Another of my probably stupid short stories, take it as you will:
The Rat Catcher
They come around almost every day now, these new folk with their thin ankles and fat faces, holding book and pen, with their questions, their demands and insinuations and what they call suggestions, which I am to take as commands, it seems.
Rat-catcher am I, man and boy, these years, in the house of the king. I am in pride that for many years no rat disturbed king’s repose or rejoice, no grand feast interrupted by patter or screech, no queen afrighted by sound or stink of ratkind. It pleases me indeed, when that desert king and his court came and made carouse in the year after the little flood over westway, in his cups the great bearded one spake loud, – But where be the rats in this house? – for he could, and did, toss bones and all manner scraps and grease to the floor without siege of rat ensuing.
It is long work. I inherited much of my fathers, their faithful labour and vigilance. You, my far aftercomer, you must begin from new, you must overpass my work and my father’s also, in ratlore and craft. Now, rats are common to the houses of men, so much that it wonders me how they can live where no man is. And how, as soon as a man sets him down and a house is builded, then come the rats. From whence, many have inquired. Be rats spontaneously generate from our waste, our sewage, our sweat, our breath? And when a house be parsimonious with its waste and has barely food to feed its own, lacking a good rat-catcher it can also host thousands of shrieking, scuttling beasts, as if – spite their huge hunger – food is not their need, they can and often do live with no dropped bones or moulded bread or glistening cheese, and live in their triumphant squeaking thousand. Yes, recall you the Beorma town, wholly taken by the rat, where all men were fled or dead, months past, and yet when folk went there in armour and with teeth of terrier and fire then found they a million rats, vainglorious squeaking ran rat on roof, up and down drainpipe, through streets, along gutters, and the people asked then, But from what eat they? Ratkind are base and ordinary, yet with a great mystery at their heart, and the capturing and killing of a rat is work of many lifetimes and much art and cunning, rat-like cunning I might say.
The new folk, my questioners and doubters, understand little, I judge. First they came with pen and book, to know – quoth they – my place and purpose in the king’s house. Rat-catcher, so I. But there be no rats here! came their response. And thank thee, I answer, curt like, and go about my work.
But they be not so easy shaken off. They pursue into the dark ways, kitchenways and cellar where few but menials ever be. ˗ What do you here, then? they demand, haughty as you please. − Where be your banes, your poison cheese, if rat-man you be?
Always on poison, these folk harp. Whence they came, no man knows, they follow also the cleaners, the cooks, soldiery, the tailor and his boys, butchers, fishing men, the equerries, herald, teachers, leather craft, scribes, executioner, even the goodly whores, setting fool questions and demands, in the name of the king, as they say.
Down to the very cellarage they pursue, jabbering away, and demanding, What make you now? And I, − I listen, and watch, so hold that gob. This they cannot comprehend, yet in my time the work was largely so – only vigilance, patrol, presence; and in the old days enough. I made patrol, I and a terrier or two, through grand tapestried halls, with their huge polished tables and scrubbed floors; and down wide imposant stairs, and likewise up, and through drawing rooms and strange musical chambers of gold and jewel, and hall of stone figure and paint, and halls of glass also, and to the menial quarter, the whoredoms, kitchens, pantries, furnace, sewerage, rubbish fall, soldiery, weaponry, wine cellar, etc etc. – now always pursued by the new folk, always they are squinting as they would stick their noses into every corner and shade, and always asking, − What make you now? Why we are here? And I, at the end of my scant patience, only, − Shut that gob, for I would listen and look.
