Simona Blat

I’ve heard it said that the hour of the rat is midnight—the hour that I am still on a Zoom chat with my friend, A, sharing the ways I find myself, and she finds herself, changing.

A is building fires.

I grill everything, she says. Fire is the best flavor.

A asks how I’m sleeping. I tell her it’s been hard. Having lost the structure of time, I wake up midday and fall asleep in front of the TV at three in the morning, the darkest hour of the night. I feel stressed all the time, I tell her.

I wake up with the sun, she says. What’s the point of staying up late. There’s nothing to do.

I repeat her phrase “I wake up with the sun,” imitating her cool. Like a farmer, I say.

Every morning, she goes out on the patio at eight, and a little mouse visits.

A mouse? Isn’t that a problem, I ask.

I’ve named him Caesar, she says. No problem.

This admonition from A, to welcome the uninvited creature into her life, helps me let up my own problem. If anyone will understand, it will be A.

I have a Caesar too, I admit. Palace and all.

*

For the past few years, my mother has encouraged the celebration of the Chinese New Year along with our traditional New Year’s Eve party. Every year she decorates our New Year’s Eve dinner spread with a centerpiece that evokes that year’s Zodiac animal. The table, she says, acts as a place of offering, and to it she adds food that the animal would like. In the house, she places depictions of the animal and offers them up as gifts to take home: a small golden horse, a dragon holding a crystal ball, a hand-painted ceramic smiling monkey.

This past year, the year of the rat, she asked that all in attendance wear gray or silver to dinner and insisted there be no cabbage because rats hate cabbage, though no one fact-checked this. She served a massive cheese plate and handed everyone a keychain with a bedazzled mouse on it.

This isn’t a rat, I was the first to say. The keychains were gauche—heavy and covered in sparkling crystals.

I know, she said. I ordered them online, but they didn’t have any rat ones.

I don’t like mine, said my father. I want the red one. He pointed to mine and asked to switch, handing me a silver mouse that, out of all of them, was the only one that could be mistaken for a rat.

For good luck, my mother said.

*

According to the Chinese Zodiac, the rat is known as the first of all the zodiac animals, which should mark this year as the beginning of some kind of new cycle, though what will be new, and whether or not it will be good, is unknowable.

The order of the animals is determined from the legend about Jade Emperor’s party. Despite having ruled both Heaven and Earth, the Emperor had apparently never spent much time on Earth, and so decided that in order to get to know it, he would invite all the animals to a party. The cat, who had been deemed the most handsome of all animals, and also the most cavalier, asked his friend the rat to wake him so he wouldn’t oversleep for the party. But the rat, worried the cat would outshine him, didn’t wake the cat from his sleep, and went to the party in his stead. Clueless, but delighted, the Jade Emperor was impressed with all the animals he saw and divided the years about them.

One website tells me that this year’s rats are reliable, live a stable life, and are able to turn unlucky events into fortune. But for each of the zodiac signs, luck will depend largely on the positions of the stars presiding over you—in this case, meaning me, whose zodiac sign is the snake.

People born in the year of the snake are said to have experienced instability and drastic changes last year. This I can neither confirm nor deny, since instability and drastic changes have always been a norm in my life. This impact is supposed to hover over throughout 2020, but with the added good news that a small dose of help is expected. A lucky star, that signifies mishap, that may be turned into good fortune, can be found in the reading.

Another search leads me to an article from 2019, where the Chinese astrology master So Man-fung Peter predicts that destinations east of China and the west coast of the United States will be overshadowed by a major star of illness this coming year.

You won’t know when it will hit, he says.

In case you were wondering, the year of the rat will last until February 11, 2021.

*

It’s living in your car? asks A in dismay. She has moved her chair closer to the computer screen and a wide smile has stretched across her face.

Not inside inside, I confirm, but under the hood. There’s a small space in between the engine and the hood’s insulation.

A admits she’s never heard of this happening. In your car? She keeps repeating this over and over, as though my answer will change. So I give her more detail. It’s a small space, I say. You can see through to the ground, where it gets in. I can see it. I can see how it gets in.

But I’m afraid to say the rest. Afraid to admit how long I’ve let it live there.

It’s been there since—I gulp down another mouthful of saliva—last winter.

I shut my eyes as the last of the word winter comes out, embarrassed that I am infested, that I can’t keep things under control. Before telling A, the infestation was a secret.

I thought she would simply empathize, but she is elated. When my eyes open, A has muted her microphone, and is laughing so hard, I can only see the pulpy inside of her mouth.

*

It was my father who first discovered it when he lifted the hood of my car to reveal a small bed of chicken bones, a piece of a banana peel, and a used twist of lime, sitting on top of the engine. The insulation of the hood had been chewed through, leaving a gaping hole where fabric used to be, now a small retreat.

Where are you parking this thing, he asked.

On the street, I said, like everyone else.

