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

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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.

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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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A Very Little War

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Ant_(Formicidae)_Carrying_Pupa-_Guelph,_Ontario_03

A kidnapping in progress

We live in turbulent times. I was reminded last night that, even on the smallest scale, Mother Nature produces no peaceable kingdoms. While strolling through my rose garden, I became aware of a kind of seething movement beneath my feet. Looking down, I observed masses of large, red ants clambering over the pebble path. Large numbers were proceeding, with regimental precision, from a point beneath one of the shrub roses. Each of these held aloft a white egg case (technically a pupa, I guess). At the same time as these single-file rows of pupa-bearers streamed away from the point of origin, an equal number of unencumbered ants were marauding back in the direction of what I discovered to be a black carpenter ant colony under the shrub.

Fascinated, I watched the red raiders swarm the various entrance holes of the black anthill and emerge with their cylindrical spoils. I would have felt bad for the black ants, but they didn’t put up much of a fight, to be honest. Outnumbered and undersized, the adult inhabitants of the colony had fled the mound, taking refuge among the foliage of the bush, where they paced restlessly, watching the carnage below. Such immediate capitulation does not command respect.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

I followed the red ants as far as I could, across the full length of the rose garden and over the plastic border of the path into the deep foliage beyond. It occurred to me that, in the context of the scale of these determined creatures, the distance they covered from their victims’ fortress to their own is the equivalent of many miles for a human. Moreover, the four-inch path border they surmounted must be an Everest for them. Yet not a one faltered or deviated from its course. They proceeded with steely determination, and no jagged chunk of rock, inconveniently rooted thistle or giant sandaled shoe would deter them. (After the first half dozen crept over my toes, I got the hell out of their way.)

Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that the red ants were likely formica sanguinea, the blood-red ant. This is a slave-making species, which means they raid other ants’ nests and – you guessed it – kidnap the pupae from the brood chamber. They take them back to their own lair, where they hatch and become slave workers for their oppressive overlords. Geez, and those antz from the cartoon seemed like such nice guys.

Don't be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

Don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

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And you think YOU’RE having a bad day

The insect world is full of this kind of weird stuff. One summer I discovered a caterpillar on the grape vines that looked like it had grown spikes all over its body. Nope. Turns out the “spikes” were the pupae of some kind of wasp that eats the caterpillar from the inside out. Other parasites are able to turn their host bugs into zombies, controlling what they eat and how they behave. There’s a species that causes the caterpillar they infect to become the invader’s bodyguard, violently fighting off predators of the cocoons, even though the caterpillar-defender is destined be consumed by the baby wasps as soon as they hatch. Talk about ungrateful!

There’s even a parasite that causes its host – an ant, ironically – effectively to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a long blade of grass, the better to be eaten by a cow; the parasite needs to reside a while in a cow’s gullet as part of its life cycle. (There was no data on what sordid things they make the cows do.)

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

Fortunately for us higher orders, our brains have evolved beyond the point of being influenced by parasitic Svengalis*. Oh, sure, scientists have made some crazy claims that the parasite T. gondii, which disseminates itself through cat feces and has thereby infected a third of the world’s population with toxoplasmosis, is able to exert subtle control over its human hosts. The theory seems to be that, since infection by T. gondii has been shown to make rodents unafraid of, and even attracted to, cats – their natural predator – it follows that the nasty little beggars can also make us humans overly fond of and ultimately in thrall to our feline life partners.

What nonsense! In fact, I’d offer a mountain of conclusive proof that this isn’t true … but I suddenly feel compelled to go buy a case of Fancy Feast.

 

 

*Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel, Trilby. The character holds an uncanny hypnotic power over his protégé. She is a singer, not an ant.

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Breaking Bat

BreakingBat

It was a dark and stormy night …

No, it really was. Last Saturday we had the first real thunderstorm of the season after a hot and muggy day. Around midnight I was lying on the couch with fans blowing on me (no central AC) and watching the flicker of frequent lightning outside. There was a rustling in the sheer curtains behind my makeshift bed, and I reached up in the darkness to pet whichever cat had taken up residence on the back of the sofa.

It wasn’t a cat.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything under the palm that reached out to stroke thin air – but I did feel an abrupt scratch across the back of my hand. “That’s weird,” I thought. Then, in the next flash of electricity through the windows I saw something above my head.

Circling the ceiling fan. Swooping. Flapping.

