Some years back a neighbor caught a white mouse that had tunneled into a bag of Purina Dog Chow. Perhaps he was an escaped snake lunch. We put him in a 20-gallon terrarium and called him Manny–for Manhattan Mouse, because he was always busy. All day he zipped around, moving his nest and seed stash from one corner to another, climbing his branches, running in his wheel. Or he sat upright nibbling corn kernels, oblivious to Edgar and Emily staring round-eyed, inches away behind the glass. We put his picture on our New Year’s card, contemplating three red grapes. The day he died, a two-year-old hunchbacked geezer, he raced all morning in his wheel before turning up his little pink toes.

It once amused me when, every six months or so, Edgar or Emily caught a wild mouse that foolishly slipped through the floor next to the radiators. But in the last months we’ve been invaded. All the neighbors complain; the super runs around stuffing steel wool into cracks and laying out glue traps. But they keep coming, relentless gray-brown legions. They leave trails of droppings on kitchen counters. They shred newspapers and gnaw electric cords. Edgar and Emily spend their days patrolling the cracks through which manna squeezes from below. I feel overwhelmed. How did more primitive societies cope?

The first true human tools were not rocks–sea otters crack shells with rocks; chimps crack nuts. The first human tools were skin bags or slings to carry the rocks. Also to collect food like roots and nuts, or small game like turtles and lizards. And especially, to carry infants, freeing their mothers’ hands. The first hunter-gatherers set out from Africa schlepping their gear in bags.

A bag is great for transporting stuff, but not for storage. Agriculture and higher civilization awaited the invention of mouse-proof containers. Neolithic settlements like Jericho on the West Bank, or Catal Hoyuk in Turkey, date back as far as 8000 BC. They used lined storage pits and mud brick silos. Between 6000 to 4000 BC crude hand-formed pottery appears in the Middle East; wheel-thrown pottery around 4000 BC. There follows an explosion of Bronze Age trade from the eastern Mediterranean to India and beyond, much of it carried by water in giant sealed storage jars. The jars, known as pithoi, typically held grains, wine, and olive oil. Smaller jars held luxury unguents and opium paste. (Pottery may have appeared even earlier in China and Japan; it appears in the Americas sometime before 2000 BC.)

What luxury to live in a place and age where most of us needn’t worry about mice devouring our food! Yet they keep coming. There was a growing sour smell in the kitchen. I dreamt of nosing Polonius behind the arras. In the morning, I unscrew the base plate from the dish washer, lie flat on the floor with a flashlight and a Chinese bamboo backscratcher, and rake out a very dead mouse. Squeak softly and carry a big stink. Meanwhile–eeeee–Edgar has nailed another one. I chase him under the piano. Crack, crunch, smack smack. In the end there’s a little glob of mousie guts. And a tail.

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