I am house sitting in Maine in a 200-year-old home. Early yesterday morning I heard a soft scratching in the dining room ceiling. Probably a mouse. I smack the wall near the spot and the noise stops. Then I hear a rhythmic rasping while I’m on the living room sofa reading Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys, a murder mystery about home intruders. Scared? Nah, it’s that house mouse but now it’s a bit louder and more insistent, almost frantic. I put down my book and go outside, wondering if something at least as big as a robin is trying to nest in the eaves. I don’t know how much noise a bird might make when it’s homesteading.
The house has been resided with clapboard-like cement composite, so whatever this critter is can’t damage it, but, hey, I’m a writer. I’m curious. I stumble around on the steep front lawn and find nothing bigger than a yellow butterfly. Back in the front room, the noise continues, increasingly louder and more insistent. I can stop it by smacking my hand against the wall, but as soon as I settle back onto the sofa, it resumes.
I call my sister. She has a fairly old house. “Ignore it,” she says. But I don’t want this thing damaging the wiring or digging down through the ceiling. I don’t want it to die and decay up there. “Yes, you do want it to die up there.”
I call a neighbor. “Yeah, old houses get critters, though not usually this late in the spring. Here’s the number for Animal Control, but I doubt there’s anything they can do.” Alright, I’ll be the New England stoic I admire, I tell myself. I let the dog’s out and in again. We all go to sleep. When we get up at 6:00 am, the house is quiet. Either that animal—likely a squirrel or chipmunk—has found a way out or it died and a couple of days from now I’ll regret its demise and open all the windows to air out the place.
This sort of incidental intruder would become, in the hands of a different writer, a ghostly or alien threat, if not to life, at least to sanity. Think of Robert Frost’s narrative poem “Up Attic,” or anything by Stephen King, another New Englander capable of make something out of this almost nothing. Either of them would do more that fret about the stink of a dead rodent in the ceiling.