Six weeks after I sent Brian on a fruitless search for a rat I swore ran under the radiator, the women on my street had a cookie exchange. I mixed egg yolks with sugar and tossed out a bag of flour that may have been chewed. I stamped my thumbprint into each cookie and told myself to stop being paranoid. That night, as I drank wine and tried not to overshare about my fresh hysterectomy, Brian called to say he saw a mouse run across the kitchen floor, vindicating me.
“I’ll set some traps tomorrow,” he promised. “Also, don’t feed Andy if you have too much to drink. I’ll give him a bottle. You deserve to have fun tonight.”
Hysterectomies were performed since at least ancient Greece, most often to treat an inverted uterus after childbirth – though the so-called treatment was often more fatal than what it sought to cure. Some doctors used hysterectomy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to treat uterine cancers or fibroids, but these procedures were often performed at home without anesthesia or sterile tools and had a 70% mortality rate.
There is also the name of the surgery, coming from the Greek word “hystera,” meaning womb. The Greek philosophers spoke of hystera and its associated craziness, like fragments of wombs floating within the female body. Later, the diagnosis of hysteria and the practice of hysterectomy rose together, admittedly not always in the same patients.
My surgery was performed in a multi-million dollar operating room, hundreds of years after the women bleeding out on their kitchen tables. Yet, I wondered about them and what strange inner torture sent them under those knives.
Brian kept setting traps, and he kept catching large mice. “There’s too many. I think we need to call someone.”
The exterminator came out four days before Christmas. He prowled through our entire house, showing Brian where they might be coming in and how the hairline fractures could be sealed. The yellow page of a carbon copy stack sat on our kitchen counter. I grew itchy as I saw the long list of critters that are exterminated against, each with boxes next to their names. There was only one box checked on this paper: RATS.
When Brian was ten, his dad had a friend build him a wooden stand large enough for a 50 gallon fish tank. This hideous tank was one of three major pieces of furniture in his apartment when we were dating, along with a green futon and a television. After we moved into our house, we didn’t have a wall large enough for the tank, so Brian stored it in the basement near the boiler. In the bottom of its wooden base, the rats built their nest out of insulation stripped from the ceiling.
The people we bought the house from had four sons. In the basement, they built a room completely out of plywood. Floor, ceiling, bar, and a prison-style bunk tucked into a nook that jutted back towards the boiler. When we visited the house as starry-eyed, first-time homebuyers, Brian declared, “Here’s my Man Room!”
After showing me the nest, Brian walked me into the Man Room and warned that he had something truly horrible to show me. He pulled back a tapestry from this nook to show me piles of festering rat shit.
“Are we going to have to take down this whole room?”
“Nah, he left me a bunch of bait boxes and set a ton of traps. But I do need to get the shop vac out of the garage. Keep the boys upstairs, ok?”
Brian spent the entire next day caulking gaps around the outside of the house and mixing a bucket of concrete to spread over the old coal chute. We high-fived each other when he finished performing this reconstructive work. After the boys went to bed that night, I wrapped Christmas presents at our dining room table and listened to the Tears for Fears Pandora station. I could sleep.
Our three-year old, Ben, woke up at 5am on Christmas morning, desperate to find out if he was on the good list. Brian invited him under the covers to give us a few more minutes. After Ben flopped around for a while, a fish unable to relax, Brian said he’d plug in the tree and call us downstairs.
“What do you hope Santa brought you?” I whispered.
“Everything I wanted!”
We were hardly ever alone together anymore, Ben and me, and I could have stayed under those covers all day with him. I traced my fingers over the elbow he had broken a few months earlier, grateful for how fast and fully he healed.
“Tiff, I need you,” Brian called up the stairs.
Brian and I went to the same high school, overlapping for only one year. We never hung out or even spoke to each other in that time, but we did have the same lunch period. Our dads both moved to the same small town after their lives didn’t turn out as they hoped. My dad built a new house with a new wife on a former soybean field three years after my mom died. After his divorce, Brian’s dad opened a tavern near the town square and rented a brown house across the street. Brian quit Catholic school, moved in with his dad, and broke his mom’s heart.
We met for real after college, overlapping in the same small town again. We went out for drinks and then never stopped being together, trusting each other’s survival instincts. We didn’t exactly declare that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but we just kept making plans, binding together like the families we wished we came from.
“I called the exterminator and it turns out they can’t use certain types of poison for rats and mice because it’s against some EPA rule or something,” Brian told me.
“Isn’t killing them sort of the point of their profession?”
We laid in bed, staring at the ceiling. Our bedroom was the only place we had to talk about the rats, whispering after the boys were asleep. We didn’t want Ben to know and tell his friends at daycare. We hadn’t told our neighbors or friends, and especially not our families.
