CAMBRIDGE — Two days ago, while I sat on my bed talking on the phone, a rat scrambled across my bedcovers and slipped down between the mattress and the wall.
I wasn’t scared. I was wowed!
Since the pandemic began to inhibit human activity for real, wildlife has flourished in the city. Rabbit gangs bound recklessly through every lot and street. Pigeons swarm over entire parks. Wild turkeys bob down avenues and, at night, wander bewildered around the courthouse grounds.
Along with the rabbits, the rats that now enliven every back alley, playground, and clump of bushes have transformed the disposition of Teacake the dog from sunny to savage.
Gone is her curious attention to human activity, gone her flirtation with others of her kind. She’s become a heat-seeking missile, a one-note tune, dragging me to wherever her prey may lay trembling. I admit I love watching her go full-tilt animal, her blissful release into dingo land. But it has rendered her unable to obey. When I yell, “Why do you do this?,” she flicks her eye at me as if forced to point out that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
What is it about rats?
Cape Codders are familiar with mice. Their rank urine has blackened reams of my artwork. Their scat startles us when we open a drawer. By October, our Havahart traps are fully employed, and driving the creatures far away is as routine as taking out the trash.
But compared to city rats, Cape Cod mice are mere cat’s play, the chatty friends of Beatrix Potter and Cinderella, Mickey and Minnie off to a picnic, their pink, blind babies almost adorable.
The only city rat that ever reminded me of a children’s book drowned in a flowerpot, head first, its little feet and tail poking out like Winnie the Pooh stuck in a honey jar.
Like the serpent, the city rat bears the heavy burden of archetype. We attach larger-than-life words to it: evil, cunning, cold. Dirty, lawless, red-eyed. Child biter, plague pusher, betrayer of buddies. When, in fact, they’re only critters trying to get by like the rest of us.
I’m not sure how my rat got in my room. I read they can flatten themselves through spaces an inch wide. For months, my neighbor and I had seen them skittering around the plants and bird feeders in the alley outside the slightly open window next to my bed.
It was only the thought of a sleepless Teacake forever staking out the poor rat’s hiding place, and the ease with which it could get back in bed with me, that sent me, sighing, to the local hardware store to shell out too much cash for a flimsy tin box. I baited it with peanut butter and shoved it under the bed. By midnight, the trap door had flipped. Teacake sat staring at the box until sun up.
I gave the rat a cheese cracker and tried to take its mug shot. It was small, with small, pink hands, big, wary eyes, and a tail like a baby snake. Eventually, I drove to a store that irritates me to release the rat behind a dumpster I hoped was full of organic scraps.
But when I opened the box, instead of bolting, the rat stumbled out, blinking and disoriented. It shuffled along a fence and buried itself in a pile of leaves.
Did I do the right thing?
I know how poison tortures a rodent. I refuse to wake to the sound of a mini-guillotine snapping off its head. In Wellfleet, you grow a callus around your heart by understanding that freeing a mouse into a marsh is only feeding it to a coyote. At least, you say, smirking, you don’t have to watch.
Sitting in the parking lot, I spent a half hour Googling rat info. Do rats need their clan? Do they tend to their wounded, mourn their dead, giggle when tickled? Are they extremely smart? Do they learn to like humans and remember their human-given names? Yes and yes and yes and yes….
Do they carry diseases? Yes. So do we.
Do they bite? We all bite if cornered.
Do they want our food? Who doesn’t?
How far away from home do they have to be before they panic? Or croak?
Go ahead. Laugh. But where does your image of rats come from? What unsavory qualities do you assign them? What did a rat ever do to you? What if it were called Fluffy instead of Rat?
I hope he comes home. Not on my bed, but nearby.