From the title story, RAT MEDICINE
I saw the first rat next to where we stored the chicken feed. It was a week before John used his fists on me. I was out by the sacks and felt like somebody was watching me. The hair stood up on places of my body where I didn’t know I had hair. I put down the tin pail I used to scatter the feed and picked up a shovel leaning against the shed. We’d never had no trouble. Living so far out of town like we did criminal types didn’t seem to have the gumption to haul ass all the way out to our place, but there was always a first time. I turned around and there he was, sitting back on his hind quarters like a little rat dog begging for a titbit, up on the shed roof. He didn’t flick a whisker, bold as brass. Just kept looking at me, his little front paws tucked up in front of his belly, his eyes bright as black glass.
“What do you think you’re doing up there?” I said, but of course the rat didn’t say nothing back.
“Don’t think you can get in and eat up all this good feed.” The rat kept looking at me, straight and firm like.
“We got a big old tom cat round here. He’s going be picking his teeth with your bones, my friend.” If rats could be said to smirk, that’s what he was doing.
Now, most people, they really hate rats. Not me. I don’t hate anything about the animal kingdom. Not snakes, not spiders, not coyote, not buzzard. That’s the Ojibway blood, from my mother’s people. My Granny used to tell me, you dream about a rat, you dreaming about some sickness, maybe a bad one, soon to come on. Granny was usually right about these things. I set store in omens, in symbols and signs. It’s all there if you know what to look for. So I looked at the rat, recognized it for a fellow who’d come to tell me something.
“You got news for me, rat man? If you do, you better tell me. I ain’t got all day.” The rat cleaned behind his ears. Then he turned and stuck his bald tail straight in the air and disappeared toward the other side of the shed roof. I tried to get around to see where he was going, fast as my size would allow, but when I looked there weren’t no sign of him.
I didn’t tell John about the rat because I knew he’d just blame it on me. Tell me I didn’t keep the place clean enough. Which was a lie, but true facts never matter much to John when he got a good rage going. I got a couple of old oil drums John kept about the place and put the sacks of feed in there, put old boards on the top and weighted them down with rocks.
When John came back that night he was in a mood even fouler than the night before. His moods had been getting worse for some time. He slammed the screen door so hard I thought the wood frame’d splinter.
“Nell!” he yelled. “This place looks like a goddamn pigsty! What the hell do you do all day?”
There wasn’t no point in answering. He was just looking for a fight.
“C’mon in here and get your dinner, John.”
He sat down at the kitchen table, his filthy work boots leaving marks on my clean floor. He stank of sweat from working at the mill in this heat. ‘Course he wouldn’t have thought to wash up before dinner. I didn’t dare say nothing. I served us both up our food and set the plates down on the table.
“Fat as you are,” John said, “don’t think you’re going to be eating all that. Take half off, Nell. You need to lose some goddamn weight.”
I just looked at him.
“I mean it. You are getting to be a big fat squaw. I can’t hardly bear to look at you.”
I am a big woman, I don’t deny it. I wasn’t always this size, though I never have been small. It was after John Jr. died that I really started packing it on. Seemed like I didn’t want to do much more than try and fill up the hole his dying left. Slipped away in his sleep, silent as a leaf falling in the dark and him not a year old. But I found a way to keep going without turning mean, turning against the force of life. Which is more than I can say for his father. We’d lost the baby more’n three years then and John never did get over it.
That and the farm failing.
John said the reason the farm failed, why the crops all withered up and got ate by every sort of crawling creature, was the land was poison. Said the poison came from up the mine that started digging great wounds in the side of South Mountain. Well I don’t know. Maybe yes, and maybe no. It wasn’t that John didn’t work hard, it’s just he never had his father’s touch. Everything just turned to rot as soon as he came near it. It made him bitter.
The worst was last month, when we couldn’t make the mortgage. It hurt his pride, faced with the choice to go down to Rickett’s mill and beg for work, or hand over the land that’d been in his family for generations to the bank. It was hard on a man, sure hard. Years of too little money and too much whiskey and a small town where a man could never get ahead of his reputation. John liked his whiskey more and more. Me, I never touched the stuff. My mother and grandmother both impressed on me that you didn’t get to be no spirit walker with a bottle in your hand. That might be OK for whites, but it wasn’t for Indians.
So I tried to understand. That’s the way women are, I think, that’s the medicine we carry. To try to understand a man and stay soft about it. But that don’t mean the hurts aren’t there, deep in the marrow.
I looked across the table and saw the contempt in his face. I scraped half my food off my plate, but it didn’t matter. I’d lost my appetite anyway.
That night I dreamed about a rat. It was sitting on the roof, like some sort of weather vane. It faced east and its nose scented every little breeze that came along.
