Okay, I might have screwed up.
It's just possible that I might not have made it clear when I was asking for guest blogs that I wasn't after short stories themselves... Which may have caused Alec Bryann to send me one. So I was going to sorrowfully reply that no, sorry, not what I'm after. But then I saw the title: "Rats". Good title, no? So I started reading it...
Sod it, sometimes the best form of defence is attack. By which I mean, what better way to defend short stories than posting a good one? I still wanted some of the theoretical stuff too, so today's post starts with Edd Voss's defence, then moves to Alec's story. (There's no connection I know of between the two authors, and I can only apologise to both of them for having mucked things up...)
Take it away Edd...
Where would we be without the short story? Would we even know who Walter Mittey is? The short story has added so much to our culture from entertaining us to teaching us life lessons when we aren’t looking. O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” is a classic example of an entertaining story that teaches us about the true meaning of giving. Phillip K Dick through his many short stories that have been turned into movies has entertained us while pointing out the possible pitfalls of relying too much on technology. Whether it is warning readers about the pitfalls of preventing a crime before it happens as in Minority Report”. Or pointing out the dangers of living vicariously through implanted memories ala Total Recall. These are just a few of the great short stories that have made life great for their readers. They have also been fodder for the entertainment industry to keep us entertained. Some of the better movies made from the works of Stephen King in my opinion were the ones made from his novellas: like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. Now we have the ease of using an ereader and the opportunity to create our own short story collections giving the reader even more choice. Like many music albums there are one or two songs that sell the CD while the rest are more fillers that the listener may or may not want, so too are many short story collections filled with stories to fill out the word count. Now with technology the reader can pick and chose the stories they want to read as part of a collection. So with the concept of freedom to choose the stories want to read and the idea of all the great concepts revealed in the concise language of the short story I say Long Live the Short Story!!!
Edd describes himself as "a modern day drifter living most of my life on the road learning about the places and people I see. Over the years my curiosity has been aroused by things that I have seen and stories that I have heard. My interests follow a winding path through science fiction, westerns and just plain stories of people who are faced with challenges that they must deal with."
Rats by Alec Byran
Find the species most abundant in the area and capture it.
“Something underneath,” Geoff said, running his index finger along the red worn skin of his nasal spine while staring at the box of cereal in front of him. He talked in code. Mamma said it wasn’t because he was stupid, just unable to put in words the thoughts worming around the cramped space of his cerebral cortex. Geoff was like that though. At six year’s old, he would study the bark of the tree in our backyard for hours then without a word of explanation he would strip the bark off precisely where the sapwood secreted the sap out of a wound, holding his sticky finger up, covered with the golden hormones and mineral elements of the phloem. Not stupid, but also not normal.
“Katie, would you get him the Captain Crunch decoder?” mamma asked. Even though I fetched it out, running my hand down the side of the box, scrunching the little yellow squares near the bottom into powder until I located the prize and extracted it, I knew the “Something underneath,” referred to a living organism, maybe even Geoff himself, or the other inside him.
Pin the rat carcass down. Place the pins through the soles of the feet and in between the tibia and hamstring on the hind legs. Incise through the skin, being careful not to puncture the subcutaneous tissue, and run the blade from the chin to the tail, to the elbow and to the knee. Pin back the skin and expose the mammary tissue if the rat is a female.
I found the dead rat in the aluminum shed daddy built before he left us, its spinal cord crushed under the weight of the metal trap, fluid and blood oozing out of its mouth, harderian and lachrymal glands. The shed smelt of a compound of oil, gas and grass all overcome by dirt. I went in the shed to retrieve the lawnmower and saw the rat posed inert, full of rigor mortis, with the trap sprung to the side. I called Geoff. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but I knew I wasn’t going to pick it up and throw it in the trashcan. Geoff entered the shed with caution. He never liked cramped and dark places. “No sun,” he said as he crept into the shed and near me. He saw what I had been staring at and took a step back and pointed at the rat, “Dead.”
