What Mythical Rats Have To Do With Modern America

Last week I wrote a short story (you can read it here or you can just scroll down a few paragraphs). I had several people tell me it was disturbing and morbid, and I meant it to be. But I wanted to be sure that my readers didn’t just think I was being disturbing just for kicks.

It’s a story in its own right—there’s no neatly packaged moral and no allegory.

At the same time the conflict and motivations sprang from something very real and very horrible in our own world. We, too, carefully guard our language to hide from the fact that we treat real, living, breathing human beings like rats all the time.

Recently, a certain presidential candidate made the mistake of referring to unborn babies as unborn babies instead of “fetuses”. Cue outrage. How dare she even imply that that thing is human? It’s a pest. Vermin.

A mother should have a choice about bringing a child into the world. That sounds nice and liberating, but it boils down to an unpleasant standard: a baby is only a human being if its mother wants it. It only deserves life if she wants it to live.

It may be easy to dismiss the unborn as non-persons and allow them to be quietly killed. But ignoring their death puts every single one of us in danger.

When the standard changes from “human life is valuable,” to “wanted human life is valuable,” you are no longer valuable in and of yourself. You are only valuable if other people think you are.

I don’t know one person who couldn’t become a rat in the right circumstances. Hitler didn’t think Jews, Christians, homosexuals and the mentally handicapped were valuable. He exterminated them. Women are rightly concerned about young girls’ body images—but if you teach a girl she is only valuable when she’s wanted and loved, what happens when her boyfriend tells her she’d be prettier if she was fifteen pounds lighter? What if somebody really is fat? Are they less of a person? What if you’re homosexual, or a Christian, or Muslim, or black, or American Indian, or Mexican, or Asian, or Irish, or Welsh?

We kill defenseless children when we don’t want them. Who will we kill next? If my story disturbs you, good. It should. Because it’s also reality.

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Rat Catcher

Pretty much nobody gets their first job before they’re eighteen and they sure don’t get one with the rat-catcher, that’s for sure. But I guess if you don’t live out west like I do, you don’t think that sounds so great. Let me tell you—it’s the top, the very top. If you’re in a Mechanical Operations family, you can’t do better than landing a rat-catcher job. Dad was just a plain janitor, the lowest of Mech Op, but he went to school with a kid who went into rat catching, so when funds got tight at home and I was getting close to my seventeenth year, he pulled some strings and I went to work with Dave Pulley, best rat-catcher in the entire Midwest.

I got to work early my first day and picked up coffee for Mr. Pulley because it couldn’t hurt to brown-nose a little, could it? After all, if this job didn’t work out, I was stuck cleaning toilets the rest of my life like Dad.

At exactly eight o clock Mr. Pulley came charging out of his office buildings to meet me by the white van with all our equipment. “Got a puny one out wreaking havoc on Mrs. Windlemyer’s chicken farm. Hop in.”

The words burst out of him in a machine-gun rattle as he drove, hands high on top of the steering wheel, peering out over it from under his pulled-down hat.

“Seen a rat before, Tom?”

“No sir.”

“They’re gorgeous.”

“Sir?”

“Just call me Dave. You’ve seen the pictures, right?”

I had, and I already knew he wasn’t talking about grey rodents that creep through sewers. Out west, our rats look…different doesn’t quite do it justice. I shrugged. “They’re like birds, right, sir? Big brown birds with humanoid heads. Kind of de-evolved humans. Monkeys with wings.”

He glanced at me, dark eyes bright under the cap. “Monkeys with wings, eh? Listen, son, monkeys with wings they may be, but if you ever meet one face to face, you shut your eyes and pull the trigger on your spear-gun, alright? Do it fast. They’re dumb, alright, don’t you doubt it. A monkey’s probably got more brains. But to look at ‘em, well, let’s just say you got to keep reminding yourself of the facts.  Lotsa people wash out of this job. Softies. Let’s go over the basics before we hit the ground, ok?”

Twenty minutes later I exited the van, dazed by the high-speed orientation, my head abuzz with helpful information about firing a spear-gun, tactics for taking on a single rat, tips for staying clear of claws and talons, and finalizing procedures once we’d cleared the infestation. I was much too distracted to see the shadow skimming past on the grass as I climbed out of the van.

Dave saw it, though, and, cursing, ran around to the back of the van and started hauling out the spear gun bags.

“Get a move on, Tom! Darn woman swore to me it didn’t start its raids till at least 10AM! No time for more training! Get back here!” He shoved my spear gun into my hands. “You go down to the chicken coop—it likes coop 4A best, she says, keep watch.” He threw me a radio. “Contact me if you make sight. I’m going to go try to frighten it up past you.”

I ran off down the hill, elated, my regulation grey jumpsuit zip-zopping with my strides. I was out in the clean morning air, about to take on a large and dangerous prey, being part of a team—it just didn’t get any better. In a moment of cheap ingratitude, I mentally thumbed my nose at my father, who was probably about halfway through one bathroom now with sixteen more to go.

