ObWi regular Laura Koerber mentioned that she had a story about rats in response to my last open thread and I asked her to send it so I could frontpage it. She then had second thoughts, but after reading it, I really twisted her arm. It's a lovely piece and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did.
One Christmas Eve, when I could not sleep, my father told me that he would show me just one present. Just one present, he said, and then off to bed.
The one present was actually two: a pair of white rats.
My first pets. We didn’t have cats or dogs. My mother was crippled from polio and didn’t want any ambulatory knee high obstacles in the house to trip over. Our only pet was a chameleon that lived in a lemon tree.
But now two rats entered my life. They were extraordinarily lucky rats: my father acquired them from the vet lab, thus saving them from a life of vivisection. Instead they came home to live with us.
My father made a roomy wire cage for them in the garage. Inside the cage was a wooden box full of old socks and worn out towels that they chewed into a big, fluffy cloud. They liked to snuggle into the cloud of fluff and disappear. Every day I changed the water in their bottle and gave them a plate of rodent kibble mixed with tidbits saved from our dinner. They loved any kind of fruit. I wanted to name them Pixie and Dixie, but my father said we should get to know their personalities first and name them later.
The male was a somnolent, easy-going animal and a bit of a slob. His fur was rumpled like an old suit, and he had a piece missing from one of his ears.
When we turned the rats loose in the house for recreation time, he’d seek out a sunny spot on the floor and sprawl out flat to sunbathe. My dad said he looked like road kill. I loved his kindly old man’s face and named him Charlie.
Charlie’s life was a succession of favorite places to sleep: the cloud of fluff, a sunny spot, but most of all in my arms. His warm body would melt into mine with his nose tucked neatly into the bend of my elbow and his tail draped over my arm. I loved to stroke his rumpled body from his head to his tail, lingering on his shoulder blades. If I rubbed his shoulders just the right way, he’d sigh and stretch with happiness, wiggling his little pink fingers in the air. He was my favorite rat.
The female was a rat of entirely different character. She was sleek, very white and had a tail like a pretty pick ribbon. Her little, pink, shell-like ears and bright red eyes decorated a vivid little face. She was an explorer. She quickly learned to open the kitchen cupboard doors, hide inside the couch, and climb the book cases. We were all very impressed when she learned to open drawers. Her name was Imp.
Given that we had a male rat and a female rat, the inevitable happened: baby rats. Daddy asked the vet to give Charlie a vasectomy, but Charlie came home neutered. The babies went to the vet med labs because we didn’t know what else to do with them. It was a betrayal.
White rats don’t live very long compared to the four score and ten of a human, but the year of the rats was one eighth of my eight year old existence and loomed very large in my mind. My days were full of the details of their lives: Impie catching grasshoppers in the yard, Charlie making a burrow in a couch cushion, the day Imp got lost in the basement, the day Charlie crawled into the fireplace and came out gray with ash. I had to give him a bath, which he hated. Charlie and Impie seemed to be permanent features of my life.
But of course they weren’t. Impie died first. She got out of the cage in the garage and went exploring. My father found her poor little body crumpled up against the curb on the street. He brought her home cupped in his hands, and we buried her in the garden. Her grave was marked with a white hunk of quartz we had found somewhere.
Charlie got cancer. He came home from the vet with savage metal clamps in his side holding the incision together. I was afraid to touch him, afraid I would hurt him. A few months later, after his fur had grown back from the first wound, he grew another lump. That was the end of Charlie. My father told me that he buried Charlie out in the garden next to Impie, but it was winter, and I remember thinking that the ground would be hard.
I don’t remember missing my pet rats. They had arrived in my life suddenly, and just as suddenly they were gone. Reality changed every day.
School started, stopped, started again with a different teacher. The sticky heat of summer cooled into fall, froze into winter, thawed into a messy wet spring, and degenerated into muggy, sticky, bug-ridden Iowa summer. I skinned my knees, ruined my clothes, ran my bike into a tree, and made friends with the horse that lived in the pasture at the end of the road. It was all just life.
My father had a wild and tangled garden in the backyard. He called it slash and burn agriculture because he just slashed the garden plots out of the grass in a circle around a big burn pile, planting things randomly and tolerating any interesting volunteers. It was a frightening garden, overwhelmingly green and fecund in a junglesque way. In the midst of all that burgeoning plant life, I was always finding things dead or nearly dead: snakes catching toads, spiders catching bugs, robins with squirming worms in their beaks. It was nature, red in tooth and claw.
Weeding was a family project on the theory that those who ate must help raise the food. We were all out there one summer day when I found the gravestone of my Christmas rats. I pulled up a big green weed and suddenly the grave was right there.
It was a shock. Months had gone by, months full of the minor events and tragedies of an ordinary childhood. Impie and Charlie had disappeared entirely from my life and my mind. I had forgotten about their grave.
But suddenly there it was: the big white rock. I was stunned by an onslaught of unfamiliar emotions. Guilt was one, guilt that I had forgotten about my pets so easily. But also a strange wonder filled me; I was confronted by the past. For the first time I realized, really realized, the passage of time. I understood suddenly that I was moving inexorably forward through life, leaving a wake of events behind me, like a boat on a lake. I had a personal history.
And just as I had a past, I also had a future, and some day, way off in that unimaginable future, was the incomprehensible fact of my own death. All thoughts left my mind and I had one of those rare moments of pure awareness; I could feel the blood in my veins, the cells of my skin, the marrow of my bones. All of the garden sat still with me as air slipped in and out of my body, sounds passed quietly through my ears, and the bright colors of the day filled my eyes.
But moments like that pass and thoughts and memories slip into consciousness. I remember thinking that my hand, the dirty hand in my lap, was the same hand that once stroked Charlie’s rough white fur; and my eyes, the eyes that squinted in the summer heat, were the eyes that once watched Impie nimbly opening a cabinet door. It seemed like I ought to be able to touch them and see them again, but I could only remember.