Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dulce Domum

On the number plate for my house is a scene from Wind in the Willows. Mole and Ratty in the little blue-painted boat is a vignette of perfect friendship and domestic harmony. Ratty is an engaging character: outgoing, sympathetic, reliable, capable, resourceful and kind. Bless Kenneth Grahame for seeing these possibilities in the common water rat.

But who really feels an affinity for rattus norvegicus? When he tries to make his home in a human habitation it cannot be Happy Ever After; it is unhealthy for the humans and ultimately disastrous for the rat and his kin.

Idling at the traffic lights on the local high street I saw a little brown creature with that characteristic slinking side-to-side gait. He sniffed under an open door and then flattened himself and crept into the store. Drawn probably by the warmth, he couldn't know that within this cavern of silkiness and perfume and elegantly thin models there would be not a crumb to eat, not even a morsel of rice-cracker or drop of Slim-fast.

Where did he come from? Up from the harbour, probably, or evicted from some other dwelling. I know this store, they have lovely things and although I cannot afford to shop there I often pause to admire. So I quickly parked and went in to tell the lone saleswoman about her guest. He sat against folds of oyster-coloured satin and turned his head this way and that, nose twitching.

"Pardon me, but a rat... "

"Where? " She moved quickly.

"Here, in front of me - no, down by you now, between the rack and the magazines" - for he moved around and searched for new corners as we spoke. He looked, for a moment, both incongruous and pretty, with silky brown fur showing very well against the rich drapery of a display table. Then he simply disappeared, and not out the door. We prowled around the store cautiously, but could find neither tail nor whisker of him.

I had to go on my way eventually. I would like there to be a happy ending to this story, something for a picture book. It was more likely a baited trap.

Papa above!
Regard a Mouse
O'erpowered by the Cat!
Reserve within thy kingdom
A "Mansion" for the Rat!

Snug in seraphic Cupboards
To nibble all the day
While unsuspecting Cycles
Wheel solemnly away!

Emily Dickinson

PS. I think I have a happy ending for him, stay tuned.


  1. What you've written has struck at a bit of memory.

    A year or so ago, we also had an unexpected encounter in our fine shop with an amimal with a long tail. This animal had been dislocated from his former dwelling places by lots of building renovations in the neighborhood, and slipped into our shop, seeking warmth.

    Warmth he might have found briefly, peace definitely not.

    I will not add to my resume that, with the help of a colleague, I did capture this rodent and then send him on his way eastward across Fifth Avenue.

    There was nothing remotely literary about our encounter! I would like that to have been a one off experience.


  2. I was thrilled by your comment on my blog, "What a Jolly Street!" I couldn't figure out how to reply to you, except by leaving a comment here. When I found your blog and your website, I recognized a kindred spirit! You have gone farther with art than I did, but your images are akin to mine in imagination. (Now I find myself teaching art, as if by accident. And I have no idea how to do that! Oh well.. it will work out!)

    Are you familiar with Opal Whitely? There's now a website about her, and her books:

  3. I once had the sweetest white rat, Pandora a real lady, who would ride in my armpit and drink milk from a tipped carton. The common rat is quite a different story...typified in Manny Rat, from 'The Mouse and his Child'

    But the water rat is rather cuddly and sadly threatened in its native waters by (un-native) mink.

    (The beginning of Dulce Domum is my favourite piece of literature of all time. It never fails to reduce me to tears, even as I think of it).

  4. I think the rat character in Wind in the Willows is maybe a water vole, sometimes called a water rat? Water voles are very sweet and endangered here in Britain, under threat from a colony of escaped mink, also a loss of habitat.

    Whilst I am rather fond of our water vole I share your mistrust of the domestic rat. We had one who came to live under the garden shed and drank at our bird bath. He sent shivers down my spine! Fortunately our dog scared him off.

  5. Dear Frances,
    Indeed, an actual encounter prompts a visceral and practical response! It is only at a safe distance that I can afford to think (like Sarah Crewe) "I daresay it is rather hard to be a rat".

    Dear Gretel,
    Now I have to find and read "The Mouse and His Child"!
    Avril did a lovely piece for the local TV station many years ago, Dulce Domum with hand-made field mice, Mole, Ratty and Mole End, with her voice-over. They played it for years.

    Dear Valerie,
    Probably so! We have water voles over here too, but they are country cousins. In this suburb we only see the occasional harbour rat (and rather pretty mice, numbers down due to Tiger Tim).

  6. Dear Clover, I googled "Mrs. Apricot" not expecting to find anything at all, and there was a complete puzzle piece from my childhood described on your blog! A happy find.

  7. You are lovely.

    Love Renee xoxo

  8. Rats, of course, have their place and their uses. Unfortunately their boundaries are unclear to them and they, strangely enough, believe they have a right to life and warmth.

    As you say, their presence is not healthy for us and our presences is not healthy for them.

    How sad.

  9. We both have chosen rodents for blog topics today. I have also posted about Willow's Ball and I am hoping none of these rodents show up. They may get stepped on during the dancing. Perhaps your little rodent was seeking some fancy apparel too!