RATS

By Dennis DiClaudio

 

††††††††††† I have stories like rats; malformed, maladroit, malnourished on slips of paper, backs of receipts, half finished in half-filled notebooks infesting my home so that I cannot walk into the kitchen without being reminded of some progeny which I had nursed partially into creation and then left to rot beside the toaster. They scutter across the floor and meet my gaze when I least wish to be reminded of their existence. I am oppressed. I have trouble coping.

††††††††††† Several evenings ago, I returned home in good spirits after drinking with friends, and, upon turning on the light, found no less than a dozen of them in congress on my living room floor. They and I froze for a long instant, and then suddenly there was a flurry of activity and they had retreated back into the corners and shadows. I was left with a breathless feeling and my hand clutched to my chest. My constitution will not hold up much longer under these conditions. I know that I should capture them one by one and send them into the fire to rest in finality. If I cannot finish them in one way, I should finish them in another. Perhaps it is best that they be destroyed and forgotten. It is not kind to leave a story hobbled and unloved, especially when I had once showed it so much loving kindness, tinkering with its paragraphs and punctuation like gentle caresses, until, one night, it finds itself untimely ripped from its typewriter nest. Abandoned and shunned, life must be cold.

††††††††††† But it is for exactly that reason that I cannot bring myself to do them in. I did once love them. Each one of them had its turn as my nursling, and I had cared for each above all others. However, due to some quasi-maternal deficiency, I cannot love them still. My heart does not have space for more than but one, the newest, the youngest, the one I had yet to send, premature, between two stacks of folders, the one that is still pretty and full of hope. And yet I cannot kill them. To be honest, they frighten me. I donít want to touch them. It is in some part their smell. They stink of defalcation, and after even being revisited by one, I am compelled to wash my hands thoroughly. It is also that they are hideous to view; lame, meagerly-formed, still covered in the scars of their copy editing marks and margin notes. Theyíre a wreck of ideas that could not be fit together properly, and they stumble more than scurry from the bookshelf to beneath the chair with a terrible arrhythmic patter. The sound disturbs me utterly.

††††††††††† What was it about them that had caused me to abandon them in turn? That, I donít know. With whom does the fault lie? I suppose that it lies with me. There are so many of them, and I continue birthing them without care for consequence. I know what I am doing when I sit down at my desk and begin the manipulation of yet another embryo. Can they be blamed for their own inadequacies when I was the one who had failed to shape them properly? I can assume what the outcome will be, and yet I continue. It is always with the hope that this one will be different, and it so rarely is. There were so few that had been born full, and they had all gone off and left me to the rejects. It is only those I do not love that keep me company.

 

*†††† *†††† *

 

Yesterday night, I sat resting in my chair halfway to sleep, when I was startled by something shifting in the corner of my eye, and, upon looking, found one of them there glaring at me from the end table. My initial reaction was to jump back with my hands in the air and let go a shriek, but something, perhaps its proximity, kept me from it. Instead, calmly, I sat there and watched it huddled, breathing uneasily, and, for a long moment, we were still. I recognized it as one of my earliest miscarriages, nearly complete and tossed away for some reason I cannot remember now. I donít know quite how long it had lived in the shadows and corners of my house, but there it sat, encrusted in dust and lint and filth. It smelled very bad.

††††††††††† It talked. In a uncouth vocalization that was more wheezing susurration than voice, it asked why it had been abandoned. Why had I brought it part-way about and then abandoned it? I was quiet, frightened. I spoke earlier of my cowardice when dealing with my offspring, but now, if they were to begin climbing onto furniture to interrogate me, I thought that I might have to pack up and move. It repeated its question. I answered that I did not have an answer. I could not remember why I had abandoned it, that perhaps I had found it lacking in some matter. Perhaps, I said, I had thought it better that it should lay stillborn in my home then monument to my own inferiority in some dusty journal someplace. Why then, it asked through spastic vocal convulsions, had I not been kind enough to destroy it at once? Again, I had no answer.

††††††††††† The little derelict creature was a pitiful sight, matched only in its pathos by my own terrible guilt. I wanted to do something for it, to help it, so long as I would not have to touch it in any way. Possibly, it had seen me inching from my chair toward a sheet Ihoped to throw over it, because it spoke back up. If I could not remember why I had passed on it, it said, then perhaps it could still be saved. It commanded me to lift it, and I, after some thoughtful deliberation, cravenly lowered my palm down to the end table, and nearly swooned as the thing shifted its weight onto my hand. Take me to the desk, it said. I asked why I should do that, but it merely repeated its command. I did so. I carried it into the study, and, doing so, sought almost to counter its weight in my hand by lowering arm until, when we reached the desk, it was at knee-level. I placed it on the desk, as it had told me to do, beside the typewriter. Still in the cradle of the machine, was my newest child, a story I had only begun writing a few nights earlier. Its vital organs were not nearly formed, but it was coming along nicely. I had great hopes for that one.

