Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Creeping Terror

Mighty Mouse

The enemy, at life size.

So the Year of the Mouse continues. (The Chinese would have you believe this is the Year of the Red Monkey, but I haven’t seen even one monkey in the house this season, whereas our abode is apparently TEEMING with various specimens of rodentia.)

Fun FactRodents represent that largest group of mammals, accounting for nearly 1,500 of the estimated 4,000 living mammal species. Of those, approximately 1,495 are currently residing in my basement. Fun!

 

Our latest close encounter of the furred kind came on Saturday morning. I was still abed, but my mom was in her favorite swivel rocker in front of the picture window, either praying or watching the neighbors. Both activities occupy much of her leisure time. By her account, she was sitting quietly when suddenly one of the cats – Remington, for a change – came flying into the living room as if the devil were after him. Actually, he was after the devil … in the form of yet another mouse, which sought refuge under the very chair in which my elderly mother sat.

This was not okay.

I was awakened by the sound of mom berating the resident mousers. “No! No, stupid! It’s under the couch! You cats are USELESS!”

Stumbling blearily out to the battleground, I discovered my disgusted mom trying to point out the invader’s escape route to the clueless cats, who persisted in circling the rocker, although the critter had long since vacated to the narrow space under the sofa.

“It ran under the couch … or behind the fireplace … or … under the treadmill,” mom explained, ticking off just a few of the many convenient hidey-holes we thoughtfully provide for our unwelcome guests. At that moment, the creature itself solved the mystery, emerging from behind the couch to scamper into the middle of the room. I gaped.

It was the size of a Shih Tzu.

Well, maybe not quite that big. But I’m pretty sure it’s the same mouse last seen riding a tiny motorcycle in the movies. When Remington finally noticed it and took up a suspiciously half-hearted pursuit, the mouse scampered around, hopping, skipping and positively cavorting with clear indifference to its feline adversaries. The spectre of my mom wielding a mop head caused it more concern, eventually driving it out of sight again. Behind the piano? Into the La-Z-Boy? Into the depths of the electric fireplace?

Mom thought she heard a faint snap, so we concentrated our search behind the piano, where she had placed a snap trap. The trap had indeed been sprung … but was empty. “That’s no ordinary mouse,” mom commented in awe. “I think it’s a super mouse.”

My life, in movie form.

There was only one thing to be done: all the furniture would need to be removed from the living room, piece by piece, until the wily foe was flushed out. Out came the blue and pink rockers, the glider rocker, the corner table, the side table, the davenport, the recliner and the ancient, two-ton upright piano. (It can be argued that we have too much furniture in that room.) Since the treadmill was too big to move, I lifted up the tread and secured it in its upright storage position.

While I divested the room of its furnishings, mom retreated the kitchen to bake cinnamon rolls with which to fortify ourselves for the next siege. As I pushed the piano away from the wall, the rodent made a break for it … directly toward the kitchen.

“It’s coming your way!” I hollered to mom.

“Awk!” she hollered back.

The two cats loped after it, at something less than their top speed. I began to realize something was amiss here. In the meantime, Mighty Mouse disappeared under the refrigerator. Mom disappeared into the basement.

I finished ridding the living room of its contents, deciding I might as well shampoo the carpet while I had it cleared out. The cats loitered around the refrigerator a few minutes, then lost interest and ambled away in opposite directions. Mom returned from the basement, warily, and we began easing the refrigerator out of its cubby hole. Monster Mouse took the opportunity to dash into the adjacent backdoor entryway, where Peep was having a leisurely graze in a dish of cat kibble. I slammed shut the door between the hall and the kitchen, trapping cat and mouse in the small space.

This is more or less how things went down between Peep and Mighty Mouse.

This is more or less how things went down between Peep and Mighty Mouse.

Next I exited the house via the front door and came around to the back door. I peered in through the window and observed a curious scene: Peep, the mighty hunter, cowered in a corner of the entry, with an expression on his face that clearly communicated, “Hey, I don’t want any trouble, man. Just take the kibble and go.” The mouse was dashing back and forth in an apparent rage.

I opened the door a crack, enough to let out mouse, but not cat. Mouse wasn’t interested in outdoor living.

“Dude,” I remonstrated. “Don’t make this difficult.”

Finally, after stomping around mad a few more seconds, the mouse deigned to accept my offer of clemency. It dashed out the door, over the edge of the deck and into the flower bed beyond.

