The Day of the Rat
By Cindy Hailey (US)
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“Mom, there's a rat.” Mick's voice was slightly hushed, deliberately calm.
Washing the last dish, I sighed slightly and ignored his comment.
“Mom, come here...it's a rat.”...A different voice from a different child, a bit more urgent.
“No, Jenny, we have no rats.”
“Mom, come here!” Julia, our third and eldest offered her whispered support and I heard chairs moving.
The flow of my cleaning squelched, I huffed and clicked my tongue in aggravation, dried my hands on the terry towel and walked with sharp, loud thuds to the to the dining room entrance. The sound effects were intended to let my children know I was in no mood for play. We had already fought the battle of the mice, all politely poisoned and gone to Mouse Heaven. The nice pest-riddance guy had assured me this was a routine occurrence in island homes, especially those having sat empty for awhile. He had explained that Wharf Rats were also common household invaders due to the marshy environment, but his poison, he assured me, would take care of all our little problems. He had also informed me upon later inspection, the house was now mouse-free. So, there were certainly no rats and I did not appreciate this kink in our schedule.
Exaggerated reports of hairy brown, leaping spiders, odd, spindly-legged crickets and birds flying in through the chimney had a way of creating useful diversions from our daily routine of home education. It was obvious to me that the kids were pulling my strings, a familiar avoidance tactic used to postpone the trials of completing assigned work. Their motives nullified any applause they might receive for their admirable teamwork. I would quickly put an end to this current magnification of the norm.
Assuming the position of lecturer, I entered the doorway, hands on hips. My indignation began to fade, however, at the sight of my children. Wide-eyed, they bunched together at the doorway on the opposite side of the room. Wordlessly, they pointed toward the wood stove, situated close to my right. This was not a joke or attempt to distract, this was fear. Humbled, I dropped hands to sides and became a repentant, conditional believer.
“Where?” I asked. My condition of belief was based on a new theory. This was just a left-over mouse and they were mistaken regarding its size. Inwardly, I prayed I was correct. Taking one intricate step into the room for a better view, I saw a piece of the intruder...My stomach lurched, my pulse raced and I could feel that depleted feeling in my face that I always feel when it loses its blood. There was no room left for new theories or the convenience of doubt. This was no mouse.
A large, leathery, gray tail lay waiting, motionless. It was encircled with lighter gray rings. This was all I could see without moving closer. Its nearest end came to a perfect point. It looked dusty and old, as if belonging to something accustomed to living in the dust through many ages. It was, no doubt, attached to a rat of size. I hadn't seen a rat up close since the ones in the barn of my childhood. They would unwittingly trap themselves in the bottom of feeding bins after gorging on grain. They were so big, my brothers had to run them through with pitch forks to kill them. The ensuing frantic scratching, hisses, baring of teeth and high-pitched screams were eternally embedded in my memory. These were the things of which nightmares are created. I was scared nearly past sanity by them, and didn't feel much different about this one. Even its unmoving, snake-like tail seemed to lay in wait.
To my true dismay, the current home hierarchy stopped with me. Johnny was a mile away, guarding the coast from the station he commanded. He would have been free to come home, but who knew if this intruder would still be in the same spot by the time he arrived? My mind sped through every possible mishap, most scenes ending with the creature climbing up my leg or one of my children's, hissing and gnashing with razor-sharp teeth. Perhaps infected with rabies and at the very least, full of bacterial Black Death. I couldn't comprehend anything past that vivid and horrific picture. There was no time to wait for our usual hero. Something must be done. Now.
Reluctantly accepting the heaviness of responsibility, I stepped as if laden with lead boots into the room. Fighting the enemy would require more knowledge of the enemy. Knowing the composition of its tail would not be enough. I peered around the front of the stove. There it stood on hind legs. I shuddered as it's shiny round eyes met mine in challenging, wary silence. Scratchy, pointed talons revealed themselves at the ends of deceivingly small front paws. Like a statue in both action and color, it studied me and waited for my move. It had already frozen at the sight of the children. Now, a larger enemy, closer at hand and of greater threat, advanced. I had its undivided attention. I wiped wet hands on jeans and hoped it couldn't smell my cowardice.
His valiant effort to stare me down was nearly successful. I am lily-livered. A chicken. There is a yellow streak down my back. I am a coward. I boast and run. Courage is not my forte. But you know, we're talking about my children here. And I'm thinking that one rat could bring friends, especially if he knows he can get away with it. This would never do if I planned to sleep at night. I was reminded of a 'pet' hamster we once had that repeatedly broke out of his cage at night. I recalled waking in the darkness to find his red eyes staring at me from atop the curtain rod. We had freed the critter the following day. No, co-habitation with rats would never, ever do. In spite of his daring gaze, I moved forward with an evolving plan of war.
