Beyond Black Dogs and Mice

A survey of creatures which foreshadow depression, and their literary origins.

Churchill was beset by a metaphoric black dog; it sent him into long stretches of melancholy. Kafka had mice, and Sartre, I think, had cockroaches. These animals, familiars of gloom, have a long and rich history, from the nipple-nibbling Xlkrktk of Mayan folklore (a squirrel with tusks and human feet), to the soul-swallowing rabbits in the rock group Radiohead's song Participle:

Crab lice in the eggs
Soul-swallowing rabbits
Chewing your heart out
Why bother?
Why baaaah-ther?

For your enjoyment, I picked out my five favorite metaphoric harbingers of depression - the tongue-biting eel, the furious fidget bird, the eohippus of misplaced destiny, the eternally recurring toad, and rat biscuits - along with, from the great literary works of the last few centuries, some representative quotes which refer to these unwelcome beasts.

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1. The Tongue-biting Eel

A picture of an eel that would, if given the chance, bite your tongue.

This is a slippery eel that bites your tongue, or sometimes your nose, and won't let go. Once it has a good grip it delivers steady 9-volt shocks and makes a terrible squealing sound. It will stay there for a week or more before it dries up and falls off.

Once when I was very young
an eel bit my tiny tongue.
It tingled through my tiny toes,
And then the eel bit my nose!
  An eel
  made a meal
  of my nose!

--Anonymous, The Young Sinner's Briar Patch of Endless Choler, 1902.

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2. The Furious Fidget Bird

The Furious Fidget Bird is purple with a gray beak, and it lands on your shoulder and pecks your ear until you want to scream. When you hit it, it digs its talons deeper into your shoulders. After it makes you cry, it licks up your tears with a pitch-colored, oily tongue. The only way to make it leave is if you sing it lullabyes, even as it bites the skin around your eyebrows.

Mrs. Piker:
  I will remain of sternest strength,
  These woman's shoulders I will gird,
  As waking nights drift past in dread
  Of the Furious Fidget Bird.

--Smith and Wycoff, libretto for The Infested Mistress of Pilcher, (operetta), in the song “Young Murphy Forces the Tongs,” 1828.

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3. The Eohippus of Misplaced Destiny

A picture of an eohippus.

This is the eohippus that comes to your door and barks out all the things you might have done, but didn't.

Moira: What - at the door. You hear it? The Eohippus of Misplaced Destiny, barking up at me. I hear: “Christopher!” “Maria!” That is what I would have named our children, if we'd had them.

Albert: (Shouting.) That's odd, because what I heard it say was “happiness” and right now it's listing the corporations that offered me jobs I turned down so we could stay in this miserable town so you could be close to your bitch of a mother.

--Roger Murbee, Maria and Albert Yell for 90 Minutes With No Resolution, 1962.

Albert: (Shouting.) That's odd, because what I heard it say was “happiness” and right now it's listing the corporations that offered me jobs I turned down so we could stay in this miserable town so you could be close to your bitch of a mother.

--Roger Murbee, Maria and Albert Yell for 90 Minutes With No Resolution, 1962.

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4. Eternally Recurring Toad

This is the toad that is always there, at the edge of your vision, and instead of “ribbit,” it says “it's hopeless, please die.” It usually addresses you by name.

It's just the eternally recurring toad, David thought. Just get up and keep going, going, going, all the way to the corner. Keep your eyes straight ahead. Then you can smoke a cigarette. But there was Norma.

--Gary Slicer, The Thing That Happened When That Thing Happened, 1984.

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5. Rat Biscuits

A picture of a rat biscuit.

Rat biscuits are hard, sea-cracker-style biscuits that have rat tails hanging out of them. When you're depressed, you're only allowed to eat rat biscuits, which makes you even more depressed.

Shimmer: I've spent my last three weeks eating filthy rat biscuits, waiting for them to put me in leg irons, feeling I was the one who bore the blame for the death of the Samoan. (Knocks over table.) And why? (Throws sextant to the ground.) Because of an agitated seal that poses for a captain! (Carefully rights table, fixing bent leg, then knocks it over again.) Well, enough rat biscuits! (Throws shoe at porter.) Enough!

--Carl Osdog, The Royal Hedgehog Cast Adrift, 1951.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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