Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

A Mouse in the House

 

Ranson Ratusz, Ann

 

Then the tailor started: for suddenly, interrupting him, from the dresser at the other side of the kitchen came a number of little noises—
Tip tap, tip tap, tip tap tip!
‘Now what can that be?’ said the Tailor of Gloucester, jumping up from his chair.
(From Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester.)

 

Jane suddenly discovers a mouse in the house. She describes her discovery as she experienced it:

 

The stove drawer doesn’t budge. I’m pulling harder… when something brown and furry runs out. “It” almost runs over me. “Aahhhhhhh!” A shudder comes over me as I flee into the family room.  I feel thumping in my chest. Where did it go? Looking I see the linoleum glisten under the light of the afternoon sun and nothing but cracker crumbs under the high chair. Will it come back?  Like a bat’s sonar I catch Barney and his troupe belting out from the television: “Hickory dickory dock.  The mouse ran up the clock.  The clock struck one.  The mouse ran down.  Hickory dickory dock.”

 

It is 5:00 in the afternoon.  Almost time for supper. Do I dare go back in?  But, I have to. Make a lot of noise and it will not come back. Choppy leg movements exaggerate footsteps, like the game children play when they imitate the footsteps of giants.  Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

 

The drawer is still open. Peering in I see little black droppings. “Ugh!”  Clunk goes the frying pan as it hits the stainless steel sink.  Scalding hot water fills it.  Pouring lots of soap in, bubbles overflow and reach the top of the sink.  After dumping it out the cleaning is repeated in an attempt to rid the pan of any particulate, bacterial, or worse yet, viral traces of mouse. I need some oil out of the pantry. Scanning the floor, I see there is nothing. Bang.  Bang.  My hand hammers on the pantry door.  “Hey” I holler. Inching open the door, the Rice Krispy box topples out from its precarious placement. “Ugh!”  There on the bottom shelf, are little black particles.

Later… The tailor crossed the kitchen, and stood quite still beside the dresser, listening, and peering through his spectacles.  Again from under the tea-cup, came those funny little noises—

Tip tap, tip tap, tip tap tip!  (Beatrix Potter)

Creak goes the door as it opens. Click and on goes the light.  Something brown and furry moves across the floor.  “AAAAH!”  Jumping up, I hit the nearest surface off the floor. Where did it go? From my perch on the toilet, I wait in anticipatory silence.  Will it run across the floor again? The floor is transformed to unsafe territory, much like a bobby-trapped battlefield.

 

JP rushes in.  With furrowed eyebrows and a concerned look on his face, he asks, “I heard you scream. What happened Jane?”

 

“I saw a mouse!” Pointing to the floor: “It was there!”

JP strains as he pulls on one side of the dryer and then the other side so that inch by inch the heavy white metallic dryer is maneuvered away from the wall. JP comments, “Would you look at this.”

“What is it?”

 

“It seems as if the mouse has been busy, there’s a hole in the wall near the dryer exhaust hose.”

 

My fear was to encounter the mouse face to face or rather feet to face.  With a sigh of relief, “Whew”, and what seems like my first breath, which is stiff and resistive, much like the expansion of a heavy rubber balloon, I know that he is not behind the dryer or washer.  Quivering, I step off the toilet.  Peeking around the corner of the dryer, just to make sure it’s not there, in the once smooth papered surface are jagged etchings, a signature of the rodent’s front incisors.

 

“Where do you think he went?”

 

Following JP as if he were my bodyguard, I survey the carpet, noting only trampled down gray pile and odd bits of paper and toys, which my daughter has scattered. Turning down the television, the fridge’s motor heaves like it is belching, then pausing for only an instance, it resumes the familiar whirring sounds. Watching JP investigate the once innocuous corners of our house is like watching a detective only he is the investigator of close encounters of the mouse kind.  Slowly he pulls out the fridge, “Aha!  He’s been here.”   Now beneath the sink, agent JP’s matter of fact tone wafts through the cupboard, “There’s another hole by the water pipes and a space between the cabinet and wall.  I bet he is in here.”  Once out from the enclosed space, JP grabs a few kernels of leftover popcorn from the counter and puts it on the floor.  “Let’s see if he will eat this.”