“I know it’s dead, but do you dare remove it?” Sometimes using the word dare would trigger an intrepid response from Geoff, same with the key phrase, “I’ll time you.” Geoff picked the rat up by the tail and placed it on the workbench. He pulled the metal bar back on the Victor snap trap, releasing the pressure placed upon the rat, and let it fall to the table. The rat rolled onto its stomach, stiff. Geoff continued staring at the dead rat, entranced, until I scalded him, “Geoff, don’t put the rat on the table. Throw it away.” He walked out of the shed and into the house only to reappear moments later with pins and the rusty X-acto knife we kept in the main drawer of the kitchen. “What are you doing Geoff? Rats have diseases.” He placed the pins through the soles of the feet, and began a dissection of the rat.
Examine the lymph nodes and salivary glands then peel the skin from the face and examine the structural makeup. Dissect the glands; dissect the muscles and expose the thyroid along with the trachea and larynx. Cut through the peritoneum then cut on each side of the muscle wall making sure to cut behind the posterior edge of the ribcage then fold back the flaps of skin and pin them. Examine the organs.
Geoff pulled the skin back from the rat, pinned it and stared at the innards, which, I am still not sure, might have made a gaseous noise. Geoff smiled. He removed the pins then threw the rat in the trash and walked back into the house to clean up and put the knife away. I stayed in the shed and gazed into the garbage can. The rat, sliding off the old newspaper, leaving bloody streaks in its sloughing path, inched towards a discarded quart of motor oil. Its left hind leg first made contact with the quart, and as it came to rest upon it, more and more of the inert weight shifted from the newspaper to the empty quart of oil, until finally the rat fell limply off of the newspaper which rose up without the weight and illustrated the final trajectory of the rat’s fall through a red streak of viscera and kidney blood. “Did the rat make a noise?” I said to myself. I thought I heard a wisp of trapped air. I covered the dead rat, its innards now spilling from the incision but held intact by the muscle and other walls of tissue which disallowed it from detachment. I followed Geoff into the house.
Over the next few weeks, the amount of rat traps tripled. The aluminum walls of our shed were lined with them, in our kitchen each cabinet had one placed at the back and all of our closets now contained a trap. I heard mamma scream from her room. I knew she had stepped on one of Geoff’s new rat traps. She exited the room, and her face as much as her proximal phalanges appeared swollen and hurt. It’s weird how pain can transfer to the face of the bearer. “What is this?” she berated me with her question. “It looks like a rat trap,” mamma. “I know what it is darling, but how did it get in my closet?” I told her we had found some dead rats and to make sure they didn’t parade around our house, Geoff had installed measures to keep them out—traps. “Would these measures include breaking my two toes?” mamma said. I lied to protect Geoff, who by now was watching us from the balcony, and had a slunk and retreating look about his shoulders and eyes, and yet, his curiosity would not let him leave. ‘It’s my fault, mamma. I told him to put one in each closet. I will remove them right away.”
Move the large intestines and the small intestines to the right. Identify and examine the abdominal viscera. Remove the stomach, omentum and spleen. Identify the kidneys and blood vessels. Next examine the solar plexus (if the rat is lean) and the surface abdominal area of the diaphragm. Dissect the diaphragm along the xiphoid cartilage. Continue to cut through the ribs and remove the thorax. Examine the heart, pin it aside, and examine major blood vessels in the area.
Geoff grew enamored by the amount of rodents our small plot of land contained. He had found a hobby that required action. I aided Geoff in his newfound zeal. We would check the traps after school and before mamma got home from work. Our initial inquiry, or Geoff’s astute knowledge of where rodents would take up residency, a knowledge which he came to I can only conclude by previous investigations into the neighbors cats’ behavior, found that most the colony of nocturnal rats scurried from our garden into the weed bed to burrow. We had five confirmed kills that first day. We took the brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) into our aluminum laboratory and placed them on the wooden work table. With our newly procured sets of scissors, forceps, scalpels, and other instruments, we began incising. Geoff’s proclivity to such a field of work had me falling behind early. He had already pinned the skin back and was examining the subcutaneous skin before I had cut halfway down the breast. The further he moved along with the dissection, the more animated he became. He would extract the heart of the rat and holding it up to what little light we had, would squeeze the heart until it burst then he would watch the dead air above the heart, not the space beneath where the blood trickled down and spattered on the dirt. We were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. We put our instruments, some crusted with blood, back in their vinyl cases and threw them under the workbench. We hurried into the house and washed our hands then sat at the kitchen table.
