Joyland

New York |

An Aesthetics of Rat Bites

by Stacy Hardy

Honorable Mention, 2017 Open Border Fiction Prize

Always, I am overcome by their beauty. My lungs tighten in my chest and the color of my blood brightens. I run my hands over the marking. “Bite” seems to me to be the wrong word, inadequate, the skin is not broken exactly, there are no teeth marks, only a slightly scalded appearance, as if the skin has been burned or scraped, gnarled rather than pierced.

Compared to the bites of predators—the lion, the crocodile, the great white shark that inhabits these waters, they are insignificant, lacking in drama. Biology determines this. The shark is a solitary swimmer, eating is how it interacts. This makes the bite very physical—the shark comes with it, not just as a wounding of the flesh but something material, predatory and projectile, a break in the water, a blue-grey fin that circles and then the setting: the endless ocean that glitters, how the water churns and then closes over.

With rats, it is different, they are communal, travel in packs. Their nests seethe. Their bites present themselves in clusters, not so much organization as orgiastic, a clump of welts without differentiation, multiple punctures, stunted, small and hard, often scattered across the extremities, especially the upper extremities: the face, arms and hands, the feet and the ankles.

Context is important. When and where the bites occur: largely at night and mostly in low-income areas. Those bitten are mostly children, of either sex, and often under five-years in age. In most cases, mysterious blushed birthmarks dot a toddler’s skin in the morning, especially moist areas—the mouth, the nose, the creases of the elbows, as well as the genitals. This often leads to misidentification. Parents mistake rat bites for other harmless gripes—eczema and scabies and canker sores.

The situation is exacerbated by the social conditions under which many bite victims are forced to live. High bite rates are recorded amongst the ill, the elderly, among premature babies and patients recovering from surgery, drug addicts. Inhabitants of townships and informal settlements are especially prone, because of their financial precariousness, the lack of government services to these areas and the shakiness of the accommodation: apartheid-era living conditions that persist despite democracy, housing structures rapidly constructed on the fringes of the city, shacks composed of cheap, untreated wood and overlapping corrugated iron sheets that leave gaping clefts in the walls and ceiling, allowing in wind and wet. And rats.

Initially my documentation takes the form of field trips, expeditions into urban slums, seeking out illegal rubbish dumps, condemned and abandoned buildings in industrial neighborhoods. From under bridge, to skyscraper. One particular building, the walls are long gone, the roof has been stripped, the sun comes in through the rafters at an angle. Everything tilts. The whole frame looks perilous, posts like skinned ribs. I walk beneath them, climb gingerly over slippery planks. Still, there are people. I call out and they emerge from the shadows. Young men and boys in their late teens, wayfarers and tick-heads. Their pace is languid but I see the aggression in their bodies, how they look at me with hooded eyes. They do not understand my interest but I give them money and they allow me entrance, bare their bodies to reveal lattices of ink tattoos, numbers and symbols, other marks, etched deeper, scars and abrasions.

Zooming in, I have to remind myself that the bites are in and of themselves mostly harmless. Unlike with a shark bite, death is not contained in the actual wounding, the shock of torn flesh or the bleeding that comes after. It is not expressed, merely suggested, in the promise of future plagues and contamination, the possibility of rat bite fever or other diseases and infections.

Over time, I have learned to ignore these warnings, to swallow my fear and suppress pity, to gaze behind the mask of perceived tragedy and seek out something deeper, a secret script, a pattern embedded in the skin of those bitten—framed, distorted and endlessly repeated. Each time, I am amazed at how the broken, displaced and afflicted body becomes a fertile ground of beauty, how each bite reveals a specific shape, an abstraction into whose depths I press my hands. I have the fingers for it…

I lean in to examine a toddler's knees and elbows. There are small but noticeable deficiencies, blemishes and scratches. These are the physical attributes; the ones I can touch and describe. There are other, psychological ones, which go much deeper. They are not within my ambit. I constrain my documentation to the afflicted area, adjust focus to capture only the lesions themselves.

My collection so far includes hundreds of photographs. Pictures, strewn, curled at the edges. Limbs of children and babies, elbows and shoulders dislocated from arms, streaked with red grazes, fading to pink toward the edges; brown fretwork abrasions etched across mouths and under noses, and raised pockmarks in the cleft of an elbow. Repetition is key here. Not just in the regularity of the attacks but the multiplicity of the wounds themselves, which mostly take the form of surface injuries, lacerations and abrasions that result in various forms of ecchymoses and haematomas. It is these that give the bites their extraordinary colours and textures. You see little pinks and long reds. Deep browns that bleed into gradations of warm honey-yellow and light-pale blue-purples. At times the bites are raised in texture: macules, plaques, papules or nodules, which can range in size from a few millimetres to large confluent areas many centimetres in diameter.

Sometimes the surface forms defy description. Behind my computer, flicking through the images, I see things, shining shapes like polished rat incisors, the twirl of a tail or curve of a distended claw. I run my hands over the screen’s lacquered surface and it is almost as if I can feel a cavity, something coiled and gnawingly familiar. Usually, I transfer the photographs to sketches. I use photoshop to trace the outlines. I print the results and file them. I am trying to find a pattern that will incorporate all the bites—the full spectrum of lacerations and abrasions. At night, I often lie awake trying to remember each one, each bite inflicted on skin. I have endless images that I hold against each other, then against the light.

The decision to turn the camera on myself is a necessary progression. I grow tired of forever straining my eyes for traces, blinking against tricks of the light. The children, surly boys and girls with knees drawn up, staring at me with that fixed look, and the babies who confront my gaze with accusing dimples. Each encounter leaves me hollow, a pit I fill with theory stolen from post-colonial documentary photography and ethnographic studies. I tell myself I am without blame so long as I remain conscious of my context, my privileged position, the political issues that are inherent to race relations and the crisis of photographic representation in postcolonial Africa.