The next day…

All that night long Simpkin hunted and searched through the kitchen, peeping into cupboards and under the wainscot, and into tea-pot where he had hidden that twist; but still he found never a mouse! (Beatrix Potter)

Vigilant preparedness laces my being; I’m ready to flee least I see the slightest stirrings.  “Aaaaaah”, the sound of initial fear at what appears to be a mouse, but then a second look reveals that this was only a fleeting shadow.  I refocus and examine the kitchen floor.  It absorbs my gaze as if it were a dark hole. “There’s no popcorn! This confirms it.  There is a mouse in the house.”  Picking up the yellow pages, skimming and leafing through the P’s I try finding the heading “Pest”, but there’s only “Personnel” and “Pets” and this mouse is definitely none of these.  I look under “E” and find the heading “Extermination”.  Calling one of the businesses…

 

“Hello. Do you exterminate mice?”

 

“Yes, we do,” replies the deep voice.

 

“I have a mouse in the house.”

 

There is a pause and then responding in a smiling voice, he tells me “Oh yes.  That’s not unusual. Where do you live?”

 

“Hillview Estates.”

 

He explains, “You know I have had a lot of people calling from your end of town complaining about mice.  The mice are looking for shelter, anywhere away from the cold.  Since there hasn’t been a lot of snow, which acts like insulation, they’ll crawl in uncovered dryer vents and cracks the size of your thumbnail.”

 

“What sort of services do you provide?”

 

“Well, I can check your house to determine where they’ve entered, nested, but, most importantly, I can try to get rid of them.”

 

“Them?  You mean that there could be more than one?  I thought I only saw one…. I hope there isn’t more.  Pause.  How much do you charge?”

 

“Fifty dollars.”

 

“Okay. Can you come today?”

Hours later…

The front doorbell: “Ding-dong.”

 

Opening the door, a man dressed in a cowboy plaid shirt and jeans holding five-gallon covered white pail, frames the entire doorway. A smile offsets the etched

wrinkles and gray hair.  “Is this the Smith residence?”

 

“Yes, I am Jane Smith. Come on in.”

 

Spotting Tasha in my arms, he comments on how he has a grandson about the same age and then gets down to business asking:  “Do you mind if I go through your house?”

 

“No not at all.”  I recite in vivid detail the two mouse sightings, how he (the mouse) first jumped out of the stove drawer, then my startling discovery of him in the bathroom, and of the hole behind the dryer.  Fascinated by his fluidity, the man seems like he’s from a science fiction novel, an alien shape shifter who can change appearance to accommodate any space.  I trace his movements; first he’s behind the dryer and washing machine and then with the same self-assuredness and agility he examines behind the fridge and stove.

 

Next he’s downstairs…
“Well ma’am – you have a lot of spiders downstairs, but I didn’t see mouse droppings.  I would guess that the mouse didn’t come in through the basement.”
Feeling somewhat relieved that there’s no mouse downstairs, I ask, “How do you think the mouse got in?”

 

“Is your dryer vent covered?”

 

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know.”

 

“I’ll set out some poison.”  He lifts the top off the white covered pail and shows me the pink shiny crystals, which look more like bath salts that are much too pretty to be poison.  “It works through dehydration, taking about two weeks to kill the mouse.” While he scopes crystals into little black bowls, I silently hope that the mouse will take a liking to it and note how careful he is to hide the crystals out of the reach of my curious toddler.

Two months later . . .

“JP, it is still here.  Do you think the poison has started to work?”

 

JP doesn’t respond.  So I repeat the question, this time adding emphasis to his name, “J P!” My voice is loud and compelling, “Do you think the poison is working?”

 

He scratches his head, “I saw him a couple of nights ago, right over here (JP points to the family room’s south wall).  He was running along the baseboards and didn’t look undernourished or sickly. So I would say that the poison is not working or he is not eating it.”

 

“That’s what I thought too!”  I go on, “I am really tired of this mouse as he has the run of the house.  He’s so bold.  Remember the night I saw him come into our bedroom.  He just stood there looking at me and then left the room. At night, when everything is quiet, he probably makes his rounds to the kitchen, family room, bath room, dining room—who knows he probably goes upstairs too.  I don’t like to go downstairs at night; I’m always afraid that I’ll run into him.  Shouldn’t we try something else?”

 

JP makes the suggestion: “How about those traps that don’t injure mice?  What if I pick some up at Canadian Tire tomorrow?”

 

Enthusiastically I endorse his idea, “That’s a great idea, maybe we’ll get rid of him.”

Oh mouse, the intruder of human space!

