I've been told that it would only take about a thousand years for the earth to completely erase all traces of our civilization, barring the heavily-polluted places. Wines and grass to grow over the rubble, and trees to follow them, and someone would stumble over a bit of concrete left above ground and marvel, for only the Old Gods could have made such a stone.
But the rats will still be there.
Do they wait for us to fall? As they crawl through the spaces between floors and poke their noses out of the walls, do they look for signs of our weakness? I've heard a rat say that they welcomed the Plague, despite its effect on a rat, because it meant less humans and more rat-space. Oh, I said, but there were fewer humans to harvest the grain, and fewer humans to press the cheese, and fewer humans to gather the apples come fall, so who benefitted, in the end? The humans that remained, said the rat, who were able to bargain for higher wages now that the labor pool was diminished.
I expected cleverness from a rat, but not that amount of historical knowledge.
Oh, said the rat, there's a lot you don't know, Pat. Plenty I could tell you.
That's what I'm trying to rectify, I said. Give me credit for trying and stop acting like you're high and mightier than me. I could squash you.
High? Mighty? A rat knows only lowness and cowering, and flight, no? And yet we remain, despite your best efforts to destroy us. Ho! Ho! The things Mother could tell you.
The things who could -- who is Mother?
Ho! Ho! It's time for you to learn something new. Well, old really. Mother tells me humans haven't done it in a while. Something about ancient knowledge being lost, or shut away, maybe.
What IS it?
Didn't any teacher of yours ever tell you about the men of the north who could become bears?
Like the Berserkers?
No, actual bears. Didn't any teacher of yours tell you of the men of the woods who could become wolves?
Like the werewolves?
A cheap imitation. What devoured humans and cattle in Gevaudan -- that was the real thing. Didn't anyone tell you about the men of the jungle who could become jaguars?
That was an even cheaper imitation, and all they did was dress in skins and use metal claws.
Where do you think they got the idea, though? There's been a human or two in every generation that can do the real thing, and become another animal...a stronger animal...something more deadly in a pinch. In a pinch, mind, the pinch is the key. You humans can tear up the whole world if you want, but that's because you have time. Your most powerful weapon is time. You've got no time when you're in a corner. Then, it's nice to have claws to rip, and hide to protect you, or teeth to gnaw THROUGH the corner. Like me. And you, tall, gangly one, are going to have teeth if I can get you to learn this trick on the quick.
Do you have a cat?
Are your parents home?
Any relations home at all?
Nonna Adriano is always here. Grandma King is here.
Those two. Right. The ones who always have sweet meats for me. I don't trust them.
You're a rat. Do you trust anyone?
I trust you to be naïve like a human your age. And curious. I like that. That's going to be very useful. Follow me.
The rat shot out from under my bed and skittered away across the floor, out the door and down the hall. I followed at a lope.
It turned left into the bathroom and jumped up onto the toilet tank.
"What does the toilet have to do with -- oh. Oh God. You're not serious."
How do you think I got in here? Now, It's time for your instruction. You listen good, now. I'll handle the asking permission this time around, you handle the concentration. Next time you want to do this, I won't be around and you'll have to do it on your own. Now, while I try to contact the Gods and ask them to deign to help re-write your reality, you think small. Think rat. Think of what that means, Understand?
"I think so..."
Think rat, huh?
Think long nose and smells, and tiny eyes, and tiny feet, and bald tail. Think long teeth, and gnawing through brick, through metal, through gypsum, through cardboard, until the sweet puffed grain spills out. Think of keeping a sharp nose out for cat smells, and dog smells, and think of hiding in shadows, crawling beneath floorboards, down holes, sniffing the way along in darkness cut by thin strips of light, through dust and spiders. Think of coming across little green pellets and nibbling on them, and finding them sweet, and eating more, and vomiting, and cramping within, and every sense fading...
I opened my eyes.
A white, shiny shape loomed in my vision. A bit blurry at the edges. Everything in this place was blurry. Too bright. Too exposed. I twitched my nose. No sign of cats or dogs. Only humans. Very much humans. Their stink covered the black-and-white-checked floor. Nothing from the white shape, though.
I smelt a rat high above. Interesting. What was he doing here, sitting exposed in the light? Had he found a source of food in here? Couldn't be. Rooms like this didn't have food. What did he want? Why was he rumbling like that? This place couldn't possibly be safe. What was he thinking?
