The Vole: The Wind in the Willows Visits the Reed Household, and is Welcome

The Washington Post, February 1980

We have voles. At least, we had a vole — or it may be that a vole had us. It is hard to tell with voles. The having and the had are separated, in the case of voles, by a point of view only.

The weather was frosty the other morning. The fire had died overnight in the stove, so I stumbled into the kitchen to start coffee, without which life is impossible in the Reed household. As I reached into the sink to fill the pot, a portion of the sponge turned black, skittered to a corner, and then hid beneath the stopper. Readers may doubt this, but I assure them that I saw it happen.

The transformation of sponges awakens my natural interest in poltergeists and fairies. I have always believed, or at least hoped, that things in kitchens might turn into interesting creatures-teapots into small dragons that would hiss in corners but get out of the way of the broom.

Anyway, the little fellow was the size of a mouse who had been on short rations. He had only the barest points of eyes, suggesting that the places he liked best were all underground, and had the longest, twitchiest pink snout, which he poked from beneath the stopper in frantic investigation. His tail was an embarrassment-a stubby and rather accidental-looking arrangement, such as one would leave at home on a Sunday walk. The beastling was shivering horribly because there was a half-inch of water in the sink and he had been unable to get out. One would expect an animal born of sponge to do rather well in water, but in fact he didn’t.

I scooped him into a quart jar by way of rescue, and discovered that the scooping raised a question I hadn’t fully anticipated. What does one do with a quart jar of madly scrambling-what? Clearly not a mouse, not a rat, not a mole — the forefeet were too small — not anything else of which I knew.

We decided that he was a vole, or at least that he would henceforth be a vole. To this end, we avoided looking in the dictionary so as not to be disappointed. My wife suggested that, rather than stand there forever in the manner of a zoological park, I should put him in a large clay casserole. We did, adding shredded newspaper for him to hide under and dry out in. (I know “dry out in” will offend the linguistically fastidious, but in times of crisis prepositions must fend for themselves.) I added a dog biscuit. Shortly an energetic crunching issued from the casserole. With voles, it seemed, mere panic does not get in the way of eating.

The acquiring of a foundling vole involves rather more than simple removal from the sink. Small animals are not evanescent. They last. One must do something with them. What? Throwing a scurrying furry animalcule into the snow to freeze was not something we were going to do. On the other hand, letting him go in the house did not seem the best thing. He might eat books. He might make more voles. He would almost certainly make more voles. My wife set forth to buy a cage.

Meanwhile, I dug beneath the snow for leaf mold, warmed it, and put it in the casserole. Our charge disappeared beneath it with much squeaking and crunched industriously on his dog biscuit. A sheet of quarter-inch screen weighted with a brass frog seemed to ensure his continued presence. Seemings are much to be watched.

My wife returned with an over-priced, uptown, chromed cage with an exercise wheel. It was the sterile sort of cage that would attract a vole accustomed to a high-rise with an elevator. Homey cages are not to be had nowadays. I spent an hour assembling it according to inscrutable instructions, during which I invented several new kinds of cages — cages with flaps pointing in unusual directions, cages with double walls and no roof.

Alas, our vole had left the casserole. How he did it is a mystery, although an animal that began as a sponge can doubtless do many surprising things. We sometimes see him rushing along the baseboards, attending to various errands. One such errand is the removal of beans from a stuffed duck, followed by their storage in the pocket of my armchair. Maybe he means it as a token of friendship. I suppose we will invest in a live trap to get some use out of the cage. Meanwhile, we have our vole, and he has us.

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