I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Recently I came across a journal entry from my adolescence. I am living a lie, it said. How truly, truly sad.
I never fit in with my family, kind as they were. As a youth, I never really found friends. Acquaintances, perhaps, but no one I could consider my soul mate. I had a dark imagination; I came to a nihilistic outlook too early to express my thoughts properly. Or perhaps I should say an existential outlook, for although I was painfully aware of mortality, I did not reject the idea of truth altogether. I felt that there was a truth for myself that I dare not examine—the stakes of self-examination felt much too high for me at that age. So I crawled about with a black haze around me, speaking as little as possible, refusing to participate in any of the social customs that seemed then a desperately thin patina of etiquette in the face of our inevitably animal natures. While my sister made friends and started to attract males, scampering about coquettishly, I developed a battery of nervous tics and obsessive-compulsive rituals. These included winking constantly, picking at mites that were not there, and cocking my head side to side three times—it had to be left-right-left, not right-left-right. If I accidentally cocked my head right-left-right, I had to do penance by crawling about with my tail pressed down against the ground so that it would drag behind me instead of standing up perkily, normally, proud and fluffy.
One day, while I was degrading myself thus, wandering aimlessly with my limp tail collecting dust and mud, I happened to glance behind myself (I’d heard a nut fall somewhere in the distance) and a shock wave ran through me—a jolt of energy, a moment of what I call “auto-frisson,” a hint of at least the possibility of pleasure. The accidental sighting of my dirty, bedraggled tail gave me a glimmer of hope that there was a fuller life to be led.
About the same time, I began wandering away from the neighborhood. You must understand, my family occupied the most sleepy, protected area of the park, acres and acres away from dog runs, paved footpaths, broken glass. I’d heard stories about other places, but only in the form of cautionary tales: little Billy who got lost without a buddy and met some sadistic children with a Swiss Army knife—that kind of thing. But where we lived was far from the reality of the dangerous outer rim of the park. In our enclave, happy families ate together, sang happy songs, and slept long and restful sleeps, dreaming of the delicious nuts they would gather the next day, and the next, and the next. The next area over, down the hill, toward the edge of the field, was where the chipmunks made their home, and though we did not share society with them, we regarded these speedy little fellows with humor and respect. That was my sheltered world … until I began my explorations.
By the summer after I first saw my bedraggled, limp tail, I was taking long perambulations, circling out in wider and wider circumferences away from home. My father fretted—he’d scratch himself nervously, blinking, and tell me to make sure to start home before the sun was even close to the western ridge. My mother would just sigh and say to him, “Pavel’s a big boy now, Piotr, we can’t reign him in, he must get this out of his system. He’s like my brother, so restless as a youth, but now look, with Sonya and the quadruplets—who would’ve thought he’d become such a model father.”
I let them talk. Uncle Kristoff with his big belly and thinning whiskers—she compares me to him? I thought. I cocked my head right-left-right and looked behind myself at my tail. Inside I knew that I was different and that I needed to explore, explore, explore.
I can remember with perfect kinesthetic awareness the feeling—oh, indescribable, flooding feeling—the first time I saw it—the sight—a large, steel mesh basket, full of an array of objects from the world, broken umbrellas, newspapers, deflated rubber balls … and more importantly, also containing napkins saturated with rancid mayonnaise, apple cores, bottles with a little Yoo-hoo still inside, folded pizza boxes. I stood staring at this monument, knowing I had discovered something important, but not knowing why. In a minute, my question was answered.
I was watching a greasy paper bag which seemed to be shaking in the wind. But there was no wind—my whiskers were perfectly still. I was watching, and wondering, when He emerged in all his glory.
He was dark gray, almost black in places, with sharp, quick eyes and alert, fanlike ears. But best of all, and last to come out of the bag, was his tail—low, sleek, serpentine. The tail I should have been born with. He was what I should have been. What was this otherworldly creature? I was without fear, so enrapt was I with this, the apparition of my true nature, the vision of what I should have seen in a puddle instead of perky brown eyes, little ears, and my obscenely fluffy, baroque tail. I approached the creature, half disbelieving that a real animal could be so perfect, and asked Him, “What are you?”
He looked over at me, squinting shrewdly. “What do you want?”
“I only want to know what kind of creature you are.”
I formed the syllable for the first time, spoke it as an answer to myself, “Rat.”
“Yeah. And this is my bin, so you better back off.”
I returned to my home in the trees that night feeling hope for the first time. I kissed my mother, scratched father behind the ear affectionately. It wasn’t their fault their son was born the wrong species, I thought. They were innocent little creatures with not the scope nor the vision to understand the transformation that was beginning inside me.
