Last autumn, as a way of passing the time on my commute, I spent a week or so listening to an audiobook of Albert Camus’s The Plague. Early September had been A Room With a View, and prior to that For Whom The Bell Tolls. Those dark mornings and late afternoons placed me in a heavy, incense-sweet, tragically beautiful haze, one that fit in nicely with the falling leaves and thick sweaters and general rotundity of the season. It was easy driving. One part of me obeyed the traffic lights. The other diffused into those voices, those faceless sonorous narrators who lifted me above the asphalt into thousands and thousands of words—art, pine needles, rabbit, wine, sonata—nouns of a color, hue, and connotation writ with welcome.
Perhaps this is why The Plague left my face pinched and sweaty, my fingers clutching the wheel, my skin itching straight into the hours I spent not driving but also working, eating, sleeping.
Rats. Big rats. Rats with sopping wet fur. Rats that halted and spun and worst of all squealed right before blood spurted from their mouths. Vermin, one hundred percent. An infestation. A pestilence. A plague, for God’s sake. What was I filling my mind with? Well, I was filling my mind with rats. I had become accustomed to narrators and their [End Page 17] subsequent voice actors, voices as smooth as chocolate, nutty when necessary. But here was slime slithering over the filth on some street, creeping into and over the cartilage of my ears, sliding and sticking down into the canals, nibbling through the drums until my dreams collapsed into currents of feet, whiskers, tails.
I had to stop listening. All the symptoms of dis-ease were taking a toll. People were asking after my health. I don’t consider myself a quitter of things, least of all literature, but finally one morning I pressed eject mid-sentence. Pressed it hard. Eject! Eject, eject, eject! A kind of panic rose up, and traffic be damned, I had the uncontrollable impulse to check the car—under the seats, in the glove box, under some old mail, behind the vents—Jesus!—what if they were behind the vents? I flung the CD onto the passenger seat and squealed. I cannot say whether blood actually spurted from my mouth. Probably not. But it wouldn’t have surprised me. It might not even have bothered me so much. Once you feel so fully infested with something you cannot mentally handle for one more second, the practice of bloodletting starts to sound sane.
Soon after this, I returned to audiobooks like O Pioneers! and Tender Is the Night. Repeatedly, though, I would glimpse The Plague on the library shelf and feel a kind of pang. Dread, I thought, shuddering. But also: Oh, yes, those drives, those electric mornings burned up by an ancient and terrible flame.
“Get scared,” Camus is quoted as saying. “It will do you good.”
I suppose what he means is: Don’t turn away. Haze and ease and welcome have their place, but fear reminds us we’re alive.
He has a point.
Even now—rats broken down into four distinct letters, little separated from squeal by a wisp of white space—I find myself wide-eyed in those back alleys of the mind: apprehensive about the dark hours ahead of me, awaiting the scrape of foot-taps, the soft squeaking, sensing the matted fur, gray and bristly, along my bare ankles, the slide of a tail—dry and hairless as winter—wrapping lightly around my wrist like jewelry for the dead. [End Page 18]
Emily Brisse’s essays and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, and her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from The Fourth River, Armchair/Shotgun, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Hippocampus. She teaches high school English in Minneapolis.