Love My Umbrella
By Rod Moody-Corbett
Content warning: Animal experimentation
That summer Lewis worked for a kind of scientist studying or anyway killing rats. There were thicker rats down in Animal Care, with long, bald coiling tails that protruded all at once, like gaunt sausage links, off the spine, but the sort of rats the scientist needed, or claimed he needed, were littler, with small, red, untwisting eyes, pink noses, and pinkish inner ears, dull yellow teeth, and paws of a finer, silkier grade of pink verging on prosciutto. They squirmed a whole bunch when you snatched them up in your fist and sometimes shat or nipped at you through the latex, which didn’t hurt much (and rarely broke the skin), but worried Lewis because of catching diseases. Often, it took cupping both hands over the rat, resting your thumbs over their low, limber cheeks, caressing that hairless seam where whisker met gum, to calm them.
What Lewis’s job was beyond carting the specimens, as they were sometimes called, up from the basement to the fourth floor of the Health Sciences Centre where the scientist conducted his research, he couldn’t quite say, exactly. He’d landed the job through Student Career Services, which was just a narrow teal room girded in varsity banners. The guy who’d helped him square away his application wore an officious black polo over tight-fitting joggers, the brevity of whose cuffs struck Lewis as professionally reckless, somehow. He suggested that Lewis might give some thought to declaring his Major (or Minor, for that matter), how this might improve his prospects, but Lewis wasn’t about to get into all that. He’d taken a history course called “The Revolution in Western Politics, 1775-1815” that he’d liked well enough, the painting of the Spanish rebels getting shot in front of that cold ashen dune, the way the blood trickled all realistically, like in a videogame where the bodies don’t disappear right away, on the sand, and another one, an intro to Physical Anthropology—where they had you studying pictures of ancient bones and skulls, learning about all the ways in which people first implemented stone cudgels to fend off rival sapiens and start fires—which Lewis hadn’t minded, except for the quizzes (which were hard).
The cages in which Lewis transported the rats were made of heavy glass with tilted metal grates. Sections of blue PVC pipe with foam inlays gave onto shallow clay saucers in which the rats regularly loitered and scamped, rummaging around in the woodchips and soggy squiggles of bark, prizing up pebbles of greyish corn kernels and groats, leaving furrows. A cask of water with a lean bendy nozzle like a hummingbird’s proboscis fit through the slats of their cage but the rats weren’t permitted water when Lewis fetched them as liquid might hamper the tests.
The solutions the scientist fed them came in graduated tubes with clear plastic caps that had to be kept refrigerated. The tray on which these were stored stood, pocketed and queued, like a bandolier. One of the solutions overpowered the others with a stink like gunky fish food, and when one afternoon Lewis enquired after this pungency, the scientist told him that it was fish food.
Because they worked with over a dozen rats, you had to label each of their tails in order to keep track of them. Labeling the tails was probably the high water mark of Lewis’s day. He liked tracing elaborate notches on each of the rats’ tails with one of his pens. He had a whole bunch of pens to choose from and a number of intuitive designs and patterns he applied in rotation. A green stripe with no wiggle cutting through it. A blue dot with a loose swallow of red surrounding. They’d first tried injecting the solution through the nape but found there’d been too much volume. The scientist would stick them in the neck with his syringe, but before he could even level his plunger all the way flush, it’d come lunging out of their eyes. Or felt like it might. Their heads bulged and the red eyes adopted a new droopiness, grew soft and ambushed in their wet.
Lewis prided himself on not feeling any major sadness when it came to dead animals. But the bulging of the heads and rising of liquid through the eyes made parts of his stomach churn. Instead of passing through the nape, then, the scientist decided they’d be better off diluting the solution and squirting it in through their mouths, resolving that this was kinder, or more humane, finally, for the rats. Lewis didn’t know what difference it made feeding the solution in this way as the rats just ended up in the same place anyway, which was dead, namely.
After they’d squirted the solution into the rats, it was Lewis’s next order of business to transfer the specimen to a new cage which had to be swabbed with ether. They kept the ether in a stubby brown carboy with a black stopper fixed to the neck, and the scientist insisted Lewis wear one of the high, banded surgical masks when he ladled from it. As the rats snuffled out the bounds of this, their final dormitory—it took roughly forty-five seconds for the ether to kick in—the scientist readied his scalpels.