For behind the wooden wainscots of all the old houses in Gloucester, there are little mouse staircases and secret trap-doors; and the mice run from house to house through those long narrow passages; they can run all over the town without going into the streets  (From Beatrix Potter’s TheTailor of Gloucester.)

Beatrix Potter’s image of secret trap doors, long narrow passages, and little mouse staircases is imaginative, but at the same time acknowledges the acrobatic finesse and agility mice have.  Mice are able to transverse wires and ropes, high jump the distance of one foot from the floor, climb up any rough surface, and squeeze through openings of an inch in diameter (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1996).  Is it no wonder that mice make their entry into our world or our homes?

 

In our opening story the mouse is first spotted running out of the stove and we are surprised by its presence.  It’s sudden entrance into our space gives the mouse the appearance of entering from nowhere for we don’t see the mouse walk up the sidewalk, ring the doorbell, or run through the door.  Instead, it slips inside insidiously, unknown to our senses except when our paths cross.  Quick and nimble movements ensure that even when our paths cross we may not be sure that it was a mouse as it evades our detection and appears to disappear into nothingness. Cindy also happens upon a mouse in the house suddenly:

I push open the creaky door. And from the step, something brown and furry moves. Catching sight of it for an instant I yell, “There’s a mouse!”
“Where?” asks John who is already at the bottom of the steps.
Pointing to the box, I yell “Over there. Where do you think it went?”
Pulling the box away from the wall and then glancing under the step, his investigation leads him to conclude, “It’s gone.”
While asking, “Are you sure?”  I stomp down the steps.  Scrutinizing the cement floor and the contents of the garage—desk, bikes, tricycles, strollers, and baskets stand against the wall, and on a discarded car seat are old sheets, a dump truck, a box of chalk, a box of old clothes and a discarded toaster.
While side stepping around this, John yells out, “The mouse could be anywhere in all of this. There are too many places to hide.”
Maneuvering my way around the desk, I reach the car.  After opening the car door and throwing in my briefcase, I scramble in.  “Whew!  I made it.”

The question “Where” or “Where did it go?” is important, as we want to know where the mouse is but its presence eludes us. The whereabouts of this mouse, whose existence seems fleeting, immaterial, and ghost like becomes a mystery. It’s vanishing is so complete that we may even wonder if the mouse really exists. So the question “Where is it?” leads us to ask, “Does it really exist?”

 

In the opening story, JP leaves kernels of popcorn on the floor, as if this could really provide evidence of the mouse’s existence.  It is only when the popcorn is noticed to be gone, which is a confirmation of a sort, that the question of its existence is solidified.  So it seems that resolving this ontological crisis requires some physical manifestation in our space.

 

As we reflect on the experience of discovering a mouse in the house, we see that a metamorphosis is taking place. Our familiar world is no longer the same: the washing machine, dryer, and contents of the garage are no longer taken for granted and become menacing and terrifying in much the same way that an ordinary street may become frightening at night.  But how can this be? The physical structure of household/garage objects and physicality of our space basically remain unchanged. Shouldn’t our home provide us with a sense of safety irrespective of the mouse’s presence?  It is after all, the place we keep our personal possession, trinkets, and belongings.

 

Perhaps it is because our personal space becomes “their” world. The garage is transformed from a storage receptacle of discarded toys and old furniture on its way to recycling, to a site of mysterious passageways and nesting spots, almost as if the mouse has staked claim proclaiming this as one huge nest.  Likewise, the stove drawer and pantry are now the home of the mouse as we see it dash and scurry about.

 

But how may we account for the different responses and experience of the mouse in the house? John and the exterminator don’t appear to experience space with the same hesitation that Cindy and Jane do.  But for Cindy and Jane, the pantry, cupboard below the sink, and stove drawer transform from taken for granted objects of our house, or extensions of the self, to places of terror. Entering the stove drawer, pantry cupboard, and family room at night is executed with hesitation.   One is inclined to bang on the cupboard door or stomp on the floor. The floor is no longer the safe ground for our feet as we walk from one spot to another, but now vigilantly surveying the floor.   We become suspicious of the floor being under our feet. The house is no longer the habitat of comfort, security and safety, but becomes demonic and we feel as if it were ready to swallow us.