“Okay, kids,” I spoke lowly, “Be very quiet. Stay right where you are. I will go get the broom.”
To this command, their eyes widened. I ignored their silent objections.
“I'll open the back door and Mick, you open the front door. We're going to try and chase him outside. I'll start by working him toward the back since that's closer. If he tries to come in your direction, I want you three to shoo him back this way, okay?”
They looked at me, at each other, at the rat, back at me. More silence. I hurried to locate the broom and open the back door, assuming Mick had gone to open the front door.
It is said that when faced with danger, both man and animal take one of two possible measures...Flight or Fight. The children chose Flight. It never occurred to me that the soldiers might mutiny. When I returned, broom in hand, only the rat remained in the room, still solidly in place. My children had disappeared. Not even one had stayed behind. No longer the brave and fearless leader, I peered into the next room, “Kids, where'd you go?” I spoke barely above a whisper.
No answer. Peering down the hallway to the left, I saw that the front door had at least been opened. Had they all run outside to be sure they wouldn't have to deal with the furry beast?
“Mom, here we are.”
A voice from the stairway. There they sat, my 'Mighty Musketeers', crouched behind the railing.
I felt my eyes bulging in panic, “Come here, I need you,” I seethed hotly through my clenched teeth.
Their across-the-board response: “Uh-uh”.
Were they out of their minds leaving me alone to face this monster? I was again reminded of my own unfathomable terror of the barn rats. Yes, my children were out of their minds...with fear...and that was completely understandable. I would not shame them or command them. They would one day have the opportunity to confront the demon, and I wasn't about to rush them into it.
Meanwhile, my demon stood there still. In spite of our small flurry of activity, he had not moved an inch, nor even, as far as I could tell, blinked. This was not going to be easy. Any wild animal that would so stoically stand his ground was sure to be formidable in battle. I braced myself, steeling my nerves against debilitating imaginations, one in which the rat would jump on the end of the broom, run up, and...
“Oh, shut-up! Shut-up!” I commanded my darker side.
Back in charge, I poised the broom above my head like a baseball bat. I had, in fact, considered grabbing my son's bat instead of the broom, but it was far too short-I had no intention of getting that close. Prepared to swing, it occurred suddenly to me that if successful in shooing him out the door , he might easily find his way back in. After all, we had no idea from where he came. We had battled mice, it's true, but they had only, as far as we'd known, lived in the walls. This rat, leaving unharmed, was quite likely to return. Merely striking it with the bristles of a broom might elicit all sorts of awful responses. I lowered the broom a bit, never taking my eyes off the enemy.
He was standing so still-maybe, just maybe, if I dared to use the handle end instead...if I clunked him on his nasty little head...It occurred to me that I might actually hurt him enough that we would never have to worry about his re-entry. Never concern ourselves with his bringing family or friends by for visits. Maybe I could even rid us of him forever.
It was at this point, I believe, that the evolution from Protector-of-the-Home into Murderess took place. For as all murderers know, it happens in the mind before it happens by the hand. I turned the broom over, grasping it solidly just above it's bristles. Splitting the second, a pep talk conversation took place:
“You did this in high school remember? You hit all those homers...could even hit a trash ball and those were moving objects...This thing's just sitting there staring at you...You can do it...”
I whined back to myself, “But softballs are a lot bigger than his head, and I need perfect aim...”
“Go ahead, you can do it...For cryin' out loud, Swing!”
A voice from outside the realm of my mental fog intruded, “Mom! What are you doing?” I think it was my son- I'm not sure.
“I'm going to kill it,” I replied between gritted teeth, struggling to keep focus and purpose before me.
“Be quiet!” I looked up only long enough to shoot a withering glare in their direction, took aim, ignored the lurching of my stomach, and swung.
Yes, our enemy, most simply and aptly put...plopped. I hit it on the right, it plopped to the left. There it lay, seemingly lifeless, but I was convinced it was merely temporarily stunned. Not one to take chances or leave a job half-done, I made use of the remaining, fear-induced adrenaline. As I brimmed with uncanny strength, I beat it again and again. My mind was stuck in a vision of its resurrection to vengeance should I stop, so I continued long past its last breath...and might still be standing there beating old, dry bones to this day had my children not put an end to my madness.
“Mom! Stop it! He's dead!”
