Have you heard of Fika? It is a Swedish tradition, taught to me by my daughter-in-law, where you take a break from work to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, a little tidbit, and conversation. I love this observance, especially because my former favorite ritual of a glass of wine in the evening is forbidden. (You can read about my sober life here.)
Anyway, I was out at the farm one sunny afternoon in July, getting my Fika on with a cup of darjeeling and a cookie, watching a hen out the window. She, the chicken named Lisa, was jumping for elderberries, so I stepped outside to encourage her. (The important part of Fika isn’t the tea; it’s the conversation.) When I returned inside a moment later, my cookie had been nibbled. And not by a chicken, let me tell you!
We have a mouse problem on the farm. Before you call me a suburban greenhorn, let me say of course I know mice and farm are two words that go together. (Also nervous breakdown and farm are words that go together.)
We are out in the country. There’s a river nearby, a wildflower meadow, cornstalks, a bean field, and a lovely German chicken coop. This place represents for a mouse exactly what it represents for us: a warm and cozy spot where one can enjoy the bounty of the land.
In his book, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” Bill Bryson explains:
Wherever there are humans there are mice. No other creatures live in more environments than the two of us do. House mice — Mus musculus, as they are known on formal occasions — are wondrously adaptable with regard to environment. Mice have been found living in a refrigerated meat locker kept permanently chilled at 14 degrees fahrenheit. They will eat almost anything. They are next to impossible to keep out of a house: a normal-sized adult can squeeze through an opening 3/8 of an inch wide, a gap so very tight that you would almost certainly bet good money that no grown mouse could possibly squeeze through it. They could. They can. They very often do.”
I’m not afraid of mice. When I see them, I think of Mrs. Frisby, Despereaux, Stuart Little, Tucker, and Mrs. Tittlemouse. Tiny leather-tailed heroes and heroines of kid lit.
But I cannot forgive the turdlets. Did you know that a single mouse expels up to fifty little black baguettes every day? That and duh, they carry disease.
So I did what all half Persians from Waukegan do when someone nibbles their cookies without permission. I called an assassin. His name is Ryan and he set traps, installed poison bait boxes, and crawled on his hands and knees around the entire perimeter of the house, checking for eraser-sized openings. He found them.
Which brings us to the cellar.
The farmhouse was built in 1842, before Wisconsin became a state, and its age is most evident when you walk down the nine rough-hewn steps to the space where I imagine the original farm family stored root vegetables, hootch, and anyone who died before the ground thawed. A single 40-watt bulb hangs from a ceiling made of massive wooden timbers with the bark still intact. About five feet off the floor, an opening in the cobblestone wall leads to a separate crawl space under the kitchen. This creepy little cavern, Ryan assured me, is the on-ramp. Ellis Island, if you will. This is how Mrs. Frisby, Despereaux, Stuart Little, their babies and lovers, their drinking pals and sewing circle friends, raise themselves up in the mouse world, gaining entrée to a comfy home with central heat and hazelnut cookies for Fika.
Ryan told us to shut down that cavern. “Fill it with insulation,” he said.
Which brings us to the fixers. Two of them, partners in spray foam insulation, showed up in matching Chernobyl suits on a very hot August afternoon. The first guy, Gilbert, ran the show. Skinny and scrappy, he strutted down the stairs, exuding confidence as he peered into the cavern. His sidekick, Wally, was his opposite: meek, gentle, and the size of Andre the Giant with massive limbs and a neck like a snare drum. Wally struggled to get his Michelin Man body down the stairs. At that point, Gilbert asked our son Atticus to help.
Gilbert gave Atticus a Chernobyl suit, gas mask, and respirator, and warned that if he sprayed the insulation for more than four seconds, it catches fire. With Wally feeding the tube into the cavern, Gilbert and Atticus crawled on their bellies shooting foam into crevasses that hadn’t seen the light of day since John Tyler was president. It was hot, the tube makes a deafening noise, and things got dicey; the further they crawled, the smaller the cavern became, and the more numerous the holes, which, from the evidence of the exoskeletons in the dirt, could only be snake tunnels. Atticus, behind Gilbert shining the light, could see Gilbert’s legs shaking. Every minute or so, Gilbert would pause and holler out, “This isn’t good. This is bad. This is a bad situation.”
When they finally emerged, Gilbert was humble, shaken, and no longer posturing. Atticus led him into the kitchen and handed him a beer. Staring into the bottle, his face wan, his Chernobyl suit streaked with dirt and sweat, he muttered, over and over, “Bad situation.”
And now, from what I can tell based on the lack of black baguette turdlets, we are mousefree on the inside. When my Iranian aunt and uncles visit the farm this afternoon, our Fikarest will feature mulled cider and ginger cookies. The mice, which, let’s be honest, are still out here in mass numbers, will Fika with Lisa and the other chickens in the cozy German coop. Cracked corn is on the menu.
Photo by Giuseppe Martini via Unsplash.