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In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.
The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.
My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.
My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.
We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.
I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.
I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.
Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.
Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.
We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.
The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.
Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.
They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.
Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.
Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.
We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.
Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.
He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.
I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.
I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.
Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.
I don’t want to.
Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.
I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.
What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.
I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?
We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.
What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?
My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.
They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.
I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.
We followed them towards the study.
My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.
I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.
I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?
Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.
What are you going to do? I asked them.
My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.
The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.
Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.
The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.
By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.
My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.
The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.
I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.
When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.
I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.
Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.
Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.
I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.
I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.
Translation by Lawrence Schimel