The shocked, begging chorus of their voices pulled me from the mire of my murderous bludgeoning. I lifted my head to see them gaping at me in horror. This crazed warrior they beheld was not Mom. The battle was over. They wanted their real mother back. Seeing their young faces pinched with distaste and disbelief brought me abruptly and mercifully back into the familiar dimension of matronly sanity.
With shaking fingers, I dialed my husband at work. No longer an independent woman of wonder, I morphed back into a semi high-maintenance diva. With disgust, I noted that rigor mortise had already begun to transform our rat into a mutilated plank.
“Come home. Now. Please.” My voice vibrated with strain as I ended my report of the incident with the mournful plea.
“Well...Is it alive?” he asked in confusion.
“No. I told you-I killed it.”
“Then...can't you just put it in a trash bag, tie it and toss it out the back door? I'll take it to the trash when I get home.”
Speaking in low, measured tones I tried to come across as sane, “I'm not getting anywhere near it, come home and get it out of here...Please!” My raspy voice betrayed my near hysteria.
He chuckled in bewildered warmth. I knew it was too much to ask that he understand how I could have fought it, conquered it and then become too meek to bag its dead carcass.
“Okay. I'll be there as soon as I finish up...It won't be long.”
“Um, an hour at the most.”
I sighed. Loudly. This was not the answer I wanted, nor was I above letting him know.
“Stay out of the room until I get there if it makes you feel any better. I promise, I'll be there as soon as I can.”
Shivering, but knowing I'd gotten as much from him as I was going to get, I hung up and determined to face the wait bravely. Breathing deeply through my nose, I summoned another bout of courage. The next half hour, I continued to shake ridiculously and jump at the hint of the slightest sharp sound. The kids went back to their work and although none of them would volunteer to bag the rat, they easily ignored it. I swept, mopped and waxed the kitchen floor, but was still a jumble of Jello when my Johnny came marching home. I gratefully surrendered my lead position as the need to call on courage evaporated.
After my hero bagged and deposited the lifeless body, he noted my post-war distress. The kids were off doing their own thing and it was safe for me to release both guard and after-angst. He pulled me safely into strong, tanned arms and held me warmly. I sobbed freely into his uniformed chest.
Whining petulantly, I begged, “I don't want to live here anymore-Can't we get a transfer?”
“Um, I need to tell you something, Babe. I don't know if it will make you feel better or worse.”
This, I needed. What? Were they sending him away...again? Wiping my eyes, I steeled myself for the news. “Okay. I'm Okay. What?”
“About the rat.”
Oh, okay. I relaxed. “What about it?”
“Um, you know how you told me it fell over on it's side, how it just sat there still for so long, staring and not moving?”
“Well, ah, he was already dead...or at least, the very next thing to it.”
“What do you mean, 'he was dead'? He was standing...standing there and his eyes were just as open as yours are now. How do you know? I don't get it. What are you talking about?”
“Now, calm down...”
“Don't tell me to calm down! You weren't here, I was...You didn't see any of it!”
“Would you just be quiet and listen to me?...He must have eaten some left over poison from when the house was treated for mice. The poison makes them thirsty so they go away searching for water instead of dying somewhere around the house and stink to high heaven. It also makes them disoriented and in the end, blind.”
I had not expected to feel compassion for the rat...Why was Johnny telling me all this?
“The rat most likely didn't even realize he was in the dining room with people around until he heard your voices. It's doubtful he was staring at you either, he was probably blind. When I went to get him off the hearth, he was as stiff as a board...I don't think that would happen so fast if he'd been raring to go when you killed him...and there's no way he would sit there all that time without moving if he'd been healthy.”
I paled, knowing he was right.
“Well, I was thinking...maybe...rabies...” I responded meekly...“You mean to tell me I was fighting a dead rat?” I was incredulous and not a little embarrassed.
I saw the tell-tale dimple forming near the left side of his mouth. I saw the twinkle in his crystal blue eyes. He was using all his heroic strength to spare me humiliation.
“Well, Honey, as far as you knew, he was a bad rat...a really, really bad rat.”
Of course, there was no request for a transfer. I was well beyond the ordeal by dinnertime. I had swallowed my pride, chuckled at myself and moved on. That's what we do, after all. In spite of my ignorance concerning the state of the rat, I realized this had been a momentous occasion for me. Although my foe had been far more imagined than real, I allowed myself to revel in the fact that I had confronted a disgusting and dreaded fear...and walked away not only alive, but victorious. I had taken a long, cool sip of bravery and found I even liked the taste. Liked it enough, in fact, that sometimes, days like today, I unroll the memory in detail. And every time I do-I look forward with anticipation to the next opportunity I'll have to savor the bittersweet flavor of courage.
I just hope the next opportunity doesn't present itself in the form of a rat.