There is an angry growl from Cleo, a hiss and a swat and both cats adjust their postures, move a few more inches apart, glance threateningly at each other, and then resume their hunched positions around the tiny space made where the bottom step of our stairway from the living room reaches into the kitchen.
They have been huddled around this space off and on all day. If there is a mouse hiding in there I am not sure why it didn’t make a run for it when the cats were napping on a pile of clothes in the bedroom. But there must be something under there because each time the cats appear they move cautiously around this spot, not making a sound, they are fluid and slow, except when Cleo is telling Chestnut to back off.
A few nights earlier the cats had staked out the top step of the stairway, the first step down from the living room. It is a spot they have sat often, staring at the wall. We know the mice are there, we can hear them sometimes scratching and rustling about amongst the insulation and the plastic vapour barrier and the wood.
We live in the forest. A riot of underbrush surrounds our home. Mice like it here. We have pulled down sections of our wooden walls in the past to reveal tunnels carved through the insulation, tiny highways of mouse trails. Once we pulled down a panel of wooden detailing near the ceiling of our living room, to reveal a lifetime supply of sunflower seeds, the plastic barrier stuffed to bursting. When we poked at it the black seeds rained down, clattering off the metal ladder we had used to reach the ceiling and pattering across the floor.
We have reclaimed our walls from the mice over the years and last summer when the cats ventured outside for the first time in nine years they caught multiple mice a day, reappearing by the front door a few times each hour yeowling in victory. They knocked back the population tremendously. But this one spot at the top of the stairs where the wall of the stairway and the ceiling of the entryway below create interesting nooks and crannies, difficult for us to reach, has continued to be some sort of fortress for the mice.
On cold winter nights we would hear them busily burrowing into the insulation and we would stand and stare at the ceiling of the entryway wondering how best to clear them out. Meanwhile the cats would lie at the top of the stairs to the living room and stare at the wall, probably wondering the same thing.
When Chestnut one evening somehow managed to stick his paw in a miniscule space created where the wall and riser meet and pulled out a mouse, Morgan decided to cut out a small section of that wall. The square space stayed open for a long time, with the wood cutout sitting off to the side and when not much had happened and it was clear we would need to demolish a lot more of the wall to get at anything living there, I set the wooden square back in place over the hole.
And then the other night, as the cats sat once again staring at that spot, I watched Cleo jam her paw in behind the wooden square, ram her nose in beside it, whiskers flat against her face, eyes closed in concentration, stretching and reaching with great determination until she too pulled out a mouse.
I am always torn about the mice. I do not want them living in my walls and I appreciate the ability of our cats to catch them, but I do not like how cruel they are. If they just killed the mice mercifully with one swat, I think I would be able to let it go, but they taunt the mice, play with them, injure them, draw out their deaths. So as I watched Cleo skip off with her prize, I sighed, gave it a second’s thought and then ran down the stairs after them.
The cats were looming over the little grey mouse where Cleo had dropped it, in a pile of papers that had fallen off a chair in the corner. It was still alive and clearly frightened, so I scooped up a cat in each arm as they both took desperate swats at the mouse, and shut them in the bathroom. I found a box and managed to relocate the mouse outside, which I realize completely defeats the purpose since it will probably find its way back in again.
And perhaps it did and perhaps that is the very mouse the cats have now cleverly cornered beneath the bottom step of our stairway.
They pace and they sit, they hunch and they stare. They move silently around the step, from one side to the other, looking into the space, listening, sometimes reaching in gingerly. They fight each other off and they wait patiently.