And truth there be rats in this house, perhaps always will and must be, and I listen not at silence, but at cavity and runnel and reek, at ratway behind and between stone wall, under floor, over ceiling, behind tapestry however wondrous and fair, by what hands woven. Attend, and ye hear – ratkind are always with us. In the good days it was but a distant scuttle, echoed and caught in stone, but never absent, never even so distant that I could not say exactly where. So to the big gob I spake, − Listen, and press his fool ear to the stone, and he merely, sniffing haughty, − Some light noise, no doubt rain or old wood creaking in this atrocious dereliction. Well, it was a rat some 200 yards off, I guess by one of the rubbish falls on the east side. And in the good days, much of my work was so, patrol and sniff and listen and look, and sometime act. Acting could be poison but the older I be in ratcraft and lore the less I like such solution – the ratkind learn, and some dimwit maid’s little dog may gobble up my bane, or the woman herself even, for some are fond of seeming dainties, and none too particular. No, for all the new folk babble and expect me to be wanton laying poison all over the land it is a risky answer, and so my tools are tobacco, trap, terrier, and largely useless cat. Tobacco? you may wonder, for this is not part of the ratlore. Yet this is my finding, I note since many year, that where I stop to smoke pipe the rats would sure scant for some time. Perhaps they love not the scent for it is indeed a harsh tobacco, or perhaps they know it to be mine, and so avoid where it do reek. A goodly arrangement, I patrol and smoke and they flee my burning pleasance.
The terriers were likewise doubted by the new folk. − Ridiculous, Sir Ratman, that the king pay for your pets! cry they. Meanwhile the terriers regard the big gobs with the old terrier expression – amazed and wary, apt to biting. Fine dogs, harder to procure at quality than tobacco in these lands. Look you, my favourites must slumber in my little room now, fierce little hounds of royal blood, their lineage is noted in the heraldry and their ancestors served the rat-catcher of the big-belly King Markku who was alway drunk and clad in black. Yes, were it not for these waggy-tailed jolly killers my work would be near impossible. And the new folk call them pets, indulgence of my senility as they say.
Now the cat I could easily dispense with, an unruly horde of indolent upstarts who are more apt to blink sleepily than defend their house against the rat. And yet they serve, to some very minor degree. Ratlore is divided on the subject of cat, for me and my fore-goer they are most time an alarm of sorts, screeching and hissing at rat incursion, if they can bestir themself that is. There was the time of the Rat and Cat War, when dogs were banned after a shrieking royal whore kicked a terrier, and was ankle bitten for her pains. My far fore-goer let the cats multiply beyond decency, hoping it seems that hundreds of cats could replace a dozen hounds. In this time, rats skulked in every corner and slipper and empty wine flagon, gnawed many a fine lady’s gown, ran under the feet of visiting kings, stole meats from the forks of barons, jumped even onto the high table and copulated in the dessert of the king himself. And the cats? They grew insolent beyond belief, idle and gross upon divans, filling ladies’ chambers with their sarcastic mewling.
No no, take away the cats by all means, but touch my terriers not. And yet I fear, for you, distant rat-catcher, there will be no sound dogs; the new folk will have won here, and you will come many years after calamity with none to help. Yet this is not the first such fall. For after the Rat and Cat War, my far fore-goer came to this house when it was a slaughter floor with fine ladies stepping daintily over dead cats and rats in the halls, on stairs, dropping from ceilings, floating in their chamber pots, in their baths, a great and noxious stink of death, for the cats were finally put to it, and did fight in the end. And then the rat-catcher began anew, with what dog he could.
I do not know when you will come, in a year or ten, or a hundred, or more yet. But there will be no dog. For the new folk spake, − There be no rats here, hence no need of stinking folk such as you and your unclean dogs.
I brung them a rat caught that day in my trap, and then spake they, − Very good Sir Ratman, there be a dead rat, but what of it?
And now their talk is of acceptance, of No Great Thing. − All cities have rats, they laugh, − And they do no harm.
They gesture to a rat carcass and speak grandly, − What harm could such a small beast do? Is it not, as your unclean dogs, a living thing, as a cat, a horse, as you, Sir Ratman? Is this little peaceful rat not also a part of God’s creation, sir, is it not also to be loved? Does it not also have blood and breath, and babies? Can we say it is any worse than we who build fine palaces on the blood of serfs, and wear silks, and say we are nobles? Is not the root of all woe hatred? Then why, Sir Ratman, do you hate the humble rat, the poor rat, the peaceful rat which only wishes to live with us, to enjoy our prosperity, to have a better life with us, recognising, in sooth, our virtue and our splendour, to be our friend?
