Poem: The Year of the Rat, by Stacy Torian

Black-and-white sketch of a small rat moving forward to the right with a long tail streaming behind it.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

The Year of the Rat

It is the Year of the Rat,
an animal known to be clever and quick,
an animal known to run inside walls
and scare young girls in their beds.

I was born in the Year of the Rat and in a time of hope.
I was destined to be clever, not scared,
to climb to the top and never look down.
Everybody said so: the parents, the preachers,
the friends, the teachers.
I was destined to be somebody.

Then the Words came. It was the believers who led them to me,
so many believers, praising, preaching, and teaching,
the believers who loved my mind and never saw my whole face.
The Words kept it shielded,
inside a solid outline and a crackless essay,
strong, obedient lines of
beauty. The Words, keepers of hurt,
promising freedom, for an hour or a day.
I gave them everything I had,
my soul, my mind, my shame.
The Words took them all and swallowed my fate.

What does a swallowed-up fate do?
It hides like a rat and cries in the dark.
It cries inside walls,
heavy with pain and fear.

One wall holds a picture of a girl in a white robe,
white hat, white shoes, and brown stockings.
Lights shine above her head,
flood the field of chairs and grass,
drown the too-small stage. She is walking in the light,
but there is too much light, too much white light.
It is thirty years back, her head is swimming,
as it often does when she is nervous.
Bodies stand, voices congratulate, hands clap,
some touch the stiff, shimmer-streak edge
of the white robe, as the brown-legged girl
walks past chairs,
smiling, shaking, too-short heels
sinking into the ground. She is so nervous.
More than that – scarier than that –
She is — disappointed.
Years of overwhelming tedium,
the trading of spontaneous joy for A’s,
the piecing together of concentration,
every day a desperate countdown,
a clawing for peace in a nest of traumas, and at the end, this?
A stage, a heap of lights, and a sheepskin passport
to more of the same.

A picture on the wall. Where is the light now?
And where is that other wall? The one I hear but cannot see?
It comes and goes like magic and cannot stand for long without laughing.
It laughs, constantly.
It will laugh until the rats come home.
It will laugh until the shame ends
and my eyes and
all the eyes of
all the believers
close for good.

By day, the picture does not change.
In the night,
the brown-legged girl drives a hole
through the white light
and roams inside the land of the Real.
A stage of broken glass,
a yard of rusted cars
vomiting junk,
buried engines,
a beat-down trailer,
clean people spilling nasty words,
roaches eating out of pots. Clean people drinking rusty water,
yelling, praying, and dreaming.
A determined girl with a broken heart and a pencil,
crying, mad, crying, sinking, crying, crying.
Mad. One day. One day.

The hole in the light closes. Days end.
Inside the darkness,
the girl grows into a woman,
kneeling at the feet of nonbelievers,
speaking in tongues, praying in closets.
She crawls through sewers of sound,
ensconced in a torrent of echo
Never, never, never, never,
never,
never,
stop, stop,
stop,
stop.
Time passes,
swallowing cuts and cries,
breaking promises of love, healing, and forgetting.
Her fur thickens. She learns to peel off pain
and mine the honesty of madness.
She finds a spool of truth,
sews husks of pain and
blocks of honesty into
tiny coats of survival. She learns
that the cold is brutal
but weak, that her
feet are stronger than the deep, wet ground.
She learns to walk. She walks forward
and in circles,
head down, waiting. Waiting.
One day, she hears it.
One crack. Then another, and another.

A heart piecing itself together.
A wall splitting into itself
One long, last time.

A strange paradox, these walls, stubborn as time, yet weaker than hope.
They crack at the slightest provocation: a warm smile, a breath,
the touch of a finger or a hand,
the quiet push of a second, a minute,
an hour, a day,
or a year.

This is a new year, The Year of the Rat.
The tiny beast has grown a new face,
and the sun has found a hole in the wall.
The darkness is over, the way is clear.
The Rat trembles in the light,
Squints, shrieks, and runs.

Copyright © 2020 by Stacy Torian.

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