My mother feared the plague, feared long tails and large testicles. I'd send pictures to her, proud of my new-adopted friends. I'd let them drink from my tea, their overgrown incisors and long whiskers breaking the surface as their tongues lapped, their tiny hands mirroring mine on the handle. I'd let them curl into the crook of my neck, the pocket of my jacket, in my hair. Tiny heads nudging at a jungle of golden brown strands and forming a warm nest against my scalp. Momma was always hesitant, uttered remarks of disgust. "Yuck, Hayli," she said, "that's just wrong." She was the kind of woman who marks the dishes the cats and dogs with black sharpie, the jars I keep my fish in when I travel, with an 'x,' as if sharing with them would be her undoing. Something unclean, unholy, inhuman.
I told her, twice, about the the Karni Mata temple in India, where people worship over 20,000 black rats, revering after traveling long distances to share food with our tiny relatives. My mother's initial cooing at the adolescent, wide-eyed rats quickly faded when I opened the cage and one emerged, hairy tail as long as his body and testicles larger than his brain. She scowled and continued to listen to me as she layered steaming noodles onto the lasagna. My fascination elicited her patience, and I repeated the number of rats for emphasis. The Hindi people who come here believe the rats came about in different manners, from a transformed army to the descendants of a drowned man, yet they all agree on one thing. The rats are humans reincarnated. People share milk with them, are honored to bite into food previously nibbled by hungry teeth, grazed by long whiskers. If a rat is killed, it must be replaced with one of solid silver. Here, they have worth.
My first rats were brothers, born to an overweight mother of hundreds in a box full of toxic cedar bedding and intended as a reptilian feast. They were black and white, blotched, Fancy Rats. I called them Ami and Mico, playing off the Italian word for "friend." I convinced my mom that they weren't that different from the hamsters we'd kept before. When one brother's leg got caught in a cracked cage toy as I was away at summer camp, he tried to chew himself free and bled to death. The other felt lonely without his playmate and chewed through a weak junction in the coated metal bars. He ran through my bedroom, consuming electrical wires, lotions, chapsticks, toys, and bottles of glue. Behind him he left thick cylinders of dung the size of raisins. Before Ami's funeral, we scoured the bedding but couldn't find the missing foot.
When he appeared months later, approximately quadruple his adolescent size, he was in my baby brother's underwear drawer, munching on elastic waistbands. My mother was the discoverer, the emitter of shrill shrieks, and the one who demanded I walk my pet far out across the muddy, harvested fields of sweetcorn and release him into the snowy stand of trees. My cheeks were solid ice upon my return. I imagine he did not survive long.
It's strange how attracted I am to things that others might consider wrong or broken. I like the rust on my car, the pilling of fabric on used clothing at yard sales. I wear my shoes until I can feel the heat of sidewalk through holes in the soles. My favorite books are ones with stains and water damage. I prefer the neighborhood squirrel with the hairless tail. I choose the ugliest tree at Christmas time. I know it needs a friend. I adopt the rats kept in cages sure to cut their maximum lifespan from five to two years, simply because I detest the image of them in the corner of a twenty-gallon reptilian terrarium. I know too much about backing into corners, too much about being left behind. I buy the food, the medication, the toys and homes and treats. Anything to remind them that their life is as useful as mine.
When I grew older and lived on my own, I knew I needed tiny hands, not quite paws, back in my life. I wanted to feel them breathing against my chest as I read books, to watch them scamper around the house as I painted acrylic landscapes, to hear them playing in their cage and tearing tissue paper at night. They would be my lullaby. I sent photographs to my mother, called them my rat babies, and infected her with my affection. In her letters to me, she would ask me to tell them hello for her. When she called, I'd hold my phone to their cage and she would coo into the receiver.
Laying in an evening sunspot on the floor of my apartment while Weasely and Rattaghast played in my shirtsleeves, I would discover my allergy. Sharp claws left urine-touched micro cuts on my skin and I would giggle, scratching at the raised pink spots and avoiding contact with my eyes. Eventually, my symptoms worsened and I would erupt in hives, my breath would become shallow, squeaking. I had to limit my interactions drastically. Sometimes I'd play for an hour before I showered to relieve my symptoms. Other times, I took two Benadryl capsules and stroked behind their ears until we both fell asleep on the sinking couch.
For a while, I built my own temple. I spent much of my paycheck on the best toys, the largest cage, and a wild array of treats. Each time someone I loved died—murder, suicide, accident, or natural causes—I replaced them with rodent rescued from the jaws of a snake for the low price of $6.99. At one time I had five rats, five creatures I could touch, could hold, but only at a cost.
Once I complained to the Pet Stop about the living conditions. About the swarm of baby rats laying on top of each other in a tiny, sealed glass terrarium lined with harmful cedar bedding intermingled with feces. About how the vet pinpointed the cause of the lung disorders in the very cages within the building's walls. The owner came to the counter to berate me. They are bought as feeder rats, not pets. Food, not companions. We raise an extremely social mammal, so similar to us that we can test our own medicines and diseases on it, just to watch it be swallowed whole by a captive snake.
