It was fall in Winnipeg, full of the delicious anticipation of the first snow and the rich smells of summer’s decay and there was a scratching sound in our wall. I’d heard it for the first time one morning during meditation. It was downstairs in the little room beneath the stairs. Our house is split and so our basement sits higher up and has large windows. All the exterior walls have a ledge two-thirds of the wall’s height because of the way the foundation was made. The scratching was in one of those spaces between the cement and the interior wall.
When I mentioned that I heard a scratching sound to Christian, he dismissed it. So I tried to ignore what I thought I heard, even though, when I’d duck my head into that space which was cooler than the other spaces in our house, where we kept our potatoes and onions, suitcases and children’s toys, I’d keep an eye out for a mouse, or maybe a squirrel. But there was never any evidence of mice, or bugs. And then I would still hear the scratching sometimes.
One night, almost a week later, Christian heard the scratching. I had paused the television in the middle of the commentary following Justin Trudeau’s win. When I came back, the under-stairs light was on, and Christian was standing leaning toward the wall.
“You hear it?” I said.
“Yes!” he answered.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What are you gonna do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he paused, “how did it get there, I wonder.”
It would seem that only a thin piece of drywall was separating us from this scratching source and neither of us felt like taking it down, tearing right through to see.
So he turned off the light and I continued to watch the political commentary.
Before bed that night, I asked what he planned to do.
“I don’t know.” He said.
I’ve grown asepticized to close encounters with wild life. We didn’t have any family pets besides the beta fish. Once, when I was washing my hair I came across a protuberance on my scalp and squeezed it off and as I found its round bead shape carried off in a stream of water I saw its six little legs confirm an innocent suspicion before it disappeared down the drain. The panicked surge of disgust mimicked anger and I punched the flimsy shower stall wall because it was the only thing I could think of doing. It wasn’t dissimilar to the time that I found myself weeding a space in the front yard, still an elementary school student when I unwittingly ended a small caterpillar’s life in a firm pinch. I sprang up from my crouched position and shook my arms until I was calm enough to think of washing my fingers. More recently, when fishing out tools and pails from an under-deck area in the backyard, I came across a drowned, bloated mouse. The scene was like the one in Anne of Green Gables when a slimy mouse is discovered at the bottom of a custard pot. I confess I was far less adroit at getting rid of the mouse than young Anne, even though my daughter was watching and I couldn’t give in to yelling, or shaking, or punching walls.
In the increasingly intermittent scratching sounds in the wall, I could imagine a small animal in distress, slowly dying, drying up, clawing around hopelessly surrounded by pink insulation. Maybe it fell through a crack in our foundation but we couldn’t check because that area was a corner under our front patio. Undoing a bunch of two by fours to get a good view felt like a lot of effort for a scratching sound.
But what if it was some poor animal? It was that kind of thing that mixes pity and fear together so that the tug of war between the two leads to nothing. You stand there and do nothing because making a hole in the wall inside feels too close and inspecting a foundation outside feels too laborious.
“How long have you heard it?” Christian asked me.
“A week?” I answer.
He says his parents would sometimes hear scratching in the walls in their house and his dad would go up into the attic and drop poison into the walls and then the scratching would stop. I’m discomfited by the way having a dead rodent stuck in the wall is just fine, as if all walls everywhere would have the dried up, mummified remains of some un wary creatures.
That was the conclusion, that our wall certainly had something dead in it. I was re-reading my work and read the first sentence to Christian who laughed at the memory. He said:
“It’s gone away, eh, whatever it was.”
I said that that wasn’t the conclusion I’d drawn. I said I thought the whatever-it-was was dead.
“No!” he said “If it was dead, it would have smelled!”
I said I had no time to re-work the conclusion.