The Would-be Mama Rat

The rat girl died long before I found her in the center shed, where I keep the bee supers, extra kitchen stuff, and fishing poles. Oh, and canning jars and camping and diving equipment. Also, the French dishes and my boogie board from 1976 that I still use.

Last summer, the garden shed smelled of rotting flesh for two weeks. The garden shed is the west side of a porous building from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, once a smokehouse and bathhouse, I have been told, so the reek came through; the building is falling apart slower than I am.

I love its proportions and the band-sawn boards, how the dirt comes and goes as I come and go, how the floors dip and holes form, and how evidence of visitors, mostly rodent droppings and hollowed sunflower seeds, are left behind so that I have to carry everything in the shed – absolutely everything – emptying it outside on a sunny couple of days a few times a year and clean.

It is fabulously seductive. The stories of the lives that go on without our knowing are revealed in what is not only left behind but interrupted by me – the angry red wasps building their intricate mud incubators in dark corners, the eggs in birds’ nests of moss and hair and broken leaves, the scurrying to hide until I’m – the monster of me – gone, all of them so riveting.

And filthy. In the warm seasons, I can go up the hill to the woods and dive into the pond to be clean again. How many workers we pass on the road can do that? Or the homeless? Or refugees? I lose my breath when I think of what I have been given and what has been taken from them.

This afternoon last week, when the icy days melted, I went into the shed to re-stack the honey supers and ended up assessing canning jars, which led to sweeping out debris and then – here it comes – moving a cabinet to clean behind it.

There she was, the last of her. She was bones and shrunken skin, but I couldn’t recognize her at first because she was in the pile she’d made, and that was the best thing or things of all: her nest, her beautiful, messy nest.

She had made it of mint. Branches and branches of apple mint that grows behind the shed. And in that pile, she’d pushed a pair of the softest small cotton shorts she’d stolen from a bag of clothes that were going to the thrift store.

When I moved her and the nest, she gave me back the summer smell of mint. Of all the smells of my life here, sometimes the best are the ones that come from things being touched – the honeyed hives, the branches of my Cecil Brunner roses, apples when I pick them, summer basil and lavender, the golden raspberries, and the mint.

She had cut and dragged it, stalk by stalk, through one of the holes on the far wall and made her nest.

Brown rats, roof rats, and the Norwegian rats are intelligent and awful. They are a serious problem. They do not trap easily. I think I killed her. I think she ate poison, although I removed it within a day of putting it out – too dangerous. She died before she had babies.

So I sat on the steps with her and her nest, such a pitiful handful, as the day ended. She was a rat, a troublesome, unattractive, damaging creature I was glad to be rid of, but I think she suffered.

Sam read to me from the internet when I told him about the mint nest she’d made. That one of the natural deterrents, a thing rats hate, is mint. But she and I love(d) mint enough to bury ourselves in it. Mint and lovely soft cotton shorts.

We made nests for our babies. We found a clean old building in a quiet land with wind, and water and growing things nearby.

She didn’t make it, but I did, and so did my child. That intense, fierce drive to build a safe place, to begin again – mothers, given a chance, have that. Do you recognize that in yourself? I did.

In a rat.


  • Renee Armand

    Singer, songwriter, and poet Renee Armand, born in Los Angeles, was discovered by Tony Bennett in her twenties and now lives on a 19th-century working farm outside Nashville. She spent years touring the world with John Denver, has released four albums, and sang the Oscar-winning song "The Morning After."

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