In the Silence of the Subway

By Barbara Krasnoff
Mar 9, 2019 · 2,474 words · 9 minutes

Story of Solitary

Photo by Justin Natividad via Unsplash.

From the author: Sylvia stood near the edge of the platform, looking for the lights of the train, feeling for its vibration, and watching the rats.

Sylvia watched the rat quietly nibble at a candy wrapper.

The long dark body was crouched in between the ties of the subway tracks, the sole moving object in a still life made up of silver metal, brown peeling wood, and dirty grey cement. The creature was totally intent on licking up whatever sugar it could glean from the wax paper, ignoring -- or unaware of -- the commuters that stood on the platform above, waiting for the F train that ran from Queens through Manhattan and into Brooklyn. All of its energy seemed concentrated into the act of eating: two tiny front paws held the paper steady, while its rump and tail were still.

Sylvia hoped it wouldn't move. Right now the rat provided the only entertainment available while she waited for the train to arrive. She hefted her shoulder bag slightly to keep it from slipping, and glanced around.

The West Fourth Street station was pretty full; 6 p.m. was still rush hour, but the first wave of impatient commuters had already ebbed somewhat, and so you could stand reasonably near the edge of the platform without touching elbows with anyone else. Still.... Sylvia checked around again to make sure that there was nobody near who looked dangerous or insane, and then looked back down at the rat on the tracks.

Years ago, when she was young, Sylvia would pretend she was at a zoo. She'd look for the small, quick animals that skittered among the tracks and the wrappers and the apple cores and the beer cans. Sometimes, if there weren't any rats visible, and if she thought nobody was looking, she'd toss down a bit of candy bar and watch to see if any rats appeared. Sometimes, they did.

"Mom!" Sylvia would say, tugging at her mother's sleeve, but by the time her mother looked, there would be the distant rumble of a subway train, and the rats would dart down under the track and to the far wall, where they scurried quickly into a convenient hole. "It can't hurt you, darling," her mother would say. "It's just a rat."

That, of course, was back when Sylvia was a child. And could hear the train approaching.

Now everybody told her that she needed to stay aware of her surroundings. Watch for problems. Scan your environment. Reading was out of the question, since she might miss important visual cues. She could miss a train. Miss her stop. Miss a mugger.

So Sylvia stood near the edge of the platform, looking for the lights of the train, feeling for its vibration, and watching the rats. They told you when the train was coming; they ran for the holes and left you there to face the great moving mass, the stark bright lights, and the dirty cars full of people.

People like the doctor who told you, when you were in your twenties and had plans for the future, that your hearing was degenerating and that you would soon be stone cold deaf -- "Profoundly Deaf" he called it, as if calling it profound made it important and more meaningful. Cochlear implants? Sorry, not recommended in your case.  

Or people like the counselors who directed you to lip-reading classes, but just smiled and shook their heads when you couldn't get the hang of it. Or like your former friends, who quickly tired of trying to help you keep up with their conversations. Or like the sign language teachers, whose rapid hand movements were beautiful and fluid and quick and totally beyond your comprehension. Or like the Deaf people at helpful organizations, who tried to be patient, but in the end, had their own lives and their own friends.

So Sylvia learned to live in-between the two worlds of the Hearing and the Deaf, in her own private place.

The rat suddenly lifted its head, and in the next breath, was gone. Sylvia lifted her own and saw the lights of an incoming subway train. It pulled into the station with what must have been be one hell of a sound; around her, people were covering their ears and grimacing, and she could feel something faint and unpleasant trembling against her skin. Old trains make loud sounds. Thanks, she thought at the train. Thanks for that.

The doors opened, and most of those on the platform stood aside, waiting for passengers to get off before they made the dash for any available seats. Sylvia didn't need a seat. She liked to be mobile these days; since she couldn't hear the conductor, or the electronic announcements. She needed to be able to see out the window, to be sure of what station they were at, to be able to move should she find herself next to somebody who made her uneasy.

Today, the car was full but not packed, and Sylvia found herself a comfortable spot hanging on to one of the poles in the center of the car. Around her, passengers talked to each other or stared at their smartphones.

As the train took off, she leaned against the pole, her arm wrapped loosely around the silver steel in case of a sudden lurch, and stared through the smeared windows. It was a little like an old cartoon -- no colors, just quickly moving black square pillars, grey old walls, the occasional darkly painted scrawl of some graffiti artist who ventured a bit further than was safe... Perhaps there was somebody now, skulking in the shadows, paint can in hand, bright patterns in his mind...

It's all bull, she thought. It's a romantic fiction, fun to read, but having nothing to do with the real lives of the people who scrape around in the bowels of the subway. Or, she thought morosely, those who scrape around above them. Weekdays in the office, doing boring work with people who uncomfortably avoid her. Weekends spent with her father, who doesn't remember her half the time, and only remembers her faults the other half. And by the time her father is gone and her own retirement is at hand, Sylvia will be old, and whining, and useless. She will have wasted most of her life, and those years still left will be dedicated to old age, and illness, and death.

And there's no way out.

She looked down and there, under one of the seats, a tiny nose and two black beads peered out at her.

Her first instinct was to shriek and jump back, like an actress in a 1930s film. But pride, and a long-instilled reluctance to make a fuss in public, stopped her, and instead she looked around at the other passengers, curious as to whether they had also noticed the invading vermin. As far as she could see, nobody's expression changed. Nobody noticed.

A tiny movement drew her attention back to the rodent. She stared at it, and found herself being examined at the same time.