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.You know the sound a bat makes, that ultra-high squeak that could shatter glass? That’s the sound *I* made when I realized what I had been trying to cuddle. The flash lasted just an instant, and then the room was in darkness again. I lunged for the afghan to cover myself with. Another flash, accompanied by a glimpse of the creature fluttering away in the direction of the kitchen, pursued by a dark shadow underneath it: one of the cats.

Darkness.

Flash! (No sign of the beast.)

Darkness.

The switch for the overnight light was at the opposite end of the room, so I wrapped myself in the afghan and sprinted to it. I flooded the living room with blessed light. Then the kitchen. The hall. Both unoccupied bedrooms (my mother slept through this whole event). Every room in the basement.

Nothin’.

I snagged a flashlight and crept back to the couch, flipping off lights behind me. The rest of the night I lay awake, thinking about that possibly rabid bat lurking somewhere. Thinking about that scratch on the back of my hand.

Around 6 am my mother arose and came into the living room to watch her morning shows. I staggered off to the bedroom to try to get a few winks, tossing over my shoulder, “Unless I was hallucinating, there’s a bat in the house.”

Some time later I was awakened by an inhuman shriek. Nope, not the bat. My mom. I raced to the living room to find her 89-year-old self in the middle of the room, a broom raised high over her head. Something brown flopping around at her feet.

Whack! The wounded creature eluded her and sought refuge under the glider chair. My mother retreated to a safe distance while I fetched a plastic container and captured the intruder therein.

Okay, here’s where it gets bad. I have this injured, but still quite lively bat trapped in a Tupperware container. Ordinarily, since I am a live-and-let-live kind of gal, I’d just release the thing outside and wish it well.

But here’s the thing: I had physical contact with this bat. True, the scratch was barely perceptible and I couldn’t find any puncture marks to suggest I’d actually been bitten by the thing. Statistically, the odds I might get rabies from this poor little critter were infinitesimally small.

However, if DID get rabies, my odds of dying of it were 100%*. Now, I’m not much good at math, but that seems high to me.

feel lucky

Hasty research online presented me with two options: Have the bat tested for rabies, or have a series of prophylactic shots to protect me in the unlikely event that I was exposed to the deadly virus. I don’t much like shots. I also don’t much like the $8,000-$10,000 price tag for the treatment.

I pondered my health savings account balance, already likely to be zeroed out by the series of mammograms and ultrasound tests I’d had only days before.

It was Sunday morning. There were no veterinary clinics open. I called the emergency vet line, and was told to refrigerate the specimen and bring it in on Monday morning for testing.

I looked at the bat, crawling in restless circles around the bottom of the plastic bucket. I had no idea how to euthanize it humanely without damaging the head (needed for the testing).

Quietly I put the container in the downstairs refrigerator and closed the door.

You hate me now; I hate myself. My hope was that the bat would just get colder and colder and finally go to sleep and die, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Let me believe that’s what happened.

On Monday morning I carried the well-chilled container into my vet’s office to be express mailed to the Twin Cities for testing. I did not look to see how – or whether – the thing had died. “When there’s human contact, they usually turn these around pretty quickly,” the vet tech assured me. “The lab will contact your doctor directly. You should hear something in a day or so.”

Oh, and by the way, “There’s a $76 fee to send it in.”

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.I spent the first half hour of that day-or-so on the Internet, systematically making my way through the 435,000 results of Googling “bats and rabies.” Every single one of them promised that rabies could be avoided if treatment was started within 24 hours of contact.

Well, crap. It had already been 36 hours. I had taken the precaution of emailing my doctor’s office the night before, inquiring whether it was safe to wait until results came back on the bat, or whether I should begin the shots as a precaution. I didn’t hear from the doctor on Monday.

I didn’t hear from the doctor on Tuesday. Or the testing lab. I called the doctor’s office. Chipper voice mail greeting: “We’re all out of the office today! Leave a message!” I left a message. I called the switchboard. “Is there someone else I can talk to?” I asked. “The internet says I’m going to die if I don’t get shots.” I was put on hold. A minute later the switchboard operator came back on and said the on-call doctor would be in touch.

I didn’t hear from the on-call doctor. I started to panic.

Admittedly, given that only about 6% of bats test positive for rabies, my level of anxiety was perhaps overblown. But by a morbid coincidence, I have always had a special fascination with and horror of this disease. I think it dates to seeing “Old Yeller” when I was really small. And “Cujo.” And that one episode of “House.” In any case, I have developed a dangerous amount of informed ignorance on the subject of hydrophobia, as it used to be called. I even read a book on it during my vacation. (I also read a book on syphilis, but I was less worried about contracting that.)

