Have you ever noticed that warm, stockinged feet will act like Velcro on a frosty porch? It’s a new discovery for me.
Actually, the temperature of my feet is rapidly approaching that of the frosted planks I’m standing on, trying to be still and not scare off the ferocious hunter clad in white. It’s our resident ermine, resplendent in white, battling to free the frozen mouse corpses from our traps. Her jaw clamped on one unlucky peanut butter fan, she jerks and pulls, her long body curling and unwinding like a whip in the effort.
I fear for the skinny wire that tethers the trap to the porch and gingerly move closer, my socks emitting soft sucking noises as the wool fibres tear free from the boards. I try to relax, to exude serenity – animals have such a keen sense for tension, and I’d love to watch the little weasel in action. With lightening speed, the ermine darts underneath the porch. So much for putting her at ease.
The trap’s metal bar has squished the neck and back of the mouse, making it impossible to shake it loose without a bit of a pull. I grasp the cold, soft tail – this is how we manage to touch wild animals, we need to kill them first – and get the stiff little corpse out. The ermine keeps poking her head up through the cracks in the floor boards, scoping out the situation (will the human steal my breakfast?). I entertain brief thoughts of holding the mouse out to its nemesis but can’t quite work up the nerve to sit with a dead rodent in my hand, waiting for a weasel to bite.
Instead, I hurl it off the porch into the leaves, one dead animal joining dead vegetation. I creep away from the traps and stand still, emptying myself of all expectation and excitement, letting my limbs grow heavy and my breathing slow. The ermine flashes back up on the boards, hops over to the now empty trap, sniffing in dismay. No mouse! She checks all around the trap, briefly tries to scale the cabin wall as if her breakfast might have vanished that way, and begins to zip all over the porch at dizzying speed.
Into the section of stovepipe and out again, a short rummage through the cardboard box with paper scraps, across the flowerpot, over to the bucket trap, halfway up the cabin wall, off the porch and back up through the boards. I’m starting to get motion sick. Can’t she smell the mouse in the leaves? Suddenly, the ermine screeches to a halt, or she would screech if this was a movie. Perched on the edge of the veranda, she sits, her body one intense muscle, and looks at me. Really looks at me. One of those moments when an animal doesn’t just register your shape and slaps the label “human” on you, but when its glance fastens on your eyes and something, some recognition akin to wonder, passes. An attempt at contact, at communication.
Goosebumps run down my arms as they always do when this happens. I stare into her inky black eyes, her ferocious small life, and she slowly comes closer, her eyes still fastened on mine. Her body undulates sensuously as she walks, none of the hectic jumping now, she carries the black tip of her tail like an exclamation mark behind her.
Tension starts to rise in me, I try to let it pass, get rid of it. The ermine has almost reached me now and stops, way down there on the floor boards. I’m acutely aware of our size difference – she’s so far away. Maybe she’s thinking the same thing. Her glance lets go of my eyes, slides down the length of my body and comes to rest on the blue wool socks, on my feet. A brief image of ermine teeth sunk into my toes flares across my mind. Her head an inch away from my feet, she stretches her neck and sniffs at my toes.
The spell breaks, she turns away and hops back across the veranda, but more at ease now it seems. Every now and then she comes close again, runs a circle around me and finally races off into the leaves. And then, hallelujah, she finds the mouse. With the stiff corpse in her teeth, she comes up on the porch once more, thinks better of it and vanishes underneath the cabin.
I become aware of my icy feet. With a hiss, the frosty boards release me and I stalk back inside to thaw out, awash in happiness. It’s not every day that an ermine sniffs my feet.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.