by Joel B. Mowdy
My first kill was a chicken, already stuck to the road, struck down by a Balinese man a few motorbikes ahead. The chicken writhed. I swerved to hit. The moped bumped.
“Why’d you do that?” Oskar said. He was nine years old, riding up front, his helmet pushing against my chin.
“It was going to die,” I said. “I helped it along.”
“Slow down,” Simona said. She was pressed against my back, her chin on my shoulder.
“I am going slow,” I said. “I can’t believe I did that on purpose.”
Two years later in Mexico, a bat met our spinning ceiling fan. The impact slammed the bat against the wall. The little body pulsed on the tiled floor. Blood coated its mouth. In the United States, it wouldn’t be unheard of to take a wild creature in that condition to the vet. Case in point: when I was a teenager, I had a vet remove tumors from my pet rats. They were senior citizens in rat years, but I’d had them since they were babies slated for snake food.
I was confident I would not find a vet in the small coastal village eager to treat a mashed bat. I wrapped her in a magazine carried her up our street to where the neighborhood turned to jungle. I had planned to put the bat under a tree In a few minutes, or maybe an hour, a predator would whisk the bat to the hereafter. Or maybe it would live into the dark of night to be slowly disemboweled by a colony of nocturnal tropical ants. After a moment’s hesitation, I slung the bat hard to the pavement. Dead on impact.
Both times I had played executioner, I recalled my father facing the same choice. When I was a kid on Long Island, my family had a pair of pet ducks. One night, a racoon tore through the female’s throat, leaving a hole that could fit an egg. In the morning, we found Cheese sitting still by the compost pile, her head steady atop the tendons that had been her neck. My father approached her with a shovel. He seemed intent on removing her from misery—one swift hit.
But he dug a grave instead. He waited. Perhaps he couldn’t kill the duck, or any other creature, because of what happened in Vietnam. No one knew what happened in Vietnam, which only validates this theory. Or perhaps he couldn’t commit violence with his six children watching, some from the living room window, some standing in his shadow. Or maybe killing the duck never crossed his mind. Who was Pete to interfere? He was just a stagehand in this drama called The Life of Cheese. He prepared the next set piece: Act Five. Funeral, backyard.
Years later, when the family was falling apart and dad had moved back into our childhood home, he decided to solve a mouse problem with a sticky square of cardboard that caught mice by their feet. Place the trap, mouse-side down, in a bucket of water. Let sit until drowned. The next morning, a mouse lay upon a glue trap in the cupboard like Ishmael to the wreckage of the Pequod, only the mouse never wanted to cling. He was ready for the bucket. Instead of following through with that brand of mercy, my father used nail scissors to snip the furry belly and tiny paws free of the trap, and the mouse lived out the rest of its days in a terrarium with all a mouse could want, sans kinfolk and freedom. He dined on cheese slices while his family scampered in the walls, subsisting on pellets from the dog’s bowl and kitchen sink soup.
I recall this mouse incident as I sit in my kitchen in the Lithuanian forest during the first snowfall. Ours is the only occupied house in a village of five homesteads, therefore the warmest place within a five-kilometer radius. All the local mice agree. It started with nibbles on a bread bag, scatters of grain-sized feces in the drain board, shadows flitting under doors. There was a scratching in the wall one day, and the next day two pockets of gnawing at either end of the house. Then three pockets, four. If I had the power to make my house invisible, I would still have a rough outline of a house in the form of mice.
“We should get a cat,” Simona said. A mouse had eaten through the tablecloth where a spot of sauce had dropped the day before.
“If we get a cat,” I said, “We’ll have to stay here.” I said the same about horses, chickens, and goats. We could always leave the house behind, but an animal would be an impediment to running away. Running away had been our modus operandi from the day we were married. New York, Michigan, Nottingham, County Clare, Vilnius, Madrid, Bali, Perth, Mexico, Ecuador: all the places we lived in or passed through and were tempted to stay forever, or until another locale enticed us away.
“Maybe we can make a trap that takes them alive,” Simona said. “Then we can drop them off in the woods on the way to town.”
“What about rat poison?” I said.
“You would put poison in our house?”
