"Manifesting The Rat" by Deborah Harada

Deborah Harada

Deborah Harada

Deborah is a writer living on the island of Oahu. She's taught creative writing for the past 8+ years and is now teaching through a University of Hawaii program. Her work has appeared in Rattle, The Comstock Review, Spillway, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and other outlets. She is currently working furiously to finish her second novel. Her first novel was selected for a Faber Academy workshop on writing and revision.

Manifesting The Rat

Last week, Elijah the exterminator came by to check things out, replace the rat bait and put a trap under the kitchen sink. We’ve been hearing scratching in the kitchen ceiling, my husband’s studio, and one corner of the living room for a couple months. The dogs regularly monitor underneath the stereo console in the living room for activity, but we haven’t actually seen anything. 

After Elijah’s visit, I thought about how it’s possible that as an exterminator, he could devote his entire career to chasing the invisible. That he might see evidence everywhere, but never the actual live critter. I liked the confounding sense of purpose and mystery in this observation. As a writer, I tucked it away, at least subconsciously.

Yesterday I went for an early morning walk in Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. It’s a jungle of a garden that just happens to be near my house on the windward side of O’ahu. O’ahu is the most populated of the Hawaiian Islands, but you’d never know it at 6:45 a.m. in this botanical garden. I am alone on a road that runs smack into the Ko’olau Mountains. Imagine Jurassic Park tucked into a little neighborhood, five minutes from your house. 

I’m not the only one who’s discovered the park. There’s a density of birds and therefore, a riot of birdsong, glorious enough to convince me I should turn off my podcast and float along. I puffed uphill and congratulated myself on immersion into the quiet. I heard the far off hum of traffic, but it quickly faded into the background. Except for the wind and the birds, it was quiet. 

Quiet is good for us. We all know that, but quiet is unsettling. You never know what thoughts could rise up, anything could happen. The thoughts that scurried and gnawed their way through my morning centered on the characters in my latest book. 

I’m three-quarters through a very messy draft with multiple timelines and multiple POVs. It’s an intriguing and fragile time. I spread index cards all over my office floor, ordering and reordering scenes, finding gaps, shooing the dogs away before they mess up my rows of cards. 

But this activity has a purpose beyond storyboarding. It’s a distraction from self-doubt so my day isn’t consumed by the fear that I’m not up to the task of bringing this story to fruition. But then there are moments where my fingers fly over the keyboard like it’s a piano and I know the story is good. Then, we cycle around and I struggle to hear how Cora’s voice pitches when she argues with her husband. The daughter makes plans, but do we actually believe she’ll follow through, that she has the daring and courage? I have to get this right. 

My concerns were broadly craft-oriented on this particular morning. Are these characters memorable, compelling, believable? Will the reader care about them? Am I going deep enough? Am I listening closely to what Lila, my protagonist is telling me?

Reaching no answers, I turned to something a writing buddy, Connie had shared over the weekend. She had recently gotten some great critique from a mentor. It included a bomb of a question—what is your main character’s secret dream? 

It’s a good one, right? Lila is a cracker-jack private detective, willing to throw a punch at her partner in order to guard her own secrets. While she hates cold cases, she is fierce in her belief that anyone who’s gone missing deserves to be found. She grew up in Eugene, Oregon. Joined the FBI right out of grad school. Has regretted a string of heartbreaks even as she makes the same mistakes over and over. Wonders if it’s a good idea to get a dog. But what is Lila’s secret dream? I skipped over berating myself for not immediately knowing and moved into thinking about the answer as I hiked through the jungle. 

I didn’t have to chase after it for long. As I marched along, birdsong replaced gnarled thoughts. The answer now dangled in front of me like a vine from one of the tall trees lining the road. Lila’s secret dream is to have a safe place to tell the story of her childhood. To finally unburden herself. And who knows? Maybe tell the stories of missing girls, some found and some lost. This led to imagining what a safe place would be for Lila. 

I almost sprinted the last part of my two-mile walk so I could get to my desk and scribble down the idea I now had for the ending of the book. Lila is going to write a letter to Cora. Cora is dead. I won’t go into details and spoil anything, but honestly, what could be safer than telling your secrets to a dead woman?

But let’s get back to our exterminator. Here is an excerpt from Lila’s letter to Cora:

My investigation into your murder wouldn’t change much whether I found Diane or not. It remained a maddening search for evidence that doesn’t exist. Like the exterminator who chases the rat. The rat becomes a target simply by being itself, for living its covert, invasive life. The exterminator seeks out signs of its existence—droppings, a clump of stiff gray hairs, a skitter in the wall or loose board signaling a stealthy exit—but possibly never the creature itself. A life devoted to trapping the invisible. 

