Rats

Once they may have been a minor species
we viewed per­haps as inci­den­tal food,
rooted from the occa­sional bur­row
by women search­ing for tubers or grubs.
Aha! they’d say, hold­ing their find by the tail
while it squirmed like a furry toad and flashed
radi­ant, pin-prick eyes. Then they’d dash its brains
against a tree, and lay it in a spe­cial bas­ket.
When the men returned meat­less from the hunt,
ques­tion­ing their dreams and the shaman’s prayers,
the women would laugh and show their har­vest,
some­times a dozen of the beasts: snake-tailed,
short-eared, bloody and plump to bloat­ing. Meat.

Mil­len­nia passed as the glac­i­ers with­drew.
On the sunswept prairies, bur­rows ran deep
in blind grop­ings for cool­ness and mois­ture.
We fled the brazen plains, thick­ened rivers;
priests arose among those who found the gods
in sea­sonal pro­ces­sions through the sky,
and knew which star’s arrival meant, to plant.
And what’s our his­tory together after that—
sub­ject, killer, vec­tor, each in turn?

We never hunt them any­more for food;
still, one morn­ing as I put­tered through my yard
with a fork for turn­ing com­post into soil,
I saw one hud­dled darkly in the flow­ers
and knew it was the one that, late at night,
had looted the bird seed in the pantry,
shit in the kitchen, spooked the dogs awake,
and had in mind my ulti­mate evic­tion.
I speared it where it sat. I felt the tine
shat­ter ribs and slice its guts clean through.
It squealed and turned, and bit the fork so hard
I felt its pain’s vibra­tions in my hands,
my tight­en­ing grip. It bit and squealed again,
like Abel, I imag­ined, struck at prayer.





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M. A. Schaffner has work recently published or forthcoming in The Hollins Critic, Magma, Tulane Review, Gargoyle, and The Delinquent. Other writings include the poetry collection The Good Opinion of Squirrels, and the novel War Boys. Schaffner spends most days in Arlington, Virginia or the 19th century.