Shannon Barbour

Paper Fish

It’s just her and the rats. Well, it’s her and the dogs and the rats, but for as much help as they’ve been, she’s alone with the rats. They’ve been quiet all morning, the rats, but just thinking of them, the crackling sound of their jaws gnawing at the wood behind her oven begins. She isn’t prone to suggestion, not touched as her grandmother would’ve said: no. The rats are active. Must be the weather. It’s rained for weeks. Not constantly, but with a heaviness that has caused meteorologists to joke about the end of days. She’ll see clips from local news and wonder when everyone became so credentialed.  Even the early morning weather-casters have degrees in meteorology; they aren’t just pretty faces who smile and point to an invisible map in front of a green screen. That takes faith, she thinks, to throw the whole of your career into reporting at an invisibility. Well, now they have science to fall back on if TV doesn’t work out, she thinks. Hmm, she says out loud to no one, or to the dogs since they all perk up at the sound of her voice though the rats don’t seem to hear or care: the jarring sound of their frenzied gnashing doesn’t subside. Distant thunder rumbles. The wind swells and collects clouds, dripping rain as they bundle tighter together in what little square of sky she can see from her kitchen window.

She leans closer to the window, almost pushes the whole of herself up and into the sink, almost rests her head against the glass. If it hadn’t been such a wet February, she thinks, if the rain would’ve let up for even three consecutive days, maybe she wouldn’t be alone with rats. But the rain. The rain sopped the ground. The rain drowned the rats’ home. The rain rotted the wood above her courtyard, fancy name for a neglected side-patio, and made easy access of the eaves. The soffits, really. They must have ascended the side of the house in the middle of the night; she imagines them as though in a cartoon, single file. They ate a rat-sized hole in a corner soffit, a dark space two floors up, where nobody would notice. Some years before, she and her husband had all-but granted ownership of the courtyard to a family of barn swallows whose nests lined the undercarriage of the porch roof, so even when the birds left for the winter, they rarely used the space. It felt too much like invading. So she didn’t notice the hole. Her husband didn’t notice, her daughter certainly didn’t notice. How long did it take the rats to work their way inside? What else was she an unwitting host to? The questions pounded as unrelentingly as the rain.    

The rats were quiet invaders. Or quieter than the constant din of a house with four dogs and a pre-teen girl and an Alexa constantly streaming music for background noise. Weekdays when she was alone with the dogs, the house was quieter. She spent most of those days cloistered in the upstairs extra bedroom she’d remade into her office; she tinkered with words and enjoyed the space to put things that were hers alone. Things she’d collected: a toy truck from GE that her grandfather had given her when he still worked for that company, her first guitar, a lucky bean plucked from a drawer in her grandmother’s closet after she died, a pinkish rock from an island in the Baltic Sea that, she thinks, retains the cold, a pile of stickers from her favorite towns and stores along Florida’s beach highway 30-A. She hadn’t heard the scurrying of their little rat nails rushing back and forth inside her house; she hadn’t heard gnawing and pawing. But with her daughter home from school for one of those made-up holidays, President’s Day probably, they were at the kitchen table doing a science word search. They heard a scuttle and a tsssshhhk tsssshhhk tsssshhhk like a muffled chopping of wood. Something scraped behind the oven or maybe the cabinets. Pull the drawers out and look, her daughter begged, excitement tinged with hesitation in her too-loud voice. She’d put her hand on the drawer-pulls again and again but left them tucked safely in place.

That had been weeks ago. A white and red pest control van with a large blue bullseye painted on the side had pulled up to their house numerous times since then. Roof rats, the man had said as he brushed insulation from the shoulder of his dingy, half-untucked shirt after having been in their infested attic, not many, maybe four. The words gathered in her ears, seemed to sit with built-up wax she knew better than scrape away. But why not, she wondered. She remembered: it had something to do with an unfortunate woman who had been too eager with the cotton swab, pressed the thing into her gray matter; a made-up story, surely, and for that her ears felt dirty. But she was missing what he said about the four rats and how roof rats differed from regular rats. She watched the insulation he’d swiped from his shoulder settle among her daughter’s spilled LEGOS before this sequence of words, roof rats/maybe four, seeped deeper, to where things she understands, but still can’t quite make sense of, collect. Things like sun showers and how one of her dogs has both black and white eyelashes and that her best friend moved, and not temporarily as planned, to Sweden and electricity.

