I was seven years old the first time I saw a dead mouse. We had moved into a new house and Dad was getting ready to empty the mousetraps he had set in the dark corners of our garage. It was a real spectacle — a sibling parade strutting across the concrete floor and my brothers jockeying for a front row seat to the gruesome show. The mouse was squished in the middle, its eyes red and bulging. Dad carried the trap over to the garbage can, lifted the metal snapper and slid the mouse onto a pile of our garbage.
It was fascinating.
It was confusing.
It was scary to witness the impermanence of life in such a casual way.
Sometimes I’d see a mouse scurry along a floorboard in our 50s ranch home and I’d instinctively pull my knees up to my chin. My heart clanged around inside my chest as I imagined my body riddled with rabies, plague or a dozen other calamities these critters have been blamed for. What started off as a childhood fascination morphed into a full-blown phobia.
I eventually took off to the frozen tundra of eastern Idaho to attend a religious college. The weather went from summer breezes to fucking freezing within a matter of weeks. My apartment was about as far as you could get from campus and I found myself walking home each night wearing five layers of clothing and a frumpy down coat.
One night, as the winds howled and the snow flew sideways, I noticed something strange under the glow of a street lamp.
Was that a rock?
I bent down to take a closer look and saw that it was a large mouse frozen to the icy concrete—in mid-stride. Dead. It was probably walking along, trying to find food or a warm place to huddle, and ended up freezing to death on a lonely sidewalk.
I recoiled and found myself wondering if it was like that for humans, too? We’re just doing our thing and then we’re dead, with people hunching over us wondering what the hell went wrong.
It was about this time that the dreams began. I’d be sleeping quite peacefully, only to awake in a panic because mice were running through my sheets. They’d scramble over my ankles, their thin tails slipping between my toes. I’d shriek and then bolt out of bed, ripping the covers off like a magician and his white tablecloth. It was quite jarring for whoever was sharing my bed.
“Jesus Christ! What is it with you and mice?” one of them demanded after being jostled from tranquil slumber one too many times.
Thirteen years ago I was in a toxic relationship that I swear Roger Ebert would have given two enthusiastic thumbs up as “a gritty, eye-opening tale of anger, obsession, unrequited love and a Mountain Dew bottle full of urine.”
Jason and I fell in love fast and furious and everything unraveled as quickly as it balled up. He was swallowed whole by addiction, pride and a shitty childhood and I thought my devotion and loyalty would be enough to fix his brokenness. He started drinking in the morning and never left the bedroom. Didn’t bathe. Didn’t brush his teeth. Didn’t interact with the world. He once stole three dollars out of my wallet.
Then the mice came marching in.
One night I had a hard time falling asleep. Jason, passed out next to me and snoring like a freight train, was oblivious to my heavy heart. I turned on my side and beat down my pillow with a frustrated fist.
I hate this. All of this.
And that’s when a mouse scampered up the bed sheet, across my hip and onto my pillow, less than six inches from my face. Time pretty much froze, but I suspect it took less than a nanosecond to launch myself off the mattress and fling the pillow across the room. Did the mouse take flight with the pillow? Or did it escape before my cat-like reflexes kicked in? As I stood shaking in the corner, my phobia upleveled to Grand Master status.
We had a mouse problem and I didn’t know what to do about it. So I let some guy at Home Depot talk me into buying a bunch of glue traps. (On a side note—and as I later learned—glue traps are quite inhumane and should never be used. Ever.) For days, nothing happened. “Maybe the mice moved out,” I hoped.
Then one night I heard a “clack, clack, clack” and immediately knew what it was. A mouse had landed in the glue trap and was tripping down the hallway, dragging the plastic trap with it. I never gave much thought to what you do with a mouse once it’s caught in a glue trap. I was now in the hurt locker of mouse disposal. More than anything, I wanted someone else to be my hero and handle this difficult task for me. Or at least stand by my side while I did the hard thing.
Jason could only watch A Few Good Men on a VHS loop and pee into an empty soda bottle.
I finally mustered the courage to pick up the glue trap with the largest pair of pliers I could find. The mouse thrashed around, moving its body further into the glue and permanently sealing its doom. I hustled to the garage and flipped open the lid to the garbage can. I was going to drop this live mouse right into it and forget about everything.
The mouse stopped squirming and looked up at me. A pair of glossy black eyes made contact with mine and for that split second they said, “It’s okay, Maisie. I understand.”
I’ve never had any creature bore into my soul quite like that mouse. Animal to animal, it peeled back the layers of pain, frustration, guilt, shame and pressure I was experiencing. There I stood, raw and shaking uncontrollably. Life wasn’t working. I knew it. The mouse knew it. And it was time to make some changes.
With a release of the pliers, the mouse and the glue trap tumbled into the dark recesses of the can and for one moment in time, I was the biggest asshole in the whole damn world. It cracks the top three for things I regret most in life.
That mouse saved me. Saved. Me.
Have you ever heard of a “totem animal?” According to Native American lore, an animal will come to you when you need guidance. Each animal imparts different wisdom; each has a lesson to teach.
I recently read that mice show up when you need to look at yourself and others with better scrutiny. The answers are often right in front of you, but you aren’t taking action. The mouse is also the personification of instinct—survive at any cost—which has elevated it to legendary status in the animal kingdom.
Holy. Shit. The mouse is a symbol of my purposeful ignorance.
Jason was a narcissist, compulsive liar, addict and sexy jazz musician. He downed a glass of straight vodka on our second date and I didn’t raise an eyebrow. I thought I could save him. Instead, our dance of dysfunction steamrolled over all that was good and lovely in our world.
When I dream about mice running through the sheets–it rarely happens anymore—I’ve always been in the throes of tiny little existential crises.
What the eff am I doing with my life?
What will my legacy be?
Do I even matter?
Maybe I need to move to Costa Rica and sell sunglasses on the beach.
In college, I was bullied by patriarchal dogma that convinced me the best path was to find a husband, start a family and stop asking so many questions. It drastically changed the trajectory of my life and put me in the weeds—not the scrubby dandelions by the side of the road, but the fucking weeds that grow as high as your head, where people chuck old tires and bathtubs. It took me 15 years to machete-hack my way out. Man, that was a hard lesson.
In each of those moments, a mouse has been there to say, “Hey, you. Yeah, you with the blinders on. Wake up, sister. You are good. You are worthy. You know what to do.”