When mamma entered the front door, she noticed nothing unusual and asked me to get the rest of the groceries while she tossed her keys onto the table and set down the one bag. “What are you reading Geoff,” she asked in her usual baby talk voice and patted him on the head. As I left the table and headed for the car, I heard Geoff say, “A color atlas.” Mamma must not have looked at the book or she would have seen that it was a color atlas on how to dissect a rat. By the time I came back inside with both hands full of groceries, mamma was fast at work, peeling potatoes. “Katie dear, would you start cutting the meat and set a pot of water on the burner?” I answered the way I always answered mamma, with a chambermaids stoicism, and set to work. Geoff continued reading until mamma demanded he put the book away and go wash his hands before dinner. As we ate dinner mamma kept saying to me and Geoff how nice it was that Geoff had begun to read again. “That teacher’s conference we had must have really rattled you Geoff,” she said then dipped her spoon into the beef stew and blew on the steaming contents.
Cut the masseters, turn the lower jaw and examine the buccal cavity. Remove only the lower jaw, removing with it the entire alimentary tract: esophagus, trachea, larynx, liver, pancreas, and spleen. Examine the carcass and note the stump of the rectum, and the entire urinogenital system. Note the differences of male genitalia and the female Fallopian tube surrounding the ovary. On the pregnant female carefully remove the fetuses and examine them as well as the membranes.
Next day we returned to the rats. Stiff, and emitting a putrid odor, we took them in a plastic bag and buried them in the weed bed. “To Mother” Geoff said, wiping his gnarled hands on his pants. I scanned the driveway and the road leading up to it thinking Geoff had spotted mother, but he was just muttering more of his code. Our traps had us three fresh victims. We took them to the shed and began our routine. By now, I had gained some speed and kept pace with Geoff, or kept just one step behind him, following his incisions, and removals. Geoff squeezed the heart, something I couldn’t quite do, and then we cut the skin, muscle and cranium to expose the brain. The brain, a cross between fuchsia and rose colors, appeared quite small. I still took to examining the brain while in the meantime Geoff had extracted the brain of his rat and set it on the table next to all the other parts of the rodent. Geoff had placed the insides of his rat in the exact location they would sit if they rested inside the body of the rodent. I looked at my scrap pile of innards and then at his again. How precise he was at such tasks. We threw our dissected rodents along with the dead but uncut rodent into a bag and buried them far away from yesterday’s site.
Over the next few months, Geoff, alone, continued to dissect rats. Our weed patch had pock marks of raised dirt where Geoff had buried the victims. It seemed odd to bury them in such proximity to the living rats. When winter decimated the remaining rotten tomatoes and covered them with a five inch blanket of white, Geoff had to settle for an occasional rat from the shed or house. He often seemed dismayed and wandered the house as lost and as frightened as a bird is when it accidentally enters a house and finds its egress hindered by obstacle after obstacle, and Geoff’s insides seemed to run into walls and windows even more so than the outer demonstrations indicated. He had fits, as mamma called them, when his eyes rolled back into his head and his head kept twirling and twirling while his body spazzed out and his legs fluttered against the ground and his arms crossed inwards and beat against his breast. Mamma and I just had to watch him suffer and maybe put a little bit of restraint upon him to keep him from banging his head against the linoleum.
Skin the carcass and place in alcohol: this will harden the nervous tissue. Remove the cranium and hold the skull upside down to release the brain. Examine the brain, cut it laterally and examine the inside nervous system. Examine a skeleton or use x-rays to examine the skeletal structure of the rat.
I wasn’t mamma’s, more like baggage daddy carried over from his first marriage, and Geoff wasn’t daddy’s. He was the illegitimate son, fathered by who knows who when daddy worked out in the oilfields for weeks on end, so there really wasn’t much of a tie between mamma and me, genealogically speaking. Nor should daddy have raised a bastard, let alone one like Geoff. I thought about this when Geoff came in from the back porch. His boots were covered in snow, and his pants were deep blue where water had wetted them almost up to the knee. When he got excited his tongue turned into the most tormented of creatures. I followed an excited Geoff to the aluminum shed. Inside he revealed the cause of his anxiety. “Geoff,” I said. “That’s a live cat. How did you catch it?” Geoff muttered and lifted the cat, nailed to a small plywood board. The cat attempted to bite Geoff then hissed at its captor. “Geoff” I moaned in bewilderment. He showed the marks up and down both hands where the cat had bitten him. The cat continued to hiss and its raised back hair, for its spine was constricted of movement by the plywood, jutted out on its sides. As nonchalant as one can be, Geoff put on a leather gardening glove, and lunged for the cat’s neck. The cat attempted to bite Geoff but didn’t make it through the leather. Geoff let his grip slide up to cover the cat’s face and keep its mouth closed. With his other hand he grabbed a nail and placed it so it would not ram through and fracture the axis or atlas bones, nor sever any of the main arteries running up and down the neck region, then he looked at the hammer then at me.
