The Decorator Rat

I almost regret killing him.

Who would have guessed that he had such an eye for home decorating?

I’m referring to the rat that shared our house for almost a month at the year-end holidays, keeping us awake at night and eluding all manner of traps and poison until I finally caught him in the electric Rat Zapper (it delivers an electric shock sufficient to kill the rodent). Gruesome, I know, but swift.

I admit that my action in killing our four-legged, furry visitor was less-than-Buddhist. Certainly, it did not move me closer to embodying ‘kinship with all life’. Yet rats in Hawaii carry typhus, leptospirosis, plague, and a host of other nasties; for health safety reasons I simply couldn’t share my kitchen counters with him. Or her.

Three different kinds of rats reside in Hawaii: roof (or tree) rats; Norway wharf rats; and Polynesian field rats (the only ones that surf). I suspected that our visitor was a roof rat because he/she was smaller, and kept escaping up to the loft (I’d seen it deftly climbing up and down the kitchen cabinets en route). I had ascertained that the entry and exit point to outside was one of the beams in the loft, and we could hear him climbing inside the wall of our bedroom. Yet the trap I placed upstairs remained empty.

It was a couple of weeks ago that I entered the kitchen one morning and noted the red blinking light on the zapper, indicating a dead rat inside. Sure enough, a long bare tail stuck out motionless from the trap. I took the black plastic contraption outside to the trees at the edge of the property (away from where the dogs would find it), squatted down and tilted the electrocution box in my hands, and watched a large brown rat slide out onto the carpet of dried leaves. Examining the rodent, I felt a bit sad (and fully responsible) for its death. A dark glass eye stared lifelessly up at me while I admired the soft, mottled fur on its body. As far as rats go, it was an attractive one, I say.

I walked back inside, washed my hands, and carried on with my morning. Sans rat. Enfin.

As I wrote in last week’s post, ‘Spirits of Cedar’, Maui has been rocked with intense storms. The forty-year old, heavily patched, somewhat dodgy roof of our rented cottage began to leak impressively in the heavy monsoon rains. Oh joy. Our small, shared office is accessed by a carpeted ladder and, as I considered the massive amount of water pouring down outside, I noticed that the large, triangular skylight in the loft was leaking again. Climbing up, I noted that the printer stood in a puddle of water on its wooden chest, the recycling basket held a soup of wet paper and bleeding ink, and the sloped, wooden ceiling was hemorrhaging along new seams. Boxes and luggage we had stashed under the angle of the roof were getting soaked, so I began to pull them out in the hopes that I could prevent further damage to our goods. I would place buckets under the leaking areas and, in the meantime, pray that our entire house wouldn’t wash away in the muddy torrent coursing over our steps.

In the process of moving boxes and luggage, I noticed a fair amount of rat droppings and chewed debris. Indeed, the more boxes I pulled out the more evidence I discovered that our furry friend had been up here for quite awhile… eating and pooping.

As I maneuvered a small, antique wooden dresser to gain access to the wet boxes behind, it was the black mesh bag that caught my eye. I paused, staring at the item on the floor while my brain struggled for a minute to make the connection. What was it doing there? It normally holds my ’solar shower’, a handy contraption that I take on camping and backpacking trips. I had taken it out a couple of weeks earlier to use as a hot water bottle and, a few days later when I went to put it away, I couldn’t locate the black mesh bag. This utterly puzzled me. I’m a very tidy, organized person… not the sort to casually misplace something or put it away in the wrong spot. Baffled, I looked around for the bag but in the end, unable to find it, simply put the ’solar shower’ back in my large plastic bin of camping gear. How odd.

Over the past month or two, some other things had gone missing in the loft, leaving me perplexed. A couple of them I had attributed to Mr. Rat, including a small nylon bag of xmasducksAnasazi beans, a packet of wildflower seeds, and a sandwich bag of heirloom blue corn. All were tokens of a dear mentor’s beautiful, remarkable and inspiring wedding as chronicled in my blog post, ‘A Soul Artist wedding ’ [tip: click the title to navigate to it] and also the Riverspeak podcast, ‘A Feast of Love’ [click to listen]. These treasures had vanished from the ornately carved, Balinese altar that holds my special objects and when I noticed their disappearance, I lamented that the rat must have eaten them. A small beeswax candle had also gone missing from the altar and this, too, I attributed to our hungry, noisy visitor (surprised that he/she had a taste for beeswax). I decided that he was either entirely undiscerning in his tastes or highly gourmet. Cheeky bastard.

