Rats can tread water for three days, says the nature documentary I’m watching with my kids. My daughter is still stuck on the fact that rats are exterminated. Even after plague, after infestation, her heart is tender and horrified. The narrator moves on to the ins and outs of how rats can swim up into toilets. My mind stays on the water treading. There was a time before this fact and a time after, and in between, there must have been experiments. I picture tanks of cloudy water in a dark basement, a single folding chair, a bare bulb buzzing at the ceiling. A scientist taking notes on a clipboard: Vigorous. Determined. And then, hopeless.
Tap, tap, tap, goes the pen on the clipboard. Scratch, scratch, scratch, go the rats at the sides of the tanks. Slowing, tiring now. Is the scientist horrified or bored? Waiting and watching for the moment she must reach a gloved hand into the tank, extend a life-saving finger to a dying rat. Like the hand of God.
You are between jail cells. Behind you, it’s best to be quiet at all times. Come home quietly. Quietly do the housework. Sit quietly at the dinner table, eating spam fried in Saltines. Conditional love, they call it, when there is no love if the candlesticks aren’t replaced just-so after dusting the shelves. If the dishes aren’t washed in the correct order (SILVERWARE LAST), if the table isn’t set the right way (KNIFE ON THE RIGHT, FORK ON THE LEFT), if the ketchup is put in the wrong spot in the fridge, if the report card isn’t perfect.
When you are ushered out, cool air and bird song touches your face. The handcuffs don’t clamp small enough around your wrists, so he asks if you can clasp your hands to hold them there. He says he’s not worried about you, it’s just protocol (IT’S ALL FOR SHOW, FOR THE NEIGHBORS, FOR YOUR MOTHER). You see the outline of every leaf in the boulevard. You see an eye peeking from across the street and you smile at it. You are finally free. You look up and swear you see the hand of God reaching down to pluck you from the earth.
I decide that the scientist is bored, a little annoyed she has been tasked to watch rats try not to die. She doodles on her paper. She thinks about her childhood. She thinks about lunch. She waits. Give up already. She wonders if anyone would find out if she pushed the little heads under, to end everyone’s misery. To move on. And what is the point of all this, anyway? She imagines it would be gentle, a soft little plink, like a raindrop in a puddle.
Years later, your mother tries to reach out to you. She’s upbeat, friendly. How did she find you? What could she want? Hesitate, then write: Please don’t contact me again. She sends a flurry of insults, the tamest including: You are a failure. You’ll never amount to anything. You think: Ah. There you are. Find the delete button. Plink. Like a raindrop in a puddle. Who are you? You become powerful. You start plink-plinking everything: people, places, beliefs. You drown everything around you that has been pulling at your ankles. You become buoyant. Weightless.
I wonder which side I’m supposed to be on: am I for the rat or for the scientist? On TV, there is a lion eating a zebra now, and I don’t tell my kids to look away.
Heidi Nieling is a fiber artist living in southern Minnesota with her husband and two six-year-olds. Her flash CNF, “Chicken Legs,” was recently published in Vast Chasm Magazine, and she will have two pieces published in Ruby in October, 2022. Heidi can be found on Instagram @heidi_nieling