 

So how may we account for this differential experience of space?  Clearly, it is not the mouse per se for he or she has merely wandered into our space or our sacred garment.  Van Lennep (1969) uses the metaphor of a garment to describe how a space becomes our own space. Just as we get used to a favorite sweater so we get used to a dwelling space that grows on us and becomes familiar. Van Lennep says, “we dwell in a room not because it is our room, but because it becomes our room when we live in it” (1969, p.209). To dwell in a room it is to speak of  “the diffusion, the irrational unspeakableness of our given, co-given, involuntary life” (van Lennep, 1969, p. 211). It is the  “continuous unfolding of ourselves in space because it is our unbroken relations with things surrounding us” (p.212).  Heidegger (1993) states that we dwell in buildings, “because we are dwellers” (p.350). To dwell

means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its essence.  The fundamental character of dwelling is the sparing.  It pervades dwelling in its whole range.  That range reveals itself to us as soon as we recall that human being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth. (p.351)

My being pervades my space.  Intimacy, is not just a relational quality between two people, but pervades our dwelling.  So what happens to my dwelling when it is disturbed by the sudden discovery of a mouse in the house?

I had just finished working the night shift…  My head feels fuzzy and numb; so weary and tired. I want to sleep.  I want my bed.  I envision my bed just waiting for me, as if it could invite me to lie down.  Walking into the kitchen, there on the kitchen counter top are two mice. Stopping, dead in my tracks I’m looking again. “Yes, I am not hallucinating. There are two mice on the counter.” Stealthily, creeping up to the counter, reaching for a bowl and quickly, plunk, down goes the bowl.  It lands rim side down on the counter. “Awe, I missed them.” I try again and again until they run away.  Climbing the stairs to my bedroom, I’m absorbed by the presence of the mice “What will I do? Lock the door.  Then they can’t get in.”

The mice have entered our dwelling disturbing our peaceful unfolding in space. We want to somehow transform the space back to that which is peaceful and secure.  Locking the door is a way of stopping intruders from transforming our home into an alien space.  It is as if the mouse intrudes upon our home, transforming the sacred garment into one that is profane.  I no longer wear the garment in comfort; it is as if I am now donning a garment made of something repulsive.  I pick it up and utter only words of disgust, “Oh mouse, the intruder of human space!”

 

To prevent insects, small rodents like mice and rats, and other animals from entering, people close their doors open to the outside world.  A home is like a refuge or sanctuary and usually we have the choice of determining who and what is present.  Bollnow (1967) states that the home prevents one from being “dragged along helplessly by the stream of time” (p.180).  As we dwell in our home we automatically create an inner space and outer space.  The house becomes our inner space and should protect us from the threats lurking in the outer space, which, as Bollnow says, ”is the space of openness, of danger and abandonment” (1967, p. 181).

 

The mouse in the house evokes something in us.  In the opening story; the Jane experiences a retraction of comfort and intimacy.  Inner space crumbles as the mouse in the house is detected, exposing the space of openness and danger.  But this is not necessary for every human experience. Contrary, to Jane’s experience, JP continues to experience the unfolding space of inner sanctity even in the presence of the mouse.

 

The body animal

Moving back to our opening story, recall how Jane screams and shudders when the mouse is first seen. Her reaction is unwilled. She does not stop to consider the mouse or if she should scream; the scream or shudder emerges spontaneously from the depths of our being as our body and the world are immediately present and interrelated.  Merleau-Ponty (1962) has shown how our body makes it possible to experience the world; it is the site of all sensations.  In this instance contemplative reflection of the experience is not possible.  The world is made known to me through my body.  Consider another instance of a scream.

Pulling open the desk drawer, it looks at me.  Its eyes are wide open.  It looks scared.  Within my chest there are thumping sensations.  Slam goes the drawer. “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.  A mouse.  Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.  Running outside, I yell, “A mouse!”

This narrative illustrates how long the scream actually carries on, and involves fleeing and the waving of arms. Likewise in our opening story, when Jane encountered the mouse on the bathroom floor, her scream was followed by an escape from the floor to the top of the toilet seat with subsequent quivering and a scanning of the floor for the mouse.  The scream communicates our fear and accompanies our escape. Similarly, Jane used heavy footsteps and banging motions after discovering the mouse in her house.  In fear, she exaggerated her movements capitalizing on the sense that loud noises might scare away the mouse.

Aaaahhhhhh. Rushing up from the kitchen table, running down the stairs, and around the corner, I silently note “there’s no one in the rumpus room.”  Running to closed bathroom door, I call out, “Hello, Susan? I heard you scream. Can I come in?”