††††††††††† I want you, the hideous one informed me, to pull that story out of the typewriter and throw it into the fire. Into the fire? I told it that I would not. I said that it was innocent and helpless. It needed me to help it on. It would be infanticide. You will, in time, the miscarriage said, forsake it, as you have forsaken all of the rest of us. It is only right that it should die now, while it still knows only the warm embrace of love.

††††††††††† I didnít want to do it. God knows I didnít, but again cowardice proved a stronger instinct then nurturing. I pulled my newest scion out, carried it, still cooing, to the flame, and dropped it in. There was a short bit of anguished noise as the hot tongues licked at its edges and then finally burnt it to a thin slip of ash. I was watery in the eyes and would not watch. And then all was quiet again. Now, the thing said to me, you will continue with me where you have left off.

 

*†††† *†††† *

 

Emitting a low satisfied moan, it stretched back in apparent ecstasy as I weaved the newly forming sinews of its tendons and muscles, pulling together appendages which had previously been left lame. I connected its organs to its bodily systems, allowing it to breath easier, its blood to flow more regularly, warming areas that had been forever cold and numb. At times it would wince, feeling the pins and needles of its nerve ending suddenly coming painfully to life. I must admit that I could not tell why I had let it go initially. It seemed to be a quite promising story, only requiring minor alterations and segues between its various scenes and expositions. It was, somewhat late, coming along nicely.

††††††††††† When I stopped typing and rose from the desk, the story woke from its rapturous catatonia and screamed for me to sit and return to work. I replied that I needed to stretch my legs, have a drink and maybe a cigarette. Iíd been working for hours and the joints of my fingers were tightening. I needed a break, I said. It thought this over, and then agreed to grant me a short rest, but stated quite firmly that it would be finished that night. I was not to be trusted. I informed it that I couldnít work through the night, that my eyes were already getting bleary. I would need sleep eventually. No, it said. Tonight.

††††††††††† Hanging my head in my hands on the front porch, surrounded in the late evening sound of buzzing and chirping, my mood turned from a vague satisfaction to an acute shame. Here was this thing which I had sired ordering me about as though I were its servant. I am not a strong man, but I do have a sense of the natural order of things, and stories simply do not dictate their will over their authors. At least they should not. I looked out over the horizon, and the sky there was changing to a deep indigo. I could not go without sleep.

††††††††††† When I returned to the study, the thing was enjoying its new mobility. It strutted back and forth across the floor, unaware of my returning. It was nice to see it working so well, and I was almost happy for it, until I happened to glance back at the door and notice a cluster of the other incomplete stories jealously eyeing this one. Upon seeing me see them, they fled. How long would it be before the others gained the courage to follow this oneís example, to keep me from rest, to mutinize against me. They would become emboldened eventually unless something was done. I would have to take action now.

††††††††††† The creaking of my chair as I climbed back behind the desk disturbed the storyís pacing. It snapped back to attention and hopped onto the desk and into the typewriterís cradle. Are you happy with my revisions so far, I asked. It said it was, but that it thought its middle segment needed more exposition. I happily agreed to look that section over again. I said that I had myself come up with some excellent new ideas in my time away. It seemed to like that. I went back to typing. I am coming along brilliantly, it informed me. I will be an excellent story, it said, fit for publication in the finest journals and magazines. I agreed. I typed faster. It groaned. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Past the haze of my exhalations, the other little abominations were back at the door, watching. More dialogue, it directed me, more dialogue. Taking that as my cue, I labored to craft possibly the finest sentence that ever I had written. It was a strong sentence, sturdy in its brevity, but not with the faint frills of poetics, and the thing flailed back in climax. Immediately, I ripped it from the typewriter, still reeling, powerless to resist or even speak. It could only gape at me from my fist, bewildered and confused, and watch as I carried it to the fire. Only once I reached the hearth did it regain its senses and struggle to get loose, but I held it firmly. Do not do this, it bellowed. I said nothing. I simply released it into the flame. The howl echoed throughout the house. My face still amber from the burning glow, I turned a cocked smile toward the others, who had, horrorstricken, observed the murder, and now scurried quickly away. They ran to the refuge of the shadows. A moment later, the thing was ash and I walked upstairs to prepare myself for bed.

 

*†††† *†††† *

 

††††††††††† So, that was all for that one, but there were many others. I knew now what needed to be done. Tonight, I will find them all and finally do what I should have done long ago. Tomorrow, I will start again fresh.

 

 

 

**

Dennis DiClaudio edits for (parenthetical note) and Ducky Magazine. He lives

in Philadelphia and lost his roommate's copy of Gravity's Rainbow on the

subway; it remains unread.




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