This is mini-essay I wrote to accompany a photograph in a lovely book of Canadian author pics by the Israeli photographer Danielle Schaub. (The photograph in the book is dg reading under an awning at the Eden Mills Literary Festival and should not be confused with the photo on the right, which is a picture of rat.) The full reference is Reading Writers Reading, Danielle Schaub, editor and photographer, University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, 2006. The essay was subsequently reprinted in Geist 62, Fall 2006. I post it because there is a rat theme developing (see the post below as well as the villanelle contest where one of the entrants has linked in a photo of a rat, some kind of performance art, one assumes). There is also a reading to your children thread following the Steven Heighton poem posted a week or so ago. The convergence of vectors forces me to take desperate measures.
My mother read to me, and now I read to my boys. They are twelve and nine. Their mother and I are divorced; they spend half the time with me. We live in shabby upstate New York suburbia with a variable menagerie of pets: dogs, squirrels, rats, cats and, once, an opossum. (Some things an innocent parent should never be exposed to: Walking into the boys’ bedroom one evening, I was greeted by Jonah shouting, “Look, Dad! Bungee rat.” Poor rat.) Last year we read David Copperfield, mostly in the evenings before the boys went to sleep. We read in my bed because we can all get in it together (along with the dogs and the cat). The boys still shout, “Donkeys! Janet! Donkeys!” when they’re in a good mood and want to remember the pleasure we shared over David’s aunt and her front yard obsession about donkeys. Or Jacob will look at me slyly and say, “Barkis is willin’” or “I’m a lone lorn creature.” And I still remember the aching sadness of David’s realization that he had married a child wife and not an adult companion of his heart. One day, the last of the rats, a beige female the boys had christened Rex (don’t ask why) collapsed in her cage, eyes shut, her breath coming in quick, shallow pants. We’d been through this before. We knew she was dying. I made a nest for her in a shoe box and kept her beside me in my study all day. And when the boys came home from school, they took up the death watch. Rex never regained consciousness but did manage to breathe into the evening. As usual we climbed into bed with tea and David Copperfield and began to read. We had reached the tempest chapter, that terrific moment of convergence when David watches Ham throw himself into the surf to swim to a sinking ship and simultaneously realizes that the nefarious Steerforth, who has seduced Ham’s little Emily and ruined her, is a passenger on the ship. Ham swims; Steerforth dashes about on deck; the storm rages. Suddenly the ship, Ham and Steerforth disappear beneath a huge wave. Simultaneously, a desperate little sigh burst from Rex’s shoe box deathbed. The boys and I jumped up to look. Rex kicked her back legs once, trembled and died in what struck us immediately as a Dickensian coincidence of life and literature. (As I write this, Jonah reminds me of the other great Dickens moment in our house: when the boys discovered the character in Oliver Twist known as Master Bates.)