“Oh sure,” responds Susan.  Opening the door, she reports, “Mom there’s a mouse in here! I was on the toilet, when it ran across the floor.”

Walking past the doorway, peering behind the shower and behind the toilet, I exclaim, “Oh look at this!”  There’s a hole around the plumbing. I go on, “I bet it’s in here.”

 

Susan confirms my speculation stating, “I didn’t see it run under the door, so it has to be in this hole.”
As in our opening story whereby JP heard and responded to Jane’s scream, in this narrative the Mother hears her daughter’s scream and rushes to see what has happened.  It is as if the scream acts as  a call for the other. But we don’t verbalize the call into words, as in “HELP”.  The scream almost seems to be primal, guttural, and ancient, spilling forth from the abyss of our being.   No one has to teach us to respond in this way, we just do.

From our narratives we note that John, JP, and the exterminator, do not scream.  We may wonder, at this point, if these stories confirmations of the stereotypic subconscious female fear of mice? Is it a cultural and gendered attribute of males being more aggressive and less fearful than females? Empirical research suggests that in most countries around the world, women experience more fear towards mice than males do (Davey, McDonald, Hirisave, Prabhu, et al., 1998). Freud (1911) symbolized the mouse as representative of the genitals due to their hairiness.  The symbol is conceptualized as sharing a common quality with the thing it represents, the association may be obvious or hidden. And yet, such Freudian speculation is hard to validate experientially.

 

While psycho-analytic inquiry may offer provocative explanations, yet these explanations may offer little help into our attempts to investigate our actual individual experience of the world.

 

Phenomenologically it is helpful to ask if there is something unique in the experience of the encounter of the mouse in our house.  How does it compare to the encounter of the uninvited person in our house? In Wynne-Jones’ novel Odd’s End the woman, Mary, suspects a human intruder in her house:

Her mood had shifted.  The anguish, the suspicion, that was all past, at least for now.  There was only a square foot of detail work left and maybe a few alterations in the broader passages: it could still be done.  Just.  If she painted all today, let the oil dry overnight, then painted Saturday and Sunday it could be ready.  Why not? …

 

Even before it was all the way out she knew something was wrong.  The painting was finished.  The small shattered faces of the children, the groups of shacks against the muddy dirty wash.  It was all there.  The oil was dry.

 

For a moment she couldn’t think nor do anything…. He was playing with her.  He, he, he-it had to be a he!  This was an attack; she was being assaulted, psychologically raped…. She was looking at her work and questioning if it was her own work.

 

Suddenly the studio was oppressive.  She couldn’t stand the artificial light another minute.  She wanted to tear down the godforsaken black scrim which shut out the sun.  She pulled on one edge with both hands, yanking harder, ripping a corner of the material.  Light flooded the room.  It was glorious, but it wasn’t enough.  She threw open the sliding doors and screamed.  She screamed a garbled threat at the woods (Wynne-Jones, 1980, pp.128-129).

In the novel Odd’s End an intruder has made a life long career out of selectively intruding homes he has taken a fancy to.  Mary’s reaction to the intruder’s masterminded plot to drive her out of the house is one of shock, anguish, and anger.  Unlike the experience with the mouse, Mary does not see the human intruder but, nevertheless, she feels personally violated.  It is as if the human intruder in a powerfully sinister way possesses her.

 

The mouse in the house does not have the same power that the human intruder does.  No matter how fearful we are of the mouse, we would not describe the mouse as psychologically raping us or as personally assaulting us.  Perhaps it has to do with the differing perspectives of intentionality–for example that of the mouse’s as compared to ours. We generally believe that mice act on instinct, therefore deliberative and calculative choice is not thought to be part of their behavior, whereas we do attribute active choice and selection as an aspect of human being in the world.

 

Sometimes, mice or other vermin may enter our home in a different way:

I bought some mixed nuts from the open bins at the grocery store.  Opening the bag of nuts, off goes the twist tie.  Grabbing a handful, I pop them in my mouth. Munch, munch, and swallow.  “Umm, these are good.” On goes the television.  With remote in hand, plop and then sinking down.  Comfy.  “Let’s see, I need channel 39.”   Punching in “3” – “9”  – “enter”.  “Oh yes, there’s Tiger.  What hole is this?”  Grabbing another handful of nuts.  Munch, munch, and swallow.  “Okay, this is the fifth. Oh a birdie.” Grabbing another handful of nuts. “What’s this? Hum, a cluster of nuts.”  Breaking off a clump.  “What is this?  Dried baby mice?  How disgusting!”  Dropping the clump, I rush to the sink, retching and gagging.

