I have eventually crawled out of bed. Dressed myself as loosely as possible, taken some painkillers, Instagrammed my ‘outfit’ to garner sympathy for my current ‘fibro flare’ and poor lifestyle choices. I resolve not to check social media obsessively, so put away my phone rather than check if people like or comment on my post. It’s harder than I’d like to admit.
I have been instructed by F to come outside for some sunshine. She is playing with a nativity book, with cardboard pieces that pop out and fit together.
“Once upon a time Mary had a new baby, his fleece is white as snow”
She sits on one of the deck chairs that dwarf her little frame, her legs stuck out in front of her, talking to the pieces of cardboard and asking for help with the camels, which are more stubborn than most to pop out. I sit in the shade, having covered her in sunscreen, and try to read while responding to her questions and commands.
I am reading Lena Dunham, and enjoying it. She is even more self-deprecating in prose, and her honest awareness of her own feelings is endearing, it urges me to write myself out on page. A well-written book always awakens within me the writer’s itch, which I almost always steadfastly ignore, but I still note it when it happens. Buckley wanders around contentedly, by turns trotting out to the deck, gazing forlornly at me, or chewing on lumps of dirt. I feel a mild guilt at not paying him more attention, but he seems happy enough.
L comes out to play drums on an empty deckchair, adding beats with his mouth, and I try to stifle the irritation that automatically rises when extra noise is added to my environment.
This is part of being a mother I remind myself silently, be calm and embrace the chaos. Allow him to express himself. I grit my teeth. He eventually stops his composition and walks over to look at the garden, his mind who-knows-where.
“A dead mouse Mum!” He states, “There’s a dead rat on the grass!”
I’m tempted to leave it there for later, but instead walk over to him on the edge of the patio, the rough bricks hot underneath. It is indeed a Rat, rather than a mouse, and a beautiful specimen.
(Am I strange for loving rats and mice? Probably. I love how tiny they are, how their world view is beyond my comprehension…. And ever since I was a child I have loved how they sit in the cradle of your hand, or nestle secretively in your hair. I had a friend with pet mice at Intermediate, who lived a few houses down the road from me. Michelle. In an oddly perfect way, that strange synchronicity that sometimes awakens in the world, she was a genuinely mousey person. Not in that old fashioned sense of the word, that way of looking scornfully at people with plain features, light brown hair, as being somehow less perfect than us. No, she was a Mouse Person. Lithe and petite, light brown hair sleek and straight, a tiny expressive nose, a smattering of freckles. Ballet and gymnastics classes held her body in an upwards floating posture, her hands delicate and emotive, her legs slim and fast. She only came up to my shoulder. And Michelle had wee small delicate mice, I can’t remember how many, but I do remember how they nestled in my hand, their tiny perfect hands and feet scrabbling painlessly on my skin. Their foreign grassy smell not entirely unpleasant. I lived in envy of their smallness - their portability; she brought them to school, curled up in her hair or in a padded pocket, and I imagined they must have been a comfort in what I found to be a bizarre and unpleasant reality. Just the knowledge of them there, secret and safe, their complete dependence on you, surely must have bolstered Michelle. Or maybe she just didn’t hate school like I did.)
As we look at The Rat together, lying peacefully on it’s side in the sunshine, I am suddenly aware of the dog lifting his head in interest, looking at us. We have to get rid of this small perfect creature fast.
I grab a plastic bag from my bulging bag drawer, the one that no longer closes, spilling over as the bags rustle and wait for their inevitable recycling. For some reason, maybe science and maybe myth, I am concerned that dead wild animals are more dirty, more disease-ridden than even their alive brothers and sisters. As much as I long to hold it’s softness against my skin, I obey my inner mother and glove my hand with plastic. Tip Top Wheatmeal Toast.
His body is warm, hot even - is he already breaking down, about to burst hideous gases? Or is he warm from the sun? He isn’t swollen so hopefully the latter.
The Rat is perfect. His few injuries are bloodless and neat; a severed back leg, with clean bone and sinew sticking out, his shortened tail. He holds his gnarled slender hands in front of him, as if endlessly pleading or fidgeting. The fingers are long and slender and pink, with perfectly manicured nails. His eyes are open, unseeing but still black and shiny. The grey fur that covers him is mussed but soft, unkempt in an appealing professor-ly manner, as if he were too absent-minded, too concerned with greater thoughts than his appearance. I hold him in my plastic bag hand and stare at him for far too long.
L has lost interest, but F is grieving.
“Oh poor Rat, is he dead? Oh no, poor Rat. What are you doing with him Mama?”
What I am doing with him of course is tying him tightly in the plastic bag and taking him to the outdoor rubbish bin, and I tell her as much. My child self thinks this is Wrong, that I am cold and unfeeling, how can I put this creature in the rubbish? But I am the mother now, so I must balance my empathy with logic, cold reason.
“If we bury him in the garden, one of the cats will smell him and dig him up”
“Noooo Mum, don’t put him in the bin!”
She follows me through the house, keening quietly behind me, no loud protests like usual. She knows the science is solid. “Nooooo Mum, not in the bin, noooooo!”
I hold his curved warm plastic form in my hand for a brief extra second before placing him in the bottom of the bin. Hopefully the plastic will contain the smell for a few days before the rubbish truck comes. As I shut the lid, F softly says “No.”
I am used to her fury and her arguments and her indefatigable belief in her own sense of right, but not this quiet, resigned sadness. So I scoop her in my arms and carry her back through the house and inhale the sharp musty smell of blanket, and I tell her that I am sorry, that it is very sad, that he was a beautiful Rat and it is ok to be sad.
She forgets within the hour(or does she? Maybe this story will be stored up in her, to revisit later) but I cannot go back to Dunham. I want to stop eating all meat again. I want to step out of the cycle of death once again, my inner self always more dramatic and alarmist at these moments. Well, maybe vegetarian, my restrained mother self remonstrates. You can’t really stick to these extreme ideals you know. You know you can’t carry through with difficult things.Maybe I’ll just avoid mammals. I know I identify with them more than birds. But chickens have personalities too! Maybe I’ll just eat chicken occasionally. And try not to hold myself to difficult standards. I’ll go with that for now, and hold Rat’s perfect form in my mind. For now.