believed what we heard that night was a rat. The incident happened
in late August of 1950, right before I entered first grade and
not long after Daddy returned from his construction job on the
Island of Okinawa. Hed been away for an entire year. While
he was gone, we moved from Georgia to a small town in the foothills
of North Carolina. The name of the town was Quicksand and we settled
right in the heart of itclose to the school, the dry cleaners,
the grocery store and the Methodist Church. The white frame house
we moved into had two bedrooms, a breakfast nook, a big backyard
with two water oak trees and rollaway stairs that led to an attic.
Mama rarely threw anything away for fear Daddy would call for
it and this included moth-eaten clothes, outdated detective magazines,
broken tools, pieces of fishing tackle, empty tobacco tins, work
boots, belts missing buckles, buckles missing belts, burnt out
bulbs from flashlights and anything else a person could imagine.
When we moved, she brought all that stuff along and stored it
up in the attic. We learned later that the attic was rat infested.
Whenever Mama pulled down the rollaway stairs, I would scamper
up behind her. In spite of the fact that I knew rat flea bites
could prove fatal, I felt it was worth the risk to search through
the cardboard boxes scattered around. To my never ending delight,
photographs, letters, receipts and report cards had found their
way to the attic along with my sisters old evening gowns,
empty pocketbooks, run down high heel shoes and outgrown bathing
suits. Some boxes held dark secrets. My Grandfather shot himself
through the heart but I might never have known if I hadnt
discovered the yellowed newspaper clipping hidden at the bottom
of Othermamas jewelry box that shed stashed up there
for safekeeping. Our attic couldve been fun if it hadnt
been for the rats. Mama was scared to death of them; nobody else
liked them either. The previous tenants reported that some grew
as big as cats and dogs.
We were still trying to get used to Daddy's return home. Hed
never had a lot of patience but it seemed to me like everything
got on his nerves. Wed all gone to bed that night and the
house was pitch black. I slept in Mama and Daddys bedroom.
Snuggled up to Mama (we slept together in a double bed), I was
almost asleep when I heard noises coming from above.
Shhh! she said. We waited but didnt hear anything
else. I was almost asleep when the noises started again. I heard
what sounded like somebody walking across the attic in heavy shoes.
I heard each footstep. Then the walking stopped. Under the covers,
I grabbed Mamas arm. Suddenly, I heard breathing. Someone
or some thing was standing by our bed.
Mama, Daddy? a voice whispered. I nearly jumped out
of my skin. It was my big brother Jake. Did you hear that?
he asked. I think somebodys in the attic.
Daddy slept on a single bed not far from the foot of Mamas.
Shhhh! Daddy whispered, listen.
Oh my God, Mama whimpered, Could it be a rat?
If its a rat, he's wearing Daddys old work boots,
For a minute or so the only sound in the house was the beating
of my heart. Then the noises started up again. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
Now the footsteps seemed to be right overhead. I held on to Mamas
arm for dear life.
D.W., should we call the police? Mama whispered. Daddys
answer nearly caused my heart to stop beating.
Cut it out! Cut it out! He screamed. Daddy had the
loudest voice of anyone in the whole world. He couldve been
an opera singer or perhaps, as Othermama suggested, a hog caller.
Following his shouts, the footsteps stopped and I felt safewhatever
was up there mustve feared Daddy, too. Daddy ordered Jake
back to bed. Mama started to say something but Daddy said, Go
to sleep now, goddammit. As far as Daddy was concerned,
the matter was closed. Why did he have to yell? I wondered. Why
did he have to scare the footsteps off? Why didnt he go
up to see what was going on?
The next day my other brother Ben and I scouted around the house
looking for tracks. A hard summer rain had fallen the night before
and the ground was still muddy. The only tracks we found below
the attic windows looked like a small dog had made them. We showed
the tracks to Othermama. Recalling a ghost story that GaGa, my
paternal Grandmother often told, I said, Maybe these are
cloven hoof prints.
Yeah, maybe the Devil came to visit, Ben said. Othermama
threw back her head and laughed. She had a laugh that everybody
lovedit came from somewhere way deep down in her round belly.
He doesnt have to come visit, she said, the
Devil lives here. Ben and I didnt laugh.
Soon after we heard the noises in the attic, Mama got the phone
book and called an exterminator. He put poison down and told her
that her worries were over. The next morning, neighbors started
calling. Estelle Jordan was the first to phone. Othermama said,
Calm down, Estelle, I cant understand a word
why should I shut the windows? Next, Lenora Boovy called,
sobbing. Lenora was an animal lovertook in the town strays.
She also took too many Goody Powders according to Othermama. She
had been known to house as many as thirty-five cats as well as
ten dogs at a timein addition to cages full of love birds,
hamsters, parakeets and anything else that needed a place to stay.
Estelle and Lenora claimed they witnessed rats diving out our
attic window. My sister Rosebud shrugged at the news.
I cant blame those rats, she said, nothing
in its right mind would want to live with us. But of course,
we ran to see. We were looking up at the attic on the west side
of the house when something that couldve been a squirrel
with a long skinny tail appeared in the window. It seemed to pause
a moment as if thinking before it leaped off the ledge. Everybody
screamed and jumped back but Ben. My brother never seemed to sense
danger and didnt jump fast enough. The rat almost landed
on his head. By mid morning, Jake had hauled six lifeless bodies
in the wheelbarrow to the garbage dump for burning. Estelle and
Lenora wanted Mama to call the police but instead she called the
exterminator and begged him to please, come quick.
Estelle and Lenora, followed by a small crowd of neighbors, gathered
in our yard that afternoon to hear what the man had to say. Othermama
brought out a pitcher of sweet tea and served it with a tray of
her homemade lemon drop cookies fresh from the oven. The exterminator,
a tall, skinny man who wore thick glasses and a hearing aid, explained
in a loud voice that the poison he used kills fast and makes its
victims gasp for air. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead
with the back of a trembling hand. This beats all,
he shouted. Ive been exterminating for yearsthirty-five
years, and I never knowed rats to commit suicide. We waited
silently while he gulped the rest of his sweet tea. My advice,
the exterminator concluded, looking up expectantly, is to
steer clear of them windows.
Damn, I couldve told you that, a neighbor standing
behind me mumbled. Then the exterminator added, I swear,
I think this countrys headed for another combustion.
Whats a combustion? The same neighbor mumbled.
After the exterminator left, Mama explained to those still standing
in the yard stuffing themselves with lemon drop cookies that he
probably meant we were headed for another depression.
Rosebud, who had dressed up in a pastel pink pedal pusher outfit
with matching sandals to hear the exterminator speak, wanted to
call the newspaper with the story but Mama made her put down the
phone. You just want to get your picture in the paper,
Mama said. I dont need a reporter sticking his nose
in our business. Othermama always had the last word where
Mama and Rosebud were concerned and she said, In the name
of Almighty God, let the rats die in peace.
Although Daddy didnt allow us to discuss it, I couldnt
help but worry about the visitor in our attic. Questions haunted
me. Why had it come? Where did it come from? What did it want?
Did the thing eat the poison, too? Had it jumped to its death
and been hauled away and burned? Or, had it escaped? I never told
anybodynot even Mamabut I suspected that whatever
walked in Daddys boots that night might still be alivehiding
behind a box in the attic or hovering in a dark cornerlisteningwaiting
to make its next move.
Kimbrell graduated from UNC at Greensboro with a BA in Drama/Speech.
While attending Columbia University, she was awarded six Woolrich
Fellowships in writing.
Examples of her fiction appear online in Plum Biscuit and