When I reached the chicken coops, I slowed down, the stench dampening my enthusiasm. The low white buildings gleamed in the sunlight and the chickens milled around each coop, bawking and clucking.

I ducked into the shade behind a utility building. Coop 4A was just over my right shoulder. I took a breath and was about to go check it when I heard a noise—a noise not two feet away from me, on the other side of the utility building.

Instantly every horror story I’d heard about rats flooded my mind: pictures of men and women with huge gashes all over their bodies from the razor sharp talons, that baby that one of the rats stole and then dropped off a cliff, the farmer who’d lost a leg after happening on one of them unexpectedly. I shut my eyes. No. I had to do this. Rats or toilets, I reminded myself. And I swung around the corner of the building, spear gun at the ready.

Even expecting her, I wasn’t expecting her. She was standing right there, right at the edge I was standing at. We’d practically been breathing the same air. We both froze.

The giant tawny wings were half unfolded from her back. I knew the talons were there at the ends of her feathered legs. I knew her hands curved into wicked claws. But in the instant I turned that corner, I only saw frightened hazel eyes set in the perfectly normal, human face of a girl my age. She squeezed her eyes shut and flinched back from me and I could hear her quick, shallow breaths. Her nose, scrunched up, had freckles on it, and she smelled of salt and wind and sunlight.

I still couldn’t move. She opened one eye, and then both, anger replacing the fear. “Just do it!” She snapped. That really put me off. They weren’t supposed to talk. They weren’t supposed to understand. This was supposed to be easy. I should be able to ram my spear into her heart. Why wasn’t I?

When I didn’t move, she launched suddenly into the air, pushing off of my chest with her huge talons and knocking me to the ground. Dust tornadoes stirred up by her wings stung my eyes, and then she was gone, skimming over the gleaming roofs. I stared down at the dusty, unmistakable talon prints on my jumpsuit and nausea stirred in my stomach. Scrambling to my feet, I ran after her.

Dave met me halfway out of the chicken coops. I saw him look at the front of my jumpsuit and, even worse, saw the disappointed shake of his head. I was going to be cleaning toilets my entire life. Up ahead of us, she was skimming through the air, one beat of her wings taking her further and further.

“Do it!” Dave half turned to me, waving and pointing, “Do it! Prove you can do it!”

It would be my last chance. I was a good shot, and spear guns are built for long distance shooting. I put it to my shoulder, sighted it. I saw her in my memory, the hazel eyes, the freckles on her scrunched up nose—but I pushed that away and thought about clogged toilets and smelly bathrooms. I pulled the trigger.

It hit her wing, right up at the base. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it brought her down. When it hit her, she screamed, wavering in the air, suddenly unstable. She teetered, slipped sideways, and tumbled down to the earth. There was a wet crunch as she hit.

Dave had stopped running. He gave a curt nod. “Good. Broke her neck on impact. Should make things simpler.” He thumped me on the shoulder. “Good job, boy. You pulled through. Let’s go get the clipboards. Paperwork never ends!”

A minute later we stood over the body. A wingtip brushed against the thick leather of my boot making a papery susurrus as the wind lifted and moved it. I clung to the clipboard as if it could hold me up.

“She—” I started, with some confused idea about explaining how I’d been so close to her without killing her.

But Dave interrupted, still absorbed in scribbling down facts on his own clipboard.  “It. Don’t say he or she. It’s an it.”

He continued writing for another few minutes then dug the pen into the clipboard and faced me, fixing me with his glittering eyes under his hat, “It doesn’t matter what species it is or who it’s related to. If it harms someone’s livelihood, it’s a pest. You’re an exterminator. You best adjust to that. Unless you want to follow in your father’s footsteps?”

I gulped and kept my eyes averted from the body on the ground. A hearty halloo came to us from across the lawn and a grey-haired woman in high-waist jeans came trotting down the slope.

“You got it! Thank you very much, you can’t know how much this means to me!” She shook both our hands. “And don’t worry about evacuation—I’ve got my own grinder here.”

Dave raised his eyebrows again. “Your own grinder?”

She nodded, hands on her hips, examining the rat with the tip of her tongue stuck out thoughtfully.

“Oh yes. Well, actually it’s a wood chipper, but same difference, right? I’ve done my research, and lo and behold, chickens thrive on rat meat and bone. So, I thought, why not?”

“Well, thanks, then. Saves me a trip to the incinerator.” Dave shook hands with Mrs. Windlemyer, collected the check, and moments later we were bumping down the gravel drive. I rolled down my window and let the breeze blow my queasiness away. It was only a rat, after all. I’d be more careful next time, keep the facts in mind. And it was better than toilet scrubbing, wasn’t it? I heard the grinder start up behind us.