In the 19th century, there was some debate about whether rabies even existed as a real malady, despite the rather regular newspaper reports of people dying of it. Historical treatments for the disease have included drinking a beverage made from the skull of a hanged man, wrapping with a poultice made from cloth and hyena skin, cauterization of the wound with a heated key, and the remedy popular right up until Pasteur developed his vaccine: the application of a “mad stone” to the bite. This was a stone or, preferably, a hair ball from the stomach of a deer (available from Sears-Roebuck, presumably), boiled in milk and placed over the wound. If the stone stuck to the skin, it signified the presence of rabies, and the stone was said to draw out the poison.

Mad stone … or mad chocolate chip cookie?

I have my doubts about the efficacy of these cures.

On Wednesday, I heard nothing from my doctor, the lab, or the vet’s office. I emailed the vet. I emailed the doctor again.

Wednesday evening I had a terse response from the vet’s office: “We’ll let you know when we hear something.” And an indifferent reply from my doctor: “Let me know when you hear something.”

I began foaming at the mouth – from frustration, not rabies. However, I was sure I felt some burning at the potential site of the infection, and was a little nauseous. The first signs!

Granted, it generally takes months for rabies symptoms to appear in an infected person. But I’ve always been an overachiever.

Thursday came and mostly went. At 4:10 pm, I had a call from the vet’s office. “Test came back negative.”

Great. So the poor bat died (Peacefully! Let me pretend it was peacefully!) for nothing.

If there as an afterlife for myotis lucifugus, the little brown bat, my victim will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his home invasion cost me $76 and a helluva lot of stress. And though I am no longer worried about dying of rabies, I still have one other bat-borne condition to fret over.

There's a vaccine for this, right?

There’s a vaccine for this, right?

Hear that twittering sound? It’s the bat ghost. Giggling.

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Intimations of Mortality*

13484257 - grim reaper on the road

Since I reached the half-century mark last fall, I’ve been a little preoccupied with my impending demise. Not that I’m planning on shrugging off this mortal coil any time soon, but it’s, you know … out there. Death, I mean.

You see, I’ve reached the stage of life where my own body is beginning actively trying to kill me. It seems Mother Nature figures by this time any offspring I may have produced are old enough to more or less fend for themselves, and I’m not spawning any more, so really I’m just taking up space. Even the very oxygen I breathe is turning my formerly well-disciplined and law-abiding cells into havoc-causing free radicals.

As a spinster, I occupy a higher-than-average space on evolution’s hit list. It seems I may be penalized for failing to fulfil the biological imperative (i.e., reproducing) with an increased risk for ovarian and breast cancers. Protest though I may, Ma Nature simply smirks, “I don’t care how skilled you are at propagating dahlias. Your job is to propagate your OWN species, slacker.”

Mother Nature’s opinion of me:

It doesn’t help that I’m 1) kind of a hypochondriac; and 2) morbidly fascinated by deadly disease. I tend to diagnose any twinge or twitch as some exotic malady I spent two hours observing on YouTube the night before. Sleepless night? Must be Fatal Familial Insomnia Syndrome. A nosebleed has me wondering how on earth I got exposed to Ebola.

You get the idea.

Despite my fascination with horrible things that can happen to me, I strenuously avoid any opportunity to actually find out if something’s wrong. I.do.not.want.to.know. Thus it was with extreme reluctance that I went in for a physical exam – my first in eight years – a couple of days ago. My doctor poked and prodded in the usual ways, probed all of my orifices (this is why they get paid the big money) and pronounced me apparently healthy, if not fit. Then she sent me downstairs for a mammogram after extracting a promise to schedule my next exciting adventure, which involves a lot of laxative and a flexible hose, sometime soon.

The next day I got my test results in my personal “My Chart” online account. Under mammogram, I found the following: “No suspicious mass, asymmetric density, architectural distortion or suspicious microcalcification in the right breast.”

Hurrah!

Then: “Small area of architectural distortion in the outer left breast middle depth.”

Oh. How could this be? My left boob has always been my good boob; my right boob is the problem child, subject to cyclical soreness and random burning sensations. Leftie, by contrast, has always just hung their quietly, minding its own business.

Moments later I was on the phone with the nurse at my doctor’s office.