By way of reference, the scientist had provided Lewis with a flimsily ringed laminate binder, which document reminded Lewis what certain of the inside bits of the rats looked like, and which ones got connected to what other ones, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, and so on. The brains weren’t that bad. They just looked like chewed gum, drained and dented. The scientist whittling away the ribs and cords of clinging white fat and passing Lewis the organs, which he in turn weighed. In fact, before the scientist even got to his whittling, Lewis had to weigh them. The whole rat and then the parts. When he was done weighing, and the weights noted, Lewis wadded up the organs in sheets of soft spongy paper and tucked these pieces of rat, which were a whole lot less full of gore and blood than you might expect, into one of the orange biohazard bags which it was the last part of Lewis’s job to wheel back down to the Animal Care Unit for disposal, at the end of the day.
On his breaks Lewis liked to walk across the street and smoke in the lankly wooded hills surrounding Long Pond. They wouldn’t let you smoke right outside the hospital anymore because of complaints from people whose loved ones were possibly dying inside, but Lewis had a pretty good spot he liked in the woods. Most of the nurses and maintenance staff tended to smoke in the cramped, birch-girdled dell right where you stepped onto the trails but Lewis didn’t like smoking around people. It seemed to go against why you might smoke in the first place, was his thinking. So he shirked this area and went up a ways into the trees where, under a sash of runty balsams, whose lower, west-leaning needles appeared somewhat blistered or sick, he had a good stump and decent cover from the runners who were always loping around the crushed gravel paths, breathing and panting rudely, and he sat there on his breaks and he smoked. He didn’t have much appetite for anything beyond cigarettes after a morning dicing up rats but sometimes he brought coffee. The woman who worked the counter at the Tim Horton’s in the Health Sciences Centre had to be in her late seventies. The tag on her shirt said Mona but she didn’t look like a Mona. She hardly spoke any English and what English she spoke came out garbled and all in a hush. She had dark brown eyes with what looked like scatterings of gold spilled in them and wore a pretty mesh hairnet, and Lewis liked to brush at her fingers when she handed him his coffee.
Today, he had specific business in the woods. He was meeting Donald behind the Fluvarium to sell him a pint of ether. He’d swiped one of the carboys of ether out of the lab earlier in the week and transferred its contents to a grape Powerade bottle which he’d dutifully chugged and sterilized with sloshes of malt vinegar the night before. Lewis didn’t know what Donald wanted with the ether—sell it maybe, or else snuffle the stuff up for himself. Lewis had taken a small taste at no discernable rupture. He’d had to Google drinking ether healthy? before doing this. Maybe he’d felt a little sleepier.
Some crows passed overhead, croaking raggedly. Lewis watched them, making these small cranky biting movements with his teeth. He got a bit jumpy if he heard crows nattering too close but most of the time he was just fine. A Mrs. McTavish whom he remembered from preschool once told him not to look up into the trees lest the crows should swoop down and pluck the meat out of his eyes. It was the first time he’d heard the word lest outside of a movie about church, and though he was now of an age and, he supposed, intellectual temperament where he more or less recognized the factitiousness of these heedings, Lewis maintained a real mistrust of birds, of crows and ravens in particular. He was always sure when he went up to his spot—which wasn’t so secluded as all that (everyone who knew, knew where to find him)—to take his cap and zip-up hoodie with him, so that he could protect his neck, lest one should decide to prevail upon him with its talons and shrieks and dark surly underparts gusting.
Lewis was pretty good at killing, he figured. He didn’t harbor too many emotional qualms when it came to putting an animal out of its misery. And creatures were always in misery. He’d once killed a hurt squirrel with a shovel, and another time crushed a near dead mouse in his fist that a cat had swatted. He’d wrapped a shopping bag over his hand because of catching diseases and buried the little fellow under a trench of cold sod and put a rock on top of this mound for reasons he could no longer corroborate.
He lit a cigarette. The best parts of cigarettes were the beginnings. Lewis had flipped off his Bic’s guard with a butter knife which gave the flame a higher wag and last, a floppy, orange-blue flame reeling fiercely over his thumb when he tilted with it. He liked edging the tip of his fire right inside the tobacco—that first fitful tug and gust. He didn’t love the gathering of tar like old meaty skid marks on the filters’ bottoms when he was shut of them, nor the sordid images of teeth and lungs that adorned the cartons of du Mau, which were his brand. He preferred the cartons that showed the pregnant woman looking super frustrated and sad or the one of the two dopy kids with the words DON’T HURT US in big white script next to them or the other one with the guy in the blue shirt and grey moustache hacking into a respirator to any of the cartons that showed what went on with your body from the actual inside.