What is going here?  The idea that mice had nested and born their litter in these nuts is sickening. Our body immediately apprehends the abhorrence of this contamination by trying to reject the food from our body.  Repulsion, or the tendency to reject or refuse something (Hoad, 1986), would then appear to be part of the experience of the mouse in the house.  The word repulsion is derived from the Latin word repulsus, denoting the act of repelling.  Our experience bears this out as repulsion is not only feeling but also the way in which we physically rid our bodies from repulsive food, through spitting or vomiting.

When my father died, I had to clean out his storage unit. Before going I tried to prepare myself for the worst, as I knew it might be really bad.  I was right.  I remember….  Up goes the door.  I exclaim in horror, “Oh my.  I expected a mess, but this is horrible.” A gray coating with blotches of black covers the floor.  The furniture is also covered with this sickening gray and black residue.  On the floor is a ten-pound bag of oatmeal. Only, it stands empty.  I walk over to the buffet and pull open the drawer. There’s a dried mouse lying on top of the linen, which used to be white but now is black.  “What a mess.” Sweeping the floor, I feel sick.  The gray and black crud lies in a pile, which is about two feet high.

Whoosh.  Cold water sprays out from the hose, my hands are starting to get chilly.  The layer of gray and black residue starts to flack off my father’s chair.

 

Like the previous example, this story portrays repulsion as a feeling that is immediately present in our body as a feeling of being sick. But instead of being repelled by the dead and dried bodies of baby mice, we experience their waste or excrement as repulsive.

 

There is little doubt that our experience of disgust and repulsion are largely culturally and historically determined. Nobert Elias traces the history of manners and states that what we regard as civilized is taken for granted (Elias, 1994).  Our current table manners, and our conduct surrounding natural functions, spitting, and bedroom behavior were not the norm in the medieval times.  For example, in the thirteenth century people ate out of the same bowls without forks or plates and blew their noses with their hands.  By the seventeenth century, people started to eat with their own fork, spoon, own plate, and from time to time a valet washed the cutlery.  They started to blow their noses in handkerchiefs. These changes are what Elias calls the civilizing process, which seeks to suppress every characteristic that we feel is animalistic. So it is quite likely that the experience of a mouse in the house would have different phenomenological meaning for persons in other times and places.

 

It could be that the mouse’s activity of depositing its droppings everywhere it goes is linked to the transgression of our civilized way of living where natural functions are hidden and private.  We have rules about this behavior and socialize our children very early on how to conform to these notions.  Even pet dogs are trained to do their business outside or on newspapers.  We don’t just go wherever we want, as does the mouse; remember its droppings were discovered in the stove drawer, frying pan and pantry.

 

But animals do not share the human sense of disgust.

Thump.  Something heavy is walking over me.  Squinting, there at the end of the bed in the early morning rays it’s the blurry outline of the cat with something in its mouth.  Getting up, “Burr it’s cold!”  Grabbing my glasses and putting them on, I see the cat.  “Oh how disgusting!”  A queasy sick feeling comes over me.

“The cat has a dead mouse!” Grabbing the broom and waving it, I scold the cat “Out you go, Charlie!”  “Meow, meow,” and a scowl tell me the cat is not pleased.  Slam goes the screen door as it shuts out the cat. Back at my bed, one sweeping motion brings the mouse to the floor.  Swish, swish goes the broom as it brushes across the linoleum floor making its way towards the outside door.  With one final sweeping motion, it is outside.

By using the broom we avoid touching the mouse and this in turn reveals how we regard the mouse as unhygienic.  Mice are after all, known to be carriers of the deadly Hantavirus (Whitney, 2000). But even if mice did not carry the virus, we might still reach for the broom. The broom allows us to stay untouched and keep our hands unsoiled. The mouse is experienced as a dirty animal.

It is quiet. Hugo’s serious and focused. Saying nothing verbal, he just gives me a nod that says I know you’re here, but I don’t want to talk. We sit in silence. Then there’s a distant thump and shuffle. Hugo asks, “Did you hear that?”

 

“Is it the mouse?” I ask.

 

“Yeah, I think so”, says Hugo.

