The beasts come out for the smorgasbord in the Australian summer. Houses hum with blowflies seeking cool solace, where they suck at syrupy dregs from dog bowls, ooze from decaying fruit, the spoiled juice from discarded meat packets.
Ants march in formation among brown, bindii-spiked grass through cracked concrete, up flaking drainpipes and through gaps in windows and doors, targeting spilled sugar granules in kitchen cupboards. Giant red cockroaches click among crockery, scaling bins and skittering under microwaves and in toaster slots looking for crumbs, twitching their antennae to direct their bursts of movement.
Snakes and lizards rustle in the parched brush behind tin sheds, while magpies, crows and kookaburras move from foot to foot on power lines as they watch for prey. Mosquitos attack at dusk and dawn when the eye is most unsure, while European wasps gather about flame trees in full scarlet flower.
Redback spiders in webbed cavities of plastic play equipment draw up their black legs and wait, patient and primed, as thick fingers uproot their crumbling sun-bleached homes. Oblivious to their dice with venom the pink fingers then dust themselves off, triumphant in the thrill of the annual purge where once adored items are dispensed to the verge, piles growing, until one day the piles are gone.
The day summer peaked a rat died in our roof. We would hear them at night time scrabbling around above us while they retired to their nests under the insulation stuffed between the beams, their bellies full from the day’s consumption.
At first we couldn’t place the smell. It was sweet… musky. I had changed the sheets, swept, mopped, vinegared errant mould spores along the leadlight. Washed the dog, aired the room, repotted the plants. The Fremantle Doctor—a cool sea breeze carrying fresh menthol notes from the eucalyptus trees in its path—would flush the suburbs clean in the afternoons, but there was no wind on summer nights and the heat radiating from bricks and tiles that had baked in the daytime sun made the home a furnace. And each evening as the air stilled the sickly saccharine stink of the putrefying rat would set in newly repulsive, pushing in on us through the shimmer of pregnant heat.
One night we spotted the furred underbelly of the beast sagging through the vent in the corner of our bedroom. We imagined its body slowly splitting open, exploded by gases, its open, shining eyes drying and their humour hardening, dots of light reflecting our upturned faces looking back at it. Maggots growing fat and agile on its putrid flesh writhed metres from our heads as we fitfully slept, metamorphosing into flies who laid their own eggs in the decomposing rodent’s body. Those that emerged from the vent were different to the opalescent blowflies that sped inside through open doors during the day. They were malevolent slow-moving drones with intricately-veined black wings we could easily catch, squashing their big vibrating bodies in tissues until they popped and quieted.
He taped cardboard over the vent but the air remained thick with the stench. We could feel it on our skin when we touched, and taste it in our mouths when we kissed. Each night we considered sleeping elsewhere but each night we stayed there, marinating in that room.
The acrid sweetness of the rat remained for the longest time, long after we left each other and left the house. It had soaked deeply into the beams of the roof. And made its oily mark.
Miriam Fisher has been published in Australia, Europe and South Asia where she wrote her first book on climbing in the Himalayas. She recently returned to fiction after a lengthy hiatus immersed in non-fiction work.
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