Well, now, tall human. What's it like to be a rat?
Nothing smells of danger. Nothing sounds like danger. This is an odd location. Why are you up there? Why are you chuckling?
Well, well, well. You've got the spirit of the thing, haven't you? But you smell like a human, still, and your fur is bright and poofy, and your eyes are clear. Little young rat, whose name was Pat, you must follow me. It's time to meet Mother. Do as I do, then hold your breath.
With that, he jumped upon the shiny metal rectangle connected to the white structure, fell to the floor, and leapt up to the top again, and then down to a lower level, and he vanished amidst a deafening rush of noise.
What had he done?
I leapt up to the top of the structure. I peered down at the wide white bowl, which contained a vortex of water. Traces of human waste clung to edges and ledges the water could not reach. This was where the humans deposited their waste, then, and they let it drop down the vortex. What a waste of water! But clean. It meant less grooming of fur, probably. A time-saver to be sure.
The vortex stopped, and the water resolved into a wide, placid pool.
Not for long. I leapt onto the shiny rectangle, which bowed beneath my weight, then swung into the bowl.
I don't remember much of what happened after that, once the vortex spun me dizzy. There was a lot of water in the pitch-black pipe, and cold, and no air, and swooshing left and right and up and down, mostly down, down, down, down.
Until, at last, there was air -- of a kind. Whoo! What a kind of air! Probably not something humans would want to breathe. Like me.
I shook my head and scurried through the shallow water, in the direction of a frantic squeaking. No light here, but I could hear my companion calling me. Little rat whose name is Pat, said my companion, you sure took a while. Come. We have a ways to go.
He scurried forward, and I followed. Down one pipe, down another pipe. Maybe hundreds of feet, in the darkness. Maybe thousands. maybe tens of thousands. Who knew? There was no daylight and no time, here.
After a while, I felt no water beneath my feet, and the smell abated. That was bad. There was only metal down here. No food, no water. Not good for a little rat, not at all.
Where are we going?
I told you, I wanted you to meet Mother.
But this doesn't feel like the sewer anymore. it's just pipes. And I'm hungry and there's nothing here to eat, not even a cricket, and I'm very hungry.
Chew your way out into the unknown and see if you can find your way home, little Pat. If you are bold. Little pat. Little shrunken human. But if you wish to know the life of the Rat, you will keep moving, and follow me. All the way to the end, you see? However long it takes. You must endure. Being a Rat is about being hungry, and you have to move despite the pain, if you want to get the food. There's no time to rest, when you're a rat. The hunger always gnaws. We gnaw at your world, fighting our way in so we can ease the pain, for a little while. And we never give up. What will it be? Will you give up now? Or will you follow me?
I don't understand who pat is, and why you're calling me human. But if there's something interesting at the end of this place...I can endure.
You don't know...oh, boy. I definitely want you to see Mother. Come on.
He rushed forward, and I kept pace behind him, as we scuttled down, down, down.
And then there was a mighty cold wind, and no more echoes of our feet pattering in the pipe. The sound was replaced by a soft rush, like pouring sand.
And the smell of many, many, many rats. And their waste. ugh.
Are we close?
We are here. We made it. Now bad for your first attempt. Now, I shall call -- MOTHER!
The soft rushing stopped.
My companion scuttled right of me and started to climb some surface I could not see. I could smell him getting higher, and higher, and farther away.
The rushing sound started again, softer, and softer.
There was a cloud CLICK from somewhere high above to the right, and the far wall slowly resolved into a dim, red light.
Between the light of the far wall and where I crouched, there stood a silhouetted figure. It was the shape of a rat, standing on its hind legs, ears turning...slowly. A bit blurry at the edges. Its outline should have been sharp, if it was as close as it looked...
But my nose told me that it was far away.
Well, well, well, if it isn't my third-ranked sub-lieutenant Melchior. You come here so often, I should call you Choshek. And who have you brought this time? She smells...confused.
I'm not confused at all. You're Mother and I'm -- I am --
That's exactly the trouble, Mother. She had the knack for changing shape and not the ability to retain her sense of self. You told me about the beast of Gevaudan, how the poor fool tried to become a wolf and he lost himself. How that kept happening to the shape-changers of France, until you went yourself and gnawed through the hearts of every Shaman in France, and ended them. I figure you ought to head this one off at the pass before another Beast of Gevaudan happened.
