Michael Bishop
www.michaelbishop-writer.com

 

O Happy Day
by Michael Bishop


The Norvegs were watching a documentary about a tribe of Sorsuni aborigines so backward that its midwives did not even amputate the tails of its newborn ratlings.  The members of this archaic society made no shelters, foraged in the jungle for food, and plucked the fur from their bodies in disfiguring whorls and clumps.
    “It’s hard to believe there are still rats on this planet who live that way, isn’t it?” said Atticus Norveg during an overlong foraging sequence.
    Atticus, a large piebald rat, wore bifocals and a pair of brindle-colored slippers, which were a Muridmas gift from his wife Tamara.  He had not wanted to watch the program at all, but their daughter Renata was taking a rodentology class at City College and her professor had assigned this documentary as homework.  At such times, try as he might to be amiable and supportive, Atticus bitterly resented both the smallness of their apartment and their lack of a second television set.
    “What’s really unbelievable,” said Renata, “is that the Sorsuni government is stealthily exterminating that tribe.  They want to put a ten-thousand-acre high-rise complex right in the middle of the sacred Emmic hardwood forests.”
    “Which means destroying the forests along with the Emmic, of course,” said young Arturo, a freshman at St. Walter’s Academy on Twelfth Street and Dean Boulevard.
    “The Sorsuni need space,” said Atticus wearily.  “They’re no different from us, I’m afraid.”
    “They’re animals!” Renata rejoined.
    “They’re not such animals as the Emmic, are they?” asked Tamara Norveg, a slender dark-brown rat only lately going gray about the muzzle.  She was picking out walnuts with a pointed metal tool and her own crafty fingers.  A large bowl of hemispherical meats rested on the lamp stand beside her, for she had been at this task ever since finishing the dinner dishes.
    “What do you mean?” asked Renata.
    “Why,” said Mrs. Norveg, “the Emmic don’t even practice a basic form of litter control.  What do you suppose this country would be like if every mother balked at reingesting all but two of her first-born offspring and then refused sterilization?  We’d be overrun with little gutter imps, that’s what, and lots of them would probably have tails, too.”  She peremptorily scraped a scatter of walnut shells into the trashcan next to her chair.
    “Listen, Mom,” said Renata indignantly.  “It may surprise you to learn that reingestion isn’t a natural maternal instinct.  Besides, among the Emmic, the hardwood forests take care of litter control.”
    “That’s right,” piped Arturo.  “Only one Emmic infant in seven reaches puberty, and only one in every subsequent four obtains adulthood.”
    Renata turned her graceful snout to Atticus, as if he had been disputing her arguments.  “Those are pretty civilized statistics, Daddy.  The Emmic aren’t backward.  They live lives of heightened simplicity, that’s all, and their simplicity leaves them open to exploitation by the high-tech Sorsuni society surrounding them.”
    Atticus shifted his hindquarters in his chair.  “If we had a territory within our borders as exploitable as the Emmic hardwood forests, we’d be doing the same damn thing.  Don’t kid yourself, Reni.  Our leaders aren’t any better than the efficating Sorsunis, and you’re too old to be such a blithering naïf.”
    “Atticus!” barked Mrs. Norveg.
    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”  He bit at a patch of semiruffled fur on his right shoulder, then smoothed it down with his tongue.  “It’s just that when I get home from work I’m ready to watch something a little lighter than the disgusting degradations of the Emmic.  As for the continuing dastardliness of the Sorsuni, I’m all too aware of that.  We should have bombed those bung-sniffers twenty years ago, when we could have done it without getting our own whiskers singed.  The world’s in a fix.  It puts matter in my aching eyes, I swear it does.”
    “Daddy, please hush,” Renata said coldly.  “I’m trying to take notes.”
    Atticus allowed himself to be shushed.  The narration had begun again, and if Renata was going to pass with honors (a doubtful possibility), he had better let her get on with her note taking.  The competition for grades was bloodthirsty these days, and she had been admitted to City College only through the good offices of G. Stuart Verni, Atticus’s superior at the International Grain Exchange.  Verni was also a senior member of the college’s board of directors.
    Meanwhile, Atticus noted peripherally, young Arturo appeared to be absorbing the program entire.  He was one of those rare intellectual prodigies who thwart the hap race for grades by effortlessly lifting themselves above it.  Although Atticus loved his son, he could not forget that during his own school days he had alternately envied and despised Arturo’s type.  His career had been undistinguished, and he had had to fight for everything.  His mind drifted back to the squalor of the Trust Avenue tenements . . .
