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from The Rat Veda

by James Chapman

Rat digs in the mines, he finds chalk and separates it from stone. He says, doing your work is why you're born. Happiness is contemptible as a goal, that's what he says. If you do all your work, you may become accidentally happy. First be quiet about being happy.

When he's not digging, he's surrounded by his mind as it thinks things. He criticizes himself for his posture, his loneliness, his fur, his big front teeth. He remembers every time any rat ever mocked at him since he was a baby, and he relives each insult and checks his emotions to see how they suffer today. He wonders if he's a good enough chalk-miner, he wonders if he'll become bitter, the mind presents him with unending digging. He never learns or knows anything in all this time and when he sleeps it's with the feeling that he's thirsty.

Inside Rat are seven acres of poems to his beloved, they grow underground without turning to flower, you'll have to dig through his head to find them. Instead of reciting the poems, he watches a rat in the onyx mirror. If he could say even one word to her, he'd be with her, he could lay his face on her face.

Word, speak yourself out of him. Word, don't hurt the rat who's trying to speak you. He'll drink, he'll bite other rats, he'll resist reality, he'll submerge in reality, he'll destroy himself trying to get a word unstuck from his tongue.

Word, fly under the ground, fly under his feet, be present when he believes he's full of darkness, be present when he thinks he's exalted. You're the only substance of his eyes or of his tongue. You're the reflex, the blink, the startle. You're the dream, the mood, the preference, the temperament. You're the chord of music he remembers. You're the color of cloud he remembers.

If you're invisible, he'll have to cultivate and grow you. If you'll never grow, he'll have to dig you out. If there's no vein of you underground, he'll have to listen for you in the air. If you won't be heard, he'll have to wait.

Go away Word, wander off and be unknown. Let us be normal, let us laugh with other people, let us gossip, let us boast, let us crave after fun, let us crave stupidity. Withdraw the light that shines through colored glass, withdraw devotion and seriousness. Let us die and not transcend. Let us eat till we vomit. Let us sleep with the pigs. Go off and say to the sky, forget this rat, let's bind somebody else.

When he dug, he didn't want to dig, when he sat in the dirt he didn't want to sit. He wanted to reach out a paw and find the word and speak it in a loud voice that everyone would understand. He didn't want to be lonely. He finally chose the door that made him happy to walk through. But Word, you weren't behind that door.

Look, here's an old coin. I dug half a mile to reach it. It shines like a train headlight, it shines like eyes, when it falls it sings.

The day the ceiling fell in, above me I discovered a fossil forest: ferns, vines, leaves, bones, roots, wood, giant horsetail plants, leafy branches, whorls of spores, cones, mosses, grasses, shrubs, bark, all in stone.

In a chalk mine there's no quagmire. In a slate mine is no still lake for drowning. In an onyx mine the only dangerous animals are reflections. My reflection, which scares and crushes me, is so light that my beloved can lift it up by the ears, and she isn't even here.

If I stay underground, it isn't proof I'm blind. If I lie on my back on a chalk shelf, that doesn't make me crippled. If I were deaf I'd yell I can't hear her voice, but at least I know why!

I draw on the slate in chalk: a picture of a tree, a cobra and my own feet. Ask her to draw me a picture of mercy.

My beloved's a secret from me. When I'm not thinking, when I feel nothing, when I'm chopping out plugs of slate, she says to me: You need to rest.

Someone's pounding at the entrance to the mine. I'm a mile below. It's futile to answer.

Your beloved's name is Lila; she put the word Lila in your mouth. The word Lila steps through rock, it finds its way in darkness, it breathes easily in clouds of dust, it eliminates the prison by the simple method of eliminating it, it's a painting by one who doesn't paint, it's a flight of a wingless bird.

When I take this face in my hands, then I climb the ladder that isn't present, I climb the stairs that were never created, I go where I can't be. Sticks sprout fruit and rocks sprout flowers.

Let the sticks without fruit be enjoyed, let the not-flowering rocks become more blessed and more harmless. If I ever cursed anyone, let them return all these curses to me, and let them be happy. Every plant I eat, let it speak if it wants to speak, and let it scare me away if that's what it wants to do.

If she plummets into cold ocean. If she stops flying and drowns. If she stops dancing, if she refuses to dance or eat, if she won't drink or breathe or speak because she's lost herself. If she loses faith and can't see any reason to dance. If she won't move because she says, What's the point? If her love for the rat underground turns to indifference. Then which death was born first, her death or the death of Rat? Deeper than underground is the abyss, where even rats are buried. The abyss opens when a girl shrugs her shoulders and looks away. The abyss roars when a girl loses interest in the lights in the sky, and stares at her feet. The abyss closes over your head when dance becomes the silence that hates itself. Save us from the abyss, both of you. Look at each other, don't stop looking, don't drag time into silence, don't make us give up so that we can't even speak.