The old road bordered by ancient stone walls meanders from the edge of the lawn back through the woods to a lovely pond on our neighbors’ property. More than once we’ve been told, “Oh, I love your pond! We used to skate there when I was young!” Sadly, we respond that the pond went with another lot when the property was subdivided, so we’ve missed out on skating parties. Still, we admire the mythic nature of the old road itself, its stone walls alive now with colonies of chipmunks and garter snakes, having once been travelled by horse-drawn carts, and certainly those skaters, laughing in anticipation of some mid-winter fun.
The sunken bed of the road, boulder strewn, gives a trough-like effect as the bowed centerline curves gracefully up to the tops of the walls. It would be rough passage now for anything on wheels, although the deer and wild turkeys traverse it with ease. During warmer months, graceful ferns unfurl and feather within its borders and the occasional foxglove will send up a startling spire of purple blossoms.
The lawn ends at a retaining wall tangled with forsythia, day lilies and golden rod that slopes to the entrance of the old road. Sometimes I perch on the steps from the back door to the yard, listening to the summer bugs, basking in the sun’s golden warmth and dreaming of sipping tea beneath the overhang of a porch.
We have made our way gradually toward this construction along the side of our sheds, but even so modest a project seems to involve many steps when it’s a Sylvestro plan. First we dragged our feet, watching for signs from the aging apple tree as to when her demise might be planned appropriately. Once the tree came down, there were permits to be acquired, necessitating a survey of the yard. Former Dave projects, a lean- to for the lawnmower and a “firewood condo”, once sources of weeks of labor and proud show-and-tell, now required demolition. Of course, the new shed roof that Dave and I installed together five years ago was also destined for the scrap heap.
The next step was to empty the shed that would support the porch and its roof. This would have been a daunting task under any circumstances due to the fact that we’d not done a thorough cleaning since we moved here. Further, at the risk of appearing slovenly, I confess that we’d had a little rat problem this winter that had exacerbated the mess in the shed. Oh yes, Rats.
I used to love watching the cardinals, titmice and chickadees darting about the feeder hung on the lilac just outside the kitchen window. We had recycled our sturdy plastic kitty litter containers to hold the loose bird seed stored conveniently in the shed. I loved the job of filling the feeders in winter. Pulling on my LL Beans boots and tromping through the snow carrying the bucket of seed, I pictured myself kinswoman to the farmers of old, making their way out to the barn, tending to chores. We were not, however, aware of feeding an additional, less charming, wildlife species until we discovered holes the size of silver dollars gnawed through those seemingly invulnerable plastic bins. *Shudder* I’d had no idea how rapacious rats could be.
We had never seen the rats and we made every effort to convince ourselves that these were only mice. When entering the shed, however, we would approach with caution, knocking threateningly before setting foot inside. On several occasions, we sent in our feline guard on reconnaissance, but they were wary and unenthusiastic about this place that had once been a favorite play area. Later, the exterminator confided that cats do not like rats. Whole different ballgame from mice. Well, there you go. Good judgment.
One day, Dave went to the shed to fetch a tool, entering only after the required knocking ritual. Upon turning to leave, he came eyes to whisker with a rat quivering above the door lintel. Oh. My. God. With this, and the rats’ growing appetite for anything housed in the shed - coolers, life vests, rugs, bottles of motor oil (!?), we realized that co-existence was not a possibility. We needed professional help.
We established contact via the yellow pages and were given the common sense instruction to remove all primary food sources. You would think we would have thought of that for ourselves, but no. The bird seed moved inside the house and sadly, the feeders on the lilac were banished to the foot of the yard. This had the immediate effect of forcing our vermin friends into plain sight. We were treated to the unnerving spectacle of four adult rats - eight inches or so in length, not counting the tails - and seven babies, all vying and squirming for fallen bird seed at the foot of the lilac, right under the kitchen window. *Shudder* again.
Our new guru, Brian the exterminator, had the wild-eyed glint of one who did battle with rats on a regular basis. Like some old man of the sea weaving tales of legendary fish, he told us stories of wily creatures with gimlet eyes who had mocked him, showing uncanny cunning in eluding him during past engagements. He stood at the kitchen window with us, watching the roiling tumble of sleek bodies and slithering whip-like tails of our rat family.
“Don’t you resent them?” he snapped accusingly. “Look at them! They’ve destroyed your belongings and befouled your shed! It stinks in there!”
It was true. We hung our heads in shame. We had let it go too far. Pushed around by a pack of bully rats.
Well, enough of that. Our uniformed emissary set out three formidable black bait traps, anchored them to the shed and tree with ropes of wire cord and padlocked them shut. No one but rats was going into these babies. Task accomplished, Brian handed over the keys and turned to go.
“Uh, wait. Are you going to come check them? Pick up the traps or something?” I said.
“Well, I will if you want me to; it’s really not necessary.”
Again I faltered sheepishly, “Will the rats die inside the traps?”
“No, usually not.”
“Well, do they head for water?”
Brian got a kick out of that. “That’s what other guys’ll tell you, because of course, that’s a comforting concept. But no, they’ll probably die under the house somewhere...”
He was right. Those rats had us coming and going. For months we tried to mask the stench with pans of absorbent charcoal and fragrant red candles of cinnamon scent set strategically around the kitchen and downstairs bathroom. Oh yes, those rats were calling the shots even from the grave.
Which brings me back to my original point; clearing the shed. Preparation for porch construction was the incentive required to attack the build-up of thirteen years. There was now the added impetus of removing hidden nests, gnawed baskets and spewing bags of soil rent by ratty teeth - a host of forgotten detritus now made repulsive by our former tenants.
I approached the task with surprising gusto, my willingness to dispose of items squirreled up through the years made far easier by the taint of rat occupancy. Expansive black garbage bags swelled like balloons to maximum capacity as they received unmatched gloves, unused foil pans, endless bottles wistfully saved for Dave’s homemade wine, and a bag of solidified concrete mix. Out! Out! Out!
Purging provides a gratifying sense of order. After cleaning a closet - or a shed, for example - I squire tolerant visitors in for a look, so great is my sense of satisfaction. Surely the aura of “everything is in its place in my shed, and all is right with the world” is palpable to all who go there.
It took three days, but the area so recently choked with years of debris, mingled with (dare I say it) rat droppings, was finally emptied. Let the porch construction begin!