Instinct

Posted by on April 26, 2014 
Filed under Nonfiction

The rats came at night. They skittered on the corrugated metal roof of the house on Kaua’i, in Hawaii, in the jungle, on a mountain. It sounded like they had built paths through the house’s walls, laid out blueprints, and erected scaffolding. The walls which usually sounded hollow, like they lacked insulation, until you heard their tiny claws scratching and ticking in a disjointed Morse Code more akin to instinctual movement than the relaying information. I heard their claws tapping on every surface they touched as if they tested the surface for weak spots, vulnerabilities in the inner-wall structure. One cannot stand scaffolding amongst in a treacherous void. No, these rats seemed smart, like they’d run this kind of operation before. The noises they made in those walls gave me this impression. They sounded careful, practiced, and alert to the sounds they made as well as the sounds they heard on the other side of the drywall. My world, but not really. I wanted them to sound considerate, like they didn’t want to arrest my slumber with too much noise. I knew this wasn’t true. I was a new guest in their home. They controlled this space, this house. I merely waited in silence for their eventual arrival. We were still getting to know each other. They didn’t want to screw in front of me, yet.

There were two rats. I saw them often. The first, I think this was the male, was about a foot long minus his segmented tail. He carried his fur on him like a wet bird’s feathers. It stuck out in points on its ends and appeared innately greasy as if he lived in a near-empty container of petroleum jelly. His eyes were black shiny seeds, his ears ragged twitchy, constantly listening, assessing danger. The other, the female because of her smaller size of about eight inches minus her tail, retained a downy fluffiness to her fur not unlike that of a newborn baby ostrich. Her eyes stood out more than her counterpart’s, appeared to look at objects beyond their surface value. She haunted a room with her stare.

I slept little on Kaua’i. I knew my friends living in the house had already stopped one previous invasion of jungle rats just prior to my arrival, that Adam and Andy had managed to finally kill them all off, in the most violent ways possible. Some died by the conventional spring-loaded trap which had to be much larger to accommodate their unusually large bodies. Others died by high-powered pellet rifle, their guts exploded out of their torsos. But the real unlucky ones, these were also the dumbest and slowest, the real unlucky ones died by a “three-prong pole spear,” a tool usually exclusive to spear fishing off the Hawaiian coasts. The ones who died by “three prong” suffered a slow and bloody death, just the way “Chef” and “Captain” liked it. Both Adam and Andy spear fished regularly.  They both liked this land version a little too much.

A “three prong” is just what it sounds like, it is a trident, but a loaded trident, meaning that a thick rubber band attached at the end opposite the prongs’ pole can be stretched with the hunter’s hand while the pole rests comfortably under his arm. When it is time to strike, the hunter merely needs to point his arm and release the band from his grip to fling the trident, prongs first, at its target by the fastest means possible. Fish are not aware of “three prongs” as predators, neither are rats apparently.

The rats reeked of wit, and feces. They waited until the house fell silent before invading, until the lights darkened, until I rested comfortably on the floor. That they could be killed by an opponent with such a long and obvious weapon surprised me.

Questions, maybe asked then, definitely in rotation now: How did Adam and Andy get so near them to strike? Why did the rats let them? And why did these questions matter to me anyway? What good did they do while I was lying on a thin beige carpet in a light sleeping bag with rat chatter ticking by my head every few seconds? Why was I here? How had I become a rat- infested traveler?

At the time, these questions did not matter, maybe they still don’t. Making sense of my time on Kaua’i was often like that, trying to understand my instincts, my senses, why I felt the way I did when I did.

The island stands green in the Pacific like a jagged oasis, its mountain peaks sheer and veined as if time had not a chance to ruin them yet. Touching down there felt powerful, like I was finally somewhere, like I knew where I belonged. I had brought my running gear and planned to explore its wilderness endlessly, and I did do this, but that’s not what this story is about. Sometimes the island had other plans for me. Sometimes just being static in that place was enough of a journey. Sometimes I learned from rats what I couldn’t from the mountains. Sometimes I knew if I was careful I might never come back.

Tourists are not welcome on Kaua’i, well let me put it this way, we’re welcome but only in the resort area, the south side, where we will not disturb the people who actually deserve to be there. I knew this before I came. Adam had told me this many times, how outsiders, especially whites had to watch their backs on this island. I appreciated this fact and agree with the native culture’s point that whites, we do not preserve culture, we corrupt it. All the same, I still felt slightly uncomfortable. I am white. I am corruption. I am not of this land, I simply scar it. My attitude and character needed to speak ahead of my race; my blue eyes would not help me here.

I’m used to feeling uncomfortable in social situations. I’m used to being treated violently in them as well. Rural northern Virginia is not Kaua’i aesthetically, but the threat of violence always felt imminent because it was just that. It would happen. I never had to wait too long. Where I come from, you had to fight to be accepted, especially if you were not born in the Shenandoah Valley. I had to fight a lot. It never felt good. I hate it to this day. I hate myself for accepting it as a reasonable reality.

