Misty's name is technically “Miss T,” short for Miss Trouble. Over the years she has built a reputation for fighting with neighbor cats in their own yards, chasing them through their cat doors and following behind, fighting them in their homes and eating their food. She has kept the mice population in our household at bay by her hunting prowess and by the sheer intimidation of her presence.
But at 14, Misty now spends more of her day dozing in the shifting patches of sunlight on the living room floor, and spends more of her night in the warmth of the laundry room. And the mice know it.
I’ve read that cats bring home birds and mice not as gifts to their humans, as we so commonly assume, but as training. In the wild, mama cats bring weak and injured animals to the lair to give their young a taste for flesh, and to help them develop their own hunting abilities. House cats apparently see humans as surrogate kittens, to whom they pass down these vital life skills. We are just slow learners.
Now that Misty’s hiss is worse than her scratch, the mice are laying claim to the kitchen. Sometimes before I go to bed I hear them scampering under the sink, where it's an easy leap to the drainpipe and into the garbage can. Every morning we find more droppings down there behind the sponges and dishwasher soap.
So I made a trip to the hardware store earlier this winter for a live animal trap. It’s an ingeniously simple device: a low, rectangular metal box with entrance holes on two sides leading up a ramp that gives way under the mouse’s weight, dropping it into the box before springing up and leaving the mouse trapped inside. Two nights before Christmas, I found an old piece of goat cheese in the fridge coated with a thin brown film of mold – unfit for humans, but a marvelously aromatic enticement for a mouse. I put some in the box and placed under the kitchen sink. Charles said I was acting as surrogate cat. (I choose not to leave their bodies in the living room or bathtub, as Misty does, just release them far from the house that they can't make an "Incredible Journey"-style trek back to our kitchen.)
Maybe this is a side-effect of the holidays, or of a recent downturn in my father's health, but I find my feelings banging into analogies at every turn. By cat standards, Misty is a senior citizen. Dad turns 93 on New Year's Day. I'm filling in for Misty as a mouser. My brother and I are taking over more responsibilities for our parents, hiring caretakers and making arrangements for their bills and other paperwork. This is the way of domesticated species: to adopt, embrace, and teach one another, to fill in when abilities wane. I feel great sadness, and beauty, in this dance of roles.
The next morning, I found a little gray mouse huddled in a corner of the life trap, shivering, apparently too scared to partake of the Circean feast a few inches away. I drove to my office and released it behind the dumpster with a "Vaya con dios," flashing on those New Mexico folk tales of animals magically becoming able to talk once a year, on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps our little gray mouse chattered with its dumpster comrades all that night -- whether savoring the miracle of its survival or drunkenly bemoaning its reversal of fortune, I leave to your speculation.
Postscript: A few nights later, when Charles and I returned from a Christmas trip to Colorado, Misty caught a mouse in front of us, just minutes after we got home, as if to say, “You think I’m washed up? Watch THIS!”
Post-postscript: Charles caught the mouse and released it outside.