“No,” I said. “I’m just brainstorming.” I had found empty packets of poison in the corners of the attic, where the previous owners had left them.
The next morning, Simona wondered aloud if we should have kept the snake in the bedroom. It had been living behind the hamper in the spring. What prompted this snake idea now was the three-a.m. reenactment of the Battle of the Light Brigade underneath our bed. A mad dash of tiny feet from the outside wall to the closet had jolted us awake.
“A snake would eat the mice,” she said.
“You didn’t want the snake in the room,” I said.
“A cat would take care of these mice,” she said. “Should we get a cat?”
“If we got a cat, we’d have to stay here,” I said. “My father used a glue trap once.”
“You told me,” Simona said. “He kept the mouse as a pet.”
I held the rest of the story until evening, for Tom and Jurgita. Tom is a conservative Christian from Florida and one of the three Americans—myself included—living in the Anyksciai region of Lithuania. Tom and I have an unspoken agreement to never talk politics. Instead we talk about “the old days” over tea and home-baked desserts while our children play war games outside.
“Eventually, dad’s mouse died of cancer,” I said. “I think most rodents go that way, if they make it to old age.”
“My father had a bee problem,” Tom said. “There were bees in the adobe wall. You know, those walls are hollow. At one point the wall started leaking honey. It was phenomenal. You never saw so much honey coming from a wall, and I mean for years!”
“Did you ever lick the wall?”
“Ha! I could have if I wanted to. It was unbelievable.”
“Hey, did you see that?” I said. “A mouse just crossed the doorway.”
“You should get a cat,” Jurgita said. “Oh! I know: there are cats behind the hospital! People feed them, but these cats don’t belong to anyone.”
The kids had come inside to pick at the table spread.
“We’re getting a cat?” Oskar said.
“If we got a cat,” I said, “we’d have to stay put for a while.” Tom and Jurgita perked up. Last year when we suddenly decided to move to Mexico, they were thoroughly disappointed. They suspected we might do it again without warning. “Not that we’re planning to leave,” I continued. “But you never know. Opportunities come up, you take them. Unless you have a pet. If you have a pet, you stay home.”
Now the question of the cat was out of the bag. Would we get one? Should we? From where? Maybe the mysterious cat that had visited for three days in the summer would come back. Oskar and Simona called its name whenever they crossed the empty village to the fresh water spring: “Mitsu! Mitsu! I think I saw him!” Simona reasoned that if we had a cat like Mitsu, but that came around more often, we could still leave whenever we wanted to. We’d have a part-time, temporary cat.
“I don’t think Mitsu is around anymore,” I said.
“We should have let the snake stay in the bedroom,” Simona said.
“You had a snake in the bedroom?” Jurgita said. “Amazing!”
It’s common knowledge in Lithuania that a garden snake in the bedroom is good luck, so Jurgita wanted to hear all about it. We told her how we discovered the snake behind the hamper, how we were used to close proximity to such creatures from our years spent jungle-side in Bali, and how we promptly exiled the snake to the garden.
If we had kept the snake, it would have been the first serpent with which I ever wittingly shared living space. I grew up with cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, geese, ponies, ferrets, rats, gerbils, fish, injured wild birds, and the occasional squirrel. When I moved out of the parental home, my mother’s collection grew to include goats, pigs, donkeys, and parrots. She would never actually buy a parrot. She only adopts them from people who had bought one by mistake. Now coming in her front door felt like that time I toured the county jail in a scared-straight program:
“Hello? Hello?” Charlie said.
“Shut up!” another croaked.
“Fuck you!” screamed a third. They had come to my mother with these abilities. One could shriek like a victim in a horror film. George could imitate a burglar alarm, and would do just that every time the phone rang.
“Hello?” My mother said into the receiver.
“Hello, may I speak with Mercedes?” said the voice on the other end.
“Hello?” Charlie said.
“Hello?” The caller said. “Mrs. Mercedes Mowdy?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Hello?” Charlie said.
“Mrs. Mowdy? Hello?”
“It’s my bird,” she said. “The connection is fine.”
“Ma’am, I’m calling from—Is that a house alarm?”
“It’s the bird. A different bird. Get the cat off the table.”
