The Houseguest

And the Perils of Rural Living

An Unsplash image by Archie Carlson

When my husband and I first moved to the country, I figured I was a natural. It was my true calling. I would watch my sons grow healthy and strong from consuming homegrown fresh vegetables and chasing snakes all over our 2-acre property. I would spend cold January nights by the woodstove, knitting heavy shaker-style sweaters, and create festive wreaths from corn husks and salal sprigs. I would go to community dances, sell tickets at the door, buy my eggs from a neighbour, and learn the names of all the local birds. I’d do my grocery shopping in my gumboots, and most importantly, I would bake bread. Regularly.

Hah. That was a long time ago, and while I have been known to produce the occasional loaf or two of whole wheat, and have attended the fireman’s ball twice, life in the country seems to largely involve driving (everywhere), avoiding rambunctious dogs when on foot, and keeping the spring bears out of our compost.

I’m not complaining; we’ve made a good life for ourselves in our little rural paradise. We built a modest house, watched our boys progress from car seats to computers, and established some solid friendships.

There are definite advantages to living simply in a small close-knit community. You know all the local business people by their first names, as well as the dogs, and best of all, you can leave your door unlocked most of the time — even now.

During our twenty+ years living in the country, I have replaced a lot of my romantic idealism with a more no-nonsense, have-at-it approach to life. I have dug myself out of snowstorms, thawed pipes at 6 am clad in a parka with the aid of a blowdryer.

I have rescued airborne chimney caps at midnight in hurricane force winds, and I have seen physical evidence of bears, cougars, and the interesting hermit who lives in a shack in the woods, in our garbage.

I have known the discomfort of living with no running water until we could scrounge up 2k for a new well pump.

I have helped neighbours comb the forest for lost teenage daughters, and played doctor to a vast array of small, wounded woodland creatures.

On a good day, I can even swing an axe. Polly Pioneer, I am. Or so, I like to think.

Although, there was that time a bunch of years ago — the day “he” arrived on a chilly autumn night. He came quietly, and set up house unbeknown to the we, the occupants. He lived happily (I presume) for days, maybe even weeks, with an varied menu and first-class sleeping quarters.

Oh yes, our houseguest thrived. Until he grew too comfortable, at which point, he lost his edge. He became sloppy. He began to leave clues. His scratching became audible, and he gnawed too loudly. He grew clumsy as he traversed the interior length of the wall separating the kitchen from our living room. BUMP! THUD!

“Richard?” I said one evening in late October.

My husband glanced up from his book. “Hmmmm?”

“Listen” I said. “That is not a mouse.”

We listened together and heard the distinctive “ping” of a saucepan lid as it fell inside a kitchen cupboard. Then we stared at each other.

“Big mouse,” said Richard.

“Do you think —

“Rat,” he finished.

I was suddenly cold all over. I stood up to return my mug to the kitchen but found it impossible to propel my feet forward. I just stood there.

“Carol Anne,” Richard snorted. “Don’t be such a wuss.”

“I can’t go in there,” I said. “IT’S in there.”

“So, it’s not going to hang around to meet you. Stop worrying. We’ll get him. We’ll set a trap. Not a big deal.”

No big deal. Sure. OK. This was, after all, the country. You get rats sometimes. And this guy probably came from the Patterson’s sheep farm down the road, I told myself. And then I remembered the sorry state of my pantry cupboard. There was an open bag of flour, baggies of unidentified spices, kidney beans that had gone AWOL, and the odd sticky maple syrup spill. Some words and images came to mind: bubonic plague…hantavirus…Willard!…Anthrax… piles of corpses, decomposing in dark, ominous alleyways. This wasn’t good. And then, it got worse. As I stood there, frozen in my Cowichan slippers, I suddenly comprehended the true meaning of the phrase, “I smell a rat!” Because I SMELLED HIM! And he smelled most unpleasant.

I screamed. At least that’s how Richard remembers it. I also jumped up onto a kitchen chair, Lucille Ball style. I probably even flapped my hands around. Yeah, humiliating, but I was powerless. This was foreign territory to me. There was a smelly, disease-carrying, enormous (imagination may have played a role here) rodent living in my kitchen. It was him or me. I’d have to outsmart him; formulate a plan. Bring out the heavy artillery.

“Don’t be a twit,” Richard said after listening to me stress. “I’ll buy a couple of rat traps tomorrow, and that’s that.”

“OK, but you have to dispose of said rat when we catch it,” I told him.

“Carol Anne,” he said with a sigh, “what would you do if I fell off the roof tomorrow and went into the light. THEN what would you do?”

“Dig up the insurance policy,” I said smugly.

"Then what," he challenged.

"I don't know. Retail therapy?"

"Whatever," he said, rolling over. "You're being irrational."

The following day was uneventful. I did some writing, walked the dog, then stopped by the hardware store for … the thing. There was an entire shelf dedicated to the destruction of vermin. Traps of all sizes. LIVE traps. Poison, pellets, and powder. Chemical warfare. I squirmed as I read the packaging. "Keep out of reach of children; causes internal haemorrhaging."

There were sticky traps that encouraged the rodent to venture inside an attractive cardboard house (complete with dormer window; very "country cottage"). Once inside, the unsuspecting rodent's feet would permanently adhere to the floor. Removal was clean and straightforward. You picked up the house and threw it away. Out of sight; out of mind. You weren't supposed to think about what was going on under the trash can lid for days afterwards. I frowned. It was such a perfect example of how our disposable and sanitized society worked. I asked a stock boy for advice.

"I dunno," he said to me. "All this stuff kills rats."