“I have given you your freedom, mouse!” I called after it. “Don’t squander this gift.”

Back inside, Peep was licking her paws with that exaggerated nonchalance that cats effect when they are mortified by their failings. “It’s okay, Peep,” I comforted her. “That really was a helluva big mouse.”

My mom breathed a sigh of relief at the end of this ordeal, optimistically convinced we’ve seen the last of vermin for the season.

I know better.

soonYou see, when I lifted up the treadmill while clearing the living room, I discovered a small, gray creature cowering behind it. It was, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, not the mouse I was looking for. Before I had a chance to deal with this new invader, my attention was drawn to the Mutant Mouse, and when I looked back, the little guy had disappeared. It’s still somewhere in the house … waiting.

Don’t tell mom.

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Crowded House

crowdedhouseThey say over time people and their pets begin to resemble one another. I find it is much the same with people and their houses. At least, both of us having passed the half-century mark, both my home and its owner are rapidly decaying into roughly equivalent states of decrepitude.

Currently the biggest issue for me and said house is that it seems to be becoming increasingly porous. That is to say, it’s starting to let things in. Spiders, flies and box elder bugs, while irksome, are to be expected; even swank homes have to put up with those miniscule pests. But lately we’ve seen an uptick in the number and variety of more sizable wildlife. Last summer I found a chipmunk in the hallway. We have on at least two occasions over the past several years encountered snakes in the basement – an occurrence which, if it gains any kind of regularity, is grounds to knock the house down, burn the rubble and salt the earth beneath it.

Then there was that bat a month ago. That particular invasion was both horrific and costly, necessitating a rabies test that cost me $76 (and cost the bat its head, but we all have to make sacrifices, don’t we?).

This summer, though, is turning out to be the Year of the Mouse. We usually find one limp corpse around the house in the early fall, rousted and raked over by one or the other of the cats. This year, though, we’ve already encountered three homesteaders of the Mus musculus (common house mouse) variety.

Last night was the latest incident. I had just fed the cats their bedtime snack around 10 pm and gone back to editing a fanvid when I observed Peep and Remington walk into the living room in uncharacteristically close proximity, swaggering side by side like a pair of sailors on shore leave. Peep, our champion mouser, was proudly carrying her latest trophy.

“Is that another mouse? Damn it!” I exclaimed, scrambling off my chair and heading for the kitchen to grab a couple of Styrofoam cups to confine it, while my mother scrambled to her bedroom to hide from the beast. Peep, though an avid and skilled hunter, follows a “catch and release” philosophy. She brought her prize to the center of activity in the house, then proudly exclaimed, “Ta da!”

This is almost exactly what happens every time Peep "catches" a mouse.

This is almost exactly what happens every time Peep “catches” a mouse.

This announcement necessitated her opening her mouth and dropping the mouse, of course, and it took advantage of the opportunity to make like Speedy Gonzales* and vamoose. When I returned from the kitchen with my makeshift “live trap,” the cats had already lost track of their adversary and were prowling the living room, sniffing like a pair of bloodhounds. Cats are not bloodhounds. Thus, while they focused their laser attention on the treadmill, I observed the mouse zip from under the Laz-E-Boy to behind the piano. This was a problem, because the piano (an ancient, upright model inherited from my grandparents) is too heavy to move and too close to the wall for the cats to get in and resume their pursuit.

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My definition of “night life.”

While the cats stalked around ineffectually, I finished my vid and warily retreated to the sofa to sleep. (Regular readers will recall that I prefer to sleep on the living room couch rather than either of two perfectly good bedrooms at my disposal, for reasons unclear even to myself.) I brought with me my Styrofoam cups and a flashlight. Periodically over the next couple of hours, I’d hear one of the cats make a mad dash in the darkness. I’d bolt upright and flip on my flashlight, casting its light around the room and seeing nothing at all.

Finally, around 2 am, I heard another dash, a thud, and … a squeak.

Flashlight: on. The cats were jostling each other in front of the glider-rocker, trying to get under it a little like Laurel and Hardy trying to cram into an elevator at the same time. As they tussled, I observed the mouse dart literally between them and dive under the swivel rocker a scant three feet from my perch. The clueless cats continued to stalk the empty space under the glider, and I decided to abandon the battlefield in favor of more tranquil lodgings. I set up camp in the middle bedroom and closed the door.