Lewis wasn’t so sure what the going rate on a pint of pinched ether was but figured fifty sounded fair. Back in high school, he’d once bought a dime bag off Chris Gosse, and ended up smoking a line of brittle oregano, not knowing what it was (and so maybe also feigning his high) until someone told him.
There was some scrambling in the path above him and Lewis jerked up his chin. He took another pull on his cigarette before crushing it out on his stump.
“Hey,” said Donald. “I thought you said we were meeting over by the Fluvarium. I was up there like twenty minutes. I tried calling you.”
“I don’t like to use my telephone, unless for emergencies,” Lewis explained.
“What’s that you’re playing with?”
Donald pointed, and Lewis looked down at his hand.
“I think it’s a liver,” he said.
“It’s from an animal,” Lewis said. “I filched it.”
Donald studied him. The liver was a deep dark red and tough-feeling with a sort of valve or flange blooming off one side. It was about the size of half a thumbnail and not even all that squishy when you pressed on it.
“Did you bring the ether?”
Lewis produced the Powerade bottle.
Donald uncapped the bottle and wafted the vapors toward his nose, beckoning them in gingerly, like they show you how to do in Chemistry. He winced, the lines of his crummy blonde beard retreating up his face.
“You, sir,” said Donald, “are not normal.” He capped the bottle and reached into his pocket. “Look, I’ve only got like forty on me.”
Lewis pocketed the money and followed Donald up the steep brick path that led to the Fluvarium parking lot. Donald walked ahead in a hurry, clasping the ether by the rim. It seemed important that he summit, or be seen summiting, first, an ambition which Lewis felt reluctant to grant him. As they neared the top of the trail and the path leveled out onto slabs of chalky grey sidewalk scored with sunken pleats and grooves, Lewis bolted past him, rushing up to Donald’s car at a demented gallop.
“That’s not my car,” said Donald.
It was a short red minivan with tinted windows and a scabby bumper spackled with fissures and nicks and what looked like grassy mosquito flickings on the guard. Lewis drew up to the sliding door and cupped his palms to the glass. The feel of the glass on his brow was soothing. Inside were beige seats and a tall baby carrier with the buckles undone and cloth grocery bags and a long wooden scraper and a set of bright running shoes looped through the straps of a duffel. Donald shuffled past him and over to a set of bollards, where a single, seatless bike was latched.
The bike was beautiful and lean and a second set of handlebars with padded scoops for your elbows and wrists projected off the front like an elongated horseshoe or like one of those drooping clocks in that painting with the bony swans and delicate elephants that Lewis had nabbed from the campus poster sale a few years back, and kept hovering—like a crucifix, he sometimes felt—above his bed. Donald holstered the ether to the bottle cage before undoing the lock and relinquishing his seat from his bookbag. The seat was rounded and sloped with a curious snip through the middle. Donald slid this into the tube, checking to see that the split lined up plumb with the bar.
“I see you at Sopher’s later?” Donald asked, brushing aside his hair and adjusting his helmet.
Lewis didn’t say anything. He was studying the pedals, which were clipless.
“Sopher’s mom’s out of town and his brother’s throwing a thing.”
Lewis nodded. “I see how it goes.”
Donald hopped onto his bike. He’d stopped in high gear, possibly to impress someone, and it took him a few turns of the lot to get himself up to a doable speed because his sneakers kept slipping off the pedals. He gave Lewis a deferential wave that nearly sent him toppling into a culvert and sped off. Lewis watched him go. He grabbed up a stick and lit another cigarette and went back into the woods.
He steered off the main trail and followed a thinner, knobbier set of paths that looped around the Fluvarium. A network of marsh and grim manmade ponds, bounded by withery, sere-brown weeds and stones, ringed one half of the building. From inside the basement of the Fluvarium you could peer into the undersides of all this moisture, at the toads and brook trout and whatever else they offered in the way of silt and wagging greenery.
