In Texas, we spend a great deal of time managing and living among wild creatures. SPOILER: they’re sometimes dangerous (ohh, danger), and they’re always bigger than anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Apparently, everything is bigger in Texas. At least that’s been my experience thus far. I’ve recently decided that wild creatures are like good characters in a novel. They make for great stories.
WARNING: this post might contain disturbing material about dead creatures (specifically ones that i’ve killed).
My fun with the wild creatures of Texas began when I received the proper “Welcome to Rockport, Texas” on my very first night here. It’s always good to get the right first impression of your new hometown.
By the time I reached the door of the apartment studio located next to my parents’ house, it had been a really long day. I had traveled all the way from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Rockport, Texas in just two days with both of my dogs in tow.
On my second day, I’d planned on arriving at my final destination by the mid-afternoon, having left Little Rock, Arkansas at the crack of dawn. Around noon that day, however, I ran over a nail on the road and got a flat tire. I have run flats on my Mini Cooper, so it’s really something when you manage to lose all the air out of such a tire. But I watched the gauge go down to zero and then pulled over on the side of a two-lane road with a speed limit of 70 mph.
Since I was in the middle of nowhere, Texas, located equidistant between the Mini Cooper dealerships in Austin and Houston, I had to be towed ninety miles. But it turns out I was rather fortunate in my misfortune. The dealership in Houston had one tire left in stock. Needless to say, when I finally arrived in Rockport at 10 p.m. on my second day of travel, I was dead tired.
I stepped into the humid air of the apartment, unleashed the dogs, and flipped on the lights. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something big move and froze in place. If you’re familiar with my fiction and read my blog, then you know how I feel about creepy crawly things.
On the wall, near the ceiling, was the largest cockroach I’d ever seen. Except maybe during my trip to Indonesia many moons ago. Despite my weariness, I was paralyzed with fear. When I looked up at the bug, its antenna actually moved about as if it were staring down at me. Inspecting me. Sizing me up. For dinner?
My heart thumping in my chest, I surveyed the room and discovered the heftiest fly swatter I’d ever seen. Good thing because I was going to need some real fire power for this bug. With the metal swatter in hand, I studied the large insect and planned out my best approach. Then I got up the courage. I flicked it off the wall and onto the floor and then I smashed it over and over again with all of my might. I’m not sure how many times I hit it, but I wanted that thing dead.
The next morning, I learned that it was called Palmetto bug. These large cockroaches live by the hundreds in the most beautiful palm trees. They’re bigger than other cockroaches, but much slower. At night, they come out of the trees and often enter houses near by. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a palm tree the same way again.
After three months of living in Texas, I had become familiar with many of the local wild creatures–the frogs that make my dog’s mouth foam, geckos, lizards, snakes, alligators, cockroaches, wolf spiders, feral cats, and so many huge birds–too many to name here.
When I heard the soft thumping of animals on my parents’ roof, I thought nothing of it. It sounded a lot like the small monkeys who played on my roof of my hut in the bush in South Africa. I decided it was most likely a squirrel or a family of squirrels. But by October, it sounded like they had crawled inside a hole and were nesting under the roof. By this time, my parents were headed back down to Texas from Michigan, via an extended route through beautiful Utah to see Bryce Canyon.
Shortly after I told my parents about their new tenants, I started hearing rustling in the front closet where I’d stored the dog food. From the food scraps and droppings on the floor, I knew we had a mouse problem. I went to Ace’s hardware to pick up my favorite traps and set up two on the floor in the closet.
As a homeowner in Washington D.C. for five years, mice have long been my arch enemies. No matter how many traps I laid. No matter what enticing morsel I used to tempt the mice into my traps–cheese, peanut butter, or chocolate. I couldn’t seem to catch them. They were as smart as they were small and fast. For this reason, I learned to set up a labyrinth of traps. If a mouse dodged one, it would run smack into another. And even then, I struggled to catch them.
That’s why I put out two traps next to each other. I considered putting out all four.
The next morning, I opened the closet door and saw that I’d caught a mouse. Or something. It was much bigger than the mice in D.C., but much smaller than a city rat. I quickly closed the door, deciding to procrastinate the removal of the dead creature. I have to work up the courage and stomach strength to deal with it.
When I came back later in the day to clean up the mess, I’d caught another mouse in the other trap. I’m like, “Hey mouse, didn’t you see the other dead guy and get the picture? Apparently not.” But I was relieved about the good news. Texas mice are much bigger, but they’re also a lot dumber.
The day my parents were due to arrive home, I caught yet another mouse. Only this one got himself caught in both traps and wasn’t dead yet. Ugh. Again, not the smartest mouse in the tool box. I felt terrible about it, but I left him there because I didn’t think I could bring myself to end his life more quickly (sorry). I told my dad he’d have to deal with it.
By evening, my dad still hadn’t disposed of the mouse. He was watching TV and heard some scuffling in the front closet. Assuming there was yet another mouse, he went to take a look. When he opened the closet door, a large snake had the dead mouse in its mouth and was trying to free it from the trap. Yes, a large snake. In the front closet.
He slammed the closet door shut. Then he went to look for a garden implement to get rid of the snake. When he returned, both the snake and the mouse were gone. We haven’t seen the snake since. After a bit of research, we discovered that we hadn’t been catching mice at all. They were actually rats and called roof rats. And the snake? Well, that’s called a rat snake. Yeah.
Wild creatures are like good characters in a novel. They draw you into a story, and before you know it, you’re learning about Palmetto Bugs and Roof Rats. And their untimely deaths.
As you know, I’m writing a novel that will serve as the basis for a musical stageplay–the novel is called Rescind Order. For many writers around the world, November is Nanowrimo month. In thirty days, we are attempting to write 50,000 words on a new novel. Until last weekend, I was also striving toward that goal. I had written 36,000 words, but I was quickly falling behind. The problem wasn’t me, it was the complexity of my novel.
Rescind Order covers a set of extremely complex topics–artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, and autonomous weapons systems. It’s no small challeng to make these topics both accessible and entertaining. This kind of complexity requires many nuaned layers and an interesting cast of compelling characters who lead readers through the labyrinth of intellectual content. If the readers care enough about them, they’ll engage with the complex material. At least, that’s my hope.
Stay tuned for a sneak preview of some draft scenes…