    “Look at the earth-moving equipment!” Arturo cried.  “The Emmic’re doomed!”
    Atticus opened his eyes; he had been on the verge of dozing.  Now, however, he was staring at a shard of walnut shell lying several feet to the right of the TV set, near the built-in bookcase.  Tamara had inadvertently flipped the piece of shell over that way while digging out another lobe of nutmeat, but it now seemed to Atticus as portentous an object as a boulder in a doorway.  Oddly mesmerized, he stared expectantly at the shell fragment.
    Whereupon, from a crack between two books on the built-in’s lowest shelf, a bipedal creature scurried to the shard and picked it up in its tiny hands.  Atticus was too surprised either to speak or move.  He watched the creature hunker down, a naked miniature of those absurd hairy primates in the City Zoo, and begin to gnaw at the sliver of meat still embedded in the broken shell.  It was hungry, the contemptible little thing, but its nakedness was not complete because it had contrived to wrap a tatter of blue nest casing about its body.  Atticus knew the material; it had come from his and Tamara’s nest, for about two weeks ago a rectangular rent had appeared in its casing.  Atticus’s whiskers pricked.  A wretched day at the Exchange, a family tiff over happenings half a world away, and now this . . .
    “Be quiet, everyone,” he said softly.  “There’s a hap in here with us, and I’m going to get it.”
    The snouts of Renata, Tamara, and Arturo turned toward him, then pointed away as they searched the room for the intruder.  Electricity crackled as their whiskers quivered to the alert.
    “A hap,” whispered Arturo.  “Is it mine?”
    “In a way, I hope so,” said Atticus quietly, “but maybe you’d better be praying that it isn’t.”  He leaned forward in his chair and deftly removed one of his slippers.  Then, with an angry swift ferocity astonishing even to himself, he hurled it.
    Renata squeaked, and squeaked again, and then jumped from her chair and ran to the other side of the room.  Mrs. Norveg nearly upset her bowl of walnuts.  Arturo darted to the built-ins to determine the accuracy of his father’s aim.
    “You hit it!” the youngster exclaimed.  “You hit it!”
    The hap writhed on its knees, stunned.  Arturo bent over it, uncertain how to conclude this business.  His father’s slipper stood upright on the cabinet’s bottom shelf, and he reached for it in the apparent hope of bludgeoning the creature insensible.
    “No, honey!” Tamara shouted.  “Not with your daddy’s slipper!”
    “It’s not mine!” Arturo told them, swatting at the creature and missing.  (Atticus immediately understood that his son was referring not to the slipper but to the hap that Arturo kept in his loft as both a pet and a kind of living science project.)  “Mine’s upstairs in its cage, where it belongs!”  He swatted again, ineffectually.  “This one’s older and thinner, and it — umph! — smells worse!”
    Somehow the hap struggled to its feet and staggered away to the safety of the built-in.  Although Arturo quickly dug out the books and bric-a-brac on the bottom shelf, the creature had fled, escaping through a crevice in the wall or a knot in the baseboard or a gap in the synthetic flooring.
    “You looked like you were trying to miss it,” Atticus accused the youngster.
    “I wasn’t,” Arturo said, sitting back on his haunches and extending the slipper to his father.  “It’s just that I don’t feel right pounding the brains out of any sort of living thing.”  His hackles had risen.  “My hand wouldn’t do what I told it to do.”
    “Don’t take the slipper, Atticus,” Mrs. Norveg said.  “I’m going to pour disinfectant over it and hang it up in the kitchen.  Arturo, you go wash your hands — with soap and hot water.”
    “Those things make me feel like I’m crawling with fleas,” Renata said, coming back from across the room.  “Look,” she exclaimed with audible pique.  “I’ve missed the narrator’s wrap-up.  Can you see me tomorrow?  Professor Rattigan will ask, ‘Why can’t you fully summarize the current condition of Emmic society?’ and I’ll say, ‘Because we suffered a hap attack right at the end of the program.  My daddy’s an important broker at the Grain Exchange,’ I’ll say, ‘but our apartment’s infested with haps.’  And the smart alecks in the room will make happy whimpering noises, and some of my classmates will secretly begin calling me ‘Happy Renata,’ and I’ll have to — ”
    “Shut up, Renata,” Atticus said.  “It couldn’t be helped.  You’re smart enough to draw your own conclusions from what you saw.  If you’re not, even the narrator’s happy wrap-up would do no good.”  He turned off the set and sent her to her open loft above his and Tamara’s cramped sleeping space.