Wait a second. What does "head off at the pass" mean? I thought I was coming here to learn about rats.
There's your first lesson. You can't trust a rat. Not when there's two rats and food for one meal. Not when there's three rats and a little bit of water left. You have to fight for your space and your food. It's a hungry and desperate life. As far as that extends to higher-order thinking, we rats act about the same. Melchior here fears and distrusts you. It's a shame you expected him to treat you well, but then, humans are more inclined towards cooperation in trying times...
What do you mean? I am a rat. I gnaw. I hunger. I scurry.
And yet, you thought you were going to learn about being a rat. You insist you are a rat, yet you want to learn about being a rat. Yes, you do smell confused.
So what am I?
Do you not remember? Where did you come from?
A bright room with a...white thing, a...it's called a toilet, isn't it? I came from a bathroom. What was i doing in a bathroom? What am i doing down here? What's going on? Who are you? What am I? What the hell am I? What the hell is going on here? TELL ME!
The shape of the rat stepped closer, and closer, and closer.
The black figure stood above me, much closer than before. Much taller than before.
You are a human in rat form, and you have gone too deep into rat-mind. You are not a rat. You do not know what it's like to hunger all the day and all the night, to live in fear and cold, to know that if you were to stop gnawing, your hunger would kill you long before your teeth grew too long for use.
You are a human, and if you ever become a rat again, you must remember who you truly are. You are the one who helps build the world. My children inhabit it, feed on it, surround it, crawl through it, but it is not their world. They say it is their world, but they did not make it, and if it were to fall, what would they have? As I remind them, all too often.
You are a human,
And, hard as it is with your little rat brain,
You must remember that you are more than a rat.
I have ended the lives of far too many shamans who took the form of the wild beast, and could not remember themselves, and went on nightly rampages. There's only one or two, in every generation, who can figure out how to resist. And now Melchior has revealed the knowledge that I chose to hide away. Well, Melchior, I don't know what you were playing at, and I don't know if the Gods decided it was proper to play a trick on this lass,
But to set someone up, and betray them like that...that is something I have never seen a rat do. I wonder what you are, Melchior...
The shape stopped receding, and started to dissolve, from the top of the head downwards, slowly.
I couldn't see exactly what, with my little rat eyes.
Maybe my human eyes would work better. Yes, human eyes. Human, tall, strong, with big grasping hands and a mind full of metal. The ones that know how to make the metal and the brick and the puffed grain and keep the dogs, and the cats, the ones who fill the world with noise and light and tall piles of stone, and set out the little pellets of arsenic, for the rats, the stupid little thieves who bite people in their sleep and suck their blood and spread fever. Who do they think they are?
I opened my eyes.
The black figure was still indistinct in the distance -- but not because my eyes were bad. I could just see little specks jumping off the shape, little specks with tails and snouts.
And the space around me was very cold, now. Quite cold on completely bare skin. Oh dear.
Think rat think rat quick think small
Now, Pat, said Melchior, What DID I tell you about shapechanging? You have to ask.
I stomped my feet and clapped my hands, and sent a thought out to the darkness. A shining figure appeared. I didn't wait to see who it was, I just grabbed them and said, "Let me turn into a rat and I'll gladly pay you back Tuesday, you understand? I have no time and no patience for bargaining right now."
And like that, I had fur and whiskers again. Nice warm fur.
And a figure in the darkness above me who was now larger than me.
But what he DIDN'T have was my skills. I turned back to the pipe and skittered away, and picked up speed, and let my mind turn to thoughts of the city. To speed, the speed of new York itself. I called upon that energy, and shot forward, putting Melchior far behind me.
As I was booking it, I vaguely remembered that the pipe was supposed to take a sharp right somewhere behind me. But the Speed Walk knows no obstacles. Might as well keep moving if I didn't want to get stuck beneath an unknown amount of earth.
I shot into the bright winter air, a furry missile, right towards the wall of a familiar tenement building. And landed. Hard. Thank goodness for the purchase of little rat feet.
Getting in was going to be a challenge, unless I could survive winter rooftop nudity long enough to persuade the rooftop door to open.
Surviving the wrath of two grandmothers who had found my clothes in a heap and me missing -- that was going to be a different issue. Telling them God's honest truth wouldn't be difficult, because Grandma King would drag it out of me anyway.
But Melchior knew exactly where I lived.
And we couldn't afford a cat.
One thing at a time, I suppose.