Okay, but if they’re in the roof here, why do I hear them in the kitchen? she hesitated even while asking, afraid he’d just told her. The words stuttered. She was still focused on the LEGOS, the insulation. The longer she stared, the more the mess seemed to grow. She’d have to pluck the insulation out and then pick up the toys and then vacuum. And what were those speckles of black mixed into the faded pink fuzzies he’d tracked down the retractable steps? Were those rat droppings disintegrating to dust atop her daughter’s playthings? She missed what he said again, something about the walls and ducts. It’s lucky you don’t have lots of junk up there. Not many places for them to make a home. She didn’t know if that was true or if he was trying to assuage her distress, absentminded though it was. When he first walked through the house a half-hour before, she made quick apologies about the mess, the toys and books laid atop every surface and glitter clumped around forgotten art projects and that one cast iron pan that seemed to have always just been used. He’d scoffed. Said the house was clean and devoid of clutter, especially by comparison to what he was used to seeing. To both of his offers of reassurance, she’d nodded without a smile or idea of how to reply.

In the openness of her kitchen, he handed her a dusty contract and receipt. Was it the crawling around in tight spaces, she wondered, or the carting off of dead rodents that coated this man with dirt? She escorted him through the living room toward the front door and focused on his face, contorted as it was, in listening. If you hear a loud thwack, he said, that’ll be a trap. Call me. She watched him through glass smudged from wet dog noses and kid handprints: the walk down the front path, the arranging and stowing of tools, his slide-hop onto the seat. Only when the driver door closed did she turn the lock. She’d always thought it rude to lock the door on someone; the dead bolt clank an insinuation of their possible danger. Her hand lingered on the lock, her body went slack, her forehead thudded into her daughter’s grimy ghost palm. She was alone, and not for the first time, she realized, with the rats. Exhaling felt an arduous task, afraid as she was of disrupting the stillness and causing anything to jump or scamper. Wasn’t it quiet and calm rats liked; the nights they appropriated as their own? But she and her daughter had heard them in the morning. Strange creatures, these rats, and how little she knew of them.

Now she’s alone, again, with the rats. The rain still drums against the windows, thuds against the shingles and drips onto her purposefully untended Indian hawthorn’s waxy leaves. The top branches of her sweet bay magnolia tree scratch against the bricks, a noise both eerie and wet. She’s come to love the sound of rain; the symphonic constancy of it gives rhythm to her thoughts. And she seldom hears the rats. It’s easy, she thinks, to push their existence to the background, almost forget about them. Rats? I don’t know any rats. She mumbles toward the sludgy last sip of coffee she forces herself to drink, a kind of will-to-day test she’d happened upon while most of her friends were pushing themselves to new fitness goals or waking up hours earlier trying to impress a boss. Grimacing, she hears them. They want me to know they’re still around, she thinks. She appreciates the desire to not be pushed to the background or dropped to the wayside.

When her cousin Erica had her first baby, a boy, someone told her, you know you won’t be Erica anymore, right? Now people will just know you as his mom. For a while Erica was angry and then fought the change and then mourned. When her own daughter was born, just six months after Erica’s baby, she understood the complicatedness of postpartum. She’d been a wife already and before that, someone’s daughter. Her name had been pushed aside, but she had remained. In this particular sense, being someone’s mother wasn’t an adjustment. And in this way, she justified the postpartum into nothing more than another part of the female condition.

She’d married a man who, when talking to friends, already and often replaced her name with my wife, as in my wife made the best dinner or my wife told the funniest story or my wife has a great ass. If he was home and on the phone, she’d sometimes call out from across the room: I have a name! He’d surround her with his arms, tease her neck with kisses. But you are my wife, and I love you, he’d say, unable to see how those facts didn’t mean extricating her name from the sentence. In the immediate moments after their wedding ceremony, the rush of well-wishers split them apart, and she couldn’t see her husband through the crowd. So she held up the champagne glass that had appeared in her hand, spun in a circle, and called out: Does anyone see my husband? Ahh! That’s the first time I’m saying that: Husband! And in that same way, she supposed, Wife became more than a title. For him it was a term of endearment. Still, she thinks, I’m not giving names to these rats.

