I knew I was behaving like a stereotype, but I couldn’t help myself.
I was standing on the living room couch, shrieking at the top of my lungs after seeing a mouse skitter across the floor.
I don’t know how it happened, but at some time during my 16 years of life, I’d developed a fear of all things rodent. I didn’t think hamsters and gerbils were cute (although for some reason I could tolerate guinea pigs). I didn’t think mice were cute either, and rats were straight-up deplorable.
Once when I was about twelve, my family was leaving my grandmother’s house late in the afternoon. My grandmother lived on the outskirts of a small town surrounded by crop fields. She had a huge front yard, and I don’t know how many acres in the back. There was plenty of room for wild critters to live all around her.
On this particular day, as my family was about to walk out onto the back porch to say our lingering good-byes, we saw a horrible site. In the utility room accessible only from the porch, rats come pouring out of a metal trash can close to the door. I’m not exaggerating when I say “rats.” These animals were not mice. These were pointy-nosed, long tailed rats. There was not one thing cute about them as far as I was concerned.
I may be exaggerating when I say rats were pouring out of the trash can. In my first recollection, there were at least a dozen rats jumping one after another from the trashcan and running around helter-skelter as if they were trying to desert the proverbial sinking ship. But could there have really been twelve rats in my grandmother’s utility room? I know there was more than one rat, more than two, definitely more than three. I know I must be correct if I say there were between three and twelve rats running willy-nilly in the utility room and on the porch.
My grandmother kept a clean house, but she said she’d been having problems with the rats in the utility room. I think my uncle hadn’t been around to burn the trash, so the rats had taken over the trash can. My grandma moved the trash can into the utility room thinking the rats wouldn’t venture in there to get the garbage. WRONG! The rats had no problem going into the utility room to get to the trash. They must have made their move into the can while we were in the house visiting. When they heard us near the back door, they rushed out of the can in search of better hiding places.
I had never seen a live wild rat in real life, but I was certainly terrified by these. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was terrified. I was not just uncomfortable, not just bothered, not just scared. I was losing my shit. I was acting bat-shit-crazy. I was unreasonably, illogically terrified. I was immediately screaming, sobbing, bawling. I refused to leave the house and walk five steps across the porch, down the concrete steps, and across the carport to the family car. I simply refused. My father had to carry me—still sobbing—to the car. I was too old—and certainly too big—to be carried, and my dad was not accustomed to indulging such foolishness, but he must have known I wasn’t going to leave if I had to rely on my own two feet.
The fear I felt was primal and deep. I was not just a little scared. I had moved into the realm of phobia.
(More than three decades later, a friend said maybe my fear of rodents was some sort of ancestral memory left in my DNA by people who had avoided the Black Death by avoiding rats due to a fear of them. This theory makes as much sense as any other reason I’ve come up with.)
On the day the mouse was in the house, I felt the same primal fear. I was afraid, and I wanted to be as far away from the mouse as possible. I didn’t weigh my options, consider my choices, then decide the sofa was the place to be. No, there was no careful thought process. I simply jumped up on the couch and began shrieking.
What was I afraid of? The only concrete fear I can name is the concern that the mouse was going to run up my leg. Is that even a thing outside of slapstick comedy? Has any mouse anywhere ever run up a human’s leg? Does flight ever bring a wild animal into closer proximity to the flailing, screaming bigger creature? Doesn’t the concept of “flight” necessitate movement away from danger?
In any case, there was no good reason for my fright.
It’s just a little mouse, said my annoyed mother.
It’s so cute, said my animal-loving sibling.
I’ll set a tramp, said my practical father.
I stood on the couch long after I stopped shrieking, long after the mouse had hid itself somewhere safe. My family didn’t understand, but to our reptile brains, sometimes the tiniest thing is really the biggest and most important.
Photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-cute-little-mouse-301448/.