Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Executioner's burden

Should I have expected the rat to die so horribly?

Yes, of course. I know now.

But I wanted to believe different.

I wanted to believe, when I opened the pantry door Saturday morning, that the rat had escaped our snares, baited for days but finally set the night before. I believed I would see the familiar trail of rice-grain poop pellets along the baseboard and the shelf edges, and a bottom corner of, say, the saltines box and a plastic sleeve of crackers nibbled away.

I wanted to believe the rat had gotten its fill once again and disappeared, and the grim game would continue, of wanting to catch it but not really. I doubt the rat saw the game in it, but rather safe harbor in the wall somewhere, and secret passage to larder.

Or I wanted to believe the rat would appear neatly dead, held stiff and bound in one of the sprung traps like a specimen awaiting dissection. I wanted to believe that trap and trapped would lift easily into a garbage bag, the kill site would disappear with a quick wipe of bleach, the dastardly deed would be done.

But it didn't happen that way.

I found the rat Saturday on the floor of the pantry in a thin pool of blood, like old syrup worked over on a breakfast plate, where its matted fur had etched its struggle.

The slashes and splotches of blood told the tale. The trap on the second shelf up from the floor — dolloped with peanut butter and bits of dog food — had smashed its skull. The rat had not gone up that high before, as far as its luxuriant traces showed, anyway. But Saturday morning it did, bypassing a trap on the floor and one on the first shelf.

It must have yanked away from the crushing bar in violent flail, flinging blood onto the canned mandarin oranges and chutney and tuna set nearby on a lazy susan. It ran or whirled, slipping down the narrow space between the front edge of the shelves and the closed pantry door. Its tail must have slapped blood against the inside of the door and the door jamb, and it must have spun about in agony, spraying blood on the low walls before coming to rest where I found it, on its side, facing away from the door.

How like a fish it was, its heavy body seeming to radiate cold even through the layers of newspaper I used to pick it up and slip it into a plastic garbage bag. I did not look at its head. Bleach dissolved some of the blood. Hard scrubbing and washing ensued.

The rat was hot and light and soft when I first encountered it 12 days before. All was the usual overwrought frenzy of Christmas preparation in the house, of cooking elaborate meals for Christmas Eve two days away, and wrapping the last of the presents. My mother-in-law and one of my brothers-in-law were staying over, deep in the cooking preparations.

I was sick, sweating profusely or shivering wildly through the day, stunned by headache. The sudden evidence of rat dredged up new energy in me. The dog noticed first, this old vestigial rat hound, sniffing the baseboards of the living room, lingering at a corner behind the Christmas tree.

Poop pellets lined the baseboards almost all the way around the living room, having escaped our notice. We took it as insult. The rat must have taken it as opportunity and ease.

Cleaning the pellets, I eventually found a hole in the floor near the hearth where the rat had pulled out all the carpet fibers to make room. I stuffed the hole with soapy Brillo™® pad, but it didn't deter. Eventually the shreds of pad were pulled up and the hole widened again, and holes in the ceiling where previous homeowners had threaded speaker wire were enlarged by the rat.

Trailing the rat energized me. I cleaned up the pellets from the living room, then moved into the part of the kitchen that wasn't commandeered for cooking. Drawer by drawer I searched, finding the occasional poop pellet.

"If we were a restaurant," I announced, "We'd be closed down by now."

Onto the pantry, I moved from the top shelf, moving containers around and wiping surfaces just in case. The lower I went the more pellets I found, until I reached the floor and could smell the urine and see piles of pellets embedded in its thin cake. The dog's rolled-up bag of dry food that wouldn't fit into its plastic container looked chewed into, so I began to pull it out to clean the mess behind.

Out of the bag flew the rat! It alighted over my arm and into the living room. My brother-in-law and I gave chase with brooms and a dodgy flashlight, flushing it out from behind cabinets where it ran straightway to the hole I had stuffed. It ran back to the shelves, twice now bypassing the open sliding glass door to the backyard. Back it ran again toward the plugged hole, zig-zagging and disappearing, it seemed, into the Christmas tree, where we half suspect it spent the day.

I upended the couches, drew away rugs, displaced cabinets and moved all the Christmas presents and some of the furniture out to the back patio, to simplify the landscape. It looked neatly ransacked. We vacuumed every inch. The rat did not show.

My mother-in-law sat at the kitchen table reading between bouts of cooking, working very hard to pay nevermind.

We had done all this rat eradication backward, not realizing it was inside the house with us. We should have plugged the hole after it escaped, but now we had blocked its escape.

Over the occupation of  two homes we have had three rat incidents. Maybe I should be ashamed to admit that. The first time, the kindly exterminator with no sense for capitalism told us, "I'll put some bait in the attic. The rat will chew the wax and eat the poison, which will make it very thirsty and cause it to bleed from its insides. It'll want to escape the house in search of water. Go to the hardware store and buy galvanized screen and zip ties, wait a couple of days and then cover every vent and gap you can find around the house. Cost you about 15 bucks."

It worked.

The second time, when at least one rat took residence in our garage, I followed the exterminator's prescription and got my own wax poison bait, waited and covered all the vents and gaps. It worked again. One rat stumbled drunkenly to the middle of the garage floor, lay down and died.

This time I found the wax bait is illegal, and in its place are an array of fancy useless better mousetraps that no rodent would dignify.

So began day after day of weapons acquisition and war-room strategy, with three days of cease-fire during Christmas when we left town and had no choice but let the rat run free and maybe stumble into one of the useless traps people buy because we don't want to kill the rat but would like it simply to crawl into a plastic coffin, coaxed by rat poison, and entomb itself.

We bought repellent foam and filled every hole and crevice we thought a rat might use, including the hole by the hearth. Still the rat entered, ate and left, into a wall of the kitchen, scritching into the early hours.

Grim reality finally seized us. The rat could be breeding, and the kitchen overrun with offspring. The daily deposit of pellets can't be good for anyone. We'll be forever disinfecting the kitchen and living room.

Time for the tried-and-true killing traps.

"You know the trick with these, doncha?" said the helpful clerk at the helpful hardware store. "Bait 'em for a week to let the rat get used to the traps, then set the trap. Oh, and wear rubber gloves so the rat doesn't smell you."

A week!? I'm giving the rat two days, tops, to endure its slovenly, disease-ridden idyll. Each night I dobbed peanut butter; each morning I wiped up pellets.

Then Friday night, jaw set, brow furrowed, spine stiffened, I set the traps (watching a couple of YouTube™® videos first). Nancy set newspaper beneath each.

I believed different. I believed neat and tidy. I found a blood-soaked crime scene.

No more rat, as far as we can tell. It had roamed my office at least once in its reverie, depositing pellets along the baseboard. I cleaned that up yesterday. All evidence is gone, no more has been left.

We still don't know the rat's secret passage, don't know its renown among rats. One trap is still set in the pantry, just in case.

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