 

 

Roosters (I’m really no good at catchy titles)

There is a gang of eight roosters who live in my neighborhood. I was out running one day, just enjoying the day and the ground under my feet, when I heard a soft “bawk” to my right. I looked over and eight pairs of beady little rooster eyes were following my progress down the road. They were gathered together in a cluster of gleaming copper and red, every single one of them sporting proud combs and arched, dark tail feathers.

I stopped and stared. They stared back. They were both ridiculous and vaguely menacing. I could clearly imagine them humming to themselves: We’re men! (Manly men!)

As we stared at each other, I had several thoughts:

  1. Who in their right mind decided to keep eight roosters and how do they prevent their neighbors from calling the police every morning when all eight roosters decide to welcome the sunrise—probably well before sunrise?
  2. Do they have a purpose that binds them together in otherwise unheard-of rooster companionship? I’m thinking a vigilante rooster gang that terrorizes loose dogs and ensures safety for one and all. Kind of like Avengers, except with feathers and spurs instead of spandex and metal suits.
  3. Is it a rental rooster program? Nobody wants to deal with a rooster full time so one unlucky sod got stuck with eight fine specimens and he farms them out when different people want more chickens. I would charge exorbitant prices for such a responsibility. These were not meek spineless birds. I could imagine these roosters hotwiring a car and going on a testosterone-induced rampage, if properly insulted.

The wonders of Google inform me that you can actually keep a group of roosters together as long as there are no hens around. That’s interesting, and valuable if you want to do that. But I will keep the image of a copper feathered phalanx, distributing justice to the stray dogs of the world.

 

 

Supermarket

The spandex showed some frayed spots where the elastic was going out of it, and the green “S” emblazoned on his chest had lost a few spangles, but the cape draped nicely to the floor—or at least what you could see of the cape under his khaki windbreaker. He removed his hat and shook the rainwater out of it, all unaware of his strangeness. How most little old men don’t show up at the Food Mart at nine at night wearing a superhero outfit under their conservative khaki coat and black old-guy sneakers.

There was a single cashier at the registers, staring at him in open-mouthed derision. “Hey old guy! Hope you didn’t pay a lot for that Chinese rip-off of a costume! Don’t you know Superman has a red ‘S’?”

The elderly man looked down at his chest, flustered, and pulled the jacket closed with hands that trembled. “Oh! Oh dear..I forgot to change again…” He glanced around, obviously embarrassed, and said, “Could you, perhaps tell me where I could find some peaches?”

The cashier tilted his head over towards produce and the old man clutched his hat in both hands and ambled towards produce. “My wife likes peaches, you know,” he said, “So I thought I’d stop by on the way home and get her some, as a surprise!” He used the hat to point at the cashier, “That’s a tip for you young men! It doesn’t hurt to be thoughtful!”

The cashier rolled his eyes and sighed, dropping his elbows on the counter. “Sure, Gramps. Whatever.” He pulled out his phone under the counter and thumbed through it, his face lit up with the backlight.

Engrossed in his phone, he didn’t look up when the automatic doors whooshed open. When the cold, hard end of the gun pressed into his forehead he froze, and a man’s voice said, “Get me the money, kid!”

The cashier made a sound like squeak toy and froze, staring up at the ski masked man and the gun.

He barely registered the odd rushing sound coming from produce before a green and khaki streak blasted past him, so close that the  cashier saw a wooden toggle zipping right past his nose.

The streak barreled into the gunman. They tumbled headlong in a thumping, shouting, two man chaos to land with a heavy bang against the far wall right by the manager’s office. Several plastic bag racks, ripped out of place by the fight, clattered to the floor beside the unconscious gunman. A quiet shower of loose plastic bags fluttered down after them.

The manager threw the door open, staring around. “I just called the police! What the heck just happened?!”

The old man stood up and straightened his khaki coat, quietly arranging it to cover up his “S.” The manager eyeballed the old man as he walked back to the first cash register. He picked up his hat.  Then he produced a bag of peaches out of one pocket and his wallet out of the other. “I think I found some good ones.” He stopped and looked sideways at the cashier, a glimmer of humor in his eye. “You okay, boy? I didn’t knock you over or anything, did I?”

The cashier went blotchy with embarrassment and rang up his order, eyes on the counter. As he said, “Your change is 3.17” he glanced up involuntarily and met the old man’s eyes. They were faded, and blue, and patient, set over a knobby nose and a gentle smile. It was a pleasant face, a personable face.

The blotches on the cashiers’ face spread until he was an unattractive brick red. He looked past the old man’s left ear. “I guess it’s not such a bad costume….um…thanks.”

He risked a glance sideways and the blue eyes had crinkled into a smile. Wordlessly, the old man took his change, put it in his wallet, and ambled off towards the automatic doors.

But he stopped only two steps away, holding up a finger as if he’d forgotten something. The cashier cringed as the old man half turned and raised one eyebrow.

“Young man,” he said, “This ‘S’ stands for speed.”