A rat gnawing incessantly through
wood makes a noise you’ll never forget. I heard it thirty years ago,
one winter when I lived alone in an upstate New York farmhouse. Find
the underside of a wood desk and scratch a thumbnail across the grain—do
it with the rhythm of a pulse—and you have the effect of a rat gnawing
wood. Except you can control your thumbnail.
During long, cold nights I heard nothing, not a sound, except that damn rat. I roamed the old house until I found the source of the noise. In a dark corner of the upstairs floor, just outside my bedroom, was a half-dollar-sized hollow of light wood raked with tooth-marks. And I heard the rat scuffle away into hiding.
So I set a rat trap, just like a mousetrap but twice as big. Next day I found it snapped, but empty. After that the bait went undisturbed. “He’s trap-shy now,” said my friend Johnny, a fur-trapper. “He’ll never go to that trap again.”
“What can I do?” I said.
“Cut two holes in a shoe-box,” he said, “one in either end. Then shred newspaper into it. Bait your trap with peanut butter and bury it in the paper. The rat will smell the peanut butter and he’ll crawl in and go rustling through the paper”—Johnny narrowed his eyes and squinched up his nose, showing his incisors and looking like a rat himself—“and he won’t see the trap in all that mess.”
It was a perfect plan. I assembled the box with care. The next day, nothing. Johnny said, “Don’t worry, he’ll find it.” He was right. The second morning I found the trap sprung. But again, no rat, just a tiny gray tuft of hair under the wire. So much for the box trick. Johnny said—poison it. But I didn’t want a poisoned carcass rotting nearby.
The rat worked in darkness, every night. I’d yell, bang the wall, run up the stairs three at a time, and the rat would be gone, of course. Even when it was quiet I was on edge, waiting for it to start again. I remember waking up one night and howling, Stop it, you miserable bastard—let me sleep! I felt like some tormented character out of Edgar Allen Poe.
One morning I got up unrested and ill-tempered and stared at the hole in the floor. It had grown to where the wretch could almost fit through it. I thought, maybe if I had a shotgun and could sit motionless—or maybe I could smash—
Then it struck me. I could.
I threw on clothes and ran outside. We’d had snow, but in places the ground was visible. Some might think me crazy, but my reasoning was sound—I hunted until I found a piece of field-stone with a diameter twice the length of a rat. I pried it from the ground and carried it inside and upstairs.
I wound heavy string around the stone and set it on a chair over the hole. Pawing through loose hardware in the shop, I found a screw-eye, the little eye that takes the hook of a wood screen-door. I fixed it in the ceiling above the stone, drilled a hole through the wall into my bedroom, and pushed the string through both holes. In a hemlock plank shelf next to my bed, I drove a sixteen-penny nail and stretched the string tight to the nail, and tied it off. When I removed the chair, the stone hung like death over the rat’s workplace. I could hardly wait for night.
That evening I honed my knife until, sliding it along the top of my wrist, hairs leapt free as if from a razor. At bedtime I folded a tee-shirt into a sound-muffling cushion and laid my knife on it. Right by the nail, and the taut string.
When I woke in the night to the all too familiar sound, I reached—so carefully, so quietly—for the knife. I touched the blade to the string and—BOOM!
I jumped out of bed, rushed into the next room, lifted the stone from the floor, and—
Nothing. I got down on hands and knees, peering at the rock and the hole. No hair, nothing.
I don’t know how that thing escaped, but I bet it kept going, clear into the next county. The rat never troubled me again.
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