The Rat and I
Best of the Net Nominee 2023
I recently lived through two cliches. The punishment of my good deed began with smelling a rat. The good deed began on my back porch on a steamy still day in Alexandria as I watched a dedicated hardworking pair of cardinals feed their three chicks. One stuffed worm bits into tiny yellow beaks that rapidly clicked open and shut while the other hunted for more food.
They thought they were well hidden from predators and other prying eyes, which they were, but only from the yard side of the screened porch, where a thick jasmine vine towered from ground to porch roof. From inside the porch, where the vine appeared solid, I saw unexpected movement. Stepping close to the screen, I discovered three baby cardinals in a slightly cone-shaped nest. The vine moved as the parent cardinals slipped in and out for feeding.
Over the next few days, I became infatuated with cardinals, reading about their habits, closely observing their activities, cheering them on. I learned that while the babies need meat, adults eat seeds only. My contribution to this hard-working family, and to myself, was a “squirrel proof” bird feeder hung from the branch of a tree easily observable from the porch.
I filled it with what was advertised as “high quality” seed, selected especially for cardinals, which attracted my cardinals and seemingly all neighborhood cardinals, and then a Noah’s ark of starlings, robins, woodpeckers, thrush and chickadee. Before this time, a bird was a bird, but now I could distinguish among cardinals by the unique design of each one’s black face mask. And thanks to a newly acquired bird guide, I could now name the other uninvited birds.
Grabbing seed from the feeder was easy for them, many of whom seemed picky, this seed, not that. Others were greedy, grabbing birds, pushing and pulling out as much as they could, and then, after the ground was littered with seeds, picking through them to find their favorites. But seeds on the ground and the flurry of twittering birds in the air alerted neighborhood squirrels and chipmunks. Soon the grass under the feeder was worn into a huge dirt circle by armies of other hungry animals. With the scrum below, some squirrels discovered that they didn’t have to compete on the ground with other foragers. The bird feeder seed ports would close with the weight of a squirrel on their perches, so inventive squirrels would leap from tree branch to the top of the feeder and hang upside down to eat as much as they wanted, no weight on the perch to trigger food portal closure.
And then one afternoon, the feeding frenzy slowed. From under the back porch, creeping with enormous hesitation, a rat. Time slowed as the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, who accepted each other in seemingly friendly competition, turned their attention to what they clearly regarded as an intruder.
They stopped feeding. Several birds flew at the rat, beaks aimed at its head. The rat seemed to shrink into itself before darting forward, grabbing a seed, then zipping back to its hiding place underneath the porch. Maybe 20 minutes would pass, and then the rat would slowly slink forward, and the attack, grab, and retreat would repeat. For weeks I watched the repeated rejection of the rat. It never occurred to me that what I thought of as my poor beleaguered rodent might be a different rat, or rats, albeit one at a time.
For now, I was the patroness of those birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and rat. And especially the rat that I was feeling sorry for, was rooting for because no matter how much he was threatened by the other animals, and no matter how frightened he seemed, he never gave up. He braved hostility, one seed at a time.
But then that rat turned out to be a real rat. Initially, I thought that the kitchen’s faint stink of ammonia was a slightly rancid dog toy. But one night, weeks after my first whiff of that astringent vinegary smell, I turned on the light, and there, sashaying across the family room rug, onto the kitchen floor was the rat. When the light came on, that rat didn’t miss a beat, didn’t stop, didn’t look around, didn’t speed up, just kept strolling until it was out of sight behind the kitchen island.
I froze, screamed, and jumped onto the couch desperate to get my feet off the ground. What was fun and interesting outside, was terrifying inside. I tried to tell myself that it was a waking dream until I saw it the next night, and then the next. Now I knew that what I had been smelling and trying hard to ignore was not my poor housekeeping.
Having been forced to acknowledge its reality, I searched the kitchen where it had disappeared. But there were no openings, no rat holes in the baseboards. I even opened the tightly closed cabinet doors under the island, where I knew it couldn’t have gone. There, only stored oils, vinegars, a box of salt, a container of dishwasher soap, and a few dark rice-like pellets, which, at the time, I conveniently ignored. Rice, I thought, spilled and aged— not wondering how rice would be rotting in a closed cupboard, nowhere near the counter where it was stored in a pressuresealed container.
Where did that rat go? Thousands of dollars and multiple exterminators and rat catchers later, I learned that rats go pretty much where they want. Their skulls can compress to the size of a dime so that they can slip into the most impossible of spaces, disappear into your home’s secret places, become a creepy, crawly, germy, stealthy, elusive, disgusting closed-off secretive part of your life. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
At first, I thought the rat was a simple incursion. “You saw it come out from under the porch? That’s where we’ll catch it,” a young man from my first exterminator company assured me.
“But it was also inside the house.”
He nodded his head with a look that said I’m the expert, lady. I know these things. “No poison,“ I said. “I don’t want to hurt my dog, squirrels, birds, wandering animals, children. Can’t you just trap the rat and release it some uninhabited somewhere else?” He looked at me for a long, curious minute and said, “Sure. Peanut butter and summer camp for rats. Where did you say you saw it?”
And so, two traps were set, one inside the island in the kitchen where the rat continued to mysteriously disappear, and the other in a safe outside place, near the underside of the back porch but on sloping mostly inaccessible ground. I could see the trap, but it was not easily reached by either dogs or grandchildren.
