By the end of summer, the water level of the pond on the farm drops about ten feet, making the surface invisible to anyone not standing along its edges. Other than a plethora of bugs, not much stirs in the pond in the summer, so I don’t pay too much attention to it. Summers are brief, and we all want to laze around in the warm sun as if we could store it in our bodies and psyches for the dismal, gray months ahead.
I love nature. I allow bees to hover near me while I garden, and I don’t squash spiders. I don’t even use RoundUp on weeds. Wildlife tolerates me, and I try to live and let live. I’m very St. Francesca of Assisi in that way.
I was, that is. Until one summer day when I learned how quickly a pacifist can morph into a perp. I need you to know I am not proud. Really. It was a case of Rodent Rage.
I was forking up horse manner in the paddock, a task I actually like. I was one of the those little girls whose room resembled the aftermath of a cyclone but whose horse stalls were so immaculate, you could give birth in them.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” I wailed as I shoveled. “Sock it to me, sock it me, sock it me, oooooooh.”
In mid-song, the fury of barking dogs diverted my attention from horse pooh and Aretha. Barney and Rupert were circling the pond, frenzied, their focus directed toward something in the pond, something I couldn’t see from the paddock. Since ducks and geese were hardly novelties to the dogs, it had to be something new to them and it had to be alive. Otter, maybe? Beaver? Resting the manure fork against the rail, I scrambled over the fence to investigate.
Water rats. About a dozen of them, trapped in the middle of the pond by yapping dogs, treading water in a formation that reminded me of a tiny, furry synchronized swim team or extras from an Esther Williams movie.
Barn rats are something you learn to live with; you don’t like them, you lay traps for them, you let your barn cats and terriers kill them without guilt. But just seeing rats doing the breaststroke in my pond pushed me over the edge of reason, and something hateful and lethal invaded my otherwise tolerant soul. These little vermin, desperately swimming up and down the length of the pond to find a way out past the dogs intent on killing them, had less to fear from the dogs than from me. They were about to experience the Rodent Rapture.
Because I lacked anything like a pool skimmer with which I could have scooped the vermin out of the water and flung them like a jai alai player into the far reaches of the woods, I would have to improvise the manner of the Ratricide.
I chose stones. It was a primitive choice, emanating from the small Neanderthal part of my brain that was not in the least humane. Small ones to flip at them to herd them to the side wall of the pond where they would cling, their little mammalian minds believing they would blend into the dark clay unnoticed, and big, honking ones to crash down on those little heads to drown them. With the help of the dogs, who seemed to understand the gruesome plan perfectly, our deadly pack spent the rest of the afternoon killing rats.
“Over there!” I shouted, pointing to the dogs, as one of the rats would break from formation in an attempt to escape.
The dogs would converge, snarling and growling, and the rat would kick off from the wall and paddle across the pond to where I stood with a “smasher” rock. I’d heave it down on the rat. It’s beady little eyes would roll back in its pointed head as it bobbed back up to the surface for the briefest of moments before sinking into the shadowy deep for eternity.
We repeated this heinous collaboration over and over – my shouting directions, pitching stones to alter their course if needed, the dogs driving the rats to me, the cannonball-like splashes as the smasher rocks shattered the surface of the water, crushing their little skulls.
Out of all of the water rats, we had only one escapee. He made it to the opposite end of the pond unnoticed, and we watched as he sped up the bank, across the lawn and into the forest faster than a firecracker.
“TELL YOUR FRIENDS!!” I yelled after him, flush with the taste of the hunt. Word among the water rat dens must have spread because I never saw another rat in the pond.
That day, the day I became anathema to myself, I discovered how easily a normally lucid human mind can devolve into momentary – or an afternoon’s worth of – insanity. This epiphany occurred, after the rats were dead at the bottom of the pond and the war over, when I turned around, meaning to go back to the barn, and saw Dina David, my first real friend on the road, standing about a twenty yards away, staring in silence at me, aghast.
Dina, who’d dropped by for coffee, had witnessed enough of the massacre to be convinced I had finally gone mad. As she stood there, motionless, the idea of coming any closer to me was probably something giving her considerable pause.
“Water rats,” I explained weakly, a rock dropping from my hand.
“Most people just shoot them, Lisa,” Dina replied, “It’s much easier than stoning them to death.”