How to Kill a Mouse
The cat emerges from beneath the couch, between my feet, with a mouse in his teeth. It is his fourth mouse of the day. I do not like suffering. I do not like poison. I do not like living with mice. These aversions compete. Ultimately, suffering is the one I allow. It is, at least, natural. It at least brings pleasure to the cat. I wish I knew where they came from, or how to stopper the hole. Mice, I read, can fit through a hole the size of a dime. Although we are middle-aged, this house is our first. I used to think apartments—what felt like an endless series of them—were all we would ever know. Sometimes I still stand outside the kitchen, looking in, thinking how beautiful the marble, the tiles, the way the under-cabinet lighting makes them shine. But the single advantage apartments have is the phone call to the landlord, who takes care of the mice, and you don’t even need to know how. We love our house. It is old. There could be a lot of entry points. Steel wool is recommended, and I bought some. Where to stick it, though, is the question. There are a few standard steps to killing a mouse. First, you grip it by the neck in your teeth. These teeth are sharp. They dig. Next, you whip your head from side to side, give the mouse a good shake. For step three, envision a Little League coach, alternately chucking up pop flies and grounders for his team to practice fielding. Picture how he tosses the ball high in the air and then thwacks it with the bat when it falls. Step three is the toss. Step four, the thwack. A thwacked mouse may end up stunned in the middle of the room, or it may end up dead by a baseboard. The cat is instantly on it, however. It repeats the steps for as long as the game is fun, whether the mouse is alive or dead. The worst part is when the cat gives up the game before the mouse is dead— when the death of the mouse is a near certainty, but the cat has retreated to a spot in the sun to bathe and begin his sixteen hours of napping. Toys, whether living or not, hold no sway. When my husband is home, I can count on the mouse being dispatched. My husband is a better person than I am. He takes the mouse outside and gives it a stomp, putting it quickly past its pain. When I am alone, except for mouse and assailant, I get a napkin and grab the body by the tail. Where I fling it is determined by how brightly it sees the light. If death is assured, he goes in a shrub not far from the door. If death is just a possibility, he goes all the way across the yard into the bayberry bush. Surely something will eat him. I’m not certain, though. Sometimes I’d swear this day’s catch is yesterday’s stunned release, the unhoused housed again. I always look at them closely. Sometimes they seem so familiar.
There is a drawing marathon at the arts center, and a man is showing us the traditional Japanese art of suminagashi. “Us” is me and a half-dozen kids under the age of eight. I make sure each has a place, of course, but then I squeeze in between them, cast my shadow. I don’t want to miss a thing. He has only a few materials: a jar of ink. Two brushes. A flat pan of water. Off to the side, some paper. And here is how you do suminagashi. You drop the smallest drip of ink onto the surface of the water with one brush, the ink brush. And then you take the other brush, which must be dry, and you grab a little oil from your face—the side of your nose is a good area to try. Then you dab this facial oil into the center of the ink circle, and instantly the ink disperses so there is a dark loop around the clear center. Next, you put more ink right in the bulls-eye. Then, making sure that your oil brush is dry, you dab at your face again and tap the center of the ink circle on top of the water. Again, the ink disperses, and you have two concentric circles of black around an empty core. The man says that suminagashi is a contemplative practice, and the artist uses extreme patience to go from ink to oil to ink to oil, building circle within circle within circle. He is exceedingly slow. The children and I know that we’ll get a chance to try when he’s through, but we’re able to remain silent and attentive. The method really does have a meditative quality. We remain in a tight orbit around him. Around us, there is space and then a perimeter of parents—life imitating art. The youngest of us is four. The oldest, me: forty-five. My own child is off drawing somewhere in the building—in some other circle beyond the ring of parents. I know he’s safe, and I hope he’s having fun. I, though, am hooked and will stay where I am. The man says that suminagashi combines all of the elements. There is water. There is ink made of charcoal—wood singed by fire. And finally, there is air. The man invites the two closest children to blow gently on the surface of the water, and as I watch, the circles glide and morph and even break. I think the children have blown too hard—that this art is not meant for children at all. I feel possessive of the man’s pan of oily, inky water. As the last step in the process, the man takes a piece of paper and rests it on the surface of the water. When he pulls it away, it is swirled with alternating gray and emptiness. I realize I’ve seen this type of design many times before, on the marbled endsheets of antiquarian books. Books are made of ink on paper; in books, words are given form. I hadn’t thought of those old volumes as being encased in breath, the breath of a contemplative. I hadn’t thought of them sealed within the sweat of a brow. (As a point of fact, the dispersant can be, and usually is, some other kind of thin oil, not facial oil at all.) My son approaches when there are only two kids in front of me. I am the last in line. I quickly explain to my son the suminagachi process, and when we are up, I coach him through the steps. But I feel like he does it wrong. Too much ink. Oil dropped in the wrong spot. Let me help, I say, and then dab and drop and blow like I’m the only one in the room. People are probably looking. Over and over, I dry the brush, then mine my T-zone for dispersant. All of us did. With this very brush, in fact. I put that thought aside while I work. I need to explain that there is so little oil on the face brush that it looks clean and dry. And that is what has me flummoxed, truthfully—the merest suggestion of my essence, of anyone’s essence, demands space. It creates an aura, a boundary.
It doesn’t mix. It remains fully itself. It has distinct edges, unless blown or stirred with any kind of vigor. It is composed.
So often in art, the intrigue inhabits the spaces and gaps, and absence is as articulate as presence. When I hold up my paper and look at the swirls of gray, I confront traces of myself, each demanding its own unsullied place. I’m going to buy some sumi-e ink. Some rice paper. Two very fine brushes, maybe made of bamboo. I could write a poem, but I think there’s something to be learned from the poem my breath writes, from these empty places formed from my skin.