    Arturo crouched in the bathroom scrubbing his hands, but Atticus felt crushed and diminished even by a living area empty of every intelligent presence but his own and his darling wife’s.  Life was a labyrinth of fatiguing complexity, and he was boxed into one of its claustrophobic side corridors, going nowhere.
    Haps, of all the goddamn luck!  Sniffing bungs or pulling pelage, depending on the moment’s dictates, he had fought his way out of the Trust Avenue ghetto.  Now, here he was at an advanced point in his stagnant career sharing condo space with two young blood-relation strangers and only God could guess how many horrid little haps.  It put matter in his aching eyes.
    “Atticus, you’re going to have to set out some poison.”
    “They never — ”
    “Put some right there on the shelf where that one disappeared, and some more in the kitchen under the sink.”
    “They avoid the stuff, Tamara.  They’re smart that way.  In fact, there’s still a little heap of poison in the cardboard tray under the sink — they haven’t gone near it in months, not on a dare.  I thought we were rid of ’em.”
    “Well, we’re not, and we’ve got to do something, Atticus.  I’ve found their moist droppings on dish towels in our linen cabinets, and that one was wearing — ”
    “I know,” Atticus replied, blinking rapidly.  “I’ll bait a trap with a marshmallow and stick the damn thing under the sink.”
    “A trap?”
    “They’re too cagey for poison, Tamara.  A trap may be crude and old-fashioned-seeming, but a marshmallow’s a fine lure.  It’ll work, believe me.  They’ve got a mighty sweet tooth, haps do.”
    Tamara acquiesced, and Atticus trotted heavily to the kitchen to set his trap.  It took him a minute or two to get the marshmallows speared on the tiny metal hook and the spring bar cocked for business, but once he had managed, he slid the trap’s wooden base into position without jarring the bait loose or firing the spring.  A mortal engine, primed for hap.  If he caught one tonight, he would set the trap again tomorrow, and then again the night after, and so on, until he had exterminated the pesky lot or driven them into someone else’s apartment.
    His wife awaited him in the living room, at the foot of the steps ascending to Arturo’s loft.  “You’ve hurt his feelings, Atticus.  He’s crying, I think.  Go up and talk to him.”
    “A ratling his age?  Lord, Tamara, what did I say?”
    “You implied that he was afraid of the hap, that he couldn’t kill it because he’s somehow lacking in ratty aggressiveness.”
    “All that?  But I didn’t even — ”
    “Go up to him, Atticus.”
    Atticus sighed and removed his bifocals.  He breathed on their lenses and then absentmindedly burnished them on his belly fur.  “All right,” he said, replacing the glasses atop his snout, “all right.”  With Tamara looking on approvingly, he scrambled up the steep aluminum lattice to Arturo’s loft.  He then sat back on his haunches at the foot of his son’s sleeping pallet, a nest of shredded newsprint and half-hidden adolescent trinkets.  Arturo snuggled in there somewhere, sniffing audibly.
    “I’m sorry,” Atticus said.  “It’s hard to hit a moving target, and killing anything — just like you said — is far from a pleasant experience.”
    The pile of hand-shredded excelsior did not move, but the sniffing ceased.
    “Listen, Artie, I’m — well, I’m really sorry.”
    A moment later his son’s head poked up out of the paper, his eyes glittering like fire opals.  “That’s okay, Dad.”
    “You know, I didn’t stop to think you might have a hard time of it because you’re taking care of a hap of your own.”
    “Sir?”
    “Well, you know,” Atticus began, struggling to express himself, “here you are seeing to the needs of the experimental hap that Mr. Ettinger gave you, and suddenly you’re in a situation requiring you to stamp the guts out of another little creature exactly like it.  That poses a — call it a psychological dilemma.  You’re a very smart young fella, Artie, but you can’t be expected to resolve such a dilemma in the batting of an eyelash.  I’m sorry I made you think you had to.”
    Father and son looked at each other in silence.
    Then Arturo asked, “Want to see my hap, Dad?  I’ve got it down here with me — in its cage, of course.”  He ducked out of sight but instantly reemerged holding a birdcage equipped with a water tray and a bin of finely chopped peanuts.
    The hap — a brown one — was standing upright with its hands around the bars and its feet spread for balance.  It wore a garment of dotted-Swiss curtain material that Arturo, upon first receiving the animal from Mr. Ettinger, had conscientiously cut up and placed in the cage.  Haps were practically alone among small mammals in remaining hairless from birth, and in all but tropical climates they died of exposure if not given the wherewithal to cover their bodies.  In their nakedness they reminded Atticus of newborn ratlings, but he had never been able to feel any affection for them solely on the basis of that tenuous analogy.