The scuttling, nails clicking, jaws gnashing sounds didn’t subside. The rats seem to follow her from room to room. This is what it’s like, she thinks, to lose your mind. Rats had begun appearing everywhere, and not just behind the walls. She found them — not their scuttling sound but the four-letter word of them, rats — in a book that had nothing do with rats. They made a rat-size nest in the space of a single paragraph. A character remembers seeing one rat in particular, the same rat day after day, and she never tried to shoo the creature away. The character and the rat just existed together. She thinks about calling her friend Vince who’d had a similar rat story from when he demoed a house to the studs and remodeled. The problem was that Vince chose to live in the house and do the construction himself, so years passed between when he’d knock a wall down and when he’d replace it.

In a particular month when the weather was either warming up or cooling down, the few rodents Vince often saw scurrying across the floor seemed to multiply. And linger. Like they no longer had another destination; the back corner of his kitchen counter made a comfortable gathering spot and so did the single patch of carpet near his bed. So Vince set traps. After a too-late night working on the house followed by a full day at work, he collapsed to watch a movie on the computer because he didn’t have a TV. Beside and below him, he heard a rustling. A rat. He dropped a few chips on the ground to occupy the rat’s attention while he grabbed a trap from behind the couch and filled it with bait. It was a humane trap, more like a cage, he explained. Vince returned his attention to the movie, figuring the rat would either cage itself or not. It did, and when he heard the plastic thwack echo the capture, Vince carried the trap to the car and drove down the street to the outskirts of a woods. Facing the tree-line, Vince opened the trap door, but the bastard wouldn’t leave. He tilted the trap and shook. Still the rat clung to the slatted vents. It was late; he was exhausted; he was annoyed. He tossed the trap, rat and all, into the backseat and drove back to the house.

When he reached behind for the trap, the small latch had come undone; the rat had escaped. Breath seized in his throat, and he could not swallow, could not move. In the stagnant of that moment, he was certain he felt the brush of a whisker and the whiff whiff whiff whiff of a rat’s breath on his neck. Something caught in his periphery. That rat bastard was playing tricks on me, he said, I left the doors open. If he wanted out of the car, he’d make his way. A few nights later, he was on the couch when a familiar whiff whiff whiff whiff along his forearm caught his attention and his breath. I didn’t move for a solid minute, he said. But the rat did. It sidled up to Vince’s arm; nuzzled even. So I broke a few crackers in half, he said, and dropped them, figured the bastard had earned it. Vince never outright said it, but bastard was his name for that rat; a rat he could pick out from all the others.

This is her life, the house. Her feet track miles and miles without her crossing the threshold, except to retrieve the mail or a delivered package. It’s not that she doesn’t leave: she does, and every day. But she bids her husband and daughter adieu by the garage door each morning, feeds the four dogs, pours the last cup of coffee, and sets to work in her office. Some days she pads around downstairs tidying up and doing laundry and making dinner. Tonight, she thinks, they’ll watch The Rats of NIMH. Her husband and daughter return home, and she tells them their rodent immersion program will continue over dinner. The first night, after the pest control van had pulled away and she plied herself from the door and she was still adapting to the feel of the words roof rats, they had watched An American Tale. Midway through the movie, her daughter paused the frame, wiggled free from the pile of dogs she was under, and danced around the living room for a minute. But mom, she half-questioned, half-sassily divulged the obvious, these are mice and we have rats. Sighing and restarting the movie, she said to an audience whose attention she’d already lost to the screen, Yes, but we’re starting slow. But now we’re ready to face the rats, she thinks. Across the kitchen, her husband raises a questioning eyebrow: The Rats of NIMH is about resistance. She clanks the pot lid down with more verve than she intended and spins around so both her husband and daughter are within her grasp. I think we could use a little resistance, huh?  