Three days later I was washing dishes, up to my arms in warm, soap-creamy water. I like washing dishes; it’s like meditation, just looking out the window at the back garden. That year I’d put in nasturtiums, because I like their peppery taste and they look so pretty. I got a crop of the three sisters: corn, beans and squash, plus tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and such, set about with a border of marigolds to keep down the bugs. I have a good hand at gardens, although I don’t brag about it, because it sets John off to distraction the way things just seem to jump to life under my fingers.
So, anyway, there I am, looking out the window and day dreaming about the sorts of things a women day-dreams about when her man don’t want to touch her anymore, and I realize there’s a face in the window looking back at me. A rat face. There’s the bugger, just sitting on the windowsill, staring me down. His fur’s all clean and glossy brown and he’s got a white stomach and little pink ears. He reaches out and puts one little paw up against the glass. I put my finger up against the glass on my side. He doesn’t budge and the two of us stay like that for a minute or so, like somebody visiting a prisoner in a jail, although it was hard to figure out who was who. I had half a mind to open the window up and let him in; I was almost getting fond of the little guy.
Lying out on warm stones back of the house was Oscar, our tomcat, and the mouser supreme. He stretched himself into one of those contortions only cats can do, all sinew and pretzel.
“You better get gone, little buddy,” I said to the rat. The rat just looked at me and put both paws up on the window. I tapped on the glass, trying to scare him off. Oscar often jumped up on the sill so I could open the window and let him in, and I didn’t want to see the little guy get eaten up. “Go on! Go on!” I hissed, trying not to draw Oscar’s attention. Too late, Oscar hightailed it over, ready to pounce on the rat. I closed my eyes.
Next thing I heard was Oscar’s whining meow, demanding to be let in. I opened my eyes, figuring the rat had taken a quick dive out of there. On one end of the ledge was Oscar, as expected, but on the other end, not a foot away, was the rat. Calm as a cream-fed cat himself, eyes directly on me. Oscar didn’t even notice. I opened the window to let Oscar in, wondering if the rat planned on jumping in as well, but he stayed put. Oscar scattered in, upsetting a glass left to dry on the drain board. I dove to grab it before it fell to the floor. When I turned back, the rat was gone. I shook my head and looked at Oscar.
“Well, some fine hunter you are, you big hairball.” Oscar looked at me with the same complete lack of interest he always has, unless there’s fish guts involved.
That night, John threw his plate of food over my head where it shattered into a hundred pieces. Said the chops were burned, which was nonsense. He shoved me up against the counter and smeared a dishrag in my face. Told me to clean it up and fix him something decent to eat. By the time I cleaned it up and cooked him some new chops, crying all the while, he’d passed out in the barcalounger in front of the TV with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his fist. I put a blanket over him and left him there.
That night I dreamed a swarm of rats were churning under our bed, their tails all tied together in knots.
In the morning I had a big purple bruise on my hip from where I connected with the counter. I had five small, separate storm cloud-colored bruises on my upper arm. As I fixed John coffee and eggs and didn’t talk to him at all, he came up behind me and, seeing the marks, kissed every one of them and said he was sorry. His damp lips felt so good on my parched skin.
“I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry,” he kept muttering. I could have sworn he shed a tear.
John is a good-looking man. The first time I saw him, coming to buy smoked fish off my Uncle Joe, and me only eighteen at the time, I was a goner. This big old cowboy in the skin-tight jeans was the one for me. Looked just like Clint Eastwood. Auntie Betty said I was crazy to go off and marry some white man. We didn’t know his family stories, didn’t know what kind of past he was hauling around with him. But I didn’t care. My eyes were firmly focused on his round little white man’s butt in those Levi’s.
“I don’t know why you put up with me sometimes,” he said and cradled my face in his big callused hands. He said he was sorry again and took me in his arms right there in the kitchen. I forgave him. You bet I did.
Two days later I was sitting in the kitchen having coffee with my friend Joelle when I look up over her shoulder to the top of the refrigerator and what do I see but my rat pal looking out at me from in between the fat chef cookie jar and the empty plastic ice cube trays.
“I’ll be damned. Joelle, turn around slow and look up on the top of the ‘fridge.”
“What?” she said.
“Up there, look! Look at that damn rat!”
“Rat!” she shrieked. “What rat?”
“There, right there – look at it!”
“What are you talking about? I don’t see no rat.”
“You don’t see him. Right there. That rat?” The rat sat up on his haunches, spit into his paws and gave himself a good old cleaning.
“Where are you looking?”
“There, Goddamn it! Washing his ears!” I pointed frantically.
“I don’t know what you’re smoking, but there is no rat on the refrigerator. You’re giving me the creeps.”
Now there were two of them. Something caught my eye. I looked over by the sink and there was another one.
“You don’t see anything at all strange in this kitchen?” I asked.
“The only strange thing in this kitchen is you.”
When Joelle left, I called over to the rez. I called my Auntie Betty.
“I got rat problems.” I said.