Food. Feeder. Foul. Antropocentrism lets us say these words, lets us cage these animals, inject them with HIV, feed them poison, smear toxic chemicals onto their skins and call it a profession. I wanted to be a geneticist when I was younger, I wanted to cure my mother, my grandmother, to save lives. When I imagined the piles of soft, white rat bodies, covered in tumors, I wondered if the torture was worth the cure.
In Novosibirsk, Russia, the Institute of Cytology and genetics wanted to honor lab mice and rats and all they have suffered for us. A six foot tall statue of a robed rodent knitting the helix of a DNA strand peers at the genetic matter with bespectacled, human-like eyes. The artist refers to the sculpture as her.
When Rattaghast fell ill, Weasely stayed by his side in the plastic, "space pod" hammock. He watched as one lung failed, then the other, watched his brother be fed antibiotics, be clutched close to my chest as I dripped berry-flavored medication onto his tongue. I wondered how many of his relatives tested the medication. I've taken pills with the same name: amoxicillin. Weasely witnessed my sobbing at night as I listened to his brother's incurable, gasping breaths. I was always closer to Rattaghast, and when he died and was let out in an adorned shoebox to Lake Superior on summer waves, I transferred my affections to my remaining mammal. Weasely gulped up my tears, licked wine from my lips and left welts in their places. I kept him at my side, slid beneath the sheets with a rat, a bottle, and Benadryl, ignoring the bumps and scars of the world.
The night Weasely stopped responding to his own medicine haunts me the most. I held his body in my arms, wetting his fur and welting my flesh, until his lungs cried for notice. Red porphyrin tears escaped his eyes, which had been squinted with pain for days. Pressing my ear to his abdomen, I could hear his lungs falter. His extremities were losing color. The emergency veterinarian said to come in tomorrow, for more antibiotics. The expert breeders online said to end it tonight. I could not bear the suffering. As I held his body, ever purpling, my partner, Mitch, stroked my hair. As a reptile-lover, he rarely pet the rats and never played with them. Still, he mourned them with me. After searching the most humane methods, he gathered the baking soda and vinegar necessary to create the perfect levels of carbon dioxide into a bag and attached it with tubing to a translucent craft container. As I held Weasely to my cheek, legs crossed on the kitchen floor, Mitch held my arm and told me it was ready. The levels were perfect, I tested it with a candle. I tested it with my own breath. Within minutes, Weasely was sleeping. Within hours, he was dead. The next day, in the English department office, I searched through the recycling for a container better than the box I'd found in my closet under piles of floral dresses. Among empty packages and printer paper boxes, I found the most beautiful seafoam shoebox, stabbed holes with a pencil, asked Mitch to please, please, move my rat for me. I didn't want to experience the cold stiffness, the body that was left.
Maybe my mother was right about plague. But it is a plague of affection. My passion for rats welled out of me and infected my closest friends. I took one of them, when he was newly single, to a breeder where we picked out two healthy, squirming rat babies, one girl and one boy. As they did for me, Nick's rats curled up in the hollow spaces inside him. They tickled his mustache with their whiskers and gave his as much comfort and oxytocin as their bodies could produce. When Nick later jumped from a rooftop, he left his rats at home with a pile of food and a full bottle of water in case it took a while for someone to find his body and come to their rescue. I adopted his rats and added a third to the temple to help fill the void. When his reincarnated counterpart died unexpectedly soon after purchase, I decided the welts weren't worth the pain. Another friend adopted my babies, bred them, and called my grandrats her own.
Weasely's waves were cold, formed ice on the sand and stone shore. They burned my cheeks red. The ground did not yield to a spade, but the tide would take him out. I waited for the waves to retreat and scurried across the ice to the spot where two crests would meet, hoping they'd carry him to Superior's depths where his brother lay. I stood in the cove, watching the gulls brave the sky over the red lighthouse. The rocks at its base were sheathed in ice. The process took multiple tries, multiple washings to shore, and on the last, the box flipped so the holes were at the top. I stayed until my skin itched in the cold and I couldn't bare the pain, waiting for the bright box to sink below the surface. It was only a few hundred feet out, riding waves down and up as if eternally, and I gave up, returned to the car. Mitch was waiting for me, the heat on and the window now fully defrosted. He placed his hand on my knee without speaking. Classical music played on NPR, a springtime song lead by a cello. I knew I'd come home to the evidence, the cage, the craft box full of carbon dioxide, white and black hairs embedded in the sofa, and I pondered which toys I would keep.
This piece began as a mess of thoughts about speciesism and became words on paper after I convinced a class of creative nonfiction writers that rodents were beautiful creatures after all. I discovered the perfect baby shower gift at our local bookstore, Snowbound Books, a children's book about rats and our relationship to them, Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin, and presented it to a wonderful woman in my class who promised to share her newfound compassion with her unborn baby girl.