Sylvia had never studied the difference between rats and mice. She remembered reading something about the difference in the tail. She did have a vague impression that mice, even feral mice, were furry and cute and relatively harmless, and would skitter away from any type of interaction with humans, while rats would attack, and bite, and expose one to tetanus and rabies and all sorts of tiny dangerous insects. So it was actually very important what type of animal belonged to the long nose and the slightly open mouth and the beady black eyes. It's probably a rat, she thought.

How did it get in the car?

Sylvia knew that the MTA frequently spread rat poison around its hallowed halls -- every few weeks, the signs went up warning people to stay away (although, since most of the stuff seems to have been spread on the tracks, Sylvia always wondered where the MTA thought people were going to go). She imagined that, even with a large number of rats slaughtered by the poison, a few would remain to repopulate. Now, she wondered if perhaps the rats were smarter than she had thought. Do they take shelter in the trains while their homes are attacked, and then return when it's safe? Do they store their foodstuffs somewhere in or among the trains and the stations, so that they can still eat while poison coats the tunnels?

How do they know? How do they spread the word?

She wondered how the rat felt about its life.

Are you happy? she asked the rodent silently. Do you enjoy running along the tracks, ignoring the noise made by the oncoming trains?

She paused, and smiled, as a thought occurred to her. Do you even hear the oncoming trains?

The rat stared back at her, a bit nervously. I've got your secret now, Sylvia told it in her imagination. You're as deaf as I am. Living in these tunnels and having your eardrums bombarded on a minute-by-minute basis, you can't hear any better than I can. And that's why you're here. To find out how I do it.

Well, I don't.

The rat sniffed haughtily in her direction, as if to say I really don't care what you do. After a moment, it ventured out a bit, until its small, long head was clearly visible under the seat. One of its front legs came forward, its tiny toes spread wide.

Surreptitiously, careful not to let any of the other passengers into her secret, Sylvia let her left hand slowly drop until it hung, apparently resting on the side of her left leg. She spread her fingers, and looked to see what the rat would do.

It just continued to stare up at her. Sylvia stared back, bemused. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the subway doors close, and realized that she hadn't been paying attention to the stations passing. Had they gotten to Brooklyn yet? Was it time to get off?

She didn't care. Even if this was just a plain rat that happened to be reacting to her movements, even if, in the next second, some random passenger saw the animal and raised a fuss, sending it skittering away to hide or be captured -- it didn't matter.

Slowly, she curled all her fingers in, except for her forefinger, which dangled loosely against her soft khakis. The rat, she saw, had four toes on its front foot, which lay loosely extended in front of it. She waited, breathing slowly, watching the rat watch her.

And she saw three of the four toes slowly twitch in. Not totally, not clenched in a loose fist the way hers were. So subtly they were almost imperceptible. But she saw it. She was sure.

Somewhere in the periphery of Sylvia's awareness, she realized that the train had stopped at another station -- which one, she didn't know, and frankly, didn't care. This was the first time in months that she had felt interest in anything outside of getting to and from work. It had nothing to do with her office. It had nothing to do with television. And it had nothing to do with her father.

The rat lifted its head, sniffing the air. It seemed to Sylvia that there should be movement around her, that people should be getting on and off the subway car, walking between her and the rat, but most of the passenger seem to have gotten off.  She was aware of nothing but the rodent testing the scents around them, and its small bright eyes watching her.

She slowly, carefully, crouched down, ignoring the fact that she would probably be seen as a nutcase by a tiny percentage of the commuters of New York City. She kept her eyes on the rat's and painstakingly descended until her backside was resting on her heels, and she was carefully balanced on her toes, one hand still holding the pole to keep her equilibrium against any sudden movements of the train. This was taking a chance -- a feral animal normally wouldn't stand still when confronted so closely with a human. She wondered whether the rat was tame enough to stay. She wondered whether she was feral enough not to alarm it.

Closer to the ground, she could see the dirt ground into the floor by thousands of scurrying feet, mixed with scraps of newsprint and a cigarette butt probably left over from the very early morning, when there were few passengers to object.

The rat backed off a little. It seemed to be excited; it was panting, its small chest pushing in and out with a rapidity that, in a human, would have been alarming. Its mouth was slightly open, showing its teeth, which should have been frightening -- a rat bite would be a serious thing, involving tetanus shots and all sorts of nastiness -- but she knew that it wasn't going to attack her. She didn't know how. She just knew it.

"Hello," she said, trying to whisper. It was hard to gauge the volume of your voice when you couldn’t hear yourself, but hell -- Sylvia was crouched down in a public subway car to talk to a rat, and whether her voice was too loud, or too soft, or slurred, or not pitched currently, was no longer an issue. The rat wouldn't care.

The rat didn't say hello -- although Sylvia wasn't sure how surprised she would have been if it did -- but it twitched its whiskers slightly in a friendly way. She was accepted. She knew that, and something hard in her chest melted a little.

"How do you do it?" she asked. She meant: How do you survive among all these crowds of hurrying, careless feet? How do you listen for danger when your eardrums have been pierced by the high scream of the subway wheels since you were born? How do you live with what you know?

The rat stared at her. It didn't smile, because it didn't have the muscles in its face to smile. It told her: Rats know from the moment their eyes open that you can't take even a moment away to dream, or imagine, or wonder, because that was when the train could come, or the piece of bread be stolen, or the predator approach.  But that's life, and the rats live it together, and don't weep alone every morning in the dim light of pre-dawn. We live in the now. Not in the in-between.

And that, the rat promised, is what we can teach you.

Sylvia thought about it for a moment, and then accepted.

The rat turned, and went back under the seat, to find its hole back down to the tracks, to hunt, hide, and survive. Sylvia took a deep breath and followed.

Read about this story's background here.

This story originally appeared in Doorways #8.

Barbara Krasnoff

Writer of weird speculative short stories.