Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Squatters

(Handout via Reuters)

From their point of view, of course, we are. The house was built in 1941. Before then the site was second growth, maybe meadow. Then the Others came, and put down straight stones, dead trees, and the covering. (If they had wanted a burrow, why hadn’t they dug one? Or a nest, why had they put it on the ground? Strange are their ways.)

The house has been ours for 20 and a half years. We bargained over the price, we signed papers with a lawyer at the county seat, every month a payment goes to the bank that holds the mortgage. Yet squatters — they might say, legitimate owners — share it with us.

There was some confusion when we first took possession, an understandable permeability of boundaries. The house had stood vacant a year or more while the previous owners had it on the market. Maybe the Others were gone for good, as Communists seemed to be after the Berlin Wall fell. The very first day we began moving in, a frog came through the front door. Sounds of complaint drove him under a sofa. I tried sweeping him out with the handle of a broom, in vain. It was too short, or he was too cunning. My wife, more cunning than the two of us, opened the front door again, and he made a straight line for the outdoors, and relief from such clumsiness and clamor.

The front room came together. Then one day we noticed some kind of ornament atop the housing of the motor of the ceiling fan. It was green, mossy. Had the contractor’s workmen — Poles, probably illegal — tried some old-country decorating? No: It was, I found when I climbed a stepstool to remove it, a bird’s nest, with a clutch of eggs. Then of course it had to stay until the occupants hatched and fledged. The mother would fly in through still unenclosed gaps in the walls when no one was around. When we had the ill grace to be present, we saw her outside the picture window angrily twitching her tail. But once we settled in and the house’s new skin was complete, frogs and birds joined us no more.

We are far from alone, however. Mice are the perennial intruders. They can squeeze through the tiniest holes; there is really no way to keep them out, short of living in a diving bell. So in they come, especially in winter, and so they have to be killed. Build a better mousetrap, said Emerson, and the world will beat a path to your door. Why then have people spent so much energy building inferior mousetraps? The best mousetrap, the old faithful, is the small plywood base, with a metal notch to hold the bait, and the killer bar, spring taut, held back by the lightly poised metal rod. Until you learn the knack of setting one you will catch yourself a few times, but once you do learn, it is the destroying angel. Newer versions replace the notch with yellow plastic squares that look, and I suppose smell, like cheese, to save, what, a few quarters per season on cheap cheddar. Or you can put poison in black plastic bait stations. That works, but you have to wear rubber gloves while doing it, and the bait stations accumulate detritus. The poisoned mice flee back outside looking for water, though sometimes they end up in the toilet. Throwing them out by their tails is sad; they are dainty creatures. If they were disease- and tick-free, they might be welcome.

Twice snakes came up through a crack in the floor. We have no basement, not even a crawl space, but there is some gap down there, or so I assume, because on two occasions black snakes appeared from below. They were quite small. I mistook one for a shoelace. The other, even smaller, was entangled in a spider web (I freed him). He then reared up, threatening, like some cobra in a Kipling story. But since I was several hundred times larger than he was, he thought better of it, and slipped off whence he had come.

Then there are the guests we never see, and know only by their handiwork. In front of our house stands a pair of hickory trees. One has a single trunk, the other is forked. They are an obvious couple; we understand at a glance the tale of Philemon and Baucis. Some years their nuts are sparse, other years they carpet the lawn. This fall was prolific, and this winter I found 20 hickory nuts carefully stashed under the cushion of a living-room chair, and another 20 in a boot that I keep in a drawer in the bedroom. Hickory nuts are not tiny. They are about the circumference of a quarter. Think of the labor involved in accumulating such a horde — the finding, the carrying, the round trips. And all wasted when the Others find it, and throw it back on the lawn.

These reflections were prompted by sighting an intruder in the act. Chipmunks hibernate, but this winter has been so mild they came out early. Coming up the walk to my front door I saw one duck into a crack in the wall. Zip! I approached as he was about to leave, but he saw me and froze, his head filling his doorway. Chipmunks’ eyes are relatively large, which makes them look baby-like, endearing. We were quite still for two minutes, until in I went and he did too.

My friend Doug has no patience with indoor chipmunks. He talks of making himself a chipmunk-skin coat. He showed me a picture he found online of half a dozen skins, arranged in two columns of three, stripes aligned in verticals. You wouldn’t need very many, he said, showing the size of one with his hands; these would be good for the back. Of course, he added, I would break up the pattern. Make it more interesting.

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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