Lessons Tutu taughtBy Leslie Lang
I was wearing socks when I stepped on the not-quite-dead rat, which is better than stepping on a rat barefoot, but not much.
The dog looked down at the rat, and picked it up in her mouth. I exclaimed. I made inarticulate noises and gesticulated wildly, in a completely ineffectual attempt to get the rat away from the dog and, especially, out of the house. My boyfriend looked up from across the room. He calmly called to the dog: "Good girl, Hau'oli. Outside!" She trotted happily off, taking the rat with her.
His was the perfect reaction. Mine was imperfect.
I live in my grandmother's house, out in the country on the Big Island's Hamakua coast. My tutu, who passed away last year, lived here all her life and never flinched when confronted with the unexpected.
She used to fling dead rats out of windows into the jungle below. "It's a good thing I don't live in a condo in Waikiki," she told me once, as she hurled a dead rat out the breakfast room window.
Every so often, Tutu would awaken to find the cat on her chest, a rat in its mouth. She didn't overreact: She just picked up the cat, rat and all, and put it outside.
One day Tutu found the cat in the dining room, toying with a rat, batting it into the air and watching it fall. Tutu got a dustpan. When the rat went up, Tutu caught it and flung it out the window. Matter-of-fact. No big deal.
WHEN I was a teen-ager, a woman came screaming out of the restroom at a donut shop in California where I worked. A rat had popped up out of the toilet bowl when she flushed. The manager's son went in there with the only weapon he could find: the long metal tool that turns the sprinkler on. I held the door while he looked for the rat. When he hit the metal paper towel holder, a rat tail popped out of the opening. I slammed the door and heard "thwack thwack thwack," and then silence. I wondered which one of them got the other.
My grandmother loved that story when I called her that night long ago. There was nothing like Tutu's laugh. When she was done laughing, she'd have to mop up her face with a tissue. When she finally stopped laughing, she told me she had flushed a rat that morning.
The story persisted for years. "Remember that day you flushed a rat in Pepeekeo and it came up in Hermosa Beach?"
Tutu's cat still brings rats into the house and lets them loose. It's like stocking a fishpond for later, I guess. It would be great if the cat didn't bring creatures into the house, but I guess it's a trade-off for living in the country.
And it's not only rats I find myself dealing with. The dog Hau'oli goes off hunting occasionally, and once caught a baby pig and dragged it back to the house. If my brother hadn't noticed and stopped her, I suppose she would have brought it into the living room and left it near her dog bed, to eat later.
I wonder how Tutu would have handled an unexpected dead pig in the house. As she always handled things, I suppose. Calmly and with panache. Maybe knowing what to do in a rat or pig emergency comes with practice. It seems I'll be getting plenty of that.
I am not altogether incapable. I've remained calm and rational through some unnerving experiences, like seeing buildings topple around me during an earthquake in San Francisco, and being trapped for two days in a Northern California flood.
I can squash and fling cockroaches, dangerous scorpions, and cane spiders the size of a dinner plate with the best of them. It's rats that are my downfall.
Since that time recently when Hau'oli the dog had that rat in her mouth, I've been careful to avoid letting her lick me.
Leslie Lang lives in Pepeekeo on the Big Island.
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