“It’s like I hear them everywhere,” I said.
“I’m on it. The traps are working.”
“But do we have enough traps?”
“Look, I’m doing my best.”
“I know you are.” I lifted my chafed fingers to my nose, inhaling. I had bleached the entire kitchen that evening. All scraps of food were locked inside cupboards. “I just don’t know how to live like this. What did we do wrong?”
The rats were a moral failing, evidence that we were too young to be married, too inexperienced for homeownership, unfit parents. We fought about them, quietly at first, and then louder. We should have listened to our dads when we showed them this house, who both thought we could find something nicer and newer in a further-out suburb. It didn’t matter that we had the floors redone and repainted all of the walls, or built a deck in the backyard. I was a fraud, making banana bread and my grandma’s kolachky, the good smells from our kitchen practically inviting the rodent squatters inside. All the flowers we planted hid the ugliness that lurked in our walls, every flaw of our marriage exposed like a magnifying glass held up to the pores of my face.
When I let the dog out one morning, I saw tiny shreds of wood scattered across the bottom of the doorway that closed off the basement from the kitchen. They looked like pencil shavings and when I opened the door to investigate, I discovered the telltale teeth marks that let me know the rats weren’t satisfied in the basement.
As I packed up the boys to get them ready for daycare, I saw the miniature pumpkin Ben painted for Halloween had been chewed, a trail of glitter and orange flesh left on the dining room buffet. On the rug under our high chair was a pile of rubber particles, as though a tiny rotating blade hollowed out the inside of a dog toy we had long ago smeared with peanut butter.
“Can’t you do anything else?” I called Brian, needing him to tell me yes.
“That means they’re getting desperate. They’ll have to start eating the poison since there’s nothing left for them,” Brian whispered from the hallway outside his classroom.
“It’s called D-Con, and the guy at the hardware store says the D stands for death. I bought a couple boxes of it because it might be illegal to sell soon.”
Brian became an expert at positioning the traps. One Saturday night, he sat in his Man Room with a bottle of whiskey. He did a shot, then set his traps. Each time a trap went off, he swallowed a shot, then dumped the warm, dead rat into a garbage bag. After several rounds of this, he admitted to himself this was a drinking game he couldn’t win. After one snap, he went to check his trap and found the rat caught by its leg and was struggling to free itself, scratching at the concrete floor.
“I wanted to kill it, just to put it out of its misery, but I couldn’t.” He was ashamed of himself, and fearful of it escaping the trap. When he woke in the middle of the night with his head pounding from the whiskey, he checked the trap. The rat was dead, with some blood smeared on the floor and its gray, oily fur. He threw out the entire thing.
If RATS was one box to be checked, it reminded me of the clipboards you are given to fill out in the waiting rooms when visiting the doctor. I have learned to write, “Mom, 30. Uncle, 46. Grandpa 56. Grandma, 56. Grandpa, 70.” I write the ages of death, not diagnosis, all from cancer. There is only one box to check, but so much behind the mark. This lonely check being the first domino that led to my genetic testing and then, my surgery.
There was a metaphor, somewhere, in the dual failures of my body and home, but I couldn’t find it. I puzzled on this as I washed each piece of my breast pump at night, staring out the window while it filled with steam. The repetition of this cleaning ritual meant I thought the same things day after day, my mind trapped in a loop I couldn’t escape.
I lined up the bottles that I filled with milk each day from a computer closet in my office and the plastic horns that pulled my nipples in and out. There were tiny pieces of rubber that created the suction needed, and yellow plastic joints that held all of these parts together. I hated carting this machine back and forth each day and setting my meetings around my need to pump. But as long as my baby had milk, I was needed and necessary, definitively not a burden.
As Cleveland’s January melted into February and Brian’s traps and poison appeared to be working, I felt like we were shaking off what we started to call the Year of the Rat. The incisions on my stomach healed, leaving only tiny silver lines, like the slip of a fish moving under water so fast you see it as a memory. I would still need screenings, but with my surgery, I removed one of the biggest cancer risks I faced. This desperate drive for survival echoed all around me, with each rat tooth mark becoming a scar, signaling hope.
I turned on the faucet to fill our coffee pot. As my eyes adjusted to the new day, I saw that the knives of tiny hateful teeth left behind swirls of plastic carvings all over the countertop. I grabbed a horn and ran upstairs to our bedroom, where Brian was still sleeping.
“Do you see this? This is how I feed our baby!” I shoved the chewed horn in Brian’s face before launching it at the wall. “I can’t do this anymore!”