I worked hard all day on this letter, it was longer and more emotionally revealing than I’d planned. But I got it to a good place for a first draft. 

In the late afternoon, I learned sad news about a playwright/poet friend in LA who won’t be with us for much longer. I texted a couple friends that I was bailing on our plans and let them know I needed time to absorb the news and just stare out the window. 

One of those friends brought me a lei of puakenikeni that she’d made herself. This is something that never happened to me on the mainland. Puakenikeni flowers are golden yellow with a fresh, sweet, clean scent. I’ve lived in Hawaii for two years and have not yet made a lei. The puakenikeni is a tender flower and not easy to work with from what I’ve been told. Sources differ on what the flower symbolizes, but I will always associate it with my friend Cynthia’s kindness. 

Before bed, I tended to the lei to preserve it and put it in the fridge. The dogs leapt into sudden action and scrambled down the little hallway that extends from the kitchen (where the fridge is) to the back door. They cornered something. In the dim light, I couldn’t see much. But since this is Hawaii, I knew there were a few possibilities. Perhaps I was about to come face to face with an extraordinarily large kamikaze-flying cockroach. A gecko caught unawares. A mouse who took a wrong turn. Or, let’s face it, you knew this was coming—a rat. 

Something gray darted. It could have been a shadow. But the dogs don’t pounce on shadows in dark hallways. I am not ashamed to say that I may have screamed. My nighttime melatonin gummies did nothing to halt a spiking adrenaline surge and I spun out, ran to the bedroom, jumped onto the bed and shouted to my poor sleepy husband that we had a mouse. 

I screamed Mouse! because I wasn’t ready to accept the rat verdict yet. Rats may have gotten a bad rap of long, scaly tails, as disease-carriers and relentless infiltrators. But like roaches and other vermin, they move erratically. That determined unpredictability makes them scary. They scurry and lurk and hide. Apologies to rat-lovers, but they do not belong in my house, in my pantry, or leaving droppings under the sink. But when Dean went out into the kitchen, he found nothing. The dogs were pretty enamored with a scent that came wafting out from under the fridge. But we saw and heard nothing else that night. 

In the morning, I got up to feed the dogs, walking fearlessly through the kitchen to the cabinet near the back door where we store the dog food. I plopped down their bowls and headed to my office. Dean came out a few minutes after that to make coffee. 

In the two to three minute span of time between me leaving and Dean entering the kitchen, the dogs pulled out the rat from the night before. Dead and cold. It had goo or slime or saliva on it. The dogs must have cleverly stored it in the space between the fridge and the sink cabinet overnight. It was on the small side for a rat, but a rat nonetheless. They spared me that six-am discovery, saving their morning surprise for Dean.

It took me until about eleven-am to put together that the rat from my imagination had appeared in my kitchen. This was the rat I thought my poor exterminator would chase but never see, the rat I’d written about and called invisible, covert, invasive. A target scrabbling across the late night kitchen floor—terrorizing me, delighting the dogs and grossing out my husband. 

What does it mean to manifest the rat? One girlfriend told me to get to my desk quick and write a short story about getting a super fabulous agent so that I manifest that too. A dream expert I know would probably nod her head sagely and say, “The veil is very thin.” Rats are called ‘iole in Hawaiian. They are not native to the land, but arrived over time with the Polynesians, Captain Cook and subsequent ships. 

The main story I know about rats in Hawaii was a misguided effort to eradicate them. In 1883, the mongoose was introduced to O’ahu and a couple of other islands to hunt down rats. Things didn’t go according to plan. The mongoose is a diurnal animal. Rats are nocturnal so the two never see each other. And so the number of invasive, destructive creatures roaming around with long tails and sharp teeth, increased.

As a writer, I sit at my desk chasing the invisible, hoping to trap the right words in the right order on the right page. Inspiration and creative endeavors are invisible until they have been contained in some fashion. Think golden lasso, not spring trap to hold the elusive and deliver it to the page. It is a mystery how these things come about, live within us and then within the reader. 

I have time to write today, but I am distracted. I keep wondering about the message of the rat and looking toward the kitchen from my desk. I can’t really see much unless I lean way over, almost falling out of my chair. I’ve got a piece called Donna by Ronnie Earl playing on a sort of loop. It’s an open, dreamy, minimal piece with blooming guitar and keyboard. A luscious, sweeping track, that calls for me to concentrate and write. And there you have it. Everything I need to keep going runs through my head in a kind of short-hand, slant rhyme—write, rat, wrote.