I’m home from school with a cage of eight rats my teacher won gambling.
My mother’s on a call, making hmmms and ohhhs to our rotary dial phone. Her entire body hunches over her church friend’s high-pitched voice.
When Dad gets home at six as always, his silhouette tall as a god in the doorframe, Mom’s still on her call in the front entrance hall, waving me to bring her a third cup of tea. Dad kisses her cheek. She flinches.
He puts his briefcase in his office. Hands me a copy of The Johannesburg Star–– censorship lines striking out sentences on the banned African National Congress.
Humming a few lines from Unchained Melody, Are you still mine?, Dad stoops to look at the rats.
Miss Poole didn’t want them, so I offered.
Those are some beautiful creatures, my girl. Did you name them yet?
At his baritone voice, my jaw muscles unclench. Through the rungs, the biggest rat goes eye-to-eye with Dad. The others cluster in a corner. A sleek white slash of trembling fur in the sawdust.
Big one’s Whiskey. I think he’s a boy.
We retreat to the family room. Set the cage on a table by Dad’s half-built trainset.
Dad changes from his suit into jeans, a t-shirt and a spotless work apron. He towers over the trains and the rats. I finger the buttons on my stained and faded yellow schooldress. It doesn’t bother me too much and Mom doesn’t seem to mind.
Dad rearranges the furniture to give us room to build out the trainset. Grunting as he pushes the couch, he updates me on the news from his journalist friends over lunch-time beer. News we won’t see printed. More Black men were arrested without cause, detained without reason. Another prison death from “slipping in the shower.”
We set up our work tools.
I select my paint colours. Brown. Green. Red. Dad tears the newspaperinto strips. Mixes them into a bucket of glue to make papier-mâché. The thick dark censorship lines in the newsprint melt into gray blurs.
Standing in the cut-out centre of the trainset, I paint a conductor’s eyes deep brown. Force the corners of his lips to point up. I maneouvre my thin paintbrush into a feathery sway of left and right and left to green the leaves of a model tree.
Through the open window, a lourie bird calls, Go Away. Go Away. Dad stands. Swears when he knocks over the bucket of newspaper and glue, spilling grey sludge on the white-washed stone tiles. Goes to the garage to find something to clean it up.
A few weeks after I bring home the rats, the females drop babies. Hairless twitching blobs, some of which Whiskey eats. The young that escape being devoured by their parents squeeze through the cage rungs and run down the curtain folds. One morning we find small pink rats on the train set, climbing fake mountains, scratching our carefully built glue waterfalls with their claws. They grow into sleek teen-rats, thrumming through the tunnels like red-eyed ghosts, chased by electric trains.
As the trainset grows, the white rats expand their family to fill it. We learn to live with the rats, ignoring them even as they eat their way through the newspaper mountains. When my friends ask why we can’t play with the trains anymore, I tell them Dad is busy with work. Truth is I think he just ignored the rats for so long that he forgot about them. My friends accept my excuse without question. I find myself accepting it too. All of it.
Years later, my father will die from Alzheimer’s. As we prepare the house for sale, I will run my fingers over the dusty traintracks. Turn off the power in the rails. Crush the veneer of rivers and rocks with a hammer while Mom sips tea in the kitchen with her church friends. Rip out the papier-mâché mountains–– handfuls of blacked-out newsprint hiding the violence of men dying in detention. I will scrub away the dirt. Leave the new owners of the house a clean and empty room. Tiny rodent bones in the shadow-corners.
Lisa Alletson grew up in South Africa and the UK, and now lives in Canada. Her stories and poems are published in Bending Genres, New Ohio Review, Crab Creek Review, Pithead Chapel, Gone Lawn, Emerge Journal, Milk Candy Review, Typehouse Magazine, among others. Lisa’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and Best MicroFiction. Her debut poetry chapbook, Good Mother Lizard, won the 2022 Headlight Review publishing contest and is available at www.theheadlightreview.com/chapbook-prize. She writes little things on Twitter @LotusTongue. You can read more of Lisa’s writing at www.lisaalletson.com.