.
You can call it coincidence, but in my storytelling heart, I want to believe that the trail of mouse turds I found later that evening—at precisely my place on the deck’s dining table—were that ballsy mother mouse getting the last word.