The Rats Survive
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I publish an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s piece is “The Rats Survive,” by Vanessa Micale. Vanessa is multidisciplinary writer and performer. She is a fellow of Anaphora Arts and VONA. Vanessa is an incoming 2022 Randolph College MFA Blackburn Fellow. Find her online at https://www.vanessamicale.com.
The first signs were chewed-out insulation, where the rats had made their way under the house, and the flash of movement and rustling bushes near the trash bins at night. One afternoon, a brazen day-walker rat tightroped across the chain link fence.
One night, I sit cross-legged in my room on my meditation cushion. Earlier I received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I am run-down, a little feverish. I hear a sharp clang of metal while my eyes are closed. I look around to see what could have made that kind of sound. My guitar is in place. Nothing has fallen. I pull back the curtain to look outside and on the other side of the glass, I see the close silhouette of a fat rat under the moonlight, so close I can see his whiskers, his twitching nose.
I scurry to the next room to tell my partner, who lies in our bed reading digital comics.
“It doesn’t make sense. I don’t know how he did it. He was perfectly upright, floating in the sky. I’m not even high.”
In the morning, I see the sloped-iron curve of a bird feeder that my partner had leaned against the house to mow the lawn and forgot to move back. That’s where the rat had perched.
“Fuck, we have a rat problem.” I sigh and call the pest control company.
There is more than one way to kill a rat. Poison bait with anticoagulants that eat the rat’s insides and stop their hearts. Old-fashioned wood and spring snap traps. Glue traps, where the rodent will slowly starve and dehydrate, its fur forever fused to the glue.
We sign a small contract of a few hundred dollars for a professional pest treatment of poison bait and classic snap traps. The man who arrives from the pest company is thin with a small frame. I stand at least a foot taller than him. Both of us are wearing face masks as I lead him down the hallway to the crawl space in my closet. I’ve moved my lingerie to the other side of the closet so he won’t be grazed by red stockings and lace. His narrow shoulders allow him to hop down with ease into our crawl space and set the traps under the house. He lets me know he’ll be back to check the traps every week.
Two weeks later while on a video conference call, I stare out my window and see a large brown rat perched on the bird feeder which has been placed back in the middle of the yard. The rat’s round body is perfectly balanced on the squirrel-proof feeder. Rats are nocturnal creatures, but this one feasts in broad daylight, eating seeds in the dappled sunlight. He reminds me of an old friend.
Rats are sharp, sociable animals, capable of deep bonds. They have empathy and can practice harm aversion. They notice when their actions cause pain to another rat and may forfeit their own safety or comfort to help another rat, even a stranger. Rats have been caged, poked, prodded, pushed to the limits of their deep intelligence to the breaking points of pain, experimented on to improve our human lives. Their contributions to society, like so many other animals, go largely disregarded.
When my two sisters and I were kids, my mom’s therapist recommended we each get our own pet rat to take care of. This was meant to help us deal with the divorce and sudden relocation from Peru to California, leaving our dad nearly five thousand miles away. I named mine Matt the rat. I named him after a boy I had a crush on at my elementary school. Matt the boy used to play basketball with me, and his ears stuck out a bit like a mouse. Matt the rat was fat and long, more like a small kitten. He loved sweet fruit, to be held, and to be petted on the head softly. Though Matt the rat couldn’t fill the void of my father on another continent, Matt the rat needed me, and I loved him. Every day, I made sure he had a full water bottle and food, a salt lick, a clean cage, cardboard toys, things to gnaw on so his teeth wouldn’t grow through his mouth.
One morning, I woke up to his large body, stiff and cold. The tumor he’d been dragging around finally got him.
I never had my own rat again after that. I hoped if there was a rat heaven that it was like the scene in the cartoon Charlotte’s Web, where Templeton the rat is frolicking in a fair after hours devouring a smorgasbord of discarded candy apples, hot dogs, and popcorn. If I could, I’d offer Matt the rat a posthumous medal for rat Father of the Year.
I had Matt the rat around the same time I was obsessed with the Ninja Turtles. Their leader and father figure was a giant rat mentor Master Splinter. He wore a red robe, walked with a cane, and was patient and strong. He was a martial arts master. I had all four Ninja Turtle action figures that I would brag about to certain boys in my class. I shared the Ninja Turtles’ passion for pizza. I wolfed down obscene amounts of $3.99 Amici's pizza on Friday nights when my mom would be out on dates and leave us with a babysitter. I was determined to be a black belt in Karate. I enrolled in classes at the local Parks and Recreation class, thanks to the single-parent household financial aid discount. The best part of the classes might have been how we had to yell out loud together. I was angry a lot then, and it felt good to yell in unison “Kiai! Kiai! Kiai!” and spar with other students, mostly boys. I felt strong and focused in my gangly body. I got as far as orange belt before I got pulled from class by my mom. I had started using self-defense moves in fights with my sisters. I never did become a black belt.
One day after school, I came home and found a squealing mouse stuck on a glue trap in the garage. My mom was gone and wouldn’t be home for hours. I didn’t want the mouse to suffer. I put the mouse into several paper and plastic bags, including a large black trash bag to contain the mess. I stood in our driveway and lifted my skinny arms with a shovel high above my head and swung down with a silent Kiai. I smashed the bag over and over again until I knew for certain the mouse couldn’t be alive anymore.