“I was talking to my daughter.”
“Yes, I’m calling from the credit union.”
“Dogs. Out. Side. I’m talking to the dogs.”
We’ve been trying to reach your husband.”
“Have you tried the cemetery?”
“He’s dead.” She likes to corner my father’s debt collectors with morbid bluntness. She didn’t have time to talk to strangers on the phone. Unless they were offering a free pony. She might take ferrets, too, or any other four-legged creature, but she never acquired a snake.
The only snake I ever had in residence was in Bali. I lived in an open bamboo house, atop a jungle riverbank. One night I switched on the bathroom light and a meter-long black rope slithered in the tub. It tried scaling the tile wall but slipped. Then it turned its attention to me. The local men who came to capture the snake said it was harmless. The internet source said it may be deadly. There are two types that look the same.
“Have you tried poison?” said Renate, our part-time neighbor. She was over for a visit, sipping wine that matched her latest oversized hat. Her European Union subsidized, newly built traditional house sits on a small hill along the road to the river. The subsidy was for being a small rural business. Renate is a potter. She has a giant oven and two kilns. Her house looks out of Hansel and Gretel.
“The poison is a little blue pellet which the mouse eats,” she continued. “When the mouse dies, the pellet dries the mouse out. There is no smell.”
The tidiness of her description creeped me out. Was the poison slow and painful? Did mummification begin after death, or was this drying out the cause of death, too?
“We’ve been thinking about getting a cat,” Simona said. “There are cats behind the hospital in Anyksciai. Should we get a cat or a kitten? I wish Mitsu hadn’t left. Did you ever see that cat again, Renate?”
“No,” Renate said. “I’m not sure we are talking about the same cat.” The long weekend Mitsu had come to live with us, Renate had been away. When she came back, the cat had disappeared. Renate did claim to have recently seen a cat herself, but we did not agree on the details of its black and white coat. One time at night, as we walked past our village graveyard, Simona and I theorized that Renate was the cat. That’s why Renate was away when the cat appeared, and why she reappeared as soon as the cat left. She had come to us in feline form to listen to what we might say behind her back.
“I miss Mitsu,” Oskar said. “Can we get a horse?”
“If we got a horse,” I said, “we’d have to stay here.”
“Are you going somewhere?” Renate said. A mouse chewed on packaging inside the cupboard behind her.
“No,” I said, “unless something comes up. Our plan is to stay here.”
“For one year,” Simona said.
“A full cycle at least,” I added. “A little more than a year, perhaps.”
“I would try the blue poison,” Renate said. “For the mice.”
I have enough money,” Oskar said. Since the first time anyone had thought to give him cash as a gift, he’d stockpiled over a thousand euros. The money had always been for a horse.
“You have enough to buy a horse,” Simona said, “but it cost as much a year to feed and take care of it. Maybe we can borrow a horse instead.”
“Who would lend a horse?” I said. “Who lends out animals?”
“The horses can eat grass as payment,” Simona said. “You’d have less grass to cut.”
“I thought we were talking about getting a cat.” I said. “For the mice.”
“We’re getting a cat?” Oskar said.
“We’ll see what happens,” I said. That was my utmost commitment on acquiring a pet. Don’t seek them out. Let them happen by chance. Then I couldn’t blame myself. It would be the dog’s fault. He needed help. His fur was matted, his ear bald with mange, belly itchy with fleas. He couldn’t be left begging in front of the supermarket with snow coming any day.
Oskar named the dog Revo, after a dog he knew in Mexico. Then he called the dog Shadow because he followed anyone he thought might give him attention. We settled on Spalis, Lithuanian for October. Spalis also means chaff. Both meanings are appropriate: we found Spalis in October, and he resembles the shaggy bit of harvest you throw away.
“I guess we’re staying,” Simona said. “But what if we want to go?”
“The mice are staying too,” I said. “Or do you catch mice, Spali?”
The dog didn’t bark in response. He just looked at me, wondering if I was talking to him. Was his real name Spalis? Or was he Revo? Or Shadow? Or whatever else he might have been called before we lured him into our car in the supermarket parking lot?
“You don’t think this was someone else’s dog?” Simona said as we once again drove into town from the deep woods to stock up on supplies.
