It’s an unmistakeable smell, one of those olfactory sensations felt nearly as much in the back of the throat as in the nostrils, and when it hits while I am dusting out in the great room, I initiate the protocol for these situations. Burying my face in the crook of my arm, I beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen, gulp the fresher air, and glare at the cat. “Where’d you put it?” I demand.
Now, if you are owned by a cat, you will recognize the futility of such a question.
- This mouse has obviously been dead for long enough to be in a fairly advanced stage of decomposition, which means it was probably killed (or succumbed to its injuries from a friendly game of tag) several days ago, which in turn means Gracie has no further interest in the matter. She demonstrates this by licking her paw and yawning hugely in my face.
- The cat is wise enough to know that I have a nose, because often enough she awakens me by batting it. As a fellow meat-eater, therefore, I should be able to follow the scent trail of a reeking mouse. It’s a pretty pathetic hunter who can’t find dead prey, and Gracie will not play enabler to a nasally-challenged human.
- Cats don’t actually talk, so the odds of getting an answer weren’t good to begin with.
I’m going to have to do this the hard way.
Arming myself with disposable latex gloves, a flashlight, a can of Lysol, and a roll of paper towels, I cautiously approach the scene of the rodent’s demise. From long experience, I know it will do no good to hold my breath, since that inevitably leads to a bout of gagging when hypoxia sets in and I have to suck down a huge breath of stink. Instead, shallow breaths are the trick. With luck, you hit just the right balance between a little oxygen starvation to take the edge off caring how much it stinks, and full-on fainting.
The miasma seems strongest the closer I go to the corner where the couch, corner cupboard, and plant table congregate. This is logical. Mice never die in the middle of the floor, which would be much too easy.
I have an interested audience by now. I look over at the cat, who is sitting on the top step of the stairs leading down into the sunken great room. There’s nothing like having to find a mouse under the critical eye of an expert. “Don’t suppose you’d care to help,” I mutter.
Her Majesty does not, apparently.
Gingerly, I lean to sniff the couch cushions, then quickly jerk my head back. The body is somewhere close, no doubt about it. Steeling myself, I pull up the first seat cushion. No dead mouse. It’s a relief, but there are two more cushions to go. (Just as an aside: have you noticed that in western culture we are primed for series of three? Three acts in a play or novel, Three Billy Goats Gruff, three chief suspects in a murder mystery. The motif of triples is ingrained in us. Which is why I know almost before I reach for it–and you know, too–that the dead mouse is not under Cushion #2.) The dead mouse is not under Cushion #2. Girding myself, I v-e-r-y carefully lift the last cushion.
Nothing but a stray green wire hook left over from Christmas ornaments.
Okay, so not the couch. The next logical place to check is under the free-standing corner cupboard behind the couch. I know this has been a favorite refuge for intended victims in other skirmishes of the Mouse Wars. Gracie’s lethal paw cannot reach a mouse that has hidden behind the center back of the piece of furniture where it does not quite meet the wall.
The moment I get down on the floor, I know I’m close. Eyes smarting, I shine the light under the cupboard. Nothing. Well, except for a huge dust kitty, the sponge ball Gracie likes to play with, and a fragment of a cracker from the Christmas party I hosted in this room two weeks ago. So John/Jane Doe Mouse was here. I hope it enjoyed its last meal of Pepperidge Farm Multigrain Cracker, perhaps with a crumb of the excellent havarti one of my guests brought. I carefully retrieve the toy, though my lungs are straining for air. The things we do for love.
I stagger to my feet, rubbing the knee that will give me hell tonight for kneeling on it, and eye the last possible scene of the crime, a fabric-covered coffee table which serves as a plant stand in front of the window. My huge Christmas cactus plants are still in spotty bloom, but most of the dried blossoms have fallen, so the mouse might be in the leaf litter. Or it might have run up the back of one of the table legs, burrowed under the cloth, and there expired.
I carefully search through the fallen cactus blossoms, finding nothing. Then I remove the potted plants from the table, set them on the floor, and take up the fabric tablecloth with its cargo of dried flowers. Nothing on the table. Nothing nasty clinging to the back of the cloth, either. I stare, unwilling to believe my watering eyes. “Where the hell is it?” I croak.
The dead rodent has got to be under the table, so have to get the plants off the floor and out of the way so I can have a look with the flashlight. I bend to lift the cactus with the beautiful coral-colored flowers, and I know immediately I have found ground-zero. I can’t even take a chance on gasping.
I set the cactus on the table and shine the flashlight in amongst its two-decade old woody stems. The dead mouse is wedged between the lowest branch and the surface of the potting soil. And I mean wedged. The little corpse is bloated, of course–hence the smell of putrefaction–and when I try to pull it out, neither the mouse nor the cactus is willing to cooperate. From hard past experience I know one does not want to mess around too much with a bloated mousie corpse because then things just get nasty. I manage to scoop out some potting mix from under the mouse and eventually extricate the body, hurling the tiny dead thing with more force than is probably necessary into the snow in the backyard.
I am tempted to spray the Lysol on my cactus, but I don’t want to kill it, so I settle for using the spray disinfectant as an air freshener instead. The combination of green-apple scented Lysol and dead mouse would, as my father used to say, knock a buzzard off a shit pile at forty paces.
That evening, after taking a shower and laundering my expedition clothing, I am sitting in the rocking chair, icing my knee and reading. Suddenly there is a crash from the basement, the thudding of four feet on the stairs, and the cat shoots under the stool on which my foot rests. Gracie launches herself from the parlor floor down to the great room, bypassing the stairs entirely, and before I can yell, “Oh, no, you don’t!” and get out of the chair, a desperate squeaking comes from the darkness out in the great room, and I can hear the scrabble of claws as my cat chases the mouse she has just brought up from the basement.
The Mouse Wars are on again.