Something’s living in here, a mouse or something. He was fishing the droppings out with a gloved hand and spraying the area with bleach.

But a month later, same thing. Another chicken bone. More droppings. More insulation chewed through. The retreat was getting larger, cozier, packed with food and post-engine warmth.

It’s back, he said. It’s made a home.

*

At the time, I was also trying to make a home. My boyfriend, C, and I, had just moved in together during a rough time to live with anybody. Three weeks into COVID-19 isolation, our lives had become a battlefield. We wore protective armor to go grocery shopping; we were conjuring strategic plans to avoid crowds and disease; we were together 24/7 under high levels of stress. Nothing felt normal, but we were pretending like it all was. For a while, we did what we had to do in tragic silence. My mood swings swung more than usual. I had days when I couldn’t get out of bed, or stop watching the news, or stop eating, or crying, or both.

C, a usually calm person, was also beginning to crack under pressure. During one of our early isolation trips to the store, when we had over-estimated how much we could carry, I watched C collapse in the street under the weight of groceries and stress. I wanted to hug him and say it was all going to be alright, but I didn’t know if it would. When I left him in the street to get the car, and later returned, I glimpsed him from a distance, as though I were a stranger driving by a man in a mask standing on the sidewalk, several shopping bags strewn around him like a séance.

Seeing him defeated made me realize that often, despite how healthy the body appears, we ignore how much the heart might be suffering too.

*

For some, mice and rats are interchangeable rodents: neither are welcome guests, and both are good enough reasons to get a cat. But mice are sort of cute, small, and gray. They look soft and confused and hang out in your backyard where you have the chance to name them Caesar, or they scuttle in the back of your kitchen cabinets looking for crackers.

I have an early memory of the first mouse I ever saw. I discovered it sitting on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in my room, when I was about seven years old. I remember that it was as still as a toy, and I gazed at it in a trance, at its pure stillness—is it alive? I wondered. Is it real? I had never seen a thing so small, so perfectly frozen in time. It had seen me and it wasn’t afraid. It was as quiet as a mouse, as they say, until my grandfather’s big old slipper came flying past me and landed right on it, smashing it like a pancake. It was the first murder I witnessed with my very own eyes. The image of that soft grey stillness, black eyes fixated on the world like a tiny Buddha, has stayed with me. Then the loud smack, like the sound of a chicken cutlet being tenderized.

A mouse is nothing like a rat. Rats are large, aggressive, and their tails—which are sometimes longer than the lengths of their bodies—are heavy and fat, like thick rubber wires dragging behind them. Rats live in garbage, carry deadly diseases, and, most importantly, they don’t give a rat’s ass about you. There are not still; they scurry, and they are not frightened by you or your grandfather’s old shoe.

*

A was incredibly amused by my problem. She was laughing harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh, but through grinning teeth, she’d still managed to say, that’s awful, and keep laughing.

My God, she said. Your Caesar has found the perfect condo in the city, and you’re its maid.

Before she said it, I hadn’t realized that I could be enabling the infestation. I was thinking only of my own bad luck. Not the good fortune of the animal.

It probably lives upstate, she continued, laughing. Maybe it takes the Metro-North. Maybe it has a timeshare. Your car is the ultimate bachelor pad where it can have lady friends over for dinner. Replete with a cleaning service!

Finally, I laughed out loud too, thinking about the hidden life of city rodents, the absurd joy my little car had brought it. But when the laugh exorcised itself, I only felt small, as small as the animal itself, though with less cleverness because I knew I had been outsmarted.

*

Did you get a trap yet, my dad asked over the phone. I was stepping over a large spilled garbage can.

Have C help you, he said.

I turned to C, angry that, amid a pandemic, I also had to deal with an infestation problem. I was about to project that anger onto him, so someone else could be the victim too.

Instead, I said, My dad really likes you.

He does?

Yeah, he likes that I have you to help me. Some kind of protective thing, I guess.

C didn’t respond.

He said we should get a trap.

We?

I can’t do it alone, I said. We should get a sticky trap, you know, in case it’s a rat. You’ll have to get rid of it, if we catch it alive.

Why do I have to do it?

‘Cause, I said, with no better reason. It’s gross.

How about this, he said. If we find a rat dead in the trap, then I will get rid of it. But if we find it still alive, then you have to do it.

That’s worse!

It’s your car, he said, and that finally shut me up.

At a nearby dollar store, I browsed the shelves in complete defiance. I was mad that I had to deal with the problem myself. The brat in me wanted to offload it to someone else. My father, or my boyfriend, or literally anyone else. But I had to take responsibility for what was happening, whether I liked it or not.

From behind a plastic screen, I asked where I could find rodent traps. C waited outside.

Do you have any advice about these? I asked one employee, pointing to what looked like a flat plastic disc with glue on it.

It has very strong glue, he said. All you need is a rat.

