The children and I are eating breakfast when I hear the sound of pounding, furry footsteps. Our two cats are running up and down the hall above our heads, making those little noises that remind me that long before they were domesticated, coddled, and overfed, cats were predators.
I wonder what they’re chasing, I think idly as my daughter plays with her untouched breakfast, and my son, having finished his, tries to help himself to the contents of her bowl. And then the thought pops, unbidden, into my head: a mouse?
It’s not a mouse, I tell myself. Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve never had mice in this house; Lord willing, we never will. But the thumping and squealing continue, and against my will my brain pictures something small and brown streaking down the hallway. I shudder.
It’s not a mouse, I tell myself again. I just have mice on my mind because we took my daughter to see the Nutcracker over Christmas. It’s not a mouse, not a mouse.
But what if it is?
I’m not exactly good with the creepy-crawly things. I’m somewhat famous for trapping insects under jars or glasses or, in desperation, spare contact lens cases and leaving them for others to deal with. My biggest fear when moving into my own apartment for graduate school was what I was going to do about the inevitable bugs. I’ll get over it, I told myself; necessity is the mother of growing up.
I wouldn’t call it “fear,” really… logically, I know there’s nothing to be afraid of. The vast majority of bugs (and mice) are harmless, and anyway I am Much Bigger Than Them. I’ve always felt like a bad feminist for being afraid of bugs and other assorted pests — I can drive a car, I can vote, I can go to college, I really should be able to deal with all things Insecta and Arachnid. Even Rodentia, if needed. It’s not like this is even a real danger, plague or pestilence or whatnot. But sometimes I think I’d be better in a truly dangerous situation than I am in ones involving things that creep.
The book of I Peter refers to women as “the weaker vessel,” and I’ve always kind of bristled at that. Women, weak? Yes, my husband is generally stronger than I am, physically. . . but he also outweighs me by a good hundred or so pounds. We’re close to evenly matched for strength, if you control for size. And I’m the one who does the whole childbirth thing. Which isn’t to say my husband couldn’t give birth; I’m sure he could, and like me I’m sure he’d also opt out of the epidural. When it comes to being matched for stubbornness, we’re absolutely neck and neck.
I don’t think of myself as “weak,” in any sense. Until I see a bug. Or even think about a mouse that isn’t dressed up in nineteenth-century garb and speaking with a British accent. Then all logic goes out the window and I’m left with a gut-level, visceral reaction: my heart starts pounding, I start shaking. It’s not fear so much as a full-body response, the kind that no amount of brain work can overcome. The word “phobia” comes to mind.
When my husband and I got married, we didn’t have anything in our wedding vows about the division of labor regarding all things creepy. We didn’t have to. My husband knew that by marrying me, he was on vermin duty for the rest of his life.
I’m getting my daughter ready for ballet class when I see it on the floor, about two feet away from where I’m sitting, small and blackish-brown with traces of red. What if it’s a mouse? I think. Stop it with the mouse thing! I counter. It’s probably just a. . . just a. . . a what? My son comes running over to me and nearly steps on whatever-it-is, and I decide, this being a shoeless house, that I need to check it out.
It’s too small to be a mouse, I tell myself. But what if it’s a mouse’s head? The palpitations, the shaking. I am woman, I am strong! I tell myself, but I’m not. I’m a mess. I clench my arms to my sides to steady myself as I bend down to look.
It’s. . . furry. It has a face. It has whiskers. Oh, my sweet Lord and Savior of all the world, it’s a head, the severed head, of a mouse.
I stifle a scream. And then I do what I have to do: I grab two bowls from the kitchen, and scoop the bloody head from one into the other as all the hairs on my arms stand at attention. I shove the bowls back into a corner on the kitchen counter, and go and get my daughter’s ballet slippers. I fetch shoes and coats and bundle up my children, ready for Daddy to take them out as soon as he gets home. I’m shaking, but I don’t think they notice. Inside my head I’m quoting Bible verses as fast as I can, trying to drown out the screaming thought: if that was the head, where’s the rest of it??
My husband gets home and I ask him, in a voice just a notch higher than normal, if he can come back inside for a minute once the children are in the car. He’s no fool, he can tell I’m on the verge of a breakdown. It’s okay, I assure him. Really, everything’s fine? I hear the squeak at the end of my sentence.
I sink into a chair and wait for him to buckle the children into their car seats, my heart pounding blood through my ears like a timpani. I’m an adult, I tell myself. I am woman, I am strong. When my husband comes back inside and asks me if I’m all right, I dissolve. I’m sobbing and shaking and rocking back and forth, ashamed of myself but unable to stop. Through my blubbering of “mouse” and “head” and “please,” he sums up the situation and deftly removes the mouse head from the bowl, ties it up in a bag, and takes it to the trash can outside. Then he comes back in and washes his hands with much ado, and gives me a hug.
He doesn’t laugh at me; his face is the picture of seriousness. I sob into his strong shoulders and feel myself unclench. I don’t want to be strong. I just want to let myself cry about the stupid mouse and feel my husband’s arms around me — knowing that it’s okay, every once in a while, to be the weaker vessel.