Ratcounts, they demand now, detailed listings of every rat caught, where, when, how, and why. Why? – because it is a rat, sir big gob. I must now it seems account for my work and my self, and explain and justify why I fed my terriers meats today, why I patrol just this corridor today, and not that corridor, why I spent an afternoon in the vast kitchens. − Are you, Sir Ratman, perchance availing yourself of the hospitality of the kitchen wenches? they sneer, these corpulent red-faced officials in their fine velvet and silk robes, to me.
At first I thought them foolish and ill-witted, with their question. Now I question their purpose, and think them ill-willed, for the rats grow bolder, and I note ratsign every day, especially where the new folk have been, and I wonder at the intent of these gross strange-worded inlopers. We gang together last day, without my dogs because the new folk have a curious loathing and fear of dogkind, deeming them dirty and unclean. Through the corridors and to the kitchens we gang, I sniffing and looking and the big gobs jabbering away as is their wont, and in the kitchens I was listening at walls and floor, uneasy and smelling something rank amidst cabbage and potatoes and basil and raw meat, and the big gobs helping themselves to platters of cheese and flagons of wine, and a rat ran sudden forth from a shadow, and there was no terrier to fight, the kitchen cats as usual purring on stools, awaiting their cream, and so I pulled my ratting blade, and the huge grey beast ran directly to the big gobs, and where a wench or cook would have screamed (in fright or anger), these perfumed officials smile and lift their velvet gown, and the rat ran between their thin white legs and took refuge in their midst as I stand, ratblade in hand, and the big gobs all a-laughing, − Oh la! Will he stab us, with his big sword? and all a-laugh together, a high whinnying giggle, I and the kitchen menials looking wondering on, the rat hissing between bony pale ankles.
Now my terriers are to be taken away, I hear. The kennel master is told, Pack your things and take these unclean animals from out the king’s palace. I keep my two best terrier in my little room, and I sleep little, patrolling also at night now, listening for rat. The new folk carouse and sleep late, in their rich quarters, and so I work best undisturbed in their thick slumber. And the rats are, I judge, at return. I have left whole quarters and now patrol only the kitchens, sewerage, and king’s quarter, smoking liberally and laying traps. And often, I find my traps cleverly or crudely sabotaged, a bar broken, a hinge loose, or sometime the whole smashed. My terriers sniff and then growl, as to say, A rat.
− We wonder much, Sir Ratman, the new folk laugh, gobbling down sweetmeats, − That you persist here. Are you not a man outmoded, by the newest fashions, by the newest thoughts? A ratman, forsooth! You are a veritable museum, a walking museum, Sir Ratman, a quaint little man, a vulgar little man!
Poison was laid at my door, for my dogs I judge, dogs too canny to be so taken. − These are hate dogs! the new folk proclaim. − They must be done away with! Vulgar little ratman, if you are distressed you may appeal to the clemency of the king’s wise council! And when I inquire, who that be, they giggle, − Us!
So you see how things were in the last days. I know not how long I have before they settle me and my dogs. Already rats are seen in daylight, have bitten children and killed a foolish maid’s lapdog, and yet the new folk, these silked & velvet officials smile and pat their bellies, − Why are you so afraid of such little mouses? Such irrational fear! You have a demon, perhaps? The king will have no demons about him! So leave if you must!
Rat-catcher is an old post in this house. I perceive that the new folk would not do away with it entire, but would rather I be defanged and dedogged, left with – as they smilingly promise – honorary status. Gold, they offer, and perhaps even a title, to be a noble. − And you may take the rat as your coat of arms! they giggle. − Oh yes, a noble and historical family! The good Baron Ratman!
Astounding, the speed with which ratkind return to this domain. Were my traps unsaboteured, I would catch some every night now, judging by ratsign. If my last days will be grim and most like humiliating – for it seems I am to be driven forth with untrue accusings – then the first days of my aftercomer must be worse yet, for he will have to cleanse the house, and that will be no easy task. I advise you, my far son, look to good dogs of good blood, terriers with a strong spirit, eschew poisons, and lay no reliance on cats; smoke much tobacco, and be of good cheer as best you may, love this house, and hold fast.
18 June 2016