“If he was someone’s dog,” I said, “they weren’t taking very good care of him. He needed a brush when we found him. And a bath.”
“Maybe he’s a grandma’s dog. Old people don’t brush their dogs. Maybe the dog misses her.”
I considered how sad it would be if that were true. Spalis did look forlorn much of the time. “He was begging at the supermarket,” I reminded her.
“Or was he waiting for someone to come out?” Simona said.
“He had no collar,” I said.
“Most dogs around here have no collars,” Simona said. “Do you see any dogs with collars on?” As if to prove her point, there were now three dogs within view on the road leading into Anyksciai. None of them had collars.
“Well, he’s got a collar now,” I said. I had bought one that reminded me of the Huichol designs in Mexico: vibrant blue with yellow and red patterns, a stark contrast to Spalis’ black-on-brown fur.
“Does he have to sit on your lap when you’re driving?” Simona said. “That looks dangerous.”
“He won’t get off,” I said.
Jurgita wanted to know if having the dog meant we didn’t want a cat. We were dropping Oskar off at her house for a play date, and she had a neighbor over. This neighbor had two full grown house cats she wanted to evict.
“Do they kill mice?” I asked.
“I don’t have mice,” she said.
“Can we borrow them first and see how it goes?” Simona said.
“Of course,” the woman said.
But we didn’t take the cats. Would Spalis get along with them? Would the never leave the house? And if they went outside, would they return? We drove back into the woods, turning the possibilities over. It wouldn’t be impossible to pass a dog onto someone else, but who would even watch a dog and two cats for us if we left for a mere week? On the way through the village bordering our ghost town in the sticks, we stopped to buy milk from an old woman. Simona asked her if she kept cats, and whether they take care of any mouse problems.
“We have a cat,” the grandmother said, “but the mice are too many. And our cat brings more creatures from outside. One night she dropped a giant dead rat at the foot of the bed. I would rather just have the little mice.”
Back in the car, I asked Simona if they did anything else about the mice.
“Probably poison and traps,” Simona said. “I don’t think anyone else is conflicted like we are.”
That night I lay awake, wondering what the mice were chewing on. Were they making a new entrance in the living room? I had used up all the wine bottle corks to plug any crevice a mouse could thread its pointy head through. But mice are persistent, and the nights were getting cold. The other day, I had discovered a row of frozen mice in the road in front of the cold church. Their stiff corpses lay facing the refuge of our homestead.
In the morning, I did not find a hole, but a gnawed piece of dog biscuit. I’d bought the biscuits for Spalis, but he didn’t like them and must have abandoned it after an exploratory nibble. The good news was that there was no mouse poop in the kitchen, where we had left Spalis for the night. No poop on the table, nor on the counter, nor in the drain board. The soapy broth in the pot I’d left in the sink had also remained untouched.
“They must have been afraid of the dog and stayed out,” I said.
Then Simona said, “All the mouse shit is in the dog’s bowl. They like the dog’s food. I guess that’s good. Maybe now they’ll stay out of the pantry.”
Meanwhile, Spalis wagged his hindquarters while looking up at the door handle. A street dog, he was used to prowling the town, making acquaintance with the other collarless canines of Anyksciai. Now he had all the luxuries a dog could ask for, sans kinfolk and freedom. Whether from a growing stance against animal-grade chow or a distaste for mice feces, he had not sampled any of the chalky pellets in his food bowl.
I opened the door. Spalis dashed into the woods. Later in the day, I stood a few miles down the forest path, calling his name, knowing that some animals can’t be tied down to one place. He might just keep running until he found another home. Eventually, I gave him up for gone, and it wasn’t until late in the evening when Spalis scratched at the front door to be let in. Scampering far into the woods had worked up his appetite. Before nodding out for another long Winter’s night, he devoured a fresh bowl of meat gelatin and buckwheat, leaving nary a crumb for his housemates.
About Joel B. Mowdy
Joel B. Mowdy is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Hellen Zell Writers’ Program, and has been an international high school English teacher for a decade. Currently, he is homesteading in the forest in Lithuania with his wife, son, and newly adopted dog.