The Rat House by Mian Bond Carvin

Gypsy moths crept through my window as I dreamed. The only draw being the pixie night light at the foot of my bed, given to me by some woman I no longer know. I recall chubby arms lifting me up and holding me with tenderness. There was a sweet, powdery smell to her soft, crêpe-like skin. She may have been a babysitter or, perhaps, someone more to my young life. There were others like her, back when mom worked at the A&P, ringing up and bagging groceries for the local mill families. I hated when she left me. I would often run down the road after her, the Ford Falcon wagon kicking up dust into my teary, dejected face. Eventually, I would turn back to those matronly strangers and their houses of frilly tie-back curtains and doily-draped sideboards.

Later on, Mom hired a girl to watch me at home. Emma Dorothy was just a teenager when she came to the rat house on McLemore. After she arrived, I never ran after Mom again. I lived for weekdays, for Emma Dorothy to lumber through the door, scoop me up, and blow raspberries into my sweaty pink neck. As soon as Mom left the house, Emma Dorothy, whom I had dubbed Edie, would dial the radio to a station coming in from Memphis, WDIA. That’s where I came to love soul music. Most of my mornings with Edie were spent in the water-stained, clapboard kitchen – she, draped over the deep rusted iron sink, her butt swinging in time to The Miracles, The Shirelles, and Ben E. King, and me, at the red dinette in my wooden highchair. That was before I graduated to city phone books for a boost at the big table at Grandma’s house. Around ten a.m., Edie would sit down and have a cup of coffee with a sweet roll. I was always troubling her for a drink. “Coffee’ll turn ya black,” Edie would argue. “Gimme some, Edie,” I would say in my best ain’t-I-sweet? voice. Giving in, Edie would pour a thimble-full for me. Oh, I was so big!

Dottie, our pregnant black and tan rat terrier, was always there in the kitchen with us, curled up next to the wood stove on those cold winter days. Early one morning, she began scratching at the faded linoleum floor. Edie said it meant she’d gone to welpin’. Right after she made this declaration, Edie set about gathering things: a box, an old torn sheet, a bucket. “Bring these, Sis,” she commanded. At that, she scooped Dottie up and made a beeline for the shed. Once there, Edie grabbed the box and sheet and gently placed Dottie in the driest corner possible. The floor of the shed was mud, damp with a certain earthy odour. I have smelled that same dank aroma several times since then and am always brought right back to that shed on that day with Dottie panting, babies coming, and Edie wanting every one.

There can be only one reason to call a home the rat house. Yes, there were many and bigger than those puppies. Every day we would hear the snapping of the traps. One sunny afternoon, Mom sat down at the piano and began playing. She’d never had a lesson in her life, yet she played for the church every Sunday morning; the Beckville Baptist Church. I sat down on the floor with the puppies, who, by this time had begun to wobble on their own. Just a Closer Walk with Thee was playing when I heard the dreaded snap. My mom’s emerald eyes met mine, both of us fearing the same doom: The puppies! Mom ran over and counted them. All there! She then went to dispose of the rat whose life had just been smashed out of it. No more piano that day.

On one other afternoon, as I listened to the familiar hymns, the ceiling caved in right above the piano, barely missing Mom. That was the same day I fell on the floor furnace and burned my arm. Edie swept me up, just as she had done with Dottie, and ran the five blocks to the hospital. We didn’t have insurance, so Mom made a deal with the doctor to clean his office every Saturday afternoon for a month. That meant more time with Edie. I was thrilled.

It was rough going for a while. Eventually, we moved out of the rat house and in with Mom’s folks a couple towns over. The day I said good-bye to Edie was the first time I felt my heart break.

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Mian Bond Carvin lives, with her partner, on a farm just outside Olympia, Washington. She began life in the small town of Brownsville, Tennessee where her family have resided since the 1700s. That is where this true story, with embellishments, occurred. Mian’s early life was filled with Black women who nurtured her life and taught her, by their love and generosity, that no matter what her family said, Black Lives Matter. This proved to be a valuable lesson to a young girl who, at three, already knew she was different. Mian’s pronouns are she/her ands she identifies, with glee, as Queer.