Lily the hunter plays with her prey

They’re back.

The area mice have left their summer homes out in the field and have come indoors to spend the winter behind the walls of our old house. At night we can hear them rearranging their little matchbox tables and thread spool chairs.

When I think of them that way, they seem quite sweet.

Except they also sneak into our kitchen, stealing crumbs and cavorting in the drawers, nibbling on latex gloves and old wine corks. They hoard birdseed in the dishtowel drawer. Last year, they chewed through the water line that runs our icemaker.

Little matchbox tables notwithstanding, I don’t like mice in the house.

On the other hand, I hate to kill any living creature.

I struggle with this. The only effective way to rid your house of rodents is, let’s face it, to kill them. But until vaporizers become commercially available, there’s no humane method.

Poison is painful and slow-acting. And the upshot — the stench of a slowly deteriorating mouse carcass seeping through the walls for days — is nearly unbearable  (although I do recommend it as an effective appetite suppressant).

Glue traps arguably cause less agony, if you’re OK with the death by starvation part. Which leaves traditional mousetraps, probably the most expedient approach — when they work. We once had a trap that did only 80 percent of the job, leaving us with a mortally wounded but still very much alive mouse who stared up at us with a reproachful expression in his pained Disney eyes.

I cried for days.

Luckily, we have a cat, Lily. She’s one of those all-business felines that rubs against your legs and demands affection until you try to pick her up, at which point she turns into a wolverine that will leave gashes on your chest with her back claws as she vaults out of your embrace. She’ll then hide, lest you again try to overpower her, if not outright murder her, with your dastardly cuddles.

Like most cats, when Lily gets a mouse, she bats it about with glee, stopping now and then to grin and twirl her whiskers instead of dispatching it quickly.

But she has a Hannibal Lecter streak that goes beyond normal cat evil. To exact maximum suffering from her victims, she carries them upstairs and drops them in the bathtub. It’s like her own personal Coliseum.

Every few weeks, we are snapped out of our sleep by the sounds of high-pitched squeaks, pouncing and the occasional falling of a shampoo bottle off the edge of the tub. The noise is broken up by long pauses, which I imagine are when a lot of the whisker twirling takes place.

Lily will “play” in the tub this way at length, delighting in the knowledge that her prey can’t get away. Why rush the torture when she can savor it?

My first (counterintuitive) instinct is always to save the poor mouse. But I refrain.

While as a lap cat Lily is a failure, as a mouser she’s a champ. We need her services. And although death by cat is no kinder than poison or traps, I have convinced myself that letting Lily do the dirty work absolves me from direct responsibility.

Cringing, I tiptoe out of bed and close the door so I at least can’t hear the prolonged torment of a helpless animal — an animal, I must remind myself, that thinks the aluminum foil drawer is a latrine.

We had a mouse-in-the-tub night  not long ago, replete with the usual desperate squeaks and pouncing noises interspersed with ominous silences. Heavy-hearted, I shut the bedroom door and let the cruel ritual play out.

When I got up in the morning, I found the tub empty save for one tiny organ. A kidney, I believe. (“Always leave something for Miss Manners,” they say.)

I sighed and, in spite of myself, mourned the loss of the defenseless little mouse.

Mark tried to humor me. “He might be OK,” he said. “I mean, it’s possible to live with only one kidney.”

Sure.

I know it’s for the best. Thanks to Lily, my kitchen drawers have stayed clean for over two weeks.

But I like to believe that, somewhere in our walls, a recuperating one-kidneyed mouse is telling his pals to pull up a spool so he can regale them with the tale of his daring escape.