 

Stealthily Hugo creeps up to the cupboard under the sink and flings the door open.  Brown fur disappears through a hole in the cabinet.  “There it is,” Hugo exclaims.   Taking a handful of oatmeal, he sprinkles little piles under the sink. …Plop, he sinks down in the cushion.  Silence.  Waiting…Then, there is another thump and shuffle.

 

With a note of desperation I plead,  “We have to do something.  We can’t have them stay in the house.  Remember the environmentally safe traps we tried last time … they didn’t work.”

 

Hugo responds, “Okay, I will pick up some sticky pads … hopefully they will work.”

 

It’s 10:30 and time for bed. Climbing the stairs, I worry,  “What if they decide to leave the cupboard and come upstairs?”  Quickly I hop in bed and yank the covers over me.  Warmth.  Yawn.   …

The mouse disrupts the house as all activity and conversation center on this creature.  Hugo becomes totally lost in listening and watching for the mouse.  Remember how this also happens in our opening story when JP responds to Jane’s scream, which in turn activates a search for the mouse. It is amazing that something as small and secretive as the mouse preoccupies us to the extent that it does.  It is as if Time has slipped right by us. It is not until our more pressing biological needs, such as the need for sleep or food, overcomes us that we bring ourselves back to the normal ebb and flow of time.

 

There is also a sense of urgency connected in trying to find and catch the mouse.  It is as if the mouse must be caught now. Compare the mouse in the house to the narrative of the itsy bitsy spider crawling up the wall.

Excitedly, Joanna yells out, “Look Mom. There’s a spider.”  I smile at her and glance over to the little spider as it inches it way up the kitchen wall. My daughter and I sit and watch the spider for a moment before we continue on with our play.

The experience of discovering a spider is not the same as finding a mouse in the house.  There is no frantic pursuit in an effort to catch the spider.  Even if we wanted to catch the spider this is a relatively simple act that only requires a glass and a piece of paper.  One just needs to cover the spider with a glass and then slide the paper over the rim of the glass as to prevent its escape.  Unlike the mouse in our house, the spider doesn’t try to scurry away with same speed when it is found.  So in catching the spider, I could take my time in getting a glass and piece of paper.  The spider may briefly attract our attention but its presence doesn’t absorb us in the same way as the mouse in the house does.

 

Coexistence

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has Broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

 

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve:
What then? Poor beastie, thou maun live!…

 

But, Mousie, thour atr no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:

 

The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promis’d joy
(Robert Burns, 1785).

Robert Burns captures something vital in the relationship between mice and human beings.   This poem is a story of an accidental encounter between mice and human beings as a plough unearths a nest of mice. Burns expresses the sentiment that mice are sometimes regarded as thieves, but despite this the mice are saved from the fate of the plough. Nature is regarded as uniting all animals, but human beings have broken this bond through domination.  There remains one shred of fabric that weaves a web of commonality and that is an inability of both human beings and mice to totally control their own fate.  Things often go amiss.

 

Burns poetically expresses the contradictory and ambivalent relationship human beings have with mice.  Many of the same themes that Burns alludes to are expressed in the experience of the mouse in the house.  If we re-examine our opening story, we see that an uneasy relationship exists between the mouse in the house and humans.  Recall Jane looking for the exterminator in the telephone yellow pages under the heading “Pest”, while JP leaves kernels of popcorn on the floor for the mouse to eat.  Clearly, Jane thought the mouse was a pest while JP felt benevolent towards the mouse in the house. The contradictions in actions, between wanting to kill and in nourishing it are glaringly obvious.

 

Etymological origins of the word pest are from the 17th century Latin word, “pestis”, which means “plague, contagious disease” (Hoad, 1986). It seems that there is something to be feared about an animal, like the mouse or rat, which both forebear disease and death. Yet, there is something different about this experience.  Our language expresses that we maintain many ambiguous relations with mice..

“Mom, I would like some apple juice”, says my daughter.  Opening the fridge I notice there is none. I tell my daughter, “Honey, I’ll have to go downstairs to get some.”  Walking downstairs to the pantry, I grab a box of apple juice and juice squirts out of the top of the box. “Oh there must be a defect in the box.”  Reaching for another box, I notice that it is leaking too. “What is going on?”  Looking at the other boxes of juice I see that each box has a small hole chewed in the top. “Yuck!  It’s the mice!  What else have they gotten into?”  Inspecting the pantry, I notice the potatoes are chewed. “That’s it.  I’m going to get rid of you guys. You’ve crossed the line.  It’s cold outside and I let you stay in the garage.  Now look at what you’ve done.”  Once upstairs, I tell my daughter, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any more apple juice. The mice have gotten into the juice.  We’ll have to buy some more.”