    “How’s it doing?” he asked, hoping to conclude this part of their interview without an overlong report.
    “Fine,” said the youngster enthusiastically.  “They’re an amazing species — Happicus eromicus, that’s the proper taxonomic term — with a worldwide distribution and the ability to live anywhere that we rats do.”
    “Do you suppose the Emmic have a hap problem?”  Atticus put this question distractedly, his mind roving back to his ill-considered criticism of Renata.  How to alienate your children in three easy steps . . .
    “The Emmic pretty much coexist with them, I think.  Sometimes, though, they eat them.”
    Atticus averted his gaze from the hap.  “Come on, Artie.  Give your old father a break.”
    “Sorry, Dad.”  Arturo placed the cage on the floor.  “But the fact they’re such a successful species fascinates me.  They live in the spaces between our lives, co-opting the cracks and crevices of our shelters and picking up our crumbs and leftovers.  Mr. Ettinger calls their survival mode a strategy of ‘interstitial opportunism.’ ”
    “Did he make that up himself, Mr. Ettinger?”
    “Probably.  He’s a sesquipedalian scion of prenatal illegitimacy, with an innate proclivity for polysyllabic persiflage.”
    “Well, I hope he recovers.”  And Atticus laughed with his son, grateful that the youngster had accurately read his mood and wisely interrupted his lecture on Happicus eromicus with a silly joke.  A high-IQ joke that Atticus would have defensively ridiculed in his own student days, but a joke for all that.  Artie might yet be a winner.
    “Good night, son.”
    “Good night, Dad.”
    Back in his own room, Atticus curled down into the nest and laid his muzzle across his wife’s velour-soft backside.  Her musky smell did not so much stimulate him tonight as offer a soothing olfactory lullaby.
    “Renata’s still angry with you,” Tamara whispered.
    “Oh God, do you want me to go up there, too?”
    “That’s not necessary,” said Renata from her loft.  “I don’t have anything to say to you.”
    That fluffy female had ears like an ICBM warning system.
    “Reni,” Atticus began, staring upward myopically.  “Reni, I — ”
    “Forget it, Daddy.  Artie’s always been your favorite, your little baby.  I don’t suppose I should expect any change in your twilight years.  Don’t worry, though.  I’ll soon be out from under your and Mom’s fur.  One more quarter and that’s it.  I’m gone.”
    “Renata — ”
    “I’m not talking to you, Daddy.  I’m really not.”  And she refused to respond to anything else that he said.  He could hear her burrowing down into her nest, burrowing down with a will and a vengeance.
    Then, but for the traffic noises filtering up through the heating ducts, the apartment was silent — deathly silent.  In spite of his own agitation, Tamara and Renata went quickly to sleep, and he knew that Arturo, too, had by now surrendered to dreamland.  Only he of all the Norvegs had not yet succumbed, and a thousand regrets and worries laid siege to his disarmed consciousness, fluttering through his brain like great ravenous moths hungry for his memories or his self-recriminations.  He lay totally at their mercy.  He lay totally incapacitated by circumstance.
    “No, you don’t,” Atticus told himself.  “Hang on.  Hang on.”
    This whispered self-encouragement steadied him somewhat.  Although he still could not sleep, he held the moths of night madness at bay, imagining a world where sunlight spangled a forest floor and the weather was a caress instead of an automobile wreck.  He descended toward the illusory promise of peace.  If he did not quite sleep, he treaded a territory nearby.
    A scurrying there in his and Tamara’s room yanked him back to the moment.  His whiskers tingled and his nose went up.  He could feel his eyes adjusting to the dark, but still could not see anything.  More scurrying.  Haps lurked all around the perimeter of the room, Atticus convinced himself — inside the walls and ventilation system, little armies of vermin.  It was Trust Avenue revisited, where he had once come upon two of the brazen critters untying a birthday ribbon from his little sister’s neck.
    Careful not to disturb Tamara, Atticus crept from their nest and flipped on the light.  Nothing.  Not a hap in view.  After plunging the room into darkness again, he returned to his wife’s side.  Interstitial opportunism, eh?  Well, they weren’t yet interstitial enough to suit Atticus Norveg, not by a long shot.  Until they were both soundless and invisible, he would regard their presence in his apartment as a personal affront, a challenge to the comfortable and cleanly way of life that he’d tried to forge for his family.  Tomorrow he might call in a professional pest-control service.  No one was going to mock his daughter with the epithet “Happy Renata,” even if she did sometimes treat him abominably and likewise he her.
