Saigon Sky Rat

It was a late afternoon as I was staring out the glass patio door of my temporary apartment in Saigon when a rat fell from the sky.

The sky rat, unlike the average cat, made no attempt to right itself in the air to land on its feet. The rat fell on its head.

New York rats and Saigon rats look the same. Both are the “Norway rat,” but that's a misnomer, as this ilk of rat, puzzlingly, originated in Northern China and Mongolia. (In my mental globe, Mongolia is below China, but in truth it is north of China.) My visions of these rodents underplank or pilfering the food of hippy-haired Vikings in their ships have been dead wrong.

Charles Dickens acknowledged this speciel misnomer in his weekly journal, All the Year Round, writing: “Now there is a mystery about the native country of the best known species of rat, the common brown rat. It is frequently called, in books and otherwise, the 'Norway rat', and it is said to have been imported into this country in a ship-load of timber from Norway. Against this hypothesis stands the fact that when the brown rat had become common in this country, it was unknown in Norway, although there was a small animal like a rat, but really a lemming...”

(That lemming Chuck D. might have been referring to could be Homo sapien.)

I watched the sky rat, still wobbly from impact, tear at a piece of spicy chicken I had placed outside to keep its encroaching Earth-bound brethren at bay. For its hunger, it payed the price of an uncontrollable licking at the gums and lips. When it spied me through the glass wall and approached—species and species staring each other down, the rat from the sky and me, now a specimen in a humanarium, became glued together amid the Covid crisis. Our staredown was strangely comforting.

Rats have never revolted me and there is much to admire in the rat, no matter how surface dirty most believe them to be. Rats are highly capable—of learning, solving complex problems, detecting disease, retaining episodic memories, even empathetic rescue. The immune system of rats is strong, especially in sewer and street rats, moreso than their more bred and docile albino cousins in the lab or cage or aquarium. No wonder rats have special temples dedicated to them in India. Back in the day, I used to marvel while others fled from New York City's very own Ganges River of rats that would pour from trashcans or restaurant garbage heaps. Filet mignon, escargot, or foie gras, anyone?

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Friends male and female have kept rats as pets—one named, “Slayer,” after the band, the other named “Flower,” who would get drunk on grapes. One of my adolescent idols Henry Rollins' best early monologues was “Shed Reading (Rattus Norvegicus),” from Black Flag's Family Man LP, told the tale of a rat that dreamed of becoming a talk show host. It sort of happened.

The sky rat sat on his haunches, still a little shaky on his paws, against the intervening glass, chewing his cud of chicken and flicking his whiskers. Rats do not wag their tails like dogs. I wish they did. Nature, give me my wish.

Are we so good at solving mazes as the rat? Hardly. Surviving without luxury or benefits or mortgages or insurance? Hardly. Staving off disease? Hardly. Pure survival?

Across our international, interspecies mind meld, sky rat and I could have uttered the same charge: You clever, maze-solving, crumb-chasing polluter of terra, spreader of disease and chaos, individual and group member, Mother Earth-fucking rattus norvegiticus or homo sapiens, using mine to safeguard yours—good luck!

Rats sometimes emit short, ultrasonic, socially induced vocalizations during play, while mating, when tickled, or before receiving morphine (and who can blame them?). This “chirping” has been likened to laughter (in some cases, orgasm), interpreted as an expectation of something rewarding. Whether it expected some opiated reward from me, I didn't know, but the sky rat did just that, started to chirp. Soon enveloping both of us in voluminous, chirping song, some laughing serenade for the lost.

Currently, I am in Asia, so it being the Year of the Rat, it makes sense such a creature, a connector of here with there, East with West, would fall from the sky before the eyes of a displaced being from New York biding his time for a way home.

“You are super rat,” I said to the rat from the sky who refused to budge. With that, the rat scampered off the patio along a pipe.