I scratched my chin as the clerk walked away toward automobile accessories, leaving me to my dilemma. If I bought the country cottage, I would have to take responsibility for that rodent's unpleasant demise. The bottom line, it was going to starve to death.

In the end, I decided the traps were the more "sporting" method of murder—certainly the most humane. But as I reached for a packet of two large rat traps, I remembered a day years ago when my youngest son had discovered an abandoned mouse nest under the pump house. The mother was long gone, and all the babies were dead—all except one. I told him he could keep it outside in the old hamster cage and helped him line the bottom of it with shavings from Richard's wood shop. Then we filled a dish with sunflower seeds and grated carrot, and bits of apple. I remembered how my son had kept vigil over the cage for three days until the baby mouse died and how proud I had been of his compassionate nature. And yet, here I was, determined to snuff the living breath from a harmless creature, whose only crime was being the fall guy for numerous dark fairy tales and the carrier of lethal germs. Oh yeah, the lethal germs. I only hesitated for a moment. This was, after all, a dog-eat-dog world.

I bought the traps.

My husband is a gentle man-of-the-earth type. He plants trees, grows garlic, and tills the soil. He has studied turkey vultures' behaviour and marvelled at the tenacity of the ants on the anthill on the property line. He creates nature-inspired carvings from scraps of cedar and yew. This is a man who recycles and reuses, a man whom dogs like immediately. He studies the landscape with an observant eye and a rich spirit. He saves snakes and catches spiders in old jam jars to take back outside. But when the rat moved in, I did not recognize him. He took the intrusion personally. His movements became erratic, and his eyes took on a wild, feral look. It was altogether unsettling.

"There," he said later that evening, sitting beside the pulled-out fridge on the kitchen floor.

"What?" I said.

"Trap is set. That rat has had its last free meal. The trap is wedged tight between the wall and the cupboard. He won't be able to drag it off when he's dying."

"It's not going to suffer, is it?" I was horrified to think the rat would have to endure a slow and torturous death.

"Probably," Richard said, his voice flat.

I slunk away, trying not to listen as my once-gentle spouse boasted about baiting the trap with a mixture of peanut butter and something else. I went to the bedroom to fold laundry. I shut the door, cued up some Chopin piano sonatas, and took a few deep breaths.

I left Richard alone with his peanut butter.

It wasn't easy to sleep that night. I had awful images stumbling around a dark kitchen at 4 am and losing a toe to the trap.

At 2:17 am, I sat up bolt right in bed. Richard stirred beside me.

"Did you hear that?" I hissed.

"Yep," Richard said. "Got 'im. Go back to sleep."

But I couldn't. After the trap's initial crack, I heard bumps and soft thuds for about three minutes afterwards.

I felt sick. I wanted to go and make tea. But nothing short of a house fire was going to get me out of bed. So, I lay there and waited for daylight.

At 7:30 am I found Richard in the kitchen making coffee. The light looked somewhat sinister, as it filtered through the curtains, and there was a deathly hush in the air. I even think the birds had stopped singing, and the dog was agitated.

"You might not want to watch this," Richard said, preparing to move the fridge.

"OK."

A moment later, I heard a rustling of paper. Then came the sound of the front door being opened. Then, the sound of it closing. Six minutes later, Richard returned, slightly pale.

"Was it a rat?" I asked.

"Looked more like an otter," Richard said. "Bloody huge." He held up his hands to form an imaginary creature in the air that measured about a foot in length… minus the tail.

"I can still smell it," I said.

"Yeah, it put up a bit of a fight. It isn't pretty behind the fridge."

By five o'clock that afternoon, the entire kitchen shone. The shelves had new shelf-paper, the stray kidney beans and other wandering foodstuffs had been corralled, and the floor had been washed three times. Bags had been sealed, jars had been labelled, and the bag of flour had placed safely inside a storage container. A new garbage can appeared, and the compost bucket had regained its original lid.

I sat back and admired my work. This was something because I wasn’t known for my superlative housekeeping skills. Sense of humour, perhaps. Practical jokes, definitely, but organization was not, and still isn't, one of my strong suits. I was impressed with myself.

Days passed, and I never did question my husband about the details surrounding our houseguest’s demise. And he was kind enough not to volunteer the gruesome details of its death. But the trap reappeared later that same day, and was set for a few more nights, just to be sure. Thankfully, the peanut butter remained untouched, and fast forward, we haven't been bothered by Rodentia of any kind. At least not inside the house.

Outside, it’s another story, particularly in the “smoking shack” — a place my husband built to enjoy an occassional pipe of homegrown tobacco on a starlit evening. Apparently, the rats enjoy it, too. So much so, that the scurrying of their little rat-feet in the rafters was interrupting Richard’s smoky “Zen” moments.

But there are no traps, country-cottage sticky houses, or death-by-pellet-gun moments, these days. Richard and I have mellowed with age, and we’ve learned to share this rural splendor with the myriad creatures who like it here, too. We’ve also learned that hanging drying Virginia and Burley tobacco in the shack is a natural rat repellent. Who knew?

In closing, I like to think I have toughened up over my twenty-plus years of country living. These days, I pick up spiders with my bare hands to take them outside, and if vermin ever find their way into my kitchen again, I doubt there will be any arm-flailing or Lucille Ball screaming.

And on that note, I leave you with the sage words of EB White’s, Templeton, the rat, from Charlotte’s Web:

“Yep. My stomach can handle anything.”

Bona fide word nerd. Author of 3 award-winning novels for young adults. Somewhat lazy painter. Living & writing from a tiny rural village on Vancouver Island.

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