A Christmas Rat

Written by Carl Peterson   
Wednesday, 27 December 2017 07:04



He paused just past the outer threshold of the mooring pipe.  The night was cold, it was getting near Christmas.  He looked down the long, heavy mooring line that in a gentle concave arc led to the pier almost a hundred feet below him.  He was just checking it out.  He wouldn't leave tonight.  But he liked to be prepared.  He had always liked rehearsals.

He was younger than most of the rats he associated with on board.  He took better care of himself.  He exercised, ate right, didn't drink much, except when he was sad, then he drank till he puked.  When he felt sad, he wanted to feel sorry for himself.  He could only feel sorry for himself when he drank, which is why he drank.  He would get a little sloppy at his place at the bar, with his friends; his black, shiny, bulging eyes would begin to droop and almost melt down into his cheeks.  The other rats, even the older ones, admired him most of the time, but when he was like this, well, they wondered about him, but they knew that the next time they saw him he would be sober and he would be Ok again.  They could admire him again.  He didn't realize that the other rats on the ship had a will to admire him because admiring him was their only prayer for not despising themselves...

His fine coat shone in the soft light of the full moon rising silently in the violet, star-flecked half-bowl of sky directly across from him.  His coat was nothing like the common human conception of what a pier rat's coat would be.  The hairs were shiny, not from oil or grease, but from cleanness.  The individual hairs were visible--distinctly, individually discernible, almost sparkling in the moonlight.  He liked to be clean.

His tail was long like all rats' tails, but it was not creepy looking like some rats' tails.  It was lightly covered with short, soft, fine blondish brown hairs that gave his tail kind of an ornamental look, like maybe a human would even want to pick this rat up and pet it.  He had paid another rat on board to carefully glue the fine brown hair to his tail because he knew that humans tended to be squeamish about rats' naked tails.  His whiskers were long and straight, not perfectly straight, but nearly so; his pinkish nose, neat and small, his large ears, pierced by the moonlight, shone pink and translucent.  His vulnerable, bulging black shiny eyes, set like jewels above his snout (a bit long even for a rat) invited love, that is, would have invited a child to love him, if a child had ever seen him, but no child ever had.

He took a few steps down the rope, just to get the feel of it, he wanted it all to feel comfortable when the time came.  He knew about rat's feet, probably more than most rats know about their feet.  He had studied the tops and bottoms of his own, and had seen the bottoms of human athletic shoes, and was astonished to find that some of the shoes had copied ideas drawn from the bottom of rats' feet.  The fleshy pads on rat feet so expertly placed for traction, agility and speed--no human designer could come up with the plan, but had to copy it from rats--and the nails, together with the pads allowed a rat to run almost straight up a wall, or cling for awhile almost anywhere.

This mooring line, even if it was icy when the time came, would be like a freeway out of there.  He knew that, but still he was cautious and wanted to rehearse.  He noted that the rat guards were all gone.  Once, when the ship was in its prime, and actually served some of the people on land, it had rat guards.  Think of it!  There was a time when the ship actually did not want rats on board!  Sometimes rats had been able to get around the guards somehow or even chew holes in them and get through, but there was a time when the ship did not want rats.  He heard a faint noise coming from down the pier, and canted his head to hear better, and the same movement captured a pearl-like reflection of the full moon in the glistening black abyss of his eye.  Yes, honestly the ship had not wanted rats, although of course the ship always had some, because in the history of the world you can't keep rats out completely.  Then, through the years the ship quit maintaining its rat guards, and more rats got in.  Before the new owners bought the ship about eight years ago maybe 50% of the crew was rats.  The first thing the new owners did was remove all the rat guards, and post signs on all the bulkheads notifying the crew that all rat guards had been removed and rat guards were never again to be installed.  Then, in a year or two, after the new owners chased away almost all of the non-rats, the crew was 96% bona fide rats, and the ship's officer corps was 100% rats.

He had told his friends that he was going to leave, with the understanding that they would tell everyone else, including the press.  It was an opportunity to control the story, to try to make himself look a lot better than he really was: a family rat at heart, longing for home, his great achievement done, he would retire to his lands like Cincinnatus, leaving behind fame and power, because that's not what he had ever wanted; he had only wanted to serve his country, and he had sacrificed to make his country better.

What was his great achievement?  Well, it was a bit of a peculiar goal he had had, ever since he was a young rat.  Many people would not be able to conceive of it as a great achievement, since you had to wend your way through an idiosyncratic path to get where he had gotten--should we say it?--intellectually.