My skin is smooth, unblemished and pale as duck fat. It burns easily. The mud stains my ankles as I walk through the settlement, past dilapidated shacks where abject children eye me blankly. The house is set slightly apart, off from the street. As soon as I enter the boy starts to cry. The mother is embarrassed, tries to shush the child but this only makes him scream louder. His face is a fist. His arms and legs thrash against her grip. I see the defiance in his eyes as I try to approach, slowly, hand outstretched, camera ready. The boy’s teeth are small but sharp. The mark they leave is a grinning half-moon. I laugh about it, tell the mother not to worry, say, I’ll come back at another time when it is more convenient… but we both know I am lying.

Back home my arm accuses me. The bite mouths warnings, barely audible whispers shiver again my skin, nest in my bloodstream. The eye of my camera blinks black. I switch it on and scroll through the options, select: “delete all.” My digital studio is easy to pack. I move into a new area. The rent is half what I used to pay. I sign the lease without seeing the apartment, but it turns out better than I expected. A bedroom and a bathroom and a small kitchen. The area is transitory, my neighbours are mostly immigrant families, newly arrived, mothers working two jobs to survive and young people who could be students or drug dealers or both or neither.

I give my life over to the chaos that surrounds me, leave dishes unwashed and let my rubbish accumulate in the passageway. Outside the air is heavy and dead. Rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys and shadows. There is no grass between buildings. Too many toxins in the soil, too much lead and blood. I walk and talk to people. I see things, a shimmer of stagnant water and a whiff of rot. I close my eyes and picture future armies of rodents gnawing their way through our cities, nesting in our accumulated human waste, a seismic flood tide birthing new generations. It is somehow egalitarian—the perfect leveler. In this future, wealth and race will offer no protection. Rats do not discriminate. Capitalism will collapse under the collective weight of rat infestation. Rodents will travel in packs from the outskirts inwards.

Already it has started, see how they overrun the sewers, descending by drainpipes into the gutters, the mouth of the tunnel, the yawning darkness of the alleyways—so much better adapted to the urban environment than we are. I map the passages, secret routes that run up from the storm-water drains, through metal grates and into the street where the waste from a McDonald's stagnates, rotting. The pavement is cracked. The garbage seethes, alive with vermin. The truck arrives and uploads them, offers free transport to the rich suburbs and enclosed shopping malls.

It’s only a matter of time. Soon we will all suffer from bites, to such an extent that society will have to learn to adapt, to integrate the rats into the general weave of our cultural and moral aesthetic. A language will develop, new words and expressions to replace staid medical discourse. Tunneling sentences punctuated with dark nouns and gauze-like verbs. Music will open itself up to gravelly hisses and high pitch squealing tones, shape-shifting melody and pitter-patter beats. Fashion too will evolve, I picture bodies buried under musky fur coats, young men in sharp metallic chokers and small dark women draped in strange fabrics—rat bite paisleys, toile and tribal weaves bearing distinctive teeth marks, filigree patterns: urban wear performing sort of reverse camouflage, not to make bites invisible, but hyper-visible, rat bites rendered synonymous with skin surface, no distance between the bite and those bitten.

A few weeks after moving in, I rig up a surveillance system in my bedroom. The technician tells me he is studying computer engineering part-time while he mounts cameras and runs wires from the ceiling. I see how he looks at me, my squalid living conditions versus the price of the equipment; its specific placement so as to cover the bed from every angle. He licks his lips and I see predatory desire flicker in his eyes. Maybe he is right, in a way. I am always surprised by the footage. The bareness of it is what snags me. The rawness especially. I notice this on the skin of my arms and legs in contrast to the tops of my breasts, where the surface is, I think, damp and gleaming against the sheer vest I sleep in, my cleavage poking through the fabric, and the thin glimpse of my thighs, firm and resplendent, through the pale sheeting.

I lie, my body heavy, on the half-empty bed, twisting, spinning. My mind cartwheels. I think about movement. I contemplate it. Try to imagine the smallest part of myself—my arm, my forearm, my hands rising up to protect my face, tearing off the bedding. My feet lifting. On the screen I am dead, so still that I’m not sure if I am breathing. My eyelids flutter, a sign of life. I can blink. But I can’t move my mouth. Something terrible is happening on the screen, something devastating. But I can’t do anything. It’s like those bad dreams when your body is unresponsive, paralysed. I can’t whisper. I can’t scream. My legs feel numb, distant.

Move, I say in my head when the first rat comes. One and then two, inching towards something. And then too many to count, to keep count of because of how they are racing, their speed and dexterity, the multiple journeys of approaching and then vanishing. They swarm zigzags. Some slither. Some spring. Others hop. They amass: thronging, fervent, flexile. By then it is too late. They swirl downwards in an expanding mass that overflows, slips between the sheets, between my inner thighs, scrambles against the soft skin between the lips and my nose, my mouth.

In the morning, I am thrown awake, sprung from the tangled mess of a dream. My cheeks burn. My mouth is dry. It feels dirty. I stand slowly and survey the room, thick with early-morning quiet. I am hungover from the sleeping pills taken the night before. Still, I am shocked by my appearance. It wakes me, wrenches me out of my stupor. The multiple abrasions on my thighs and forearms. They seem shocking, unclean, or overly revealing. I touch them lightly, wince at the wet of flesh, at how my fingers come away bloody. It is much worse on my face where the bites accrue. They bunch together around my lips, form twists, coiled and fretted like bruises.

I go back to my bedroom to fetch some equipment. I take a selfie, close up, zoomed into my mouth.

I smile for the camera.