“Just call me when he’s caught,” the young exterminator said as he impatiently waited for me to pay him. “I’ll come get him.”
After a month, in which there remained a rat smell in the house but no rat in either trap, my husband said “Enough!” Time to call the real expert he had found on the internet, a Professional Rat Catcher, the son of a lineage of Rat Catchers, the mysteries of rat removal having been passed down from grandfather to father to son.
Now it was war. To defeat the rat, we would need to destroy parts of the house. At the direction of General Rat Catcher, over the course of eighteen months, we ripped off the redwood decking of the back porch to expose the outer walls of the house on the off chance that there was some small secret opening that allowed the rat entrance. There wasn’t! Hired contractors tore off the drywall ceiling in the double car garage where we had once maybe heard faint scuttling. No rats. But there, on one of the ceiling support beams, the rat stored food, small pyramidal caches of dry dog food pellets. And not only there, but in the back of the coat closet near the front door. I continued searching but could find no other hiding places, even though I knew that there must more. For months thereafter, the house that I had lived in for decades felt unfamiliar, like there was alien malignant life everywhere, just out of sight. I could no longer enter a room without looking under a throw rug, behind a door, or at the bottom of a basket filled with dog toys.
The dog learned to eat her food immediately when served because I immediately took the bowl away, washed and stored it until her next meal. No water bowls left out overnight since rats need water. Toilet lids were down at all times.
Every possible opening into the house was sealed. Contractors strung chicken wire across all vents on the roof and squirted extra seal into and around garage doors even when they looked flush to the ground. I stuffed Brillo-pad like stainless steel wire into whatever space was left in the tiny holes inside the kitchen island that were filled with electrical wires and a gas line.
And still, I smelled rat in the morning. As a last resort, at the direction of General Rat Catcher, we obtained a special permit from the city to have smoke blown into the manhole in the street near our house. To obtain the permit, we needed permission from all our neighbors, even the difficult ones. The sewer would fill with smoke that would then seep into any secret, hidden openings in our house, and other houses on the block. My job was to race through the house, sniffing, smelling for smoke that shouldn’t be there. That escapade cost many hundreds of dollars and lots of aggravation, but no smoke. In the morning, however, the tell-tale whiff of rat.
Since first spotting the rat, I had taken to racing downstairs in the morning, opening windows, turning on ceiling fans, anything to disperse the smell before my husband came downstairs. The rat, that elusive malevolent presence, was starting to gnaw at our relationship. Like the recognition of a rat in the house, this stress had evolved slowly.
“You’ll never guess what I saw,” I had announced to my husband at breakfast. And although he nodded his head as I described the rat crossing the family room and disappearing in the kitchen, it was a distracted nod that I knew well. He didn’t really hear me. His mind was on the dry run briefing for an important presentation at the end of the week.
Later, as the first exterminator, and then the second, weren’t working out and there was not so much pressure at work, he not only heard me but became increasingly engaged and ultimately obsessed with the process. It was my husband who researched and identified The Rat Catcher. My husband, who had multiple conversations with General Rat Catcher, and endless ratcentered talks with me, to me, at me.
He was obsessed with the theoretical destruction and disease that the rat was depositing in our life. I was distressed by how his obsession with the rat took over our life and squeezed out any other kind of conversation. Days were spent preparing for contractors to destroy our house to catch the rat, and hiring contractors to rebuild what had been destroyed. Instead of talking about family matters, all he could talk about was the rat. How it eluded everyone. What to do next, and next, and next.
I had other things to do than think, talk, and argue about what had become the biggest issue in our life, the omnipresent and clever rat we now named Einstein. I had a garden to plant, a dog to walk, a dinner to plan, and a nap to take. Einstein was occupying our life. That rat had to go.
And then one day, almost two years later, I realized that I no longer smelled nor saw the rat. My husband was pleased. General Rat Catcher was pleased and declared victory, certain that Einstein, sealed out of our house, had moved on, perhaps to another house in the neighborhood, which might mean more business.
But what about that odd rattle I kept hearing through the heating vents? Definitely not a rat, the General declared. Rats never ever get into heating and cooling systems. Many weeks later, a faint rotting stink pervaded the house. The stench grew over the next week. I called appliance repair, who dismantled our furnace and, with more destruction of drywall, the pipes leading to it. And there, finally, a decomposing Einstein, stuck face down in a narrow pipe where he could neither go forward nor backward. Thwarted at last. A horrible death that I would not wish on even a rat.
That was Einstein’s last mistake, one he couldn’t learn from. But General Rat Catcher learned. He now had new information to pass down to his son, and from his son to his son.
And Einstein taught me, too. Instead of feeding birds, I read about them, talked to birders, and gave the birds what they really needed from me, native plants. My yard has now blossomed into honeysuckle and wisteria for hummingbirds, goldenrod for woodpeckers and chickadees, and columbine for sparrows and black-eyed juncos.
Although inadvertent on his part, my backyard is an Einstein legacy, his last (and maybe first) good deed.
Linda Morefield lives in Virginia with her husband, Chuck, and the felonious rescue dog, Luna. She has taught college level writing and has worked as a book review editor. Her writing has been published by The Northern Virginia Review, The Potomac Review, The Delmarva Review, The MacGuffin, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.