Last month, while the foliage reached incendiary peaks, I headed up to Germantown where a friend-of-a-friend had offered me her farmhouse for a week of undisturbed writing. I rented a car in Hudson and drove the last half hour to the house, following obscure, hand-drawn directions of highways and gravel roads. The house was situated in a sloping valley and was surrounded by fields of grain that stretched toward each horizon. Groves of trees stood here and there like reluctant guards in the windy corridor that ran through the property. I have to say, the first two days were peaceful and spectacular. Paragraphs were written. When night fell the blackout was as complete as a photographer’s darkroom. A wind rattled constantly, branches actually scraped up against the window panes. My hair quickly grew slick, my clothes grimy, and my eyeglasses turned opaque with grubby fingerprints. It was pleasing to fall into this untidy state; it meant work was being done. I was entirely alone. Or so I thought.
On the fourth day I decided to drive into Hudson and pick up supplies. Which meant groceries, chocolate, a teapot and wine. My hosts had left me an open a bottle of red, but that supply was running out. I set out in a clear morning, but on my return that afternoon the weather had changed. The rain began pelting down in mouthfuls and the wind butted the car aggressively along the open stretches of highway. When I reached the house I discovered a large tree had toppled in the wind—it had fallen diagonally across the road blocking the entrance to the property.
I left the car and went out in the sputtering wind and water to investigate. The thick, corded branches stretched across the road and mingled with the shrubs on the other side. I grabbed a bough and tried dragging the entire thing aside, but it wouldn’t budge. I suddenly understood the value of keeping a draft horse on hand. But what I did have at my disposal was the internet and a cell phone, and a few phone calls later I managed to track down the State Trooper’s office. They promised to send someone over as the light was already fading and they agreed no good could come from a giant trunk lolling a few feet below the rise of a hill. I remember feeling vaguely smug; though I hadn’t been able to move the tree myself I had, at least, the wherewithal to call the authorities. Indeed, it must have been a slow day at the State Trooper’s office because I spotted their vehicle from the kitchen window within half an hour.
It was time to toast this vague smugness. I took out the bottle of wine I’d just purchased. With an image of myself as a bespectacled pioneer of the woods I pulled opened the drawer that housed the corkscrew and came face to face with an enormous dappled field mouse. The animal’s ears were perked, his eyes luminous and wide as saucers, his front paws were spread before him in surprise, like the relenting victim of a stick-up. At his side lay the corkscrew. The only other thing I noticed in the moment before I slammed the drawer shut was that the critter was clamped dead in a mousetrap.
The thing about field mice is they’re huge. Forget the albino white, tampon-sized lab mice with their rabbit-red eyes. Or the dung-hued critters born to troll the subway tracks. Country mice are healthy, hefty and unmistakably mammalian.
As I mentioned, I slammed the drawer shut. I was pretty sure he was dead, though his wide-open peepers caused some confusion. “It’s a misconception—things do not necessarily die with their eyes shut.” my boyfriend told me on the phone. “Get some BBQ tongs and a garbage bag—just reach in and bag it,” he advised. But his input fell on deaf ears. A horrible trill of disgust ran down my back. Like Duncan I stood frozen in the kitchen. Then, remembering the State Trooper I turned for the door. Would it be so bad—so out of the question—to (politely) ask if he’d get rid of the mouse once he got rid of the tree?
I ran out into the yard, but when I reached the end of the driveway I saw that the tree was gone. And with it the State Trooper.
I would like to say that I rallied my courage, grabbed the tongs and bagged the mouse as I’d been (unflinchingly) instructed to do. I’d like to say I liberated the corkscrew, that I enjoyed the pinot noir and the rest of my week in the rolling, sloping, scenic wooded countryside. But that is not what happened.
“Use a fork,” my friend T___ said over the phone. “Push the corkscrew into the bottle with the prongs.”
The fact was, my country idyll was broken. Suddenly I heard scraping in the walls at night. I was startled one afternoon by the patter of small paws upstairs in the loft and the thunk of grape-sized wasps trapped in the windowpane. I developed a ritual of clapping and stomping before entering the kitchen in hopes of frightening away any feisty intruders. I avoided the drawer. There was something impossible about facing that creature again. The shock of such a small, furtive animal in a hidden place was too much to bear. My female bravado had fluttered, had sunk like a stone.
“Could you mercy kill a dying animal like your novel’s protagonists do?”
Not a chance, I say. I’d happily enter a schoolyard brawl before volunteering to put a creature out of its misery, much less pick it up with BBQ tongs. And when I think of women like Lily (killers of wild boar, bearers of tire irons) I am reminded of what a work of fiction can do for its author. How it becomes an exploration of qualities we do not posses and risks we are unwilling to take. Just think how spectacular it must be to one day find yourself in possession of female bravado—that elusive and screwy audacity, the bright red flare of courage.