As if a career in music isn’t perilous enough, American musician Robin Goldsby and her bassist husband take on a few critters roaming the German countryside.
Thwack. Or is it thwump? Skittle, scratch, scrape, thwop. It’s a quarter to three and there’s no one in the place except you and me—thonk—and Dumbo? Has a baby elephant crash-landed on the roof? Thwunk. Bosh. Maybe it’s Batman. Sasquatch? A lost WWII paratrooper? Lord of the Dance? At this time of the night anything is possible.
I wonder if I should awaken John, my sleeping prince of a husband. He wears earplugs and misses most pre-dawn rumblings. ‘Round midnight he’s in slumber-land, oblivious to things that rattle the rafters in the wee small hours of the morning. I could wake him, but I know if I do, he’ll go into Rodent Red Alert, a state from which he will not emerge until the intruder is caught and removed from the premises. Not anxious to encourage a late-night hunting expedition, I ignore the critter clog-dancing over my head. I retire to the sofa downstairs, leaving my sleep-diva man tucked in and dreaming of suspicious jazz chords. What he can’t hear won’t hurt him. I put a pillow over my head and hope whatever it is goes away—a time-tested technique for chasing away the heebie-jeebies.
My husband’s mission to rid the world of household pests began in 1964, when little John, age six, rescued his family home from an invasion of exotic creatures. Snug in his Louisville bed—this was before he started playing screaming loud rock and roll bass guitar and wearing earplugs to go to sleep—he heard varmints—scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch—eating away the walls, munching on the very foundation of his youth.
“Mother and Daddy,” he said with a charming little-boy Louisville accent. “There’s something alive in the walls. And it’s eating our house.”
Mother and Daddy, who couldn’t hear what little John heard, brushed off his warning, until, at last, little John threw such a big fit that they had to call either a exorcist or an exterminator. They opted for the exterminator. The verdict? Carpenter ants—tiny insects capable of taking down an entire homestead. Little John was vindicated. He saved the house and reaped the rewards of a grateful family.
Several decades after the carpenter ant episode, I met and married John. We got to know each other while playing at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, next to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. He logged seven hours a night with a jazz trio in a marble lobby filled with fountains, potted palms, and uncomfortable chairs; I played a Steinway five evenings a week in Trumpet’s (named after The Donald), a cocktail cave that looked like a leather-lined womb. We dealt with a lot of pests on the job, but most of them worked for the Food and Beverage department. That’s another story.
We lived in a small apartment in New York City. Most of our pals had hideous pest problems. Mice. Rats. Roaches. Oh, the war stories we heard. My friend Patti told me about an army of cockroaches that carried an entire plate of rat poison back to their cock-hideouts—only to reappear the next morning, ready for more, more, more. A girl I knew named Nina had a rat the size of a dog drop on her head when the acoustic tile ceiling in her bathroom collapsed on her just after she had gotten out of the shower. It’s hard for me to imagine anything worse—naked and attacked by a rat-dog. But our apartment was surprisingly clear of roaches and rodents. Aside from hearing the carpenter ant story about a hundred times, I had no idea how John might react to a household pest of his own. Then we moved to Germany.
Some people might say were asking for it. We built a small home on a piece of wooded property in a village thirty kilometers outside of Cologne. We moved in with our two kids, overjoyed at having a place of our own. We marveled at the deer, even though they ate our decorative bushes for breakfast. The kids caught frogs in the garden and made goo-goo eyes at the hedgehogs. Oh, the birds, the bees, the flora, the fauna, the wild boars—one morning we spotted eight (eight!) of them walking down the slope next to our house. The adult boars were bigger than any member of my family, which is saying something. They weren’t needy, they were nicely choreographed, and they didn’t whine. Fine. Just passing through, like a well-disciplined chorus line exiting stage left.
This, in contrast to the mouse in the sugar bowl. I spotted him one morning, flopping around on a white-sugar high, nose deep in the bowl, ass up in the air, tail shaking, re-enacting the cocaine scene from Scarface. I screamed (I am strong, I am invincible, but I am, after all, an American blond). John rushed to my side. Rodent Red Alert! John’s eyes glazed over and he began plotting a trip to the local hardware store to buy traps.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Julia is not going to like this.” Our daughter has always been an animal lover. She has been known to hold funeral ceremonies for drowned wasps. Killing a mouse would have been like offing a close friend.