Lewis crouched over the stout-black basins, playing at the fluffs of grimy foam. A low hanging oak had tumbled some of its acorns and Lewis collected these in his pouch. He made a dull game of hucking a couple of them with all his might into what he perceived as the direct centre of the water hoping they wouldn’t bob back up, that through sheer force of will he might submerge them, but none did. It occurred to him that he might drop the liver down for a trout to gobble but didn’t want to risk wasting it. He took the liver out of his pocket and gave it a rinse. It just looked like any old piece of gum, smaller than a Chiclet, really. He parceled it back up in his cloth and went on.
He cut along the upper trails where a big windstorm lifting off Cape Race had tossed much of the elder growth, leaving in its wake fangs of twisted roots and scrub. The City people had done a decent job leveling the problem trees but there were still patches of harassed foliage throughout. An orange light, tilting through the crowns as if out of a colander, dappled the roots and rises of mossy rocks on which he walked. It wouldn’t go completely dark for another couple hours yet, and most of the runners and walkers had gone home. Below him the paths were solemn and still. He enjoyed the quiet. It felt like his. Easing his way over the crumbles of broken wood he tried not to make a sound. Just ahead, the trail opened onto a shallow clearing streaked by flowering briars, whitish and pink, and beyond these a proscenium of shaggier maples with shadows turning darkly inside them. It took him a minute to understand what he was looking at.
In the trees and bunched in the pricklier hedges like stuffing were crows, what seemed, at a glance, dozens and dozens of them. They were not cawing but turning, fidgeting their wings, and leaning open their throats. Lewis stopped. It occurred to him that he had never seen the inside of a crow’s throat before and the colour was not as he’d imagined. He took a deep breath to steady the dumb thumping of his heart and waited. He felt his flesh getting all turned around and hoarded, somehow. The crows were notching their necks but not all at once. Shifting in the trees, the black of the feathers glistened, blue and grey. Some of them looked older and rattier than the others, less a bird than an artist’s hurried effigy. He could hear some rustling of wings in the path behind him which made his blood halt. Slowly, he drew up his hood, cinching the strings tight around his chin. He thought to run, yet felt, perhaps, there was no profit in this. He waited. There was something else living in the clearing. The shape was dark and torn and struggling, what looked like a bird. He’d heard of crow funerals, knew they sometimes massed in great numbers, in numbers far thicker than a murder, to see off their dead, and Lewis wondered if that’s what this was.
The shape in the field, a bird, lifted itself and drooped, one wing bent and trembling. Lewis could see a shaft of pinkish-green bone rising from this twisted wing like spokes through a busted umbrella. Spurts of blood glinted down the dull, fawn-white keel of its breast on which there appeared, almost like a jewel, a gash. The eyes were dark and blackly shrunk and they were sorrowing. Its head listed. A sense of relief coupled with a rising shame surmounted Lewis’s immediate fear and his pulse shallowed. He lowered his hood.
There was some more flicking in the trees behind him as one of the crows drew steeply off a bough, plunging at the thrashing shape below. The force of impact toppled the dying party onto its side. The crow stooped and knitted and drew off. The torn wing jerked and panted and its bones gleamed.
Lewis watched for as long as he was able. He could no longer discern the torn bird amid the flutter and squabble. The sound was immense, broken but steady. Lewis stepped away from the clearing and into the trees, turning and bolting back down the path on which he had come. He kept up a good pace until he felt his lungs wheezing and a stich gathering in his ribs and he had to stop and spit in the bushes, not bothering to study the shade of his spit, in case there was blood in it. He walked the whole rest of the trail clutching his sides.
It was after rush hour and few cars passed along the parkway. When he emerged at the edge of the pond, he tossed the wadded liver into a recycling bin. Then he remembered that he’d wanted to burn it, to see if it looked any different cooked, though he supposed he could always snatch another one. Later, he might message Donald and see about stopping by Sopher’s. He’d once whapped Sopher on the wrist with a length of pipe because Sopher had refused to remove his arm from the area he’d intended to hit until the last minute. The pipe hadn’t even pierced the skin but Sopher bawled out his eyes and to console him, and stop his sobbing, Lewis had offered him up the length pipe and told him to calm down.
“Here,” he’d said, sitting the pipe tall in his fist. “Now you hit me.”
Rod Moody-Corbett's work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Riddle Fence, and on The Paris Review Daily. He has been shortlisted for a CBC Canada Writes Short Story Prize, and writes regularly for Canadian Notes and Queries.