    But the scurrying had ceased.  Atticus had frightened the haps, who had apparently retreated for the night.  Fine.  He could resume their war in the morning.  Besides, his wife’s musky scent — along with the dainty systaltic motion of her flanks — had begun to lull him toward the suspension bridge of sleep.  At last he crossed it.  Even when one of its metal cables snapped, momentarily jolting his eyes open, he did not try to retrace his steps to the worrisome realms of wakefulness.
    The first thing he heard the following morning was the television set, tuned to a network news program.
    “That efficating box,” he muttered.  “You’d think our kids had grown up inside one of the blasted things and never discovered a way out.”
    “It’s Renata,” Tamara cautioned him.  “It’s for her current-events symposium at City College.”
    “Whatever happened to reading?”
    “You’re not much of a reader, Atticus.  Don’t bully her this morning, too.  Let’s all have a nice breakfast together.”
    So Atticus lumbered penitently to the kitchen to put on water for coffee.  He nodded at Renata as he passed the living room, but either she was too involved in her newscast to return his greeting or her anger at him had not yet dissipated.  Arturo, who might have had a friendly word for him, continued to nose about in his loft dressing and gathering up school materials. 
    In the kitchen Atticus remembered his trap.  He pulled open the door beneath the sink and peered into the musty darkness there.  A hap lay helplessly pinioned in the trap.  The creature still lived, one of its tiny legs mangled by the spring bar.  It had torn off its garment trying to free itself, and Atticus stared unhappily at a piece of blue nest-casing lying in a spill of detergent granules.  Alternating currents of chagrin and pity surged through him, for he had not expected to find the victim of his first extermination ploy still conscious, still kicking, a reproach to his methods.
    “Oh no,” moaned Atticus.
    He picked up the base of the wooden trap so that the hap could not scratch or bite him, then lifted the entire mechanism into the light.  The creature’s naked body hung upside-down from the spring bar, dangling like an entrail or a miscarried fetus.  When its eyes intercepted Atticus’s, they shone with intelligence: minute sapphire sparks.  Indeed, Atticus wondered if the hap had chosen the blue material of his and Tamara’s nest casing to match the color of its own flame-bright eyes.
    “They can’t do that!” Renata shouted from the living room.  “Who the hell do those bastards think they are!”
    “What is it?” Mrs. Norveg called from even deeper in the small apartment.  “What’s wrong?  That’s not the sort of language we’ve taught you to — ”
    “Oh, the unfeeling, stinking animals!”
    Atticus, having thought to spare the hap before anyone realized that he had captured it, shuffled about bemusedly, distracted from his half-formed intention by the anguished cries of his daughter.
    “Do you know what those murdering Sorsuni have done?” Renata shouted now.  “They’ve dropped timed-release chemical defoliants on the Emmic hardwood forests, that’s what!  The Sorsuni ambassador here labels the reports the beginnings of a new propaganda campaign against his country, but the network has already documented hundreds of Emmic fatalities!  Come in here, Daddy!  Come in here, Mom!  They’re showing the victims receiving treatment in one of the makeshift aid stations just over the Sorsuni border!  Oh God, it’s horrible!”
    Atticus’s flanks began to tremble.  Renata had just spoken to him, but O! at what terrible prompting.  The jests of history, Lord, how they did put matter in a poor rat’s eyes.  Well, he had better go to Renata; the Sorsuni and network news had given them a bitter pretense for reconciliation, and only a sorry father would let that pretense slip away.
    The hap?  Well, it was only a hap, an interstitial opportunist that had misjudged the dimensions of its happiness.  Half a world away, intelligent creatures of Atticus’s own species were undergoing annihilation at the behest of a barbarian regime.  How could he reasonably feel any pity for this filthy little beast?
    At the sink Atticus lifted the bar from the hap’s leg and shook the creature into the garbage disposal.  Activated, the unit’s maw gurgled and pureed.  A little disinfectant sloshed about the drain mouth took care of germs and odors, while a good hard spray of water from the hose atop the sink washed away any telltale signs of the hap’s whirlwind dissolution.  Atticus reset the trap and put it back under the sink.
    Then, mind almost at ease, he trotted into the living room to comfort his outraged daughter.



© Michael Bishop
Reprinted with permission from the author

This story was originally published in Rigel Science Fiction, Fall 1981.  It was reprinted in the collection Brighten to Incandescence from Golden Gryphon Press.