Year of the Rat by John DiGirolamo
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Year of the Rat by John DiGirolamo

Year of the Rat by John DiGirolamo


They burrow too deep within the earth to know nothing, says the rat man. He wears on him the appearance of the witch Rasputin, and it is witchcraft indeed that he performs. The rats had for a time forced me to divert from my usual path home from the newspaper office, but in the past week their numbers seemed to have dwindled. Today, in adventurous spirits, I decided to take the short way home around the former stronghold of the rats, Herman Warm’s farm. I came across a rat man hunched over the beaten path near Warm’s northern fence. Looming ahead, his back faced me and the tree line.

How goes it? I ask at first, but he does not respond for a time. Fearing awkwardness, I hover around to have him at least notice my presence, and in so doing acknowledge my remark. He wears a black coat from the army of a foreign nation, muddied and stiffened with age and wear. It looks second hand from the way it fits. Over his shoulder I see fiddling, in his hands is a small tin can of seeds. They burrow too deep within the earth to know nothing, says the rat man. It’s nice to live up here, we have the eyes for it. Not like the rats, they’ve got beady little eyes for the dark. But still, you don’t gotta see a thing to know a thing. What do you see here? He asks.

Seeds, I say.

Seeds, yes, he says. They’re Rotteban seeds, bad for rats. Don’t need no rat poison if you’ve got Rotteban seeds. No one knows about them because if they did, no one would buy the poison. He shakes the can and lets them rattle for me, as if to prove their efficacy. They jingle and play a seed song.

In the air is the early winter chill that you can feel in your nostrils. The rat man is red from the cold, his ears swollen and cherry coloured. No hat, even in this weather. He listens for a moment, luring me into the silence. I hear the sound of the empty factories. I hear the trees decay. I hear the big beams in the Warm farmhouse creak and rot. All that dead wood, perfect for rats. The seeds finish their song.

What do they do, then? I ask.

Kill rats, says the rat man. Kill anything that can think. If you or I were ever to eat a Rotteban seed we’d go out like a light. Same with dolphins, I think. But a cat or a dog, no beans. Not thinkers. He plants the little seeds carefully along the fence, lining them up in the same direction.

Rats don’t think, I say.

That’s what you think, says the rat man.

The trees overhead hiss, crackling with the cool breeze. The rat man pauses. The white-grey clouds overhead refuse to part, twisting and churning into mean faces. Shapes like rats all tied together by their tails. It looks like rain. You can smell the mould from the Warm farm when the air stills. It seems mould lingers in the wind everywhere these days. The smell of mould and the sound of rats.

Rats are thinkers alright, he continues, whispering. They think all day, they think just like me and you. The earth tells them things and they think about them. They know things you or I don’t. Just like we know things they don’t. But when you get too many rats together thinking… See, when rats get together there’s bad times ahead. They gotta convene. Assess the situation. You gotta get ‘em before anybody takes notice and panics, I guess. Pays the bills. Gettin’ ‘em, that is. Lord knows I’m afraid of what they’d say. 

The rat man pauses again. He goes back to his seeds. Then he turns his attention back to me. There’s a bad thing up ahead, says the rat man. I got the rats, but I couldn’t get the thing. Bad crops this year maybe. Bad winds, bad health, bad something or other. You’ve got the look of someone who knows, but won’t tell, the rat man says to me. That’s good. Don’t. 

His curiosity with me waning, the rat man returns to his seeds.