Fighting is a strange thing. There are lots of different kinds, right? There are physical fights, the kind in which body parts, usually ribs and noses, sometimes jaws, are broken. Then there are emotional fights, the kind in which the mind is the most scarred. Oftentimes, physical violence manifests into emotional trauma. The mind also seems to scar much slower and deeper as well. These two “fights,” for lack of a better term, are almost one in the same. But what other kinds are there? Well, there are the everyday disagreements we have with others that make us tense and pummel our emotions into putty at the end of the day, making us just want a beer, maybe three, and a sound lock on our door. There are also the internal fights we have with ourselves. The ones in which we debate our choices, raise moral concerns, and generally kink our emotions until they are knots, knots which can never be untangled, or ever decay.

My mind often struggles in solitude. My knots lay tangled inside a reinforced web of over examination. This web’s tensile strength causes immense inner tension. I need interaction with others, but often feel compelled to be quiet and shy, maybe even distrustful, around them if I don’t feel included in the social dynamics of a given situation. There is an irony here. I hate fighting, its erosion of communication into its basest form, physicality directed at another, yet I readily accepted in the moments when an aggressor pressed his will upon me like a wide iron anvil. I felt an unspoken communication between us. He wanted to hurt me bad, but knew the same could happen to him if he wasn’t careful. I always wanted to cry, yet somehow knew I’d pay even more if I did. I accepted the aggression instinctually. I used it to live, to defend myself, brokenness and all.

I could’ve fought these rats in those still jungle nights on Kaua’i when the only sound came from their screeched mating. I could’ve loaded Adam’s air rifle and waited crouched on the kitchen counter like a gargoyle for them to finish screwing and look for some scraps of food to shit out on the floor, but I didn’t.  I could’ve bought poison and laughed to myself as they tore into it at night, and laughed even harder when I smelled their decaying flesh somewhere within the walls of the house, but I didn’t. I could have bought traps, loaded them with peanut butter and waited, pairing my fingers, for the tell-tale snap, but I didn’t. I did nothing. I questioned my inability to act every night they came out to play.

I wondered why I just laid there, why I froze and just listened to their clicking instead of springing off the floor and chasing them around like a pale jungle beast of Satan. My inaction troubled me because I felt like it was my problem for some reason. I didn’t want to bother Adam and Andy about it. They were being very hospitable. I did not want to complain. I wanted to bear the stress of the rat occupation alone. I owned rats, well at least the idea of their nightly presence. Maybe they’d get bored and leave if I just ignored them. Maybe they made my nights more interesting. Either way, they were mine to deal with as I saw fit and I sensed that doing nothing was best, for all of us, after all they needed to eat and screw too, right? They weren’t like the goddamn wild roosters who started crowing at five in the morning right outside the house. The roosters were a cruel gang and their stench permeated the jungle at times, but they were phantoms. They were always gone after their demonic fits of laughter. They spoke in tongues just long enough to freak everyone out, but that’s another story. Let’s get back to my greasy little friends.

The nights were long, yes. They were lonely too. During the day I bounced around Kaua’i, running throughout Waimea Canyon, traversing the Kalalau Trail, etc. At night, it was just me and my thoughts, my insecurities really. I was in a very unfamiliar place and there was a certain amount of stress attached to me traveling the areas in which I wanted to run. I was going way out into the wilderness, in both the urban and rural sense. I had to drive right, not like a mainlander. I had to take my time, acknowledge everyone who stared at me by making eye contact and nodding upward with my eyebrows raised. I had to keep my music low in the truck lest someone should be offended by its easterness and decide to offend my face with their fist. There was an etiquette I had to follow in order to see the places on Kaua’i that I wanted to see and I was fully prepared to abide by it, but it wore me out by the end of the day. I tried to decompress at night, to not feel so bad about being white, but my conscience always hindered any progress.

I genuinely feel for others and want the best for everyone. This has always been my disposition, even when my actions haven’t shown it to be true, when I’ve had to hurt someone bad in order to not be as hurt myself. Being bullied is not an option I would recommend anyone have to endure, but I had no choice. I had to fight, sometimes hard and long, bloody. It broke me to act this way as a child and teenager and I thought I’d never be the shy nice kid I once was again. I thought violence had become a part of me even though I never wanted anything to do with it. The nights alone in the house on the side of the mountain reminded me of my violent scars and it scared me to think of killing the rats just like it scared me to think about the possibility of a violent confrontation between me and a local on Kaua’i. I did not want it, but I if it happened I would have no choice but to react.

These threats lingered in the air like rotten fish on more than one occasion while I was on the island. I kept my guard up, never letting on that I might be ready for an attack, praying that it would not come. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to stay on Kaua’i. I had to be careful. The people there deserve it, are as beautiful as the green-silken land they protect.  I’ve always wanted to be accepted. Looking back, maybe the rats, although probably dumb, lacking logic and feelings, maybe these rats were the first chance I had at being me again, maybe being shy around them would be good enough. Maybe it could be everything.

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