Two Portraits

worm.jpeg

Lady tried to kill rat for weeks. Poison. Trap. By knife, once, though the thought of close contact and clean up disturbed her greatly. She spent many long dark hours awake, hearing squeaks in the plaster, claws against the drywall. She stayed up late night watching comedy shows with the volume high, so she could listen from her kitchen perch, hanging out the window, seeing how long the ash on each cigarette would grow before it snapped off, falling to a crumble against the iron slats of the fire escape, then straight through those slats into air. All the while rat hardly tried to hide.

She replaced her clothes with a box at night, to get through the night this way. She kept her head hidden in a hood, under an embroidered veil. She painted her face, to scare the thing away. She used brooms and sticks to chase it. Rat persisted. A recent canvas dried over on her easel. She could not create in this environment. Rat would come out of whatever crack in the wall it was near. It would sit and stare at her from a perch atop the floor, unafraid. Lady would watch rat, to the soundtrack of the nightly news, an old movie, a late-night talk show. Rat would watch lady.

Late one night, coming in from a work function with enough tequila for two nights sleep lady found rat standing upright on the center of her living room rug. Its front paws were dangling in front of its small, slim, round body. “My name is Eileen, rat,” said the woman loudly. “You have a name?: She lit a cigarette, stood framed in the backlight of the hall under her open door frame, a silhouette save for the burning embers at the stick’s tip.

Rat approached Eileen’s foot and looked up at her with its head cocked. She stuck her pointer finger out slowly, like a dancer’s leg taking a long pronounced step and smacked it against the cigarette flinging her customary trail of ash, and a lit ember down at rat, piercing its body. The animal emitted a shrill shriek and scampered away. Eileen went to bed listless, she tossed and turned all night.

She awoke, plainly clothed, outside her vail and box. Her head throbbed. Her feet ached. Rat was gone. She looked beneath the bed, in the kitchen, from room to room, no rat. She lit a cigarette and sat looking down at her familiar view, not a claw against the drywall, not a squeak from any wall.

Time passed. Eileen came home later at night. She cooked a little less, the smell of cigarettes lifted from the apartment. Her sleeping box was placed inside her wardrobe, her vail was hung on a bedpost. She washed her face before bed and left it this way until morning. She spoke to someone on the phone at night. She laughed and curled her tongue, touching it to her teeth while kicking a leg up.

On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday the door slammed open. Eileen was abruptly pinned to the door by a man who smothered her with his mouth, his hands searching her body in desperation. They moaned. She pointed towards her bedroom. She took off his shirt. He took off her leggings and underwear. , They sang a song of grunts. When rat appeared on the bedside table the man jumped up on both feet. He yelped. Eileen calmly said, “oh, wait, no, that is just the rat that lives in the walls. It is a harmless thing.”

“I,” the man paused here to take in the ease at which this woman referred to this rat, “have to leave.” Eileen did not protest. She stood, bottomless, and crossed her arms as he buttoned his shirt, the cool air raised bumps along her legs. She leaned over to her bedside table, her hand nearly grazing rat, to grab her stacked cigarettes and lighter. Before she was through lighting and inhaling the first drag, the gentleman caller was gone.

“Looks like it’s you and me, rat,” Eileen said to the rodent, who cocked his head in a familiar way. “I burned you didn’t I?” She stood staring at the thing, her elbow bent, palm up, cigarette dangling between her fingers. Rat watched the smoke form a thin trail to the ceiling. “C’mon then,” she said as she motioned toward the kitchen. She opened the window to the fire escape, sat at her perch. “For a moment there, I thought he’d stay. But he wasn’t something that would ever stick around too long.”

The next day Eileen drew the upper part of an oval from the base of the drywall in her living room. She drilled a hole and carved the shape out from there. It was the size of rat, looked like something she’d seen in a cartoon once. The animal crawled its way out when she was finished. It sat in its usual way, hands hanging in front of its belly.

Her sleep cycle regulated. She carved a hole in the box she used to sleep in for the animal to feel welcome, though she only wore it around the house in a casual manor, now. She went back to her window sill at night, the cigarette ash grew long again before she let it break and fall.

It was through her routine that she noticed how still rat could be, while it watched her. She followed rat’s movements, the way its left paw always led, the way its hind legs raised high above its body as it crept along the apartment. She moved her easel to the kitchen, fed the thing cheese, grapes, water. Its portrait came naturally, a small sized canvas, for her, half a meter wide. She hang it outside the entrance to her kitchen.

Using a compact mirror and a stretched six centimeter square canvas she painted her own image too. Above the carved entryway to rat’s wall she hung the painting of her face, framed in gold, looking out across the living room. Late at night she turned out the lights as the click-clicks of rat’s claws tapped after her from room to room. When she closed her eyes to go to sleep, she listened to rat leave her doorway, she followed its quiet movements, she could approximate its stopping place, outside its own entryway, curled up facing her portrait.