Our house was full of rats, and we could do nothing about it.
Ma was afraid of the rats. They were in the sideboard, she said, they were in the basement, they were in the wainscot, and most of all they were in our wicked, wicked hearts. “They’re in your coat pockets, Erich,” she hissed, and I didn’t like the look in her eyes.
I understood that the rats were many different things, not all of which were rats.
Pa spent his days (which he had mostly free, thanks to his soldier’s pension) trying to do something about the rats. He crafted increasingly complicated traps. Most were so bewildering that I was sure a rat would need instructions to get caught in one. He brewed ill-smelling poisons concocted from the cleaning supplies, and he painted the tines of his traps with them. Pa named his poisons: “Ratnot.” “Termidust.” “Rodenterad.” “Substance X.”
Ma stirred the stewpot. “I had a pig’s foot in here,” she growled. “I’m stirring and stirring, but I don’t see it. Rat got it, I’m sure.”
“Winter’s comin’,” Pa assured us. “Rats’ll be trying to get in where it’s warm.”
I knew it was only a matter of time before Ma and Pa started seeing whiskers on their children.
The question: which child? I was dutiful, quiet, obedient, but my elder brother Mikhail was a magnet for parental ire. Mikhail’s sin was to live entirely untroubled by phantom squeaking. He wore a beatific smile, and idled through life performing small feats of magnificent uselessness. Today, for instance, he was painting the grimed cellar door with images of brightly-colored parrots.
“Where’s the trotter, Mikhail?” Ma demanded, and when Mikhail blithely declared he didn’t know, Ma began whacking his shoulders with the wooden spoon. “Do something about all the stealing!” Ma shouted at Pa.
Pa was fastening bedsprings to a concatenation of tractor parts. His latest trap was festooned with barbecue spits that he’d painted with double-strength Ratnot.
“I got one last night,” Pa said.
Surprised, Ma stopped beating Mikhail. “You did?” Pa’s traps had never caught anything before.
Pa froze, his certainty fading. “I sure enough did catch one. Up here in this here clankerator.”
Ma wanted to see the carcass. She was quite keen on this point, and I reflected it was because no one in our household had, up till now, seen the slightest physical evidence of rats.
“It was in here,” Pa mumbled, “but someone musta let it go.”
Ma’s eye fell first on Mikhail, then on me. “Who?” she growled. “Which little quisling did it? Was it you?”
Ma seized me by the collar. She shoved Mikhail out of the way, kicked open the cellar door, and hurled me into the dark recesses. “Go mingle with your friends,” she shouted, “and don’t come out until you’ve caught one!”
The darkness down there was total. I should have kept still – what if I blundered into the boiler? A snare snatched my ankle. Tractor parts clanked and swiveled, and I sprang into the air. I hung there upside-down, swaying back and forth.
Luckily, this trap of Pa’s wasn’t tainted with Ratnot. But I was in a bad predicament. My parents’ attention spans were short, and I was sure they’d already forgotten where I was.
Imagine my surprise when a match flared, and a kerosene lantern glowed.
An enormous rat sat on its haunches. Its tiny eyes inspected my inverted form.
It smelled sweetish, like cheap shampoo. It nibbled on my ear for a moment. Then it sat back, and opened a large book.
“The poems of Thomas Stearns Eliot,” said the rat. It adjusted a pair of half-moon spectacles on its nose and began to read aloud to me.
“I think we are in Rats’ Alley,” the rat intoned. “where the dead men lost their bones.”
“I have to catch you,” I said to the rat. “You must understand. They’ll punish me further if I don’t.”
“Of course!” the rat said kindly. “And catch us you must.” It adjusted the trap, and my leg came free. I started feeling for the stairs.
“Not that way,” the rat admonished me. “Further into the dark. There’s a hole. You’ll see.”
Sure enough, there was a hole in the concrete wall by the floor. I thought it much too small for me to squeeze through. But I did so easily.
I emerged in the parlor of our house, and nearly blundered into another of Pa’s traps. This one was anointed with Substance X, the cruelest of poisons. Luckily, I’d blundered incorrectly, and the trap slashed at empty air.
Ma and Pa were frantic. “Where have you been?” Ma said.
“Haven’t you heard?” Pa cried.
“We ourselves, all along, we were the rats,” Ma wailed. “Mama Rat, Papa Rat, and two simpering ratlings.”
“Your fool brother,” said Pa, “just see what he’s done!”
Mikhail grinned and brandished a paintbrush. On our front door he had painted a gigantic furry face with snout and ears.
“He’s tipped off the exterminator! We’ll have to flee!” Pa and Ma began packing frantically. Into the suitcase went an alarm clock, half a grapefruit, a pen (but no clothes or money).
We ran pell-mell across the stubbled fields. Our minds were full of dark futures: wire cages, electric shocks, an endless maze to run, with our own graves at the exit.
Behind us, the shape of the exterminator loomed, a shadow that could have been our pursuer or could just as well have been the umbra of a low-lying cloud blotting out the sunset as winter came.
Matthew F. Amati was born in a small town, but left after the locals made pointed requests for his departure. He lives by a canal, where he plays the banjo and mutters. His fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Dailly Science Fiction, The Cafe Irreal, and in several print anthologies.