It starts with a bang. Those of us awake scurry for cover; those sleeping jump wide-eyed. Five peep out of shoebox nests. Only Mag remains halfway, still part-drowning in dreams.
“Mrs. Huntington?” a woman’s voice calls from out on the porch. “Mrs. Huntington, are you there?”
We remember this, we know what it means. We’ve had a long year of freedom and excess, we cannot resist our excess, but as always here is the reckoning. The City Men.
Mag rolls herself upward and lurches sleepily into the bathroom. Maybe she remembers, too.
“Okay, Mrs. Huntington. But next week we’re coming in.” A few shuffles and murmurs, a papery sound—something sliding under the door. Then footsteps, one pair light, one heavy, down the wooden steps and away.
We wait. Are they gone? Car doors slam, an engine growls. They’re gone. Then we dash. Where is it, where’s the letter, there, sticking halfway out—two of us tear it open, and a third reads. Shockwaves pass through all.
Usually there’s a letter, a month’s warning—did we miss it? This time we only have a week’s notice. The City Men are coming back on Friday the 5th. The 5th. When is that? Too soon, too soon.
First things first, we say to each other, trying to sound confident and matter-of-fact and like we know our business. Mag is always first, of course. She’s our mother and we love her. We check, find Mag safely ensconced behind the tower of mason jars, eating chocolates. “Make—every day—sweet,” she reads from one foil square before opening another. Our fingers itch to flatten the wrappers, to place them on our heads and dance, but no, not now, there’s no time.
“A smile—is worth—a thousand—words,” Mag mutters.
All right. Mag is secure. Time to get organized.
We organize Mag’s perimeter. By which we mean, make sure she doesn’t see anything. This is for everyone’s safety and convenience, considering what happened before. Once, we were tunneling through a stack of National Geographics, shredding the paper for nests, when she tripped and knocked them over, spilling ten little bodies from inside. We blinked up, adjusting to the sudden light.
Mag gasped, flailed her arms, stared from one corner of our shared habitat to another. She tore the lid off a box where a couple of us were napping, wrenched open a closet door. We’d packed the walls inside with food, and maybe fifty were there, swinging from the hangers or crouched on the floor, knobs of mash in our hands, all amiably chewing. We saw Mag’s big gaping face and we hoped for a second, we really did. It could have been a new era of our joyful cohabitation, a time of mutual awareness and love. But Mag slammed the closet door and fled.
“Rats,” we heard her sobbing into the phone, “hundreds of them—the whole place is infested.”
That’s when the City Men came for the first time, with machines and tubes and terrifying chemicals. A total disaster. Most of our habitat and our population, our collective memory, destroyed. Only a few traumatized remnants, the smallest and youngest, were left quivering in the pipes.
We didn’t understand. We don’t look like rats at all, though we’ve got that smooth fur and we’re around the same size. We don’t even have tails. But we don’t blame Mag, oh no. She’s our mother and we love her, but her eyes aren’t all that good.
Normally our work can wait until she’s sleeping, tucked in nice and warm between stacked magazines and a pile of laundry. But on this tight schedule, we need her waking time if we want to be ready, and yes we do want to be ready when the City Men come. Twelve of us deploy to this end, establishing a series of observation points and communication channels, working in shifts to warn others of her movements.
Second, we must choose our temporary encampment, the location to which we will retreat. Small enough to remain hidden, large enough to hold us. The more numerous we are, the more easily we can manage Mag and the habitat, but the more habitat we need, the more habitat we crave. These inherent conflicts of our existence, they’re tough, we don’t always know what to do. But we know we must protect Mag, and ourselves. From eviction, fumigation, demolition. From the City Men, our mortal enemies.
They are not all men, in fact some are women. In fact the women are the most dangerous ones. They have sharper, better-trained eyes, they look in closets and drawers without asking, they examine walls and ceilings, they sniff, they knock, they listen. Mag must show them whatever they ask, those are the rules, she must prove that she is sane and clean and throws her garbage away. In the past we’ve used closets and cabinets (too easily opened), the backs of bookshelves (too cramped, twenty-eight died). But we are so many and we’ve got so little time. We need a bigger space.
We explore, we debate. On the ventilation shaft! scream some. It’s a squeeze, up in the basement ceiling, lurking with the moths and flies. But unexpected, invisible. They’ll never look here. The proponents swing from the rafters to demonstrate. One falls, thump! And twitches and writhes. In silence we deal with the body.
In the attic! howl others. It is indeed spacious. But filled with cottony pink poison, and six tiny skeletons from the last time. At the sight of those bones we all cringe away.
No time, no time! all worry. We scrabble and fight. Three are killed in the argument. Then an expedition returns from the heating vents, and all caper and embrace. This is right.
As Mag sleeps, four strategically selected floorboards are loosened and removed, holes burrowed through the baseboards. Underneath them we find a maze of joists and noggings. Twelve inches high, the area of the entire first floor, all interconnected. Perfect. A committee of thirty is dedicated to preparing the space with their big sharp teeth, and immediately we set to chewing.
Now that the first steps are underway, the next steps are next. And the next step is everything.
