In May, I was lying in bed one morning when I saw a face in the window, peering in from the strands of trumpet vine that run along the side of the house. What I saw and what I understood about an empty robins’ nest was discussed in this post.
Most nights I read in bed and almost every night I hear something in the roof by the bathroom. We live in a wild area and so we’re accustomed to creatures — well, mice — finding their way into the walls sometimes. In the past we’ve had cats but not now. (And given the abundance of coyotes in our area, I don’t know how long a cat would last.) But this never sounds like mice. They skitter and you can hear them gnawing. This sound is something else — a sound resonating in metal. (We have a metal roof; it replaces the original roof of cedar shakes.) John is always kind of skeptical. I know he believes I hear something but he is usually downstairs when I’m reading and so he hasn’t heard those feet racing through metal.
Hadn’t. Until this morning. He was in the bathroom and there it was. Something in the roof, or at least that’s how it sounded. He went outside and looked around. Nothing. As he was coming in the sunroom door, he looked up. And peering out of the little metal tunnel — where the lower roof of sunroom meets the side of the house — there was a face. A weasel. It came out, then backed in. He called to me and I came upstairs. How beautiful, the face of a tiny weasel looking at us through trumpet vine. The weasel I saw in May was probably a mother with a burrow of young somewhere near — I saw her in the woodshed so I suspect she had her brood among the firewood — and about this time in the life cycle, she and a male (not necessarily the father of her young) will be teaching the family to hunt. So this could be a young one or an adult. By now the babies are full sized, though the males aren’t yet sexually mature. (The female young have probably already been impregnated by the hunting male.) We didn’t have a camera at hand but I went out later to see if the animal was still there. No. But you can imagine it just below that orange trumpet flower, its bright eyes and tawny body emerging, then backing in again, though not completely. We spoke to it. It sniffed the air. Us.
This kind of tunnel — there must be a name for it but it’s where the metal roof material covers the flashing — runs along all the gable ends of our house. And we have many rooflines because our house grew. And parts of it are two stories high, other parts — the kitchen, the sunroom built off one end of our bedroom where a door takes you out onto a deck over the back of the house, where the children’s bedrooms were — are a single story high. (A single story! As though there’s ever a single story to anyone’s life.) So when I’m sitting at my desk and hearing that sound, when I’m lying in my bed hearing it, when we are anywhere in the house hearing it, it’s because weasels are hunting mice in the place where the roof meets the house. It’s almost an ecotone, an area of transition. Not in the house but not outside. I know bats sometimes rest there during the day and I don’t like to think that they are probably forming a part of the weasel family’s diet. But you don’t get to choose.
In the lore about weasels, much is made of their smell. Yet the one that came into our house two years ago and raced up and down the bookshelves in my study didn’t smell. And going out just now to see if the one in the roof was still around, I could only smell the morning lilies.
My old friend Gaius Plinius Secundus (who ya gonna call?) remarks that weasels are the only animals that can kill a basilisk, those fearsome serpents capable of killing with a glance. And it seems that they are useful too in preserved form for any kind of snake bite.
There are two varieties of the weasel; the one, wild,1 larger than the other, and known to the Greeks as the “ictis:” its gall is said to be very efficacious as an antidote to the sting of the asp, but of a venomous nature in other respects.2 The other kind,3 which prowls about our houses, and is in the habit, Cicero tells us,4 of removing its young ones, and changing every day from place to place, is an enemy to serpents. The flesh of this last, preserved in salt, is given, in doses of one denarius, in three cyathi of drink to persons who have been stung by serpents: or else the maw of the animal is stuffed with coriander seed and dried, to be taken for the same purpose in wine. The young one of the weasel is still more efficacious for these purposes.
1 The ferret, most probably.
2 See c. 33 of this Book.
3 The common weasel.
4 Probably in his work entitled “Admiranda,” now lost. Holland says “some take these for our cats.
“The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.