“We have to be firm about this,” John said to me. “Do you know how dangerous mice are? They can take over. They’ll even take bites out of small children while they’re sleeping.”
I didn’t argue, especially when he tried to convince me the mouse might be a rat.
That night at dinner, John, using The Voice— not the cool jazz cat voice, but the booming dad voice—told the family about setting the traps and how we had to band together to kill the evil and diseased rodent. Julia’s eyes filled with tears. “Dad,” she said. “How could you?”
Never underestimate the power of an eight-year-old girl’s protest. Julia printed out über-cute photos of country mice, wrote slogans like stop the madness and please don’t murder us in red crayon on them, and taped the posters to walls all over the house.
John went to Plan B, the live trap.
“We’ll get that little rat,” he said.
“It’s a mouse,” I said.
“It could be a small rat. You never know.”
The live trap involved peanut butter and a weighted cake pan suspended on a Popsicle stick. I heard the pan slam in the middle of the night. John slept through it, of course; he was wearing earplugs. I stayed awake with the pillow over my head, certain I could hear the mouse choking on peanut butter while he dragged the pan—like a suit of armor—all over the kitchen. The next morning, a look of triumph on his rested face, John drove to the other side of the valley, where he released not one, but two mice (they were not rats). We were saved. Victory for the bass player.
For the last week I’ve been hearing it. Every evening, long after we’ve fallen asleep, there’s a resounding thump on the roof, followed by a flurry of commotion. The critter must be leaping from one of the old trees near the house. But the closest branch would require Evel Knievel skills to cover the distance. I can’t figure it out. On the sly, I ask Julia if she has heard anything.
“Yeah,” she says. “Whatever it is, it sure sounds big and fat. But don’t tell Dad. You know how he gets. The last thing we need around here is another safari.”
A couple of times a year since that first mouse episode, we’ve had visitors. Rodent Red Alert has become commonplace. But whatever is thumping on the roof is in a different category. We don’t need a trap for this thing; we need a counter-terrorism unit.
I can’t sleep. I keep thinking of my New York friend Nina and that rat-dog crashing through the ceiling and landing on her head. Finally, I have no choice. I tell John. He removes his earplugs, stays up, listens to the racket, and proclaims a full-scale emergency. He confers with his good friend, Hans, a Dutch drummer with pest issues of his own. John and Hans, experts in jazz and critters, determine our roof dweller is a Marder, an American martin, which is a member of the dreaded weasel family.
Just what we need—a German weasel. We hear from neighbors that this particular weasel has been chewing on brake cables of parked cars down the street. He has also massacred and eaten the pet bunnies living next door to us. Julia’s friend, Maryam, is still heartbroken. She didn’t even have a carcass to bury. Julia nicely arranged a small memorial service.
“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” says John, using The Voice. “This is a dangerous situation. That weasel gets under the shingles and into the walls of the house, we’re in big trouble.” With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Protected Species. In this part of Germany, we have to be nice to the weasels. The weasel is our friend.
We buy an expensive device called a “Weasel-Schreck” which claims to make a constant high-pitched squeal—unappealing to members of the weasel family.
Doesn’t work. Perhaps the weasel is also wearing earplugs.
Following Hans’s advice, John buys an expensive live trap that looks big enough to catch one of the neighborhood toddlers. I spy John setting the trap with a cheese-topped cracker and an olive. Looks like a weasel cocktail party.
Doesn’t work. The crackers and olives are gone, but the trap remains empty. I suggest a pitcher of martinis.
We drink the martinis ourselves, call the Baum Meister, and spend hundreds of euros having him trim back branches close to the house.
Doesn’t work. The thumps at night grow louder as the weasel leaps from even greater distances. It seems we have a member of the Flying Wallendas living on our roof.
We consult with a home improvement center Pest Expert. He tells us there’s no legal way to get rid of a German weasel. Then he takes us aside, lowers his voice, and tells us to wait for a full moon, drink some Schnaps. “Go out on the roof with a shotgun,” he whispers. “Sit there until he shows up. Then blow the weasel to smithereens when he’s not looking.”