Andy started screaming from his crib and Ben walked out of his room as his puffy, just awoken face streamed with tears.
“I hate all of this! And thanks for sleeping through it.”
When I picked up Andy from his crib and unlatched my nursing tank, I found my chest wet with either tears or sweat or both. Oxytocin, known as “the love chemical,” released as my milk let down, dulling my rage and shrinking my world for a few minutes.
Brian did such a great job of sealing the rat entryways into our house that they had no way out. Once snuggled into their hidden nests, they reproduced as though they were trying to take over the planet, harassing me with their fertility. I stayed up late at night, horror stories glowing from my phone screen about how two rats can increase to 1,250 rats over the course of a year. A website called Insect Cop told me that in three years, a single rat could have half a billion descendants. Unlike squirrels, which only breed twice a year, rats breed constantly, with females capable of becoming pregnant again within 48 hours of giving birth. I pictured the rats birthing, nursing, fucking, and gestating, each act so singular in my mind and so interconnected for them.
“They’re taking over our entire house.” I stopped chopping carrots to show Brian the teeth marks on our rubber spatula, where the rats had sniffed out scrambled egg remnants the dishwasher left behind. I heard them climbing behind the counters, wishing these sounds were phantom, the way I could still feel a baby kicking inside of me sometimes.
“Do you think it would be better to just leave some food out, but mix it with poison?” he asked.
“How in the world am I supposed to know that? I thought you ‘had this.’” I used air quotes and a cheerful voice, since Andy was nestled into a baby carrier on my chest.
“Look, I know this is bad, but we can’t take it out on each other.”
“It’s not just the rats, it’s this entire god awful year. How can rats feel like the worst part of it all?”
“You’ll be okay, we’ll be okay. If nothing else, we set the house on fire and leave.”
I laughed because at least now we had an escape plan.
We could go days or even a week thinking the rats were gone, only to wake up in the morning to a chewed box of crackers or cereal that had been left out. The cord to our television was gnawed in half. Baby food was eaten off onesies waiting to be washed. Brian stacked boxes of Duraflame logs against the bottom of the chewed door and lined the pathway with sticky traps. Some mornings, they were in place. Other mornings, they had hair stuck to them, proof of the struggle for freedom the rats forged, and appeared to be winning. He sprinkled baby powder on the floor to see their tracks. The scene with my pumping supplies, sickeningly, happened more than once.
“Are we abnormally disgusting, like, as a family?” I asked Brian while nursing Andy.
Brian bent over to kiss Andy’s soft head and said, “I don’t think so, but what do I know?”
“Can we move?”
“And disclose the rats? Yeah, no.”
I came home from work one snowy evening after picking Andy up from his babysitter’s house. Brian was taking night classes and I had dinner plans with a friend and our kids. Ben’s daycare was close to my friend, so I stopped home first to let out our dog and play with him for a little while.
After kicking snow off my boots, I saw a rat the size of a guinea pig staggering as if drunk across the kitchen floor. I hid Andy’s car seat in the living room and called Brian. When he didn’t answer, as I knew he wouldn’t, I sent him a text that said, “911. Call me.”
Seconds later, he was on the phone. “Are the boys okay?”
I could barely talk. Yes, the boys were okay. Yes, the dog was okay. But this rat. It was at least the size of a cat, its tail the same length as its body. Why was it moving so slowly towards Gus’s water bowl? I felt panic rising in my throat and I worried it would come out as vomit. I imagined myself fainting and then choking, with the rat first crawling all over my face and then my baby, helplessly strapped in his car seat, his fleshy cheeks looking like food.
“Tiff. The rat is dying. It must have eaten the poison.”
“Why is it so big?” I couldn’t catch my breath.
“It’s probably one of the pregnant ones.”
I heard Gus whining from his crate in the dining room and I stood with my feet cemented to the kitchen floor.
“Tiffany.” The very edge of Brian’s patience hung onto my name. “There is a box in the basement, from the fire logs. Put the box on top of her, and then the fire logs on top of the box. I’ll take care of it when I’m home.”
Her defenseless eyes were wide like a fish as she held tight to her last shreds of breath,
I couldn’t have known as I set the box on top of her body brimming with fresh life, that she was the last one. It took months to believe.
The rats had been hystera floating around my house, my strange inner torture.
Tiffany Graham Charkosky Tiffany Graham Charkosky lives with her family in Lakewood, Ohio. Since 2003, she has worked with artists, designers, and community members to implement public art and public space projects throughout Cleveland with the nonprofit organization, LAND studio. Tiffany spends her early mornings writing and her weekends cheering for her sons on various sports fields and courts throughout Northeast Ohio, or visiting Lake Erie.