A Page Pounded Clean | Kathryn Scanlan | Granta

A Page Pounded Clean

Kathryn Scanlan

Before I lived here, I lived in a small room at the back of a narrow building where a man named Zuber made art from the regurgitations of the common house fly. He mail-ordered maggots by the pound and incubated them in long troughs of compost, and when the adult flies burst from their pupal cases, he fed them a mixture of sugar-water and paint. A fly vomits a little when it lands, and when Zuber’s flies landed on the blank canvases he’d hung around the studio, they vomited the paint they’d eaten. By the time the flies dropped dead a few weeks later, they’d made several abstract paintings which Zuber sold to his eager collectors.

My room was windowless and I kept the door shut, but still the foul smell of the flies found its way in, as did some stragglers who left little spots of paint on my comforter and sometimes, while I slept, on my face.

Next to my room was a kitchenette, a water closet, and a hose rigged to a galvanized tub for washing. One morning when I approached the toilet, a small rat was at the bottom of the bowl, struggling to climb the steep sides but slipping back, again and again, into the water. A faint squeaking sound was coming from the scratching of the rat’s claws on the porcelain or from the rat’s throat.

The rat looked exhausted, tremulous, pathetic. I took two stretcher bars from Zuber’s studio – he never worked before five in the p.m. – but when I propped one into the bowl, the rat was too weak to climb onto it. With the second bar I nudged the soft body until, finally, it sat on the end of the plank I held and began to crawl slowly towards me.

Behind the building was a small parking lot, some radicalized pots of abandoned tomato plants, a large dumpster, a smelly alley. I rushed to the dumpster and set the planks down next to it. The rat fell onto its side, then stood, blinking – but when it took a shaky step, a white cat popped up, clamped its mouth around the rat’s neck, and carried it off like a mother’ll carry her kitten for safekeeping or, in distress, for eating.

When I tell this story, the person I’m telling it to looks at me like I’m the rat – pitiable, repulsive. Why didn’t you just flush it? they always ask, which is probably why I woke again this morning from the dream in which my baby – squirrel-sized – slips from my arms and is promptly sucked down a toilet’s mouth. I can’t reach her, can’t help her – but because my baby is already dead, I attribute the dream to some sick angel who gets a kick out of sending me these slapstick scenes of loss.

I got up, made coffee, and took a cup of it outside to a rusted iron chair on a broken little terrace above the neighbor’s garbage cans. A small green lizard crept across some stacked cinderblocks and onto the pavement near my feet, where a steady stream of newly hatched insects fluttered from a fissure in the concrete. For several minutes, the lizard ate them like a dog drinks from a garden hose – in violent, joyful gulps – but then, from a branch above my head, a black cat dropped to the ground. The cat vanished behind a bush, and what was left of the lizard was its tail.

There was no shriek, no gore, but the tail – it looked electrically charged. Furious, it kinked and unkinked, twitched and writhed – alive. I sat with it, drinking my coffee. I hoped it would never stop. But then a jay landed, plucked up the tail in its beak, and flew off.

The jay is a bird I admire for its tenacity and assertiveness, though it is thought by some to be a bully. A family of them nests near my bedroom window. In the mornings, their cross talk wakes me up, but it’s good to hear complaints voiced loudly in the open air. To protest your kin, your home, your lot, the sky – it’s life-affirming. There are fewer flies where I live now but occasionally there are roaches, and I’ve abandoned the idea of my life as a rising arc of improvement. If anything, it might resemble bird prints on a wet beach: erratic, energetic, unintelligible, erased daily.


Image © Blacklisted

Kathryn Scanlan

Kathryn Scanlan is the author of Aug 9—Fog and The Dominant Animal. She lives in Los Angeles and is the recipient of a 2021 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Image © Melanie Schiff

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