I was awakened about four hours later by sounds of thumping from the living room: not the cats, this time, but my mom, using a broom to turn over the furniture in search of what she hoped would be a very much lifeless rodent. But there was – at least up to the time I left for work – no sign of the creature. The cats seemed to have lost interest at some point and were lounging at opposite ends of the room, supremely indifferent to mom’s anxiety. That’s how cats are.

And the mouse? Something tells me it’s peeking around the corner of the piano, or the davenport or an end table. Giggling.

*Remember when it was considered okay for children’s cartoons to be that racist? Don’t even get me started on Hong Kong Fuey.

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It’s a Jungle Out There

jungle bannerBy mid-August, the garden is tired. So is the gardener. The once-tidy beds (all right, they were never tidy, but they were at least navigable) have degenerated into wilderness, like the moss-covered skyscrapers on that “After We’re All Dead” TV show on the science channel. Actually, left to its own devices, the yard would be in a more presentable state than it is after my meddling. When my folks built the place in 1960, the lot was native sod. Given its druthers, my little patch of ground would happily revert to a prairie landscape. Even now Mother Nature tries to sneak in a few specimens of cocklebur and quack grass among the more exotic varieties of weeds introduced through horticulture and bird poop.

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Dahlias

Both the dahlias and gladiolas are in full glory at the moment – an occasion both for joy and foreboding, for while they are among the most spectacular blooms of the season, they are also among the last. Their appearance is a harbinger of things to come … and those things are mostly cold and white and require a shovel to remove them.

The brevity of a Minnesota summer makes it all the more precious. It’s partly for that reason that I tend to slack off on the weeding around this time. After two months of toil, it is time to reap the harvest: in my case, not produce but the abundance of beauty as my gardens reach their triumphant climax. If a garden were a fireworks display, now would be the moment the marching band enters playing “Stars & Stripes Forever” amid a cacophony of erupting Roman candles.

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To enjoy the August garden, bring a pith helmet and machete

Tragically, I am not able to fully enjoy the Big Finish this year. A week ago I brought a book out to the rose garden, currently experiencing a fresh flush of beauty. I sat on the small bench there, in peaceful contentment, listening to the small, chirping birds, the sigh of the breeze and the incessant beep-beeping of the trio of anti-snake death sticks I installed earlier this summer. Coincidentally, it was at the very moment that I was reflecting on how damned irritating those beeps are when I spied something under the floribunda directly across from me.

A head.

omg

Well, at least I don’t have platypuses. Thanks, Amazon Prime!

It wasn’t a human head; that would have been okay … or at least less NOT okay than the wedge-shaped, beady-eyed, forked-tongue-flicking horror a scant two feet away. It was a snake, of course, curled up around the base of the rose bush, apparently attracted by the alluring concert of electronic beeps around it.

At least, I thought as my blood curdled in my veins, it is a small one. The head was about the size of the last segment of my index finger. However, as I allowed my gaze to travel from that head all along the ropes and coils of its body, I realized the rest of this thing was freakin’ huge. Assuming it was the same villain who prompted the purchase of the in-retrospect -wildly-overpriced anti-snake sticks, it was apparent that it had officially crossed that important threshold between “snake” and “serpent.”

I have a friend who worked in an office complex converted from an old hospital. Alone there one Sunday afternoon, she stepped out of the office to find a nurse standing in the hallway about halfway between my friend and the only exit.

A semi-transparent nurse.

My own predicament that moment in the garden was somewhat similar, except the nightmarish apparition that occupied the space between me and safety was a) not dead and b) failed to vanish into nothingness when it saw me looking at it. It just flicked its tongue and stared back at me.

Frankly, I think my friend got the better deal.

To make my egress through the narrow (and, one has to assume, snake-infested) arbor, I had to sidle past my enemy, literally within inches of that coiled form. It was important to make my escape stealthily, so as not to startle the creature into making a leaping attack at my ankles (I’m pretty sure they do that) or worse, slithering off into the larger garden beyond. There it would find an infinity of leafy undergrowth in which to … lurk.

Contorting my considerable bulk through a series of Ninja moves that would have won the top prize on “America’s Most Humiliating Home Videos,” I managed to elude the predator and escape, screaming, into the relative safety of the grassy backyard. I haven’t been back since.

And so, the dahlias are badly in need of dead-heading, the burgeoning mums are lost in a sea of pigweed and the unfettered grapevines have crept over the garden and are plotting to creep through my bedroom window and strangle me in my sleep. Meanwhile, I am confined to the margins of the green zones, pacing like a tiger in a cage, wondering what I’m missing.