ME: I just looked up architectural distortion on the Internet–

NURSE: Don’t. Don’t look up stuff.

screaming womanToo late. It is enough to say that what I had learned from Dr. Google was not a day brightener. Additional scans were recommended; I set up an appointment at their earliest convenience. (MY earliest convenience would have been at that very moment, dammit.) For the next two days I avoided further search engine forays, but did spend a fruitless few moments looking for “home mastectomy kit” on Amazon Prime.  Might as well get my money’s worth out of that annual fee.

6154052 - x-ray mammogram

Stunt breast. (Not my actual mammogram.)

I had the follow-up scans. The technician was initially perky and reassuring. “These things are almost always just overlapping glandular tissue,” she explained.

(Did she just call me fat?)

She dashed off to send my films to the radiologist for evaluation, leaving me alone to notice that for follow-up exams they move you from the generic, hospital-green exam rooms to the rather ominous Susan-Komen-pink exam room.  One of my scans was on the screen behind the leaded glass barrier. A dark outline of an oval shape filled with squiggly white lines and blobs, like something colored by a toddler.

I remembered something else from the test result: “scattered fibroglandular densities.”

28155186 - portrait of 4d ultrasound scanning machine operator

These technicians are always very cheerful. And why not? THEY’RE not dying.

The technician returned. “The radiologist would like to see a few more pictures,” she said, just a little less brightly than before. She started pulling out a series of plastic attachments designed to squeeze my ample bosom into various unnatural configurations. “Looks like I’m dirtying up every dish in the kitchen!” she quipped.

Ha ha**.

Off again to consult the doctor. Back again, after a slightly longer interval than the first time.

“Well, we’re going to go ahead and send you on down to ultrasound.”

Awkward pause as I reached for a kleenex.

“I’m sure she just wants to confirm that the area of density was compressed out by the scan,” she said – or something like that. I have no idea what that meant, but I was apparently supposed to interpret it as encouraging.

I changed out of the pink gown and trudged down the hall to Ultrasound Imaging. Was escorted to a dimly lit, all-white room. Directed to put on an all-white gown (slightly unsettling color scheme; invokes associations with ghosts and angels and other DEAD things).

I had forgotten to remove the little nipple sticker with the little ball bearing on it from my last exam. I tucked it into my purse. Might come in handy as part of a costume if I ever decide to get into pole dancing.

Lying on the exam table (draped in white, natch), I contemplated the possible implications of all this testing. Mostly I dreaded having to tell my mom I have cancer. This was partly because she’s been hounding me years to have a mammogram (“I’ve heard buxom women are at higher risk.”). But mostly it was because she’s almost 90 years old and doesn’t need to hear THAT kind of news. My grandmother died of breast cancer that metastasized into her bones, a painful death that gave my mother a particular terror of breast cancer. It was a fear I never really shared.

Until now.

The young woman who conducted the ultrasound was pleasant, albeit less aggressively upbeat than the mammogram lady. She was also, inexplicably, wearing blue scrubs. She had me lie on my side, then smeared me up with some kind of gel. I closed my eyes as she moved her probe over my naked flesh – over the breast once, then again. Pause, and a tap on the keyboard under her screen. Around the suspect area again. Another keyboard click. The probe moved to my armpit. More movement. More clicks.

The technician finished up. These professionals are trained not to divulge anything they may or may not see. So I was surprised – and deeply grateful – when she remarked, “I don’t know what was on your mammogram, but I think you’ll get a good result from the ultrasound.”

“I hope so,” I answered, “because this is scary.”

“Yeah, I know,” she agreed.

relayforlifeBack in my car, in the parking lot, I wept.  Then I drove to my office, where I found the whole place draped in purple. I remembered that it was Relay For Life day, an annual event to raise awareness of … wait for it … cancer. Oh, irony. You so crazy.

Though the mammogram lady had said they’d try to get results back to me by the end of the day, because otherwise it would be all damned weekend, I didn’t hear anything on Friday. I checked my email frequently over the course of Saturday. Bupkis.

Finally, at 5:00 pm today, an email. A report. Findings benign. Come back next year.

You better believe I will.***

 

 

*”Intimations of Mortality” is a poem by Wordsworth about death and stuff.

**Really, she was very nice. But I wasn’t feeling terribly jocular at the moment.

**Now all I have to worry about is rabies. Wait for another post on THAT. My life. Oy.

 

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