This house we’re living in was built in 1915. It’s the first house either of us have ever owned, my wife and I. Despite the leaky basement and the deteriorating kitchen cabinets – maybe because – we felt like we’d made a good decision, still do. We love it here. We were married in the backyard.
But the problem, see, is this old shed out in the backyard. A flimsy aluminum box with a rusty peaked roof and sliding doors painted to look like they came from a barn. The doors were on tracks at the shed’s threshold; little plastic wheels helped smooth their motion. How long since they functioned as they were supposed to? The world may never know. The doors stuck as broken wheels jammed in muddy tracks. One of them frequently fell off.
As we moved in, the shed became the de-facto place for whatever junk I didn’t know what to do with. Anyone need a set of drums? The shed floor was a mismatched quilt of overlapping plywood sheets. I didn’t realize it at the time, but beneath the boards were rats.
Lauren was the one who noticed. More accurately, the dogs noticed first and Lauren was the one who realized why it was they were so eager to get into the shed. Dachshunds, a pair Lauren has had for over a decade. They’re old, but still more than eager to chase down a rat. So I sealed up the shed. Fixed the doors, sealed the walls inside, and put a lock on it.
And then the dogs decided to try tunneling inside. They dug and dug until we pulled them out by their hind legs. Once again, I sealed things up and filled in every place they dug. The dog and rats had, at this point, had yet to engage in direct combat. My hope was to maintain the stalemate. As long as the rats aren’t getting inside our house, who cares what they do? But, I also don’t want them getting killed by the dogs nor do I want the dogs bitten. Borders had been established. Peace.
Forward now to the present day, two years. We took in a third dog, a stray Pomeranian with dreadlocks on his ass and worms in his belly. That’s a different story. Suffice to say, he’s happy and healthy at the time of this writing. Lauren, ever the fan of John Boorman’s Excalibur, named him Merlin.
He’s also a rat killer.
You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he’s quick as a whip and will not hesitate to pounce on hapless woodland creatures. He stalks squirrels like a wolf after a deer. Slow and deliberate, he glances to the ground to ensure silence with every step.
And then Otto shows up. At a mere eleven years, he is the younger of the two Dachshunds; Chloe’s got him beat by four. He share’s Merlin’s affinity for murdering rodents. Unlike Merlin, Otto doesn’t have what it takes to be a hunter. He’s impatient, loud, and he bounces through the yard like an elongated little hippopotamus. An “Ottopotamus,” if you will. If you want to be formal, it’s “Mr. Pottamus.” Either way, at the first sign of, well, anything, Otto is always the first to make his presence known. Whatever advantage Merlin has with his streetdog insights, it’s all negated by Otto’s frantic barking.
So then how could it be that Merlin is able to kill rats? The shed is sealed and Otto’s lack of grace, he shouldn’t have a chance. That is where I, much like Otto, come blundering in with no awareness of the consequences of my action.
I get some bright idea to rake. Sixty-foot pecan trees and Oklahoma winds combined is a recipe for lots of crap in your yard. I gather them into big mound of wet leaves and branches. The pile is six feet around and nearly four feet high. I tell myself that “eventually,” I would burn it all in our fire pit. This, dear reader, was mid-Spring. There’s a virus out there, riots in the streets; 2020 has been, to put it colloquially, a dumpster fire. And on top of all that, it’s just been really hot outside. We people of the ginger experience learn young that the sun is not our friend. Excuses, excuses, I never got around to taking care of the branch pile.
It appears that a large pile of leaves and sticks is prime real estate for rats. They made their way inside, hollowed out places for nests, dug tunnels from one end of the pile to the other. In the heap I’d carelessly left, they had built Rat City. It’s a beautiful thing. A marvel of engineering. It kept its natural shape save for where it had settled over the months. The perimeter was dug out so as to form eave-like overhangs above the mouths of the various tunnels. the city’s highest point served as the peak of gaping cavern. Supported by several larger branches, the cavern was shallow and split into several small tunnels.
How I discovered that this Rat City had come into being parallels that of the shed. Otto and Merlin, I noticed one day, were becoming less and less inclined to come inside the house when called. I went around to the side of the house and saw it for the first time. Also, I saw Otto and Merlin. Barking furiously, they attempted to the breach the narrow passages of Rat City. I coaxed the excited pair away from their quarry and back inside the house.
A few days before, Lauren told me that Merlin killed a rat. It was the second time she had seen him do it.
“I heard it squealing,” she said. Dismayed, with one hand on her chest, she chastised Merlin, “that rat probably had a family, Merlin.”
So today, July 4th, 2020, I showed her Rat City. I told her how I had accidentally facilitated its existence mere feet from our house. We agreed that it had to go. We don’t want the doggos getting bitten by a rat. We don’t want rats in the house. It’s the logical thing, right? I took the rake and proceeded to break it down, layer by layer. I saw little more than flickers of gray fur and tails disappearing into the lower levels. I left it a scattered mess of branches. Tomorrow I will go out and do it again. And the next day. My intention is to consistently disturb the area until they slowly figure out that this is no longer a great place for them.
While I destroyed their city I thought about how, if this was a story, I’d likely be the villain. Old Man Stafford come to destroy Rat City. So it stands to reason, were this a story, those rats would get their revenge. Fortunately for me, this is real and I don’t have to worry about that. Right?
And so, in this Year of the Rat, 2020, may the scattered citizens of Rat City find each other, in a place more deserving to their ingenuity.
Rat City as it stood on July 4th, 2020.
I write stuff. Working on a novel. Working on a degree. Working on a life.