We commence habitat reduction. Layer by layer, chunk by chunk, everything must be moved or removed. We save what is soft and edible. Cotton balls, tissue paper, threads and scraps of fabric, corks, chewing gum, sugarcubes. Properly masticated and applied, these ingredients form an edible insulation, a soft sponge where we can cuddle and suck nutrients for as long as it takes. All year we’ve stockpiled supplies. Mag helps us, even if she doesn’t know why. We send whispers down her ear canal: Fruit roll-ups, we beg. Beef jerky, taffy, a big jar of paste. Whatever we need, soon enough it appears.
She used to work against us sometimes, truth be told. She’s our mother and we love her but sometimes our priorities compete. We would assemble our materials, then watch her sweep them into plastic bags and carry them outside. Probably she was wise, probably she already knew about the City Men. But we did not. We retrieved our supplies from the alley, avenged ourselves upon her pills and lotions, then recriminated in whispers at night. Why this pointless effort? we ranted, to fill her dreams with rage. Why get in our way, why even try? The habitat is all, all, all! Then in the morning, she would see that everything was back: the same old shoes, nested yogurt containers, shiny scraps of metal, whatever. And it worked. Regret filled her, and for a long time she hasn’t tried.
Now we ask gently for her assistance, to clear our things away. The candy wrappers we use for bedding and decoration, the plastic figurines and stuffed animals we use in plays, our many small boxes—how we love small boxes, to curl up inside them and pop out and surprise! We should see our faces. All our little electronic toys—oh the thrill and sparkle when we break them open and gnash their microchips between our teeth! All kinds of bulky wooden and plastic chewies, all the scraps of foil and mysteriously beautiful shards of glass and tasty tasty bird bones from the yard. All, all. It hurts us to do it, but remove them we must.
Heavy things we chew up to destroy, swallowing them down, carrying them outside in our guts to eliminate by night. Light things we can move whole, carry out in teams. Some of us will be lost, some always are. There are cats and raccoons, insects with poison-tipped mandibles. We look up into silent air, and death swoops down with talons outstretched. Another gone. These are heroic times, with choices and sacrifices. We soldier on.
Day and night we work; the whole house wriggles with activity. The floorhome committee chews and sticks, chews and sticks. The majority scamper and carry and rush. And the surveillance team follows Mag, signals the rest of us to create a bubble of silence and peace around her. We wonder what she imagines, when suddenly there’s no cereal box tower, no baby shoe coliseum; when she sees a newly cleared tabletop and gives it a slow, thoughtful wipe. A team of benevolent fairies? Maybe a kind neighbor. Or her own efforts, performed in dreams. We don’t need credit; we glow at her approval, her incredulous smiles. Who knew we could work at such speeds!
Two days before the City Men’s visit, we are doing well. We have removed our major constructions. We have created a system of tunnels and burrows under the floors, its walls packed with nutritious mash enough to sustain us in a siege. If the City Men demand that Mag repair these pipes or replace those windows, she must accomplish whatever tasks they set her. Everything must be up to code, they say. If we could get our fingers on this mysterious code we would see to it, but we cannot. It is online, they say. We have driven ourselves half mad trying to figure out where that is.
And then Work Men may come, stomping around above our secret fortress for days or even weeks. We’ll reduce our numbers if we must, swallow down our corpses if we must. Otherwise they rot, they stink—and we can’t waste food. We must gird ourselves for the worst in such dire times.
Mag, however, seems optimistic. She’s moving quicker, with more purpose, getting harder to predict. Usually she’s easy—spates of activity in the morning and night frame long periods of immobility in bed or on the couch. Now our surveillance team bounds from hiding place to hiding place, transmitting like mad, and the work teams all scramble for cover. Our progress slows maddeningly. Frantic messages shoot from kitchen to livingroom, from floorhome to porch, where is she going, why won’t she settle down, only thirty-two … thirty … twenty-nine hours remain, what to do, what to do? She’s our mother and we love her but we need her under control!
Finally she drops onto the couch. It’s softer than usual, with nothing stored beneath the cushions. Amidst the fading outdoor light, she illuminates her glowing screen. The surveillance team sends out a joyous call—she’ll be hypnotized for hours. Teams assemble and spring to bold action. We set to scraping the candy mosaic from the bedroom window and licking the kitchen floor clean. We will triumph.
Mag sits, chuckles, turns serious. Her eyelids droop and blink. So much activity for her, it’s so tiring, and oh the ache in her hips, oh those creaky knees. She sighs, stretches out, rolls onto her side. Her whole body relaxes. All around her we work at a fevered pace, gnawing and carrying and running outside to eliminate. Only a few remain to watch her sink deeper into sleep. Her eyes twitch. Her mouth hangs open.
It’s a good time to clean her teeth, spread some fluoride around, check for trouble spots. We must take care of our mother. One of us sneaks in with the floss. Her mouth is so warm and damp, so cozy, just the right size for one of our smaller numbers. We taste her breath, like earth and garlic mixed with coffee. It’s enervating, exhilarating. We are transfixed. She’s our mother and we love her, we just want to get closer. Another creeps forward, and another and another. Then the whole surveillance team. What are we doing, if not watching Mag? We comb her hair with our fingers, cuddle against the loose skin of her neck.