Most perplexing, however, was the disappearance of a blue, silken drawstring bag embroidered with silver dolphins that had enclosed a deck of divination cards called The Shaman’s Oracle. At the holidays, a guest had slept on the floor of the loft, so I had rearranged things a bit to make room and tucked the bag of Tarot-style cards behind a decorative pillow on a wooden chair. After his departure, when cleaning up the loft, I retrieved the cards from where I had stashed them… but the bag was missing. Again, how odd. I thought it highly unlikely that Jason would have stolen the bag (he’s not that sort of fellow), but I felt deeply puzzled. I decided not to mention it…. and then I forgot.

Staring down at the edge of the formerly missing black mesh bag sticking out from under the backside of the little dresser, the pieces finally clicked. The rat had dragged it there. But why….? Reaching down to draw out the bag, I realized that there was a good two-inch clearance under the back of the dresser. A cozy, protected spot for a rat nest.

I moved a heavy, wet box of files and then knelt down to peer underneath the antique oak dresser, hoping that I would not be suddenly surprised by the emergence of another rat. Rodents are seldom solitary creatures; the fact that I had killed one didn’t mean there weren’t more.

I craned my neck and peeked cautiously under the rear of the wooden chest… and almost laughed aloud in surprise.

No rat, just a well decorated little nest of missing items (and a copious amount of rat turds).

I stood up, grabbed ahold of the dresser sides and pulled the solid piece towards the center of the loft. There in the revealed space, framed by the flattened indentions in the carpet from the dresser, were the following:

– The small sheer bag of Anasazi beans from Annie’s wedding, still tied with its ribbon (beans intact)
– The packet of wildflower seeds which had marked each wedding guest’s place at respective tables (now thoroughly chewed and seeds eaten)
– Shredded remains of a plastic sandwich bag (which had previously held a handful of heirloom blue corn… eaten)
– The slender, golden beeswax taper from my altar (unchewed and intact)
– The embroidered blue satin drawstring bag missing from the Shaman’s Oracle deck
– Four rubber ducks, each one dressed for Christmas (a gift for my friend, Sara, who collects such dapper quackers)

I crouched down, rocking on my heels, and marveled at the rat’s collection. What a cache. Who would have guessed…?

Carefully I lifted the satin bag and examined it, appreciating that it was not chewed or damaged in any way. I guess he (or she) simply fancied the pretty sachel and wanted it for home decor. Mind you, the bag had been cinched snugly around the cards. This means that the rat had to first discover the bag of cards on the chair (stashed behind the decorative pillow), work it open, pull the silken bag off the cards, and then drag it back to its nest on the far side of the loft… while our guest slept, dreaming to the sounds of scurrying little feet (Jason will never sleep at our house again after reading this, I’m certain). Most impressive.

I picked up each of the Christmas ducks, noting that one had been slightly chewed on its rear but no other damage. The ducks had been loitering inside a large, copper bowl used for an Ayurvedic treatment called shirodhara (a thin stream of warm sesame oil poured continuously upon the forehead, which calms the nervous system and pacifies Vata dosha), on the other side of the loft from the dresser. Each duck had to be removed from the bowl and carried to the sanctuary under the dresser. Four ducks, four trips. Quite the haul. I took them downstairs to wash and disinfect them in the sink (alas, the little dude with a hole in his arse no longer floats quite so well).

Over the years, I’ve been gifted six or seven truly remarkable tales by friends about their notable interactions with various wild animals. While I’m not sure that our Hawaiian decorator rat qualifies in the same league as those special stories, I can’t help but muse on his/her unusual nest. Something touched me in its discovery… and I feel a renewed appreciation for smaller, four-legged lives.

In all our self-importance as the perceived apex of Creation, we are only but one part of the web. I suppose it is for each of us to ask, what are the ways we can share… and with whom?

I’m sure he felt this was his house as much as I feel it is mine. Certainly, we all deserve a sanctuary and cozy nest, a haven from the trials and troubles of the world… a well-decorated one, at that. E kala mai, little rat. I salute your style. And we will think of you every Christmas when those dapper ducks come out.