August 25, 2011KR OnlineFictionThe Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest

A Hypothesis

Supporting Facts: Friday

Observation of nightly decapitation: Mark’s orange windbreaker, too light for this weather, sits just where he left it, on the back of the only chair in the room. In the night, light from passing cars plays over the ragged stucco on the walls, revealing brief mountain-scapes in shadow. So lit, the windbreaker becomes a seated man. He hangs his head low over the chair, as if he knows a terrible grief. In the morning, the truth is revealed: the man has no head.

First sighting: 8:37 AM. Observed edging out from the low crumbling space between the floorboards and the left rear wall of the closet, sniffing at the air, nose held in a cold line of sunlight. Moderate head-size: approximately 8 inch span, nose to tail? Retreats when Mark’s sneaker is thrown.

Fifth sighting: 10:06 PM. Tail only, receding under the door to the hallway. Must have been small, or at least limber. Space under the door measures less than the width of a thumb. Possibility of sealing door shut with masking tape considered, then abandoned. Would only trap more of them inside. Also, cannot find the masking tape.

Experiment on Eating Habits: Store food supplies (all but Mark’s protein shake mix, which would not fit) in air-tight metal container as advised and sleep with head under the quilt hewn by dead grandmother from ancient scraps of field hockey uniforms and prom wear. Will Rattus norvegicus, in the thrumming darkness, scale the half-wide sink in the bathroom, its beclawed pink feet skittering against the porcelain? Will it gnaw through the crimped plastic edge of a tube of Colgate, and, against all sense or reason, will it eat the toothpaste within? If not, how did these gnaw marks get on my toothpaste? (General note: Mark’s protein shake mix remains untouched.)

Observation on the radiator: Issuing strange sounds. Its usual metronomic steam clanging greatly slowed. Trying not to read too far into this.

Field Notes: Saturday

Fourth sighting: 3:55 PM. Low movement along west wall. Resists taking focus, like a blurred dream-face that slides away when looked at directly. Movement coincides with a burst of static on the television. Similar flicker at several other points throughout the day. Coincidence?

Seventh sighting: 8:07 PM. Six-incher asleep in empty cereal bowl, curled against blue porcelain, a sleep-ship for rats. In the twitch of its whiskers: a remembered voyage from cold ports, its tight immigration in the hold of an old boat, slinking progress over heaps of chain and seasickness. Took aim with Mark’s sneaker but decided to let it rest.

For further research: Dream habits of Rattus norvegicus. Association with radio waves and the distortion of sound and light.

Observation on the radiator: Radiator is cold and has stopped clanging entirely. Careful listener now hears something like a chorus of soft voices deep within the network of its pipes. Possibly related: the static has escaped the silver cage of the television. In its constant grey wash, rats have become difficult to distinguish from spaces between rats.

Windbreaker Experiment: Slide arms into Mark’s windbreaker. Assume headless man’s position of terrible grief. Assume grief. Grieve.

Supporting Facts: Sunday

First sighting: 10:49 AM. Ten-incher on windowsill, eating pancakes with a fork. Felt a chill and realized pajamas had been taken in the night. Nudity induced a curious sense of modesty. Rose from air mattress and dressed only after Rattus norvegicus lost interest and shuffled out through a previously unnoticed hole in the molding—noted impressive craftsmanship on its tiny fork and plate. Smell of real maple syrup.

Additional sightings: Observed Rattus norvegicus on a plane beyond sight, pink tails vanishing under an unseen door. Rats chewing on other rats, rats fit together with the curved elegance of an Escher drawing. The sound of gnawing is thick in the walls. There is too much gnawing to be contained in them. The gnawing goes back and back and back, the gnawing pushes out to the edges of the city where sunk scows and wrecked piers reach with busted, many-fingered hands for the other side of the river. Anchors on evening news look shifty and unhinged. Do they feel the static?

Observation on the radiator: Frost inside windowpanes. Maybe Mark was right and nothing in here is functional—or maybe everything in here has a function separate from and beyond its assumed use. For example: in whispering songs that pull at the chest like a ghost hook with its point lodged behind the sternum, in choking music up from an equal and opposite city stretching down through potters fields and gas pipes and into absolute breathing darkness pierced only by the hissing rat-filled pipes of my radiator, in that regard the radiator is more functional than ever before.

Notes on quilt made by dead grandmother: Patch made of field hockey uniform has been replaced with patch made of rats. Quilt discarded. Very cold.

Experiment on Communication: Call Mark’s phone. Allow five rings before message. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Perhaps: We cannot model what happens here on what has happened before—on what happens in places with yards and real supermarkets, what happens in places where everyone drives to work, what happens in places where walls are walls and nothing lives inside your radiator or beneath your mattress. If we assume a new set of conditions, we can assume new meaning for words said in an apartment where the movement of light and sound is warped and rounded over the well-oiled grey backs of Rattus norvegicus. “I can’t be with you anymore” might mean, “Help me, please.” Someone might say, “I’m leaving,” and it might mean, “I will never leave you.” It might mean, “This city is closing in on me and I am choking, choking all day long with no air to cry out.” He might have meant, “The rats are coming.”


Experiment on Taking: After Mark has set his windbreaker carefully on the back of the only chair in the apartment, fold him into the dark endless space of what is out and under and around this apartment. Tie his wrists in your tails and pull him struggling into a place where there is no language. Now come for me. Pull me into the guts of this city, and in the tight-packed darkness I will find him obliterated, lost in inches and gnaw-marks, broken into the linty grey mysteries of your nests. The radiator moans in celebration and there is no heat but the heat of your countless young, all of us rolling blindly in the steam-fed darkness.

Jess Lacher lives in Los Angeles. She is working on a novel.