Everett being out of town, I opted for denial. If not perambulating raccoons, perhaps these were benign or even charming creatures? Sweet little bunnies and squirrels, having tea parties! In cunning wee waistcoats! No way was I going to stick my head up into the crawlspace and disturb their adorable revels.
Something was in the ceiling. Several somethings. In fact it sounded like a pretty lively party up there.
I thumped on the ceiling with a broom. The noises stopped dead. I swept the ceiling with the bristles. There was a mad rush overhead as the party relocated to another corner of the attic.
I went back to bed and stared at the ceiling in the dark. Bunnies and squirrels. Undoubtedly. Enjoying a festive evening of scones. And ninepins. And disco. Surely not chewing on the wiring. Or gnawing into the cupboards. Or swimming up through toilets. Or leaping out of heating vents onto the beds below, all scrabbly claws and scaly tails. Certainly not!
As soon as it was light, I called the rodent guy.
This individual proved to be an extremely laid back dude in his early 20s, with a surfer’s lope, pierced ears, and an impressive array of tattoos. He opened the hatch door into the attic and a curiously evocative smell wafted out. Adorable vest-clad squirrels, I said hopefully? “Nope,” he said, descending the ladder. “Rats.”
Rats, I thought. Rats. But how bad was that really? After all, Arwulf had pet rats for several years – they were peaceable enough as housepets go, and I eventually became inured to the perpetual hint of rodent pee in the upstairs hallway. (That, I suddenly realized, was the nostalgic pong drifting through the open hatch.) Not that kind of rat, Josh said patiently. “Norway rats. They’re ugly and mean. Diseased. Total vermin.”
Despite myself I thought of Arwulf’s pets (Brandy, Marbles, and Galadriel). The winsome way they scrunched up their whiskered noses at visitors, hoping for treats. How they held peanuts in their teeny little paws and gnawed at them with long yellow rodenty teeth. The sound of little claws skittering along Arwulf’s floor. And along pantry shelves. And through the vents. House fires. Hantavirus. Plague.
Get rid of them, I said firmly.
So Josh set to work around the roofline, using steel mesh to plug up all the holes in the stucco where the varmints were getting in. For all my resolve, I remained ill at ease. As Josh made his way across the roof I tried not to think about the doomed creatures beneath his feet, huddling in terror at his step, hearing the gates slam shut around them as they were walled inexorably into their tomb. (“For the love of God, Montresor!” I muttered to myself, eyeing the bourbon. 11 AM? Still too early. Damn.)
A couple of hours later, his dreadful work complete, Josh went back up into the attic with a bunch of baited traps. “They’re shut in without food or water,” he explained cheerfully as he pulled the hatch closed. “So the peanut butter is pretty much irresistible. I’ll come back in a few days to see how you’re doing.”
Off he went. I closed the door behind him and turned to face the empty house, shifting and creaking in the afternoon heat.
I decided at this point that the sun was pretty damn well over the yardarm. I had that drink.
I slept badly that night, dreaming uneasily of roadblocks and broken machinery. Every couple of hours I woke with a start. Was that a snap? a squeak? In the silence I tried not to think of the scene above my head: the rodent family cautiously emerging from hiding, looking for their accustomed way out, only to find it blocked, and the next one, and the next. I tried not to imagine their growing panic and horror as the attic closed in around them, the smell of peanut butter and the sinister gleam of wire.
But a few days later, the scroobling was gone, and a peaceful silence reigned above. Josh returned with rubber gloves and a trash bag and retrieved a single furry corpse. “The others must have been outside for the day when I closed things up,” he said. “Looks like you’re in the clear. I’ll leave you a couple of traps up there. If you smell anything bad give me a call.”
And that, it seemed, was that.
Alas, that is never that when it comes to vermin. And once you have a brush with “noxious and objectionable beasts,” it is a short leap to “winged insects of a troublesome nature.” Once again it was Arwulf who tipped us off, discovering a pile of what looked like sawdust or tiny seeds behind a dresser. After a fruitless few minutes debating whether this might just possibly be the detritus left by a stuffed animal that had sprung a leak, we resigned ourselves to the inevitable. A few minutes on Google image search taught us a horrid new word:
Frass is the excrement of larvæ, or the refuse left behind by boring insects. It comes from the German frasz, itself from the root fressen, which means to devour.
I put in a call to the termite man.
The termite man, as it turned out, might have been the rodent guy’s grandfather. They resembled each other not at all––Ben was short and dark and wiry where Josh was tall and blond and lean––but they shared a keen gaze coupled with an incongruously laid back vibe. (It occurs to me that when your job involves dealing with people whose homes are infested with vermin, a calm and unflappable demeanor is undoubtedly an asset.)
Ben prodded our baseboards and tapped at the walls and the eaves. He went back up into that ghastly crawl space. “Watch out for the rat traps!” I said helpfully. I hoped he didn’t care for peanut butter.
When Ben emerged, his verdict was less dire than we might have expected: rather than fumigating the entire house, we could get along by zapping the little bastards with electricity. I signed this order with equanimity. Termites are unquestionably vermin in my book, not vermin masquerading as pets or vice versa. Termites never have tea parties. (Neither kid ever had an ant farm, thank God.)
Ben returned a few days later, ray gun in hand, and spent a pleasant afternoon sending bolts of electricity along our joists. He claims that the framing is not badly damaged and I am inclined to believe him unless I actually feel the house lurching underfoot. My conscience seems similarly stabilized. I have yet to reprise the long night of the Tell-Tale Scroobling, and I can walk underneath the attic hatch without thinking about vermin as much as 60 percent of the time. I do not brood about the fate of the termites. I do not picture their once-seething nest tucked behind our bookcase, nestled between the studs. Lying in bed at night, I do not imagine them reanimated and swollen to Frankensteinian proportions by mysterious galvanic forces. Not at all.
My candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs....