By Ted Gup
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan
Some people’s day begins with a cup of Joe. Mine begins with my walking of the mice. It’s a ritual, the way shaving was in the city. I get out of bed, slip on my boots, and check the mousetraps. Invariably one or more are occupied. These are live traps, baited with extra crunchy peanut butter. Once the mouse is inside, the gravitational center shifts, the plastic door drops, and the little fellow is stuck. He or she spends the rest of the night gorging on Skippy and, only when it’s gone, worries about what’s next. (A trait, some might say, he shares with my own kind, even Congress.) Come dawn I put on my work gloves, carefully lift the trap, and, with the hand of an expert, can tell when there’s an added ounce or two cowering inside.
That’s when I don my barn coat and begin the steep trek up the hill, past the forlorn dock, now a bridge that spans a dry culvert, past the tumbledown woodshed full of sand (traction for the deep snow), and up through the weedy gravel drive that is the back way to our cabin. Only when I reach the crest of the hill, a clearing with a neighbor’s pickup and a rusting plow, do I find a fit place to release the mice.
I usually favor a little dip in the field where there’s standing water — surely they’re thirsty after a night of being cooped up. I don’t linger — the bugs swarm — but kneel down and lift the little door. Nothing for a moment — hesitant, light-blinded, and traumatized, they take a little coaxing before braving the weeds. Even then, they do not scurry away to celebrate their freedom, but are dazed — little deportees, off the map, desperate to get their bearings. They look sweaty, their coats matted down from a long night in a narrow tunnel. (I wonder, can mice suffer PTSD? Do they feel any gratitude to the giant in whose shadow they now shiver?) But enough theology. . . .
I wish each of them a bon voyage and return to the cabin, never sure which of us will arrive there first — them or me. The other morning, Stevie, a woman from down the pond, caught me in my pajamas kneeling in the long grass and whispering words of encouragement to a particularly diffident mouse. In these parts, there is no word for “eccentricity.”
Still, my wife and son think it folly (or, perhaps, the early onset of something dire). They lobby for kill traps, the deadly spring-loaded affairs that snap spines. I argue that there are responsibilities that go with an address like ours, “34 Appalachian Trail.” And if I have to share a few crumbs with them, suffer a nibble out of a Fig Newton or sweet potato, so be it. (I draw the line when they nest in my top drawer and bury my socks in seed husks or, in the bathroom, leave their calling cards among my razor blades and Q-Tips — no mouse can resist a cotton swab.)
I like to think that someone above keeps a ledger of such things, may even go easy on me when I find myself in a tight fix. Besides, I tell myself, maybe the mice don’t return, but disappear never to be seen again. My wife and son don’t buy it. They would have me paint each mouse with a dot of crimson nail polish before their release, but I fear such tracking would out us both — the mice and me — and lead to a lethal solution (for them, not me). Up here we sometimes tag a moose, but never a mouse!
If it’s a woodsy hostel I’m running, then so be it. “Out by daylight, back by dusk” would be the rule of the house. I can live with that, and have. What began as a nuisance has morphed into something both more and less.
My nighttime ritual is simply a variant of that: preparing their midnight snack of peanut butter, propping open the little trap doors, and me, finally nodding off to the sound of scratching and gnawing in the rafters overhead and the scuffling of tiny feet — shoot! — in my socks’ drawer again. Outside, the hysteria of loons provides a final commentary on the day.
Ted Gup has been a contributor to Smithsonian, National Geographic, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, GQ, Slate, and other publications. His most recent book is A Secret Gift (Penguin Press, 2010).