a face in the window

“Come upstairs, quickly!”

And I did. John was in his study — long windows looking out on the upper deck and the woods beyond. A small animal had just looked in at him as he sat at his desk, standing on its hind legs. His immediate thought was a weasel. So we went to the sunroom and yes, we could see a weasel darting in and out behind the potted tomatoes. And where was the camera? Downstairs.

By the time I came up with it, the weasel — we think a least weasel (Mustela nivalis) but possibly a short-tailed weasel (M.erminea) — was out on the edges of the deck, by the railings, but moving quickly so it was hard to get a good image of it. Here it is (blurry) on a little stair leading from one deck level to another:


One morning, years ago, home alone and sitting on the rocking chair in the kitchen by the woodstove, I had the sense that something was watching me. When I looked to the sliding doors leading to the deck, I saw a small animal standing on its hind legs, front paws against the glass. Somehow I knew it was a weasel. It watched me watching it. It was curious and didn’t immediately run away — not until I got up from the chair. What had I been doing? Quilting probably. Or drinking a cup of coffee in the sudden quiet after the children had gone down to the school bus. I’ve never forgotten that face — bright eyes, soft brown fur.

There’s a Leonardo Da Vinci painting I’ve always loved, the Lady with an Ermine (an ermine is the short-tailed weasel in its winter pelage) —

300px-Dama_z_gronostajem–though the animal is depicted much larger than life. Still, its sinuous shape is right. The lady is Cecilia Gallerani and there are two theories about why she is holding an ermine (though I suspect both are right: Leonardo had a lively mind…). In his own Bestiary, Leonardo tells us, “The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.” So a nod to Cecilia’s purityand chastity –though it’s possible she was pregnant with her lover’s child when the portrait was painted. She was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was Leonardo Da Vinci’s employer. And I love that the first two syllables of her surname echo the Greek word for weasel (ermine): γαλέη (galée).

While I was sitting at my desk, reading the entry for the least weasel in Mammals of British Columbia, I heard a strange sound in the papers behind my door. But I didn’t pay much attention. And a few minutes later, John called down again: “I just saw the weasel running across the room!”

Sure enough it was in the house. When I went back upstairs, I saw it race out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Through the kitchen. I saw it run to the same sliding doors where I’d seen that earlier weasel at least 20 years ago. John quickly closed doors to other rooms and we opened the outside doors. The weasel was behind the washing machine. It peeked out a couple of times — that beautiful face. Then we watched it run through the utility room and out the back door.

Was it the same weasel? We were sure we’d seen that one leave the upper deck by the staircase leading down to the grass. There was a door open behind us — to the sunroom — so maybe a second animal slipped in behind us.

Back at my desk, I read that “Most human encounters with a Least Weasel result from lifting plywood, sheet metal or hay bales. These sightings are understandably brief, because the weasel wastes little time in finding the nearest escape route.”

I wonder how Cecilia was able to coax her animal to remain in her arms for the time it would have taken a great artist to paint her portrait. In various pieces about the painting, critics point out that the ermine is likely a composite. Leonardo drawings from around that time are full of dog paws, boar and bear heads, and there’s even a drawing of a hunter beating an ermine to death.


5 thoughts on “a face in the window”

  1. Ah, LOVE it! What an adventure. I, too, am intrigued by that painting. Didn’t know about the ermine/weasel naming connection. Seems I read one interpretation that the ermine represented the domestication of wildness, a naturally ‘wild’ nature. There may be hundreds of years between this painting and now, but not much has changed, for women really, has it?

    1. Or the impossibility of the wild in that domestic situation? She may be rich and beautiful, the lover of a powerful man, but a weasel is something she will never actually cradle!

    1. Thanks for reminding me of that Dillard piece, Michael. I read it many years ago and re-reading it just now, I thought how lucky we are to have these moments. When I was searching around to see which weasel John and I had seen, I found many images of weasels — least and short-tailed — killing rabbits and hares. They’re fierce and efficient hunters! Here’s one —

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