As a young rat he had watched on TV as the rats from the ship gnawed away at the social safety net on land, but he noticed that as the rats gnawed, there were others who repaired and sometimes even widened the net.  He grew bored.  But then he read a book, the first book he read after he quit reading comic books--not because he stopped liking comic books, but because he started to feel that he was too old to be seen reading comic books.  The book changed his life.  Sadly, the book was nonsense, but it did have a nice comic book flavor to it, and presented an ideology with a pseudo-philosophical core that glorified selfishness.  Luckily for the young rat's future success on board the ship, he internalized the book's justification for the promotion of self above all other values.  This enabled him, later on, as he rose through the ship's officer ranks, to constantly attack humans without ever feeling guilty about it, and even to glory in the suffering he was causing, because that proved that he was worthy--selfish and strong enough to do what the book said needed to be done.  Though his religion taught him that he should feel guilty about hurting others, and that he should feel compassion, the book pushed aside all of that, without him ever noticing that this book and the other book in his life often contradicted each other.

He skittered a few yards down the mooring line.  He lifted his forebody away from the rope and half-stood on his haunches.   He sniffed the air, wiggling his whiskered nose, and surveyed through sight, sound and scent the 180 degrees in front of him.  He became a little excited.  His mouth emitted a small puff of moist, warm gas that instantly condensed into a wispy bit of Christmas cotton.  It would be so easy to do it now!

He had noticed a few years earlier that the ship had begun to sit lower and lower in the water.  No one seemed to know why, most rats on board did not even notice, but he inquired persistently and eventually learned from the engineering officer that the sewage line from the ship to the pier had been nearly completely blocked for years, and sewage had been allowed to fill many compartments that were meant for other purposes.  The ship's owners did not seem to care, and he wondered sometimes if they would even care if the ship sank.

Additionally, and more alarmingly, in the last few years some feverish rats on board had repeatedly fired anti-human rockets at enemies they perceived in front of them and behind them.  Unfortunately, the rockets' guidance systems often led the rockets back to the ship itself and blew holes in its side.  One or two rockets hit below the water line, and the ship was taking on water that in a losing battle had to be constantly pumped out.  So, the hole problem and the sewage problem and the ship was sinking pretty fast.  He knew it, others suspected it, but as far as he could tell, no one was willing to acknowledge the problems so that they could be decisively addressed.

He had become famous years earlier for showing the other rats that it would no longer do to be satisfied with gnawing at the social safety net.  "You can see where that has got us." he told the other rats, "A bigger and stronger social safety net!"  He did not tell them, partly because he hardly knew it himself, since to him it was an irrelevant fact, that the net he sought to destroy was already relatively smaller and weaker than many other social safety nets around the world, all in countries not as rich as his own.

The key, he told them, was not to gnaw but to cut.  If you cut, the other side could never repair it fast enough and certainly could never again make it stronger or bigger.  Guided by his book-- not the one about God--he fashioned a knife, a switchblade, and when he first showed it to the other rats he flicked it open and shut repeatedly while explaining how it would be used.  When he was done with his presentation, the other rats on board cheered and hailed him as a genius.  A genius!  God that felt good!  Pretty soon some of the media on land were also hailing him as a genius, even though none of them, not even the top editorialists, could ever persuasively explain, even to themselves, in what way he was a genius.  Even a moment of thought would have shown them what the genius was up to, and that it would never be good for humans.

Finally, at Christmas time, his greatest achievement was nearing.  Working closely with the owners of the ship, he was about to execute the second part of the plan, the plan that he had held closely to his heart for years, warming it with his own pumping blood.  The first part done--rerouting more of the human's money to the masters so that there would now be a huge new debt to be paid.  And how would the rats pay the human debt?  Why, by getting rid of that ridiculous, expensive net of course!  And here at last he could use the switchblade he has fashioned years before.  Lately, in his cabin, he had been practicing tricks with it, balancing it on his nose and flipping it up into the air and catching it behind his back.  Or, if someone visited him in his cabin he might, just to show how sharp the blade was, in a flourish slice about a millimeter of whiskers off the visitor's face.  He knew that this was an unpleasant surprise for them, but he also knew that they, like he, were so elated by the prospect of the net falling that the dismay would last only a moment.

He skittered a few more yards down the mooring line, he didn't know why. Again, his hands ran staccato rapidly down his face, from his forehead over his closed eyes through his whiskers, he didn't know why.  He skittered a few more yards, then a few more yards, he didn't know why.  In the new year the net would fall and he personally would be given the honor of applying the cutting blade.  His reward at last for so steadfastly leading the way, showing even the masters the promised land where the producers at last assumed their rightful dominion over the takers!  He looked behind him.  He saw where the ship used to be only swirling waters and giant bubbles, and heard a profound burbling.

Two of his best friends were standing at the ship's railing and had been watching him since he had come out onto the mooring line.  They had started to giggle as he repeatedly skittered further down the line.  They joked that he had been drinking without them.  When he looked behind him and saw that the ship had sunk, they saw, even from their distance, the great horror on his face, and barked out a great guffaw simultaneously.  They were surprised that this didn't cause him to look up at them.  Instead they saw him racing down the mooring line, racing as rats will do when they are terrified, his feet made invisible by rapidity, his body seemingly connected to the rope as he rolled down it like a marble.  Oh!  In that moment they loved themselves, they loved rats!  But they never saw him again.


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