For the next three mornings, I woke up early, said a cheery “Bye!” to the folks, and returned as speedily as possible to the rat’s garbage bin. I waited there for him, in silence, in shadows, under the cover of a juniper bush. All I wanted was to observe; I did not care, for the moment, if he accepted me or not. He’d slither up from a grate near a narrow footpath, then sidle over to his bin, each paw crossing in front of the last in a lovely demonstration of economy. Every motion fulfilled unanswered questions I’d always silently asked: Why must we scamper? Whymust we eat nuts year in and year out? Why must we clean ourselves so often?
His single-minded scavenging was magnificent. The way he found crumbs of muffins, bits of gristle, rawhide shoelaces with a twitch of his finely tuned nose fascinated me. At home, in bed at night, I’d try to twitch my snubby nose in imitation of his sharp one.
Before I continue with my story, let me digress momentarily to share with you some ideas that started to take shape during those days of Watching and have come to inform my later work. Much has been written about the so-called “gaze”; we all know that to look at something or someone is an act of ownership and objectification. However, I put forth that another aspect inherent in all looking at is a projection into the object, that is, we make ourselves into the looked at thing, and that is the path of ownership—acquisition through becoming, one might call it. And this acquiring only happens through a losing of parts of the whole original self of the gazer. In some ways, therefore, the one being looked at, the gazee, comes to own the gazer, as the latter must give up some wholeness in looking (what else, if not this, is the process of seduction?). So, for example, when I watched the rat, I was becoming him by doing so.
Now I shall return to my story.
There I was, watching, watching, when I felt a tap on my back.
I turned around (glancing out of habit at my bedraggled tail) and found myself looking at a most unusual character: it was feathered and had two wings and two skinny little legs. But up front, where you’d expect a beak, there was a snout formed of gray felt with a little black button sewn on. And behind it, where you’d expect to see just a feathery tail, was attached a long gray piece of yarn. On its head was a sort of headdress upon which two tiny cardboard ears were fastened.
I backed up further into the shade of the juniper bush, so that I was side by side with the creature. I was obsessed, I hated to be interrupted, but I gathered that if I didn’t acknowledge it politely, it might blow my cover.
“May I help you?” I whispered.
“I think I can help you,” it chirped quietly, its voice muffled by the felt snout.
I looked it up and down. “How can you help me?”
The creature chirped, “I’m a rat. I’ve been watching you.”
“What do you mean you’ve been watching me?”
It cocked its head, whistled once, then chirped, “You’re a rat too, you just don’t know it yet.”
I squinted back through the dark green foliage, trying to get a glimpse of my object of obsession. Then I turned back to the creature. “I’m not a rat, unfortunately,” I said, “and neither are you—you’re a two-bit sparrow dressed up like a rat.”
“I’m used to hearing that kind of thing,” it chirped, “I was accidentally born into this body, feathered and bebeaked, but my soul is a rat’s soul, my mind is a rat’s mind, and my heart is a rat’s heart.”
Now, years later, I have to laugh when I think of how I met Donna, and then my heart aches from sorrow at what was to be her fate.
“How do you know so much about me?” I asked.
“I know about you because you’re like me,” she said, “and I remember.”
COMING OF AGE
It was a remarkably brief time before I came to accept Donna as a rat almost completely. I rarely remembered that she was physically still a bird. We spent all our time together, but I couldn’t tell my father and mother about it. They were only grateful that my spirits had perked up. They asked no questions. My perfect sister, on the other hand, seemed annoyed by my cheer. She’d complain about me at the dinner table, “Pavel’s not normal.”
“He’s perfectly fine,” my mother would say.
“No he’s not, ‘cause if he was, he’d want to mate with me when I’m in heat,” my sister said.
“She’s right,” my father would say, looking worried.
“I’m fine,” I’d say, “I just don’t like the way she smells.”
They decided I was a late bloomer and left it at that.
They were partly right: I was a late bloomer, though my awakenings were of an unusual nature. I was blooming into the rat I was … and still am in a way.
Donna helped me by shaving my tail down to the gray skin with a sharp-edged stone from the stream, and she filed my teeth into little points. She taught me “the walk,” low to the ground, paw across paw, and “the talk,” direct, monosyllabic. At first I wasn’t ready to try meeting any biologically born rats. I was happy in myself, and that was plenty.
One afternoon that I remember clearly (bright, high sun directly overhead so the meadows were shadowless), we found an unclaimed garbage bin and plundered it. After we’d eaten a stale jelly doughnut and some baby formula, we lay on our backs looking across the lawn of the park.
And Donna told me the story of how she’d flown away from her mate, Mark, and their nestlings one day, and had found herself at the dump. She was looking at her reflection in an oily pit, despairing that she felt absolutely nothing anymore, when all of a sudden bubbles appeared on the surface. She grew very quiet when she told me this, and I prompted her to continue.