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This desire for animals not to suffer is a trait I share with my mom and two sisters. My mom would use a garden hose to flush out gophers from the holes they made in our yard. She would put them in a box and release them in the hills where she rode her horse. She also did catch and release with small snakes lazing on the parched earth of our Southern California yard. She would place the snake into a pillowcase and release it up the nearby canyon.
As a child, I often watched the Nutcracker ballet on video at my Grammy’s house. I wasn’t supposed to feel sad when the Rat King was pierced by a sword and killed by the haughty Prince, a prince way too old for the little girl Clara. The death of the Rat King never felt necessary to me. It felt too convenient to mark a certain kind of life disposable, disgusting, less than human, villainous.
In late 2020, Magawa the giant rat became the first rat to receive a gold medal of honor for bravery, a decoration as unprecedented as the entire year had been. Magawa retired from a five year career as a HeroRAT sniffing out landmines and other explosives from over two million square feet of land in Cambodia.
The small gold medal rested on Magawa’s wide chest strung across with a royal blue ribbon harness. He looked cartoonish, regal, iconic.
At 40 years old, my older sister still keeps pet rats. The rats never live more than two to three years before they die from tumors, pneumonia, or heartbreak. My sister calls them by their names, and they come running so she can pet their small heads. They lick her hands, play hide and seek, and nestle in to sleep as she scratches them softly behind their ears. She places rat hammocks in their three-story cages. She hands them tissue and cardboard boxes to build palaces out of. The cardboard rat furniture reminds me of the many times we have moved and the many times an upside-down cardboard box has served as a temporary table until thrift stores, yard sales, and free piles spit forth the essentials.
Hef the rat is tattooed on my sister’s arm, a memorial tribute framed by vibrant bright red and yellow ink. Hef was neutered and dwelled in a rat palace with a bevy of girl rats, hence his namesake after Hugh Hefner of Playboy Mansion fame.
For a while, it seemed like every few months there was a new rat death, a new sudden sinkhole of grief.
“I don’t think I could deal with that. They just don’t last long enough,” I tell her.
I often wonder if these frequent dealings in grief are a way to dip her toes into the ocean of grief we felt when our father died nearly twenty years ago, or if it is a way to keep death close so as not to be caught by surprise, her grief skills rusty and out of practice. I wonder if it’s a refreshed way of walking the path of suffering, through the rapid cycling of deep love and loss.
I think about the box of rat poison that my tías found in my father’s bedside night table after his death, in the place where his wallet should have been. He lived in the sky in a 12th floor apartment, part of a set of new modern towers in Montevideo. My sister and I had lived there for six months with him when he moved back to his motherland Uruguay. We never saw a rat that high up in the sky when we lived together. She and I added the bedside rat poison to the laundry list of macabre possibilities that led to his death.
The pandemic-weary world buries the human dead as rats stake claims to deserted offices and city streets, desperate for vanished food sources. Ratlike mammals survived dinosaurs, and by now, rats have made it to every continent except Antarctica. Where there was no land, they swam or traveled by ship. They are one of the world’s most invasive species, a legion of gnawing nocturnal shadows, associated with disease and dizzying multiplicity.
In the fourth week of the pest control treatment, during my morning meditation, I hear birds chirping, a new song. The low-pitched squeaky warbling could be a nest of baby birds or—I cringe—maybe a rat screaming in pain caught in a trap under my house. I walk my dog around the neighborhood and see a dried-up rat, flattened fur, no guts or juicy insides left. It takes about a week before the neighbor gets tired of seeing a dehydrated rat on the corner of their lot. The rat is swept away. For the first time, I google how much rat poison it takes to kill a man.
When the pest control man returns for the final visit, he lets me know that 75% of the poison bait is gone. There are no rats in the snap traps. Ever since we took down the bird feeder, we haven’t seen them day-walking. The pest man lets me know the problem has been contained for now as the rats have found places to hide and die. He walks down my hall and out the door with an empty white bucket, meant for discarding rat corpses.
Over the weekend, a heat dome has come and gone, taking human lives with temperatures that spiked to 116 degrees. I sit next to my love in our backyard at dusk. The grass is parched, and the plant leaves are burnt. We wait for the hummingbirds to zoom and weave through the branches in the warm air. A mother bird chirps incessantly at us. She’s decided to build her nest in the tall grass under the hammock. She might be a Dark-eyed Junco, a kind of sparrow.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a blur of dark gray zip across the chain link fence.
“They survived,” I say.
We talk of filling the space under the toolshed with gravel to discourage the rats from nesting there.
“They’ll just dig it out again,” I say. I imagine the rats moving the gravel boulders with their small pink hands, working in unison.
In the future, there will still be rats. No matter how many rats we kill under contract, no matter how many traps the pest person sets under basements and tool sheds, I know the rats will survive. With climate change, the rats may even finally make it as far as Antarctica. They’ll swim in packs through spa-like waters while glaciers shiver away and ice ceases to be. They’ll stow away on a few spaceships and get a fine look at the dazzling galaxies, nibble on the large cheese moon before they are swallowed by a black hole. Those who stay behind on earth will be like Templeton at the fair, in a rat’s paradise after the crowds have gone. The rats will feast on watermelon, ice cream, corn on the cob, and maybe, by then, even gnaw on our bones.