We discovered the rat on the Wednesday before Mother’s Day, when the Rhodos lilies were blooming a murderous, lovesick red, a red so sweetly poisonous that it seemed to belong in Rappaccini's garden. “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” you may remember from American lit, is an allegory by Nathaniel Hawthorne that concerns the fate of Beatrice, who has been raised among her father’s supernaturally potent flowers to be as deadly as she is beautiful. When her young lover Giovanni sees Beatrice in the garden for the first time, he thinks she’s “the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they...but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask.” Giovanni fears that if he goes near her, he’ll be poisoned by her sweet breath, which instantly kills less potent flowers, bees, and lizards.
That’s the sort of lily this was, a lily for after the Fall, for gardens where rats and butterflies live. Whoever cultivated the Rhodos lily had sin on his mind, I think, or disaster. In the advertising photograph that first seduced me, the blooms were red at the curling glossy tips, red at the edges, red at the heart. The stamens were red. And it seemed like a good, throaty name. You’d never call such carnal lilies “United States” or “Candy Club” or “Kristen.” “Rhodos” comes from the Latin and Greek for red, as in rhodochrosite stones, rhododendron, and rhodopsin, the red photosensitive pigment in the retina. Still, the bulbs that supposedly held this crimson inside them sat in the bag like discolored teeth. It seemed impossible that lilies could come out of such white, homely roots, less possible than turning water into wine. But I planted 25 Rhodos lilies in February, and by the time we saw the first rat, blooms were floating like red dye in the air above the porch.
It was midday and roasting hot when my husband Tom saw something run up the front sidewalk and across the porch. We wanted to believe it was a mouse. It seemed impossible that either mice or rats would be running in daylight, but the animal was too big to be a lizard, too thin to be a squirrel.
We have an old wooden trunk on the front porch. The hinges are rusty, and the address of its former owner, painted on the side in neat, slanted white letters, is fading. The address was painted by someone who believed in the authority of punctuation. ZANIS EGLE. it says. (MR. RAY. T. ARNOLD.) P.O. BOX. 1014. RIVERSIDE-CALIF. U.S.A. I have no idea who Zanis Egle. or Ray. T. Arnold, might be or where he might have been when he crated something and sent it home, but the species Rattus rattus would have stayed on its original continent of India had travelers not found a way to cross mountains and seas with their crates.
I should have remembered this when I decided to store kindling in Ray. T. Arnold.’s box. A perfectly round hole on the trunk’s right side made it useless for other things. I’d put an old detergent box inside and grape vines and sticks.
The hole, I now realized, looked exactly like a mouse hole in a cartoon. And there, when I opened the old trunk, was a rat, trembling under the twigs in a nest of torn detergent box and eucalyptus fluff. I brought out my tape measure and held it over him. My rodent guide said that California is home to Mus musculus, the house mouse, who can attain a length of 5 to 8 inches; the black Rattus rattus; and Rattus norvegicus, the brown Norway rat, who ranges in size from 12 to 18 inches. Like most of the guides I keep for scientific occasions, it omitted a crucial detail. Was the “scaly” tail part of the measurement? Eighteen inches excluding the tail? Little Ray. T. Arnold, was gray-brown and homely as a lily bulb. His body was longer than 5 inches but less than 12. His tail was very long and, I had to admit, scaly. I couldn’t get the measuring tape very close to him because he’d never been measured before, and the sight of my pink scaly fingers made him shudder. I decided he was part of the family norvegicus because his ears were tiny and he was brown and he looked like his cousin the albino lab rat.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Beatrix Potter, and Stuart little. In fiction we dress rodents up in little vests, confide in them, let them ride small motorcycles and row out in boats. Now that we had a live rat on our porch, could we just leave it there to eat snails and have babies and grand-babies and great-grandbabies?
The first reference to plague, says researcher Peter Henney, was made in A.D. 100 by Rufus of Ephesus, who described outbreaks that occurred in the Levant around 300 B.C. and in Libya 250 years later. This means Rattus rattus had reached the eastern Mediterranean through trade between the Roman Empire and India. The great plague of Justinian began in A.D. 540 and spread to France by 547, possibly on a ship that went from Egypt to Marseilles.
Rattus rattus was first mentioned in the British Isles in 1187, when Bishop Yvor cursed them for gnawing his books and expelled them from the district of Ferns in Leinster. Plague reached England in 1348, traveling from Weymouth to Oxford to London. The Elizabethans created an “Acte for the Preservation of Grayne,” which authorized church wardens to tax parishes and use the money to reward rat-catchers, who were paid one penny “for the heades of everie three Rattes or twelve myse.” Plague-infected rats die too soon to survive a very long journey, but rats are hardy in other ways. They were abundant on Eniwetok atoll in the West Pacific ten years after the last nuclear tests.
Rattus norvegicus is brown and much larger than Rattus rattus. He reached the United States in 1775. The black rat lives in roofs and is sometimes called the roof rat, but the brown rat lives in cellars and sewers, reproducing in seclusion until a flood or reconstruction drives them out. When an English rat-catcher put black rats from the roof into a cage with cellar rats in 1768, Henney writes, the brown rats killed and ate the black rats.
