Everyday Wilderness

There is a special kind of hell when one has just returned from the ER at 1:30 a.m. with a projectile-vomiting toddler, who somehow has been showered, wrangled into clean, cotton pajamas, and shushed and rocked to sleep, when the sounds of some nocturnal creature racing back and forth across the nursery ceiling become all too apparent. Is it a squirrel? No, the soft glow of Google says most squirrels are more diurnal. Is it a possum or a racoon? Most likely.

A distant, pre-marriage, pre-motherhood memory of visiting a Costa Rican beach in Manuel Antonio National Park pops up. There is a tourist screaming “Mapache!” as a racoon swings away on a vine, holding his filched red-and-yellow box of Ritz Bit cheese crackers. Surprisingly, the tourist attempts to fight the raccoon for the crackers, an act both stupefying and brazen. Surely, there are more snacks to be found elsewhere? Spanish colonists derived mapache from the Aztecs’ Nahuatl mapachtli, meaning “the one who takes everything in its hands.” Terrified does not even begin to cover the mood in this nursery, where the baby sleeps on top of the mother, who is unable to move without waking the child.

Yet, the baby sleeps unbothered, although congested and fitfully. The mystery “guest” continues racing, like a pinball out of pocket, racking up all jackpots and always earning an end-of-ball bonus. It also becomes quite clear there are at least two players dancing on the ceiling, and as awesome as vintage Lionel Richie is, this is not the soundtrack one wishes to hear in the wee hours of the morning as a sick child sleeps.

Wilderness does not just exist in sublime, distant lands; it also resides in an invaded attic in a 1928 brick bungalow on the outskirts of St. Louis. Our tendency to romanticize what is wild as dramatic and exotic does not accurately consider how humans and animals interact most usually.

As Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes in The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, “The tidy divisions once labeled, respectively, urban, rural, and wild are breaking down as animals that once lived well beyond urban edges are now turning up in city neighborhoods with some regularity, and human-wild encounters of all kinds are increasingly frequent, startling, and confusing.” And while Haupt advocates a stance of curiosity rather than fear when encountering uninvited visitors, there is, of course, a deep concern a rodent with razor-sharp teeth and exceptional night vision or a “trash panda” will somehow chew through the drop-down tiles to eat the cats’ food and then attack our sweet child.

A mother’s mind is ripe for tragicomical possibilities as a father sleeps unaware, lightly snoring in the other room. He is a good man who will wake at dawn to purchase Pedialyte and popsicles, apple juice and Zofran. But before those good deeds occur, there is most definitely resentment that the husband sleeps while the wife texts, “Please open our door … I don’t want to be trapped with whatever this is …”

And “whatever this is” is likely just surviving, doing whatever it takes to find shelter, to perhaps mate or store provisions. This does not mean that the pest removal company will not be called as soon as their receptionist is in or the humane live trap will not be set with peanut butter, cheese, sweet corn, crisp bacon, or marshmallows, all bait recommendations for different animals per the Interwebs.

This also means this mother will continue to sleep next to the baby at night, guarding her with a dimmed cell phone and a bottle of water, both makeshift weapons if necessary. She will, without a second thought, channel the Costa Rican tourist’s chutzpah, if needed.