pages Oh Rats

by Ilse Griffin

Published in Issue No. 267 ~ August, 2019

1/ The animal: I am 10 or 11, and we have 2 pet rats: Ren and Stimpy. Both are large, soft, and white with butterscotch patches. Sweet, as I didn’t know rats could be. They like to perch on our shoulders like furry parrots, rushing from arm to arm: an extended tickle. Whatever inspired our pediatrician parents to buy two potential plague-bearers, I am not sure, but I am thankful. Rats, after all, provide the perfect complement to a pet dog (we had a dog). Dogs bring you outside: they are simple: smiles, walks, sunlight. Rats bring you inside. They are secretive, quiet, complex, enduring. I am attached to them. My friends come over to watch them scurry. I like an animal that scurries yet still craves my touch.

2/ The metaphor: All pets come to an end: a truth that us long-living humans have to bear, often over and over. My pet rats came to an unnatural end. Rats, with one claw in heaven and the other in hell, can easily descend into madness. They are not that different from us, after all. One day, we notice that Ren was acting strangely. Love is: noticing when someone acts differently. A few days later, Ren killed Stimpy. Blood smeared on the glass. Someone in our family, hopefully not me, noticed that Ren had started to eat Stimpy’s corpse. My parents replaced the rats. The new Stimpy was the same type of rat as before: creamy white and brown. The new Ren had dull red eyes and bright white fur. I refused to let him onto my shoulders. Then, they were gone. My parents tallied the potential trauma, and away they went. I barely remember any of this. We never spoke of it again.

3/ The animal: At night, they come into my room. A simple formula exists here: night=rats. I live in an African village. I have a mosquito net which I tuck firmly under my mattress. Rat proof. Some nights, I stay awake and watch them move around the room, upsetting tubes of sunscreen, climbing the chairs. Watching them live. These animals, quite possibly bearing the plague (the plague is endemic here). We get a cat. The nights grow quieter, save for the intermittent, unmistakable sounds of a killing, which are easier to sleep through than the sounds of life.

4/The metaphor: Living in a drafty, handsome old house on the banks of the Mekong. At night, there’s this pause: and then, on the other side of it, you can sense all the animals with legs crawling and scurrying their way up from the banks of the river to spend the night inside my house. The perfect home! Exposed rafters, cobwebbed wood: a playground for nocturnal animals. At first, witnessing the nightly circus-like performance, I looked upon the rats (and lizards and roaches) as animals. Thinking: what on earth are they up to now? Cartwheels, somersaults. But then, one night, sleeping soundly, and I am bitten awake on my pinky toe. I wake up to pain and a sudden wave of shame- shame that arrives preemptively without knowledge of its origin. Shame that doesn’t understand itself; half-formed yet potent. I waited for a little, and then the questions came: who gets bitten by mice? What kind of person am I? (I called them ‘mice’- a slide towards fiction). My shame found its tail and chased it; it knew itself now. I was advised to buy rat poison. Over the next several weeks, I listened to the dying sounds of an entire family of rats. The mom went first. I kept finding babies for days after.

5/The haunting: Inside two different hotel rooms over two months (once in China and once in the Philippines, both for conferences), rats, without apparent preamble, climb into bed with me. Sure, I got unlucky with the room. Sure, I left out a bag of snacks. I can understand coming into my room, but my bed? The first time, I wake up with that horrible insight that your dreams have a direct line to what’s happening to your body RIGHT NOW (that your dream is being guided via real-life sensory experience) to find a small animal on top of me. I thrash like thunder, and it flies off, scurrying away to a secret place. The second time, my dream alerts me to something scratching my thigh. I wake up in the same manner. Both nights, I leave all the lights blazing and defend my bed like a threatened hilltop village in the middle ages. What kind of person am I? I reluctantly tell my colleagues what happened in the morning. There are jokes that I encourage: I’m a rat-whisperer; rats love me. They laugh uneasily. I am moved into a different room by hotel staff, who treat me like I did something wrong. I am not visited the following nights, but shame acts like the rat’s placeholder. The same page is kept open.

6/ The motif: The haunting continues. I wake up suddenly from phantom scurries and bites. Always a hot panic. In theory, I’m safe. There are no rodents in my complex, and there are tons of cats. No signs of intruders. But they really are everywhere.

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Ilse Griffin received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2009. Since then, she has been teaching English at home and abroad. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.