The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Crab Promise by Kerri Dieffenwierth


I told Mother that the fresh sheets of dry wall lining our barn’s feed room didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling – things were figuring a way in. But the smooth gray panels looked fresh for a while, until the snakes, spiders and other critters snuck past.

Mother and I tried to make that room cozy. Saddles hung on wood racks; bridles draped neatly from brass horse heads that I won as trophies. We used the orange twine that held hay bales together to string dozens of my ribbons near the ceiling. Blue, red, yellow, white, pink, and green stood for first, second, third, four, fifth and sixth place. Multi-colored pendants stood for champion. Within the year, though, the crisp ribbons grew cobwebs and faded. We kept my trophies at the house. They had evolved from plastic gold statues of horses to coffee mugs to horse blankets to real sterling silver to checks that were quickly cashed.

We carried a little wooden desk from the house to the room. It had a brass knob on a front panel that dropped down if you needed a surface to write and two brass handles that jangled on the front of a single drawer.

I opened the drawer one day but I don’t remember why. Maybe for a pen. Maybe I heard something or saw movement. When I pulled it open, I jumped back as a small furry animal leaped out and scrambled out of the room. We had scared each other good.

In the bottom of the drawer were ten hairless babies curled up together. Pink and purple with dark sealed up eyes, bitty ears, and just a few faint white whiskers. I’d never seen rat babies before, but I could tell they were rats by their long pink tails. They were squirmy and silent and even though they weren’t hurting anybody, I ran to the house to tell.

Fuzzy legs. Sofa. Beer. Remote.

“Don, there are baby rats in the desk drawer in the barn!”

“You’re going to need to take care of that.”

“What do I do with them?”

“Drown them.”

“What?! I can’t drown them! They’re somebody’s babies! They’re not hurting anything! I’ll take them into the scrub and leave them on a towel so their mother can find them.”

“Rats have diseases. They’ll grow up and come back and bite the horses and make them sick. It’s your job to take care of it. Get a pillowcase and tie off the end and weigh it down and throw it in the canal. That’s the most humane way.”

I really didn’t want to kill those baby rats. But I didn’t want them to grow

up and cause problems, either. Killing was worse than fighting. Way worse.

When I was eight, my mom took my sister and me on a camping trip to Jonathan Dickinson State Park near Jupiter. Since I was full of energy and stories, little kids followed me around. They followed me to the bathroom. They followed me to the bonfire. If I threw something in the flames, they threw something into the flames. I felt like I needed to show my toughness, give them some excitement. I found a big stick and waited for my followers to find sticks and then we headed to the lake. A blue crab was trying to go from the muddy bank to the water, like its normal day. I grabbed the end of my stick with both hands and beat that blue crab to death until its shell cracked into pieces that didn’t look blue anymore, and its gray goo meat scattered in the mud. A couple of its legs came off.

What the smaller kids didn’t see was me going into my tent afterwards and how my whole body was shaking and how that blue crab stayed in my mind, how I promised I wouldn’t kill anything else if it wasn’t hurting anything, if it was leading its normal day activities. Killing is bad for the person doing the killing, like you’ve gone off course of your inward road map.

And now I stood on another muddy Florida bank, getting reading to toss a white pillowcase with a collection of a mother’s children in it. I could hear pip squeaking, like those rat babies knew something bad was going to happen.

I pulled my hand back and tossed the pillowcase into the middle of the canal. It just sat there, floating, a big puff of air in the pillowcase keeping it on top of the water. I heard soft peeping. And then…

Then, as I walked through ankle tall grass to the house, I turned back and saw the brown mama rat, running up and down the bank, squeaking loud and frantic to her babies. I hung my head and stared at my hands and put them over my face and thought about all the bad events in history, especially the Holocaust and how mothers got torn from their babies.

I was no better than Hitler.

I couldn’t even keep my crab promise.

This morning I microwaved a glazed donut I’d left in a white paper bag on the kitchen counter. As I walked with the bag in one hand and my coffee mug in the other, I felt sugar ants crawling up my arm. We always have sugar ants in our kitchen since I don’t let anyone spray pesticides indoors or out.

The twenty two seconds in the microwave didn’t bother the ants. That’s survival. I crushed a couple and then felt the killing feeling, so I stopped.

I wondered how many normal people would still eat the donut.

I often wonder about normal.

I pictured orphans picking food out of steaming hills of garbage somewhere in the world. I ate the donut. But before each bite, I looked for ants.