This won’t work for obvious reasons. In contrast to so many of our fellow Americans, we don’t own a gun. We don’t like Schnaps, we’re afraid of heights, and we’re skeptical about spending a winter night—even with moonlight—perched on a steep and slippery roof with a lethal weapon. And we have no intention of being deported for shooting a weasel, which is not only illegal, it’s just not nice. Remember, the weasel is our friend.
For over a month, the weasel on the roof dominates our conversations. In addition to Ritz crackers and cheese, the weasel also likes to eat wiring, plastic tubes, and insulation. I have a nightmare that he breaks into the house, eats my iMac, all of my groceries, and kidnaps the children.
Then, one night, it all stops. The weasel is gone. No more thumps or thwacks at three in the morning. I don’t think the weasel is finished with us, but he has evidently gotten bored with Project Goldsby and moved on to the next thing. I can’t say I miss him, but, as an artist, I sort of know how he feels.
Three months later, early spring:
“Robin, we have a situation,” says John. I’ve learned to dread these words.
“What?” I ask. “What?”
“There’s something frozen in the rain barrel. And it looks like a human head.”
“What? How is that even possible?” There was a lid on that barrel—we’ve always kept it tied down with cables and weighted with bricks. A small hole in the lid allowed rainwater from the roof of the garden shed to drip into the barrel—a perfect system for collecting water for the garden, not necessarily an ideal place to store heads.
“Nothing could have gotten in there,” I say, trying not to panic.
“Someone opened it and put the head—or something that looks like a head—in there. The lid was off. Here, look. I took a photo—”
“Nooooo!” I scream. The last thing I want to see is a photo of a frozen human head in my rain barrel. I swat John’s camera away from me before the image burns itself onto my brain. “Just tell me what it looks like.”
“Well,” he says. “It has gray hair and pointy teeth and bloodshot beady eyes.”
“That could be anyone,” I say. “Or—”
“You know what?” John says, as he studies the photo. “It could be an animal. Maybe some poor critter chewed through the cables, knocked the bricks on the ground, dislodged the lid, and dove into the water barrel. He drowned and then the water froze. What an awful way to die.”
“The weasel?” I say.
“The weasel,” he says. “Brick-throwing. Cable chewing. Death-defying leaps. Think about it. This situation has the weasel’s name all over it.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” says John. “He’s frozen solid in there right now—I’d have to use an axe to get him out. Looks like one of those exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. Look at the photo—”
“Nooooo! You’re sure it’s the weasel and not a human head? I mean, maybe we should call the police or something.”
“Nope,” John says as he continues to look at the photo. “Not a human head. It’s a frozen dead weasel. We just have to wait for the weather to warm up so I can hack him out. But don’t tell Julia. She’ll want to have a weasel burial. And, sorry, but I just don’t feel like singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for a weasel.”
John sends the photo to Hans.
I think about the weasel a lot. He was nasty—killing those bunnies, making little girls cry, destroying brake cables on cars, and keeping entire families awake at night. But, you know, he was acting in character, just being a weasel and performing weasel-ish deeds. He was likely living here before we moved in, hanging out with the mice, the frogs, and the wild boars. We might have served a nice cheese, olive, and cable buffet, but we didn’t exactly drag out the welcome wagon for him. I feel a little sad about his gruesome demise. I still haven’t seen the photo.
So we go on: Man (and reluctant woman) versus Nature. A couple of musicians, trying to create something meaningful out of the mess of the day—raising kids, cooking dinners, practicing, writing, setting live traps, practicing some more, listening for noise in the walls and thumps on the roof, and trying to get some sleep.
I hope the wild boars come back up the hill some day.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.
Please visit RobinMeloyGoldsby.com to sign up for Goldsby’s free monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People; Rhythm; and Manhattan Road Trip. She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is a Grammy-nominated lyricist and has received a Publishers Weekly Starred Review for her book, Piano Girl.. A Steinway Artist and cultural ambassador with artistic ties to both Europe and the USA, Robin has presented her reading/concert program for numerous women's organizations and embassies worldwide.