When ratting was a popular sport in 19th -century London, 50 rats were released into an arena, and dogs were timed with a stopwatch. A London dog named Billy killed 500 rats in five and a half minutes.
Plague is generally passed to humans by domestic rats, but wild rodents carry the disease and prevent its eradication. In California, ground squirrels pass it on to each other. A virus called rat-bite fever is common in Japan, and leptospirosis, another virus, is excreted in the urine of rodents and can be passed to the unhygienic rodent handler, especially if he has an open sore.
Warnings aside, the rat looked harmless. The following day I put my old glass terrarium sideways against the hole, so that when I began to clear out the twigs, the rat would run out of his hole and into the glass box. Run he did, but he didn’t like the trap and kept changing his mind. Back into the wooden trunk he ran. When I rattled the sticks with a gloved hand, he’d run back into the glass box. Finally, on his last exhausted spring to the glass box, Tom slid the screen down, and it was done. We were ratcatchers.
But where was I going to put him, what was I going to feed him, and what if I caught rat-bite fever? How could I keep vermin for a pet?
But I keep a rabbit as a pet already, so I had all the materials for rodent ownership. I had high-protein rabbit food, pine shavings for a bed, and an affection for anything that deans its face and sleeps with its head tucked into its side, which Ray. T. proceeded to do when I put his glass house on the laundry porch. He curled inward, slept for a while, and then yawned like a rabbit. He ate his alfalfa pellets like corn cobs. He stepped in the clay saucer that served as his water dish. There was nothing horrid about him but his invisible past. When I fell asleep, I had nightmares about the plague on the porch.
But brown rats, it turns out, can’t bear to be shut in at night. In the day he was resigned to his fate, his pedigreed rabbit food, and the sweet scent of pine shavings. At night he rattled and clawed at the glass. He bit at the screen lid until he found a place that would rip. On the second night he must have strained himself upward to his fullest height. He must have leapt at the roof and gnashed at it. Finally he tore a round, jagged hole about the size of the hole in the wooden trunk on the front porch. He climbed out into the darkness, ran along the sidewalk, left his black dung on a retaining wall by the gardenias, and disappeared.
A few days later, we noticed rats in the carport. They ran along the cupboards when we parked our cars. They scurried along the stacks of lumber, balanced on coils of irrigation hose, and tore soft cardboard from boxes of nails. They no longer bore any resemblance to Stuart Little. We killed them with blue cubes of rat poison that makes them bleed to death internally. Crazed with thirst, one tucked its head under a paving stone and licked at the wet dirt. By Sunday, the carport was still, and the red lilies hung in the hot air, red as rat blood, red as human blood, red as garnets in the sun.
After that, the lilies seemed even more like animals. The ones that hadn’t yet bloomed were green with three black eyes. The black eyes pushed upward, and the closed flowers rose like green silk parasols. Then as the sun grew hotter and stayed longer, the green parasols darkened, as if they were filling with blood. The reddening tubes were furred with a fine white fuzz, and they looked almost carnal. Then they became flowers for exactly five days, and the petals were flecked with a lovely Braille of beauty marks. Before they shriveled, the pollen stained my knees and index fingers a mercurochrome orange that was impervious to water. Hummingbirds looked into the lilies, hovered, and decided against a sip.
When the Asian lily bulb is disinterred and split apart, the cloves are white. The white can’t be stained, like your hands, with dirt. Each clove will produce, in a bag of vermiculite, a white bulblet. The new bulb, small as a baby tooth, looks clean enough to eat, but it reminded me of the heaps of dirt that I once found in a ruined Quaker church. If you knelt down you could see that in the heaps of dirt were thousands and thousands of rodent bones, all separated, all clean, as if the heads and teeth of the consumed were waiting to grow a new creature, and the rats, like Rhodos lilies, could make red flesh of white bone.
Such mass reproduction of rodents would be, and always is, a plague. Mus musculuscan live in freezers kept at 14 degrees Fahrenheit and dine on nothing but frozen meat. It can even reproduce in such conditions, though at reduced rates and with a high loss of young. Glasgow scientists reared 14 generations of lab mice at 26.6 degrees Fahrenheit and reported that no anatomical specialization was necessary.
In southern Australia in 1916-17, after an exceptional harvest, grain stores valued at more than a million pounds were destroyed by mice. A farmer who put out poisoned bait found 28,000 dead mice on his veranda, and in a wheat-yard, workers killed 70,000 in a single afternoon. In California in 1926,25,000 mice were counted in an area of 1000 square meters.
But if each one of my bone-white bulbs gives rise to 20 bulblets. I’ll have 500 scarlet lilies in a few years, and if each of those 500 makes 25, I’ll have more than 12,000 flowers the hue of Biblical guilt, all of them fit to live in what Hawthorne calls the Eden of poisonous flowers, a ratless Eden, at least for now.