She doesn’t explain, can’t explain. The entire thought fails to materialize, so she turns and continues to cook. Her mind feels like one of those old nickelodeon toys she’d had as a kid, the kind that looked like red plastic binoculars. A disc with tiny images slid into the nickelodeon and then she’d look through the view finder and flip the side toggle that shuffled the images: she was in Paris click she was in London click she was in India click. Each click startled her senses despite her knowing the shift was coming: her hands jumped, her eyes blinked. Some of the discs told stories; some had pictures of everyday life: a boat, a car, a train, a field of flowers, a city skyline. She flipped through those quicker than the rest. But now it feels an internal toggle is perpetually depressed, leaving her flitting from idea to idea without time to ruminate. It makes her a bad mother, she knows. She hasn’t even fully cleaned the LEGOS.

Rain thumps the windows. Thunder shudders the whole house. The dogs chase nothing, biting and barking at the air. Her husband occupies himself with a phone call. Her daughter disappears into her room. She does nothing. When the rain abates, she fabricates an errand to run and leaves. Driving on a still-wet street after the deluge in a wavery sunset; a heavy, or at least constant, wind ripples the asphalt and the trees. At a stop sign, a crumpled piece of junk mail, some single cardstock flyer with bright red and yellow and blue print floats and flips and flutters and skirts and flips and floats and flutters and skirts in the grooves of a puddle, caught in a circular wind. A paper fish, she thinks. She smiles even as she makes a tsskk sound, angry and sad as she is with a human race that litters but still entranced with the life-like motions of this paper fish. She suppresses the desire to snatch the soaked and ruined piece of mail for herself, to take it home and set it in a shallow sink where it could float, but no, she thinks, without the wind, the paper would drown. Some things can’t be caged. 

Again, it’s just her and the rats. Her husband and daughter left about an hour ago. She checks the oven clock. 8:14. Her birthday, she thinks, and makes her way to the door to wait for the pest control van to arrive. She has the door open before he can raise his hand to knock. I’m guessing you haven’t heard a thwack, he says as way of greeting. Nope. But it’s not always this quiet. He walks past her as if he’s already comfortable in the house, and she doesn’t follow him. She hears him clomp up the stairs, the jostling and clank of the attic door opening, the heavy thud as the retractable stairs expand out and down. She can do nothing except wait. 

When she was seven or eight, she was held hostage in a room with her sister and their cousins for several hours. This is like that, she thinks, ducking into her daughter’s room. They were in their great aunt and uncle’s eggplant-colored house on a shady street in suburban New Orleans; tucked inside one room and told to stay put while the grown-ups did grown-up things downstairs. It was her uncle’s fortieth birthday party: she remembers the clink of glasses and the swells of different music and the scandal when her only boy cousin was allowed downstairs to watch the belly dancer. Her great aunt collected things; things that occupied a certain place and weren’t to be touched. The room she put the children in that night held her doll collection, and even though they couldn’t play with the dolls, her great aunt maybe figured they’d like to be among toys. She had been wrong. They all crowded on the queen bed afraid to move, certain the dolls were watching. She eyes her daughter’s stuffed animals with suspicion, nudges one with her elbow. Yeah, I see you. She doesn’t mean to say it out loud. She picks up discarded pajamas, straightens the collection of hairbrushes and necklaces and stray earring backs on the dresser, returns a pair of shoes to the closet.

The upstairs noises reverse themselves somewhat; he comes back downstairs. Ma’am, he says, these rats have gone and pissed me off. She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling at his abruptness. Nothing is disturbed up there, no new evidence that they even exist. But you say you’ve heard them? The shaking of her head is too vigorous, so she stops. Just says, Yes and remains still while he walks toward the door. He shakes insulation from his shoulders and legs, says, These rats ain’t smart creatures, but they’re suspicious. I’ll lay more traps, see what happens.

It’s strange to think about that party, she thinks. Sad, even. She just celebrated her fortieth birthday. No belly dancer, though that would have made for a better party. Her cousins have married and dispersed, and she hardly sees them anymore. Her great aunt is dead. But these rats. These rats don’t seem to die.

Shannon Barbour lives in central Mississippi with her husband, daughter, and four dogs. She’d prefer beach combing but finds digging in the garden a happy substitute. In January 2021, she earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and can be found on Twitter at @ShanBarbour, though she is seldom active.