For a hot minute I allowed myself to hope that my snake encounter was an isolated incident. Perhaps my tormentor was merely a tourist, passing through on his way from the farm fields south of town to the very snake-congenial swampy morass that backs the properties across the road. But yesterday I heard the back neighbor suddenly cry out, “There’s another one! Stay away from it, kids!”

snakepursuit

My conception of the block party this coming weekend.

It’s possible he was talking about a rare breed of fanged, rabid baby bunny, but it seems more likely he had stumbled on something with far fewer legs than a rabbit. Moreover, his use of the word “another” suggests this was in no way the first such encounter he’d had. The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that 1) the neighborhood is teeming with these things and, by extension, 2) we can expect a snakenado of writhing reptiles to drop from the treetops AT ANY MOMENT.

flyingsnake

Yes, flying snakes are A THING.

Someone at work noted that this is “a bad year for snakes.” On the contrary, I’d say it’s a pretty damned awesome year for snakes, what with the abundant moisture creating a never-ending buffet of slugs, mosquitoes and tadpoles on which the reptiles can feast … and grow. It is, conversely, a very bad year indeed for anybody who hates snakes as much as I do.

Mating_ball_of_garter_snakes

Something to look forward to.

In a month or so, after the first hard frost has turned the dahlias black and the daylilies to mush, the snakes will creep into their burrows to wait out the winter. If the cold season is relatively mild, as it was last year, they’ll be back in greater numbers in the spring. For the first time in my life, I’m praying for a cold, hard winter. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

headwatersbanner

They say there’s no going back. This is not actually true; often you can indeed go back, literally if not metaphorically. I did so myself this week when I revisited scenes from my youth during a quick overnight junket to northern Minnesota.

I had taken three days off last week, intending to have a writing retreat, and had casually thrown out the possibility of motoring north to Itasca and pitching my pup tent under the pines. However, studies have conclusively proven that a lone woman in a crowded, well-patrolled state park has a 100% chance of being killed by a serial killer. At least, that’s how my mother heard it. She proposed an alternative scenario: the same journey under the protection of her burly 89-year-old self, substituting a clean and comfortable hotel room for the pup tent. Having recently seen her go medieval on an errant bat with a broom, I was afraid to decline.

I made the 128-mile trek from Osakis to Bemidji many times while a student at Bemidji State University (Go, Beavers!). Thus it was with full confidence that I turned my little red Kia onto the first of a maze of back country roads that had shortened the distance when I was an undergraduate. “You do have a map in the glove compartment, don’t you?” my mother gently inquired. I scoffed.

Fifteen minutes from home we were lost. It’s possible the layout of the roads has changed in the quarter century since I last went this way. More likely, the steep cognitive decline that is said to commence at age 50 has already erased my memory of the way north. I bluffed certainty in our route until we stumbled upon the little town of Parkers Prairie. There a sign helpfully pointed us to Highway 29 and Wadena. I was back on firm ground, navigationally speaking.

sturhoselfie

We are two wild and crazy gals.

Our first stop on the way was in Menahga and the impressive monument to St. Urho. For those who don’t know (and that would be almost everyone), St. Urho was the brave hero who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland. Or so the legend goes – a legend, by the way, entirely concocted by a professor of history at Bemidji State University and adopted, inexplicably, by the good citizens of Menahga (most of whom presumably claim Finnish descent, if not a strong knowledge of their motherland’s history). In addition to being home to the shrine of St. Urho, Menahga also designates itself the Gateway to the Pines.sturho

From time immemorial it was here that the central plains gave way to the vast pine forests that once covered the northern half of my home state. Today, much of the land between Menahga and Park Rapids is turned to farming and the “pines” consist of narrow bands of firs lining the highway. Actually, since the branches of the trees facing the high-wire lines have been trimmed off by the utilities company, even these are only half-pines. Such is progress.

It is at Park Rapids that one begins to feel you are truly entering the woods. I turned off 71 to take the Lake George road. Back in the day, this was a rather narrow, winding trail through the forest, with trees crowding close up against the road, and it was awesome. These days it’s a newly repaved two-lane highway. Not so scenic, but still worth the drive. As mom pointed out about the time we hit Emmaville (a miniscule settlement most notable for the large sign that loudly proclaims, “Oops! You just missed Emmaville!” when you fail to discern the place itself), taking the Lake George Road meant we had to backtrack to get to our destination, Itasca State Park. No matter. It’s a beautiful drive.