*

I talked to my parents about your rat problem, A texted.

my dad says to use d-con rodenticide

and that the rat (after eating the poison) will go search for water

and therefore not die in your car

*

The line for Crest Hardware stretched across the block, and an employee near the entrance was asking everyone to show that they had gloves and a mask on. C and I, with bandanas covering our faces and our blue, gloved hands in the air, looked like we were finally surrendering.

What are you here for, the Crest girl asked.

C pulled out a Post-It note. Rat poison, he said.

What?

C yelled louder. Rat poison!

Okay, she said, aisle two, on your left.

In the rodent section, we blankly surveyed the shelves for the rodenticide that A recommended. These are all for mice, I said, as a man in full PPE approached.

Are you trying to catch a rat? he asked.

I don’t know, I said. I think there might be one living in my car. Under the hood.

Oh, he said, I had that problem. Did you try parking somewhere else?

Yes.

So it’s really gotten comfortable, huh? I don’t know what to tell you, he said pointing to the shelves. Most of these are for mice. We don’t have that kind of poison. We do have this botanical anti-rodent pouch that you can put in your car, or under the hood, as a repellant.

He grabbed the last one off the shelf and handed it to me. It’s a smell they can’t stand, so it might keep the rat out for a while, he said.

I picked up a mouse trap with poison. Do you think this would work, I asked, both in desperation and denial.

It might. You’d be surprised how small of a space the rat can get into, he said.

*

You can’t poison the rat, yelled my mother over the phone. It’s the year of the rat! And a rat has come directly into your life. This is a sign of good luck. You can’t kill it. No good can come of this.

I’m not certain it’s a rat, I said. It might be a mouse.

It’s a rat, she said confidently, as though it were written in the stars. And it’s come to you. She put such an emphasis on the you that I could almost picture her standing there and pointing a manicured finger at me. You.

I had already felt singled out in a way that made me wonder naïvely, Why me? And here was my mother saying, Especially you. I wondered what she knew that I was missing. Where did she get her faith in the luck of things which appeared unlucky? Was it just wishful thinking?

Whatever you do, don’t kill the rat, she urged me.

She was certain.

*

Thanks for the advice, I texted A.

I got the poison, but my mom thinks it’s bad luck if I kill the rat.

 

I don’t think she’s wrong, A wrote back.

But I don’t know if she’s right lol

I don’t think you can let a rat live in your car for a year

 

What if it’s a lucky rat, I typed, then deleted.

*

The problem with the internet is that when you start researching one thing, you inevitably open a can of worms, unleashing a plethora of information that,though related in subject, will only exacerbate your near-certainty that the randomness of the universe is designed to directly hurt you and only you.

A search for rats in the spring of 2020 lead me to learn that a number of the early sufferers of COVID-19 were employees of the Huanan Seafood Market in the central city of Wuhan. The market lists a menagerie of animals or animal-based products, including live foxes, crocodiles, wolf puppies, giant salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines, camel meat, and rats.

The same search also informed me that on March 24, a man who was infected with hantavirus, a rat-transmitted virus with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, was on his way to Shandong Province on a bus when he died.

If after learning that, you choose to Google hantavirus, as I inevitably did, you will learn that humans can only contract hantavirus when they come in contact with rodents, an actual threat given my situation. The symptoms for hantavirus are, as luck would have it, similar to those of COVID-19: fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches. These symptoms are universal, but there might also be headaches and abdominal problems.

If this information finds you experiencing psychosomatic nausea and self-induced fevers, then you are, like me, prone to negative thinking instead of positive thinking. Since negative thoughts only spur more negative thoughts, you figure the chances of a rat bringing good fortune into your life seems slim.

If you are wondering whether negative thinking is affecting the way you react to all the events in your life, shadowing the potential of each moment with paranoid anxiety, then ask yourself this: do I try to kill what plagues me, or do I simply reimagine the plague as a gift?

*

On a cold day, C helped me set up the traps: two large sticky trays fit for rats, a small rodenticide mouse box that we were meant to believe rats could fit into because rats could surprisingly fit into the smallest spaces, and a tiny bag of potpourri marked as rodent repellant.

This doesn’t make sense, said C. We are both repelling it and attracting it? What outcome are you looking for?

A win-win situation, I said, closing the hood.

*

A few days later, at the end of April, on my birthday—the birthday of the snake, the rat’s enemy—I popped the hood of the car, with a hammer and plastic bag in hand, just in case, and there it was, to my surprise, the lucky thing staring back at me, eyes as red and round and ominous as can be.

Simona Blat

Simona Blat is a poet, writer, and editor, originally from Riga, Latvia. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and her chapbook, Funeral, was hand-set and printed in collaboration with Pixel Press in 2018. She’s the founding editor of The Brazenhead Review, and currently serves as poetry editor at Epiphany Magazine where she also edits a criticism column. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at New York University.

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