One of the boards that guard entry to our floorhome shifts up and to the side, and six of us pop heads out, jump up and crawl forward. Then a few come in from the garden, others from the kitchen. Normally we wouldn’t dare, but we have been so brave and worked so hard. She is so warm, so soft. Silently, silently, we nestle against her belly, against her arms, behind the crooks of her knees. Waves of comfort crash over all.
She’s our mother and we love her so we whisper in her ear: we say, Sweet dreams, and Buy more chocolates and Your smile is worth a thousand words. We tell her lies for the City Men, about how often she cleans, how fine she feels, and how nothing under her floorboards ever skitters or squeaks. And more and more of us sneak in, find a niche and curl up, stretch arms and legs, spread fingers and toes to touch her. It is dangerous, we know it is dangerous but the knowledge is nothing against the magnetic attraction of our love. We are overwhelmed, overpowered, with no desire to resist. She’s our mother and we love her and we are all here, all one hundred eighty-seven of us, breathing with her breath and throbbing with her heartbeat, we have never been so happy, until someone—oh fool, oh sweet adoring fool—tries a bite.
Mag jerks up. Her eyes open. We cannot scurry, cannot hide. She stares at us, all of us, our many brown and gray bodies clustered tightly around hers, our double-many glimmering golden eyes.
We try to beam calm at her. Into her ears we whisper: This is a dream, we say, a strange and beautiful dream. A dream of one hundred eighty seven small beings full of love, clasping little fingers and trying little smiles.
Mag slowly, cautiously, pulls herself out of our many-armed embrace. Up onto her feet. But oh, one foot stays tangled in her hair, we’re trapped, dangling upon her shoulder, as Mag’s gaze moves from the surrounding many, to the moved and missing floorboard, then turns—her head rotates. Through the eyes on her shoulder we try to send all our love. She looks into them. She sees. She’s our mother and we love her but then she starts to scream.
The one is clutched, ripped free and thrown, small skull cracked against the wall. It’s unconscious, we can’t help it. We swarm, we hurry, we flood under the floorboards and huddle there in fright. Shrieks and roars fill our minds but we stay quiet, quiet now, as Mag’s feet stomp back and forth above us. We cower below, listening to her low stutter: “Gotta get out,” she’s saying, “out of this house, my god, those things—touching me, my god, what are those things—”
We wait, hoping and cringing, to hear feet in the bathroom, then swiftly mount a rescue mission. Three dart out and retrieve our unconscious one, drag the body to safety. Just in time we pull the board back over us.
“Where—” Her feet track over to the wall; one bump then another as she drops down to her knees. Fiercely we hold the loose board in place, twenty of us, forty clenched fingers and countless gritted teeth—we feel her tug and move on.
One sneaks to the wall, to the heating vent, and peeks. Mag is standing there, her hands opening and closing, gaze traveling over the floor.
“I don’t care,” she says suddenly. “I don’t care.”
And then she leaves. Just like that. Grabs the suitcase she’s packed and walks right out.
In the dark under the floorboards we huddle and lick the walls. Waiting, waiting. The night is long, the house heavy with quiet. Empty. No Mag. A black, aching wind blows through the hole in all our hearts. We wail and weep, fight desperately: whose fault? Whose failure? The surveillance team suicides. We eat their bodies. Dawn comes but with no Mag there’s no reason to finish our work. Instead we nestle together in mourning, through the day, through the night. Still no Mag.
The next day comes. On the porch the City Men pound and call. Motherless, unprotected orphans, we clutch each other and cry. Finally, with a snick and a click, the door opens.
“Mrs. Huntington?” the woman says, and then, “What’s that?”
“Looks like a note,” answers the man. An envelope tears. “Huh. Look at this. ‘To whom it may concern. You can have this house and deal with the disgusting rat things. Please never bother me again. Signed, Margaret Huntington.’”
“What? You’re kidding.”
“Here, take a look.” A rustle. We peek. The woman stands looking at the paper, while the man wanders inside.
“So is that like an eleven-bee?” she asks. Her light feet tap along above our heads. Liar, fool. We are not bees. “Maybe we should call Sandy.”
Thoughtfully the man touches the walls, runs his hand over a wooden doorframe. “You know, it’s not a bad house. Good bones. You slap a coat of paint on the walls, redo the floors, put in some new appliances—it would look pretty nice.”
“God, Jack, you and your side business. But don’t forget about the disgusting rat things.”
“I don’t smell rats, do you? Anyway—I bet there’s two hundred kay in this place, easy.”
We are not quite two hundred and we have never been called kay. But still. It seems he knows we’re here, and we don’t have any other name. We watch Jack from the heating vents. He’s walking from room to room and his eyes are all aglow. He has big projects in mind, that’s obvious, plans that must include us, a glorious warmth spreads through us as he examines the place. He examines window frames, pipes, closet space, all with a proprietary air. Like he knows and owns the house already. And we recognize him, like he’s part of us, like he’s outlined in a golden light. He’s our mother and we love him, and we know we’ll manage him just fine.