I kept my eyes open so I wouldn’t hit Geoff’s hand as I drove the nail through the cat’s flesh, throat and flesh again with four swings. A stream of blood poured out of the wound. It could hardly hiss anymore. Geoff quickly grabbed his scalpel and cut through to the scapula and followed in a straight line down to the pelvis. The cat began to purr as the life finally ebbed out of it. Barring some differences but not much from the rat, the cat’s dissection went quick and Geoff easily managed to overcome the areas where a feline differed from a rodent. He placed all organs where they belonged on the table, then burst the heart in the air, and waited and watched for a moment before placing the heart in its proper anatomical location. The cat’s brain, 5 centimeters and about thirty grams, seemed far superior to the small rat brain. The sagittal view of the brain exposed more optimal analysis. In all, the cat brain appeared like a shrunken human brain. “Never again Geoff,” I shouted and shook him. His innocence functioned like a shield at such moments. I had to really shake him to let him know he had gone too far this time. “Understand me!? Never again!” Geoff ran to the house crying, leaving me to discard of his mess. I had nowhere to dispose of the cat but in the vacant lot behind the shed. For days I watched as magpies and ravens sat on the fence posts. No one ever noticed the dead cat. I did happen to see a sign on a light post.
When dissection of the rat has been mastered, move on to larger species, perhaps even a human. Very few differences exist between mammals.
Mamma woke up from the chloroform only to find nails driven through her hands and feet and through the plywood board placed on her bed. Her neck was tied down, more humanely, and she had been muzzled with a handkerchief and a leather strap. No words were spoken between the three of us. She tried to turn her head but had to stare straight into the eyes of a scalpel. You could still hear her muffled yell even though she was gagged, especially when the scalpel nicked her thyroid gland as it began its long descent down towards her uterus. I could see her chest still moving up and down, still breathing, but it was rather faint. She screamed some more when the skin flaps were pulled and nailed down. Her exposed chest and innards, covered by her sternum and mammary tissue and ribs, stopped moving. From where I was, I heard no gasp of air, like the rats sometime made when they were cut into. The dissection of mamma went rather quick. The bones were severed with a hatchet or cut with a hacksaw and placed on a twelve by twelve blue tarp that had been laid out. The tarp was rolled up and moved to the basement where a hole had been dug through the foundation, or rather chipped then dug, and loose dirt could be placed over the body. The hole left room for one more body.
Geoff’s eyes met with mine. I saw my own fear reflected in his innocent and vacant eyes. I screamed at him, “Stop Geoff. Make it stop,” but Geoff rarely spoke, even though he wasn’t gagged, he didn’t say a word as I lowered the scalpel and dug it into his trachea. The blade glided along smoothly until I reached his scrotum. I cut off his testicles and pushed his penis to the side. Geoff smiled. He breathed deep, his throat somewhat slit and blood oozing into it caused him to cough, then he died as the blood gurgled in his throat. No other noise could be heard. After I had cut Geoff’s heart out, I squeezed it until it burst, or until the blood emptied from it. I watched the air above the heart but saw nothing. Poor Geoff, I thought, “nothing underneath.” A mouse scurried from under his bed, a bed of which it was not easy to move into mamma’s room and had required Geoff’s help. The light burst through the red shades and caught the mouse’s back, making it look like a red mouse. I wondered how a mouse could have avoided all the traps Geoff had set. I discarded of Geoff the same way, filling the hole in the basement with his body then I piled the loose dirt on the two of them and once the dirt reached the foundation level, I cemented the two together—the mamma who wasn’t my mamma and the brother who wasn’t my brother. I made my way for daddy. I didn’t know where he was, but I knew I would find him.
When finding one’s father, one must decide early on whether to reconcile the relationship or kill him. It would be best to kill him.
Now that's a defence.
Contact Alec at his blog or check out his publications at Aqueous Books.