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Welcome to Itasca State Park

We entered the park at the east entrance. It’s a testament to the enduring belief in “Minnesota nice” that the entrance was unmanned; visitors are directed to tuck a $5 bill into an envelope and drop it in a slot. We did.

A large storm had raged through the north country a week before our arrival, and the park showed the marks of its passage in the form of many downed trees. I couldn’t help wondering how capricious Mother Nature chooses her victims. We passed many stands of apparently dead trees that still stood firm, while enormous red and white pines that one might expect to withstand the Final Reckoning lay twisted and jack-knifed beside the road.

We took the 10-mile Wildlife Loop and, as always, saw no wildlife. It did bring to mind an occasion when my niece Amy and I rented bicycles in the park, thinking to take a relaxing ride, and ended up half-dead after several miles of mostly hills.

Immediately after turning off the Wildlife Loop, a white-tailed deer sauntered out in front of the car.

ourtentItasca State Park figures large in my childhood memory, as it was a favorite place to camp for my family. We are camping people. Long after glossy, silver Airstreams began taking over the parks, my people continued to erect our blue-and-yellow tent. My parents camped on their honeymoon, and had I ever found a mate, that would have been my choice, too. I was introduced early to this form of recreation; my parents brought a portable cradle with them to the campground when I was still an infant. I can’t imagine my frugal folks spending good money on anything else with such a limited use and lifespan, which is evidence of the central role camping played in our lives.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We made the obligatory stop at the Headwaters of the Mississippi (which apparently isn’t). Both mom and I decided that scrambling across the slippery rocks was a broken hip waiting to happen. This is what it is to be old.

Faux Cabin

Thence down the road to the Pioneer Cabin, which is actually a Pioneer Cabin Reconstruction. The original cabin lies in an unrecognizable heap next to the spiffy fake. Nevertheless, I took many photos of the cabin and adjacent lumber sledge, both of which 19th century props figure largely in my novel-in-progress. (For those keeping track, my heroine is still sitting in a wagon somewhere on the Fosston trail, where she has languished since February. I sure hope them there canned preserves and salted meat she bought at the general store hold out until I get back to her in the fall, or I may find a bloated corpse where I left a lively girl. Then my novel becomes about zombies.)

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Native American cemetery in its natural state.

A brief stop at the Indian Mounds illustrated how much times have changed. As a small child, I distinctly remember running up and over the neatly mowed mounds that resembled well-tended golfing greens. I hope at least my parents chided me for desecrating a grave, but I think in those days people didn’t connect such artifacts with the real people who made them.  I visited the mounds again when I was in college and found them overgrown with weeds and enclosed in a high fence. This was more culturally sensitive, perhaps, but gave the uncomfortable impression that the deceased were imprisoned. Given the history of white-native relations in the state, this was a bit awkward. On this trip, I found the entire area of the mounds enclosed in an attractive wooden fence. Inside, the native burial ground was so overgrown with trees, shrubs and other vegetation as to be unrecognizable. Presumably there are mounds within, but you’d never know it.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center. Mary was the first female park commissioner. She had but a brief tenure; after upholding her mandate to protect the park by defying a logging company’s attempt to flood the park, she was demoted at the insistence of the politically powerful lumber industry, and subsequently resigned in protest. Good on ya, Mary!

I had a few of these paleface natives

I had a few of these paleface natives

Made by hand using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

Handmade by native artisans using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

We perused the gift shop only long enough for me to note another change from my youth. The “trading post” used to feature the kind of tacky, culturally insensitive trinkets that would cause mass demonstrations today. This was back when the local indigenous peoples were still called Chippewa and Sioux (an Ojibwe word that apparently translates roughly as “those bastards on the other side of the woods”), instead of Ojibwe and Lakota. I recall toy peace pipes (a wooden dowel painted black with a feather hung from one end), and we always went home with at least one “Indian drum,” which consisted of a piece of rubber stretched over a brightly colored tin can; occasionally I left clutching an Indian maiden doll. As I recall, they looked very much like myself, a little white girl, but had braids and wore a dress made of fringed suede. Educational!

With the afternoon waning, it was time to leave the scene of my childhood recreation and proceed to a place that recalls slightly more recent memories. On to Bemidji!

To be continued …

 

 

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