“And then what?” I asked.
“Then She emerged,” chirped Donna breathlessly, “and I realized … ”
“Yes, yes!” I exclaimed.
“She wasn’t about being sweet and little, she wasn’t about dainty sand baths and pretty songs. She wasn’t nurturing. She was elemental. And I saw what had always been wrong with my life. I saw what I needed to be. Rat. Raw Power. I am rat.”
Time passed. My sister mated and moved a couple of trees over. My mother was delighted with her grandchildren. To me they seemed dopey and boring, but I was glad everyone else was glad. It was autumn again, and my father was very busy with the nut gathering. My family had learned not to ask questions about the changes in my appearance.
I now knew every inch of the park. I knew every puddle and tuft of grass. Donna would get frustrated—hopping along behind me while I slithered on my belly. It was easier for me to “be” a rat, and this was an underlying source of tension in our friendship. She’d show off, eating things I couldn’t possibly stomach to prove she was as much rat, more rat even, than I was.
Once or twice I asked her to show me her flying, but she refused. She said she had completely divorced herself from her bird past, and would make digs at me about how I had to leave my family if I wanted to really be a rat.
On the other hand, I was the one who craved contact with born, biological rats. I wanted to know them, not just observe them. I wanted to hear their thoughts, tell them mine. Donna and I would come across them—a single rat, like my first, guarding a stash of garbage—or a pack of rats. Even the young were beautiful and fierce. But Donna was too scared of being laughed at, and refused to approach them with me.
I still turn that cold afternoon over and over in my mind, wishing it could have been different, wondering what I could have done.
It was late autumn. All the leaves were off the trees, the air bit at the exposed flesh of my tail. My breath made steam puffs and my paws were numb on the frosty earth. Donna had backed out many times before, but this time she promised to go through with it: we would speak to a biological rat (we never used the word “real,” for we had a tacit understanding of how it would negate our true ratness).
“Please,” I had said as we parted the day before, “we’ll find one alone, and be straightforward, like the rats we are. We’ll ask it if we can have a word with it. Why not try?”
There had been a long pause. “Okay,” said Donna, “this time I’ll go through with it.”
She arrived in a quiet mood; she had slept in a sewer, as usual, but it was getting cold down there. She’d had bad dreams. I remember I noticed that her felt snout needed mending.
We wandered slowly looking for the perfect rat to meet. We saw a pack of violent-looking young ones, and a pair rutting. Then finally, after hours of searching, towards the western edge of the park, near the big footpath, I saw the perfect candidate: a little white around the ears, blind in one eye, and the other eye twinkling with sharpness and humor.
“He’ll talk to us, I bet he’ll like us. Come on,” I said to Donna.
We started toward him, and we got a yard away from where he was tugging at a piece of gum embedded in the bark of a tree trunk. He turned and looked at us and started to smile, when Donna turned and ran, sobbing.
I stood my ground. “I’m a rat,” I said to him.
“So you are, so you are,” he said in a creaky voice.
I was accepted. It was all I wanted. I smiled back at him and cocked my head, right, left … when I heard it: a terrible roar and excited, terrified chirping underneath.
“Donna!” I yelled. I turned and ran in the direction of the noise. In a cluster of five bare maples Donna was running in circles, her two tiny feet clawing at the dirt, while after her came a huge, black beast with bulging eyes. It barked and growled and yelped, and Donna screamed.
“Fly,” I shouted. But she kept running on the hard autumn ground.
“Fly, goddamnit, Donna,” I yelled. She was tiring and the dog was gaining on her. In the background I heard someone calling, “Nestor, come Nestor!”
“Fly, Donna—it’s your only hope!” I shouted even as the dog reached her yarn tail.
And Donna, dear Donna, she turned and looked right at me. “You just don’t understand,” she said, and collapsed.
A minute or two later, there was the call again, “Nestor, puppy, come along!” And from where I hid behind a dead fan-shaped fungus, I watched the dog trot away, licking its lips, feathers sticking to its nostrils and its jowls.
As I have said in previous, less autobiographical works, definitions are prisons, divisions are useful only on the level of great populations, not on a personal level if one ever hopes to align one’s philosophy with the quotidian. I now say, “I am neither squirrel nor rat. Neither dog nor tree. I am nothing and I am something called Pavel, and what that is I’ll never know, and if I ever tell you I know—shake me, shake me hard, for the finality of self-naming is as dull as death.
—Nelly Reifler’s work has been published in the Florida Review, Exquisite Corpse, andMississippi Mud. She has been awarded a Henfield Prize and UAS Explorations Prize for her writing. She lives in Brooklyn, and is co-editor of the limited edition journal, Aceldama.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee