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Naked Mole Rats

by Connie Biewald

Against all her better judgment, Rose paid her six dollar entrance fee and scanned the zoo map for the World of Darkness where she'd agreed to meet Paul, SWM, 43, somewhat overweight, slightly balding, rumpled and reasonably content, seeking open-minded, mildly adventurous, woman for whatever develops.

After she and Paul had talked on the phone for the first time and she agreed to his plan, she'd walked from her sunny kindergarten classroom with its gerbils and fish, blocks, lego, and purple rug where she'd taught for the past eleven years, down the hall to the library. She found two books devoted to mole rats, not to mention wildlife encyclopedias and websites. Mole rats were pale pink, wrinkled creatures, shaped like penises with teeth and whiskers, so phallic she was surprised the books weren't checked out with a long reserve list!

She questioned Paul's intentions. The book said mole rats lived under the brick-hard soil of East Africa. She liked that. Growing up in a wood frame house in a small, upstate town where the sky spread low and gray, Rose had worried about fire, tornadoes and wolf's breath. She longed for a brick house as solid as the third little pig's. Brick hard soil sounded even better, safer. When she hung up the phone after talking with Paul, she couldn't remember what he'd said, only the plan to meet at the zoo and the not-by-the-hair-on-my-chinny-chin-chin gruffness of his voice, wrapping around her like gauze around a throbbing toe.

She checked her watch. At ten a.m. midweek, the zoo was empty. She'd called in sick and, since boarding the subway, bubbled with a giddy sense of being where she shouldn't, out in the grown up world, where people carry briefcases and wear suits or nylon stockings or both and drink alcohol at lunchtime. She stopped in front of the wolf habitat to adjust her wool jacket and pat her short dark hair. A wolf lounged high on a rock in the weak, late winter sun. Rose shuddered. Strange to think that such a lazy, fuzzy looking animal could rip into her if it were hungry or mean enough. She never believed that stuff about wild animals being more frightened of you than you are of them, even though she'd been known to say it to her students. The wolf lay its head between its paws.

She picked a lifesaver from the half roll in her pocket, brushed off the lint, and popped it in her mouth. She checked her watch again. Ten fifteen, they'd agreed. It was ten fifteen now. She didn't want to wait for him. On the other hand, she didn't want to keep him waiting either.

She crunched the lifesaver, swallowed it, tugged at her coat one last time and went in. World of Darkness. Her eyes started to adjust. Large, big eared bats hung from a branch in the glass case to her right. Flying foxes. All these years in New York and she'd never been in this building. A familiar sense of having missed something fluttered in her stomach. Squinting down the silent, angled corridor, past cases of nocturnal animals living in eerie blue light, she tried to locate the mole rats and the man who said he'd meet her in front of them.

"Rose?"

She almost bumped into him. Hands in his pockets, baseball cap, knapsack slung over a shoulder, just her height, paunchy stomach. Shifty eyes that wouldn't meet hers.

That voice again, enveloping her like a thick sweater, a little scratchy but warm. Rose. She managed a nod. When he smiled, his teeth shone. A muscle jerked in his cheek.

"You found it," he gestured to the cross section of a mole rat colony, oval chambers, connected by tunnels. She gasped. The photographs in the book hadn't prepared her for the squirming reality, the pale wrinkly skin, their huge teeth and almost nonexistent eyes. They slept in fleshy, twitching heaps.

"Weird, huh?" He sounded as though he'd gone to east Africa and brought them back, just for her.

She nodded again and glanced over her shoulder. They were alone in the building. What did he have in that knapsack?

He leaned toward a dimly lit burrow, beckoning her. "See how they're all snuggled together. One warms itself by soaking up the heat near the surface, then hurries back down to warm everyone else." His knapsack bumped her arm. She recovered her balance before he could help her. "Sorry," he said, pointing. "Look over here. The toilet chamber. See that one. Look at him. He's rolling around in it. They all do that to make sure they share the same scent. Weird, huh?"

Rose made it a point to refer to animals as it, unless she knew the gender. So many people referred to them as he. She stopped herself before she started lecturing.

"Do you come here often?" she asked instead.

He chuckled, a deep growly sound.

"Really," she persisted. "I really want to know."

"No," he said. "I've only been here once before, but I couldn't stop thinking about them. It's amazing, don't you think?"

As if afraid she'd say no, he elaborated. "A couple months ago, the woman who lived in the next apartment died. Martha. Remember I said I live in a building full of old women? Well, she was probably the oldest, certainly the funniest. She knitted me afghans. You should see how many I have. Colors you wouldn't believe. A whole stack of them on my bed."

"You must be warm at night."

He kept on as if he hadn't heard. "I was her family. And when she died, it really threw me. I took a week's vacation. Didn't know what to do with myself. Came to the zoo on a whim and when I saw these mole rats...I don't know. They made me happy."

He pointed to one rat dragging a piece of food through the zigzag of tunnel to a pile of rats in a burrow. "Look how they all work together. Even to care for the babies. Only the queen gives birth and everyone else helps raise them. None of this nuclear family crap. People could learn something from mole rats."

"What do you mean?" Rose asked. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't they seem like they could never be lonely? Or cold? Sleeping all together like that?"

What was he saying? That he wanted to sleep with her? That he didn't believe in having kids? She should ask him. Be direct.

"Want a life saver?" she said.

"Sure."

She handed him one. Their fingertips touched.

"Wintergreen!" he said. "We can make sparks."

Couple

"Couple"
By Damien Dogmael

She popped one into her mouth. "Sparks?" What did he mean?

"Didn't you ever do that? It's probably dark enough in here. Come on."

He took her arm, and pulled her toward the darkest corner. "Watch."

His hands like blinders, connected their faces. The edges of his pinkie fingers rested against her cheekbones. "Watch my mouth." He bit down on the candy. "Well? See anything?"

"Maybe some green for a second."

What would she do if he tried to kiss her? She smelled the mint on his breath.

"You did! Green sparks. Here, give me another one."

She gave him the last one, rolling the wrapper between her fingers.

"That's it? Well, watch carefully then."

Back in position, watching intently, inches from his face, she realized she couldn't determine the color of his eyes. She saw the sparks though, like fireflies.

"You saw them, right?" he breathed, stepping back. "I can't believe you never did that when you were a kid."

"Naked mole rats and green sparks. A day of new experiences."

His smile disappeared. "Are you being sarcastic?" he asked. "I can't tell."

She felt a rush of shame accompanied by an image of Paul in fuzzy pajamas with feet dragging one of Martha's afghans. "Maybe I was, a little. I'm sorry." She touched his arm. "You know, my students would love this."

"What, the mole rats?"

"The mole rats, the sparks if I could get the classroom dark enough. A whole unit on the dark, night time."

He grinned.

She began spinning a curriculum web. Moon. Stars. Nocturnal animals. Mole rats. Nightmares. Dreams. They'd end with a party. Hot chocolate, cookies. Kids could wear their pajamas and bring their special stuffed animals and blankets. She'd read bedtime stories all afternoon. Fairy tales where smart little girls and boys and pigs used their good judgment to escape big, bad wolves.

"That's so cool." His grin seemed permanent.

She smiled back. "Should we head outside?"

"Wait, let me just put on my sweater." He unzipped his pack and out bulged a knitted pile of synthetic yarn, the orange of plastic cones at construction sites. It glowed in the dark.

"Hold this a minute." He handed her the limp knapsack, poked his head through the sweater's enormous neck and grinned. "Martha made this for me too. I know it's a little bright but it's warm." He reached for the pack. Their fingers touched again, sparks. "Sorry, that's the other problem with this sweater. Static."

A child screamed just then, outside the entrance. The door opened. A woman's sharp voice tore through the frightened cries, "You're not scared. You're not. How can you be scared when you don't even know what's in there?"

The mole rats snuggled together, naked and smelly. The child yelled louder and louder, then suddenly stopped. Rose and Paul stood still for a long moment, looking into each other faces, then moved together, minty mouthed, warm where their shoulders touched, toward the bright exit.

"Are you hungry?" he asked.

She thought about lunch in a restaurant with oak tables, ferns, a fireplace, and good beer in pints. "Yes." She looked at the sun, still nowhere near the top of the sky. "But isn't it a little early?"

He leaned against a railing and fumbled with his knapsack again. "We can share this. Just to keep us going." He took a triangle of sandwich from a plastic bag and held it out. She peeled back a corner of the soft white bread.

"Fluffernutter," he said with his mouth full. "You're not one of those people who thinks you have to be a kid to like marshmallow fluff, are you?" His wink said she might be but he could change her mind.

Behind the railing and a deep ditch, the wolves flattened themselves against warm rock, enjoying the sun. She pointed them out. One stretched and yawned. Paul laughed. "Metabolism of a rug, Martha would have said."

"Mmm," Rose agreed, licking marshmallow and peanut butter from her teeth, the sweet and sticky suggestion of happily ever after.


Connie Biewald has completed two novels, Digging to China and Roses Take Practice. She received a 1998 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant. She is currently working on an historical novel.

  More Fiction

~ Naked Mole Rats ~ Snow Dates ~
~ The First Time ~ Blossoming ~

 

 

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