Here mice are regarded as a nuisance or as something that causes harm to one’s food supply. Interestingly, the word mouse was formed on a base that meant to steal or rob (Hoad, 1986).  This is precisely how Robert Burns refers to the mouse in the opening poem “I doubt na, whyles (sometimes), but thou may thieve.” Mice do indeed rob humans of food, rendering it inedible as it is spoiled and consumed by the ravenous fury little creatures, and this is a sentiment commonly expressed by a source such as the Britannica Encyclopedia (Britannica.com, 1999).

 

Perhaps it is our dread of its potential disease and our anger at its transgressions that create antipathy towards the mouse in the house.  Remember how Jane curiously regarded the exterminator’s shiny pink crystals, being so pretty that they look liked bath crystals as opposed to a deadly poisonous substance.  Does this not somehow reflect how we have used science or technology to take control of nature?  Here we have used technology to perfect a non-messy death, which doesn’t smell or necessitate that we touch the mouse.  The poison simply dries out the mouse.  Would we feel more inclined to extend our mercy if we had no technology at our disposal?  Technology in this case has made the removal of the mouse in the house so easy that it glosses over the fact that we are ending an animal’s life.

 

In the opening narrative, we may note that initially the mouse was regarded as an “it”.  To be considered an “it” objectifies the mouse into a thing.  A thing doesn’t exist in relationship with us in the same way that a person does or something that is regarded as a “he” or “she”.  So if something is simply an “it” or an object it is easy to see how we could exterminate its life as it is not thought of as another living being.  Later, in the story, the mouse assumes an identity as a “he” and is even described as being “bold”.  In this case it is almost as if we have imparted human characteristics on to the mouse.

 

Anthropomorphism or the imparting of human qualities onto animals, and in our case onto mice, is very commonly encountered in children’s literature and entertainment.  Mice are notorious for their adorable and cute characters in Walt Disney’s animated classics of Mickey Mouse, whereby Mickey is portrayed as an adorable character with an oversized round head, huge eyes, furless smiling face, cute ears and donning clothes. His human friendly voice is a little high pitched, but that is okay, as he is a mouse. Escapades depict him as a talking, thinking and emotional mouse in relationship to his dog, Pluto and his girlfriend Mini Mouse. Or in Beatrix Potter’s the “Tailor of Gloucester”, refined lady and gentlemen mice wear the clothing of English gentry, and curtsey and bow to the tailor when he frees them from under Simpkin’s teacups. In return, they sew an elegant coat for the tailor when stricken ill.

 

So common are these images that it is difficult not to think of these characters when one encounters the mouse in the house.  But, of course the anthropomorphism overstates the commonality and substitutes our human behavior for that of the mouse.  In reality, the experience of the mouse in the house demonstrates that the mouse does not have the human mannerism and customs that we have.  Does anthropomorphism address something that we sense about animals, perhaps something intuitively felt, but not rationally acknowledged by us?

Looking down in the five-gallon pail, I nervously steal a look.  There at the bottom of the pail were two mice nuzzling one another. “Sam”, I yell, “come and look at this.”

Sam joins me in the garage and asks, “What is it?”

“Just look at the mice.  Isn’t that odd?  It almost looks like they are comforting one another.”

The discovery of the mice comforting one another as they are being contained in a five-gallon pail shows that there is indeed something that mice and human beings share.  Until Darwin’s theory of evolution, human beings thought that they were separated from animal existence, being set apart through their use of language, human intellect, and moral sense. Darwin’s theory questions this idea by arguing that natural selection has shaped our development of language, our intellect and moral sense.  He writes (1950), the “development of the intellect… will have reacted on the brain and produced an inherited effect; and this again will have reacted on the improvement of language” (1950, p. 912). Likewise, the origin of moral sense “lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals through natural selection” (1950, p. 914).

 

The experience of a mouse in the house leads us to question the distinction between nature and culture. Or the arrogant idea that humans have dominion over all the other animals.  The mouse and I simply exist as two creatures in the world, shaped by forces of nature and culture that lead to both of our present ways of being both in terms of our physicality and our manifest ways of relating to the environment and each other.  Yet, as our lived experience demonstrates this relationship is fraught with contradictions.

 

 

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