Rattenknig

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At 6 am, Amelia groggily walked into the kitchen to conjure up breakfast for her family. She had just one of her husband’s long tee-shirts on, to keep her insulated from the early morning cold. She yawned loudly as she pushed herself towards the kitchen counter in the blue light of a rising dawn. She was in the process of rubbing sleep from her eyes, when her bare feet stepped on something that felt grainy. She stepped back and looked down to see something that looked like a sprinkling of raw earth on her otherwise clean tiled floor. When she switched on the kitchen tube, she found that there was a trail of dark mud on her cream coloured tiles that led around the bottom edge of the kitchen counter to somewhere under the huge 6-seater oak dining table. Since she prided herself on cleanliness, she could not fathom where the mud could have come from, overnight. She got to her fours and moved under the dining table to investigate further. Here, the mud trail had progressively widened and there seemed to be a foul smell about. Amelia crinkled her nose and backed up. She needed to have bright light to properly see here. Grabbing a torch that she kept in the counter draw, she returned under the dining table for another look-see. In the dark underside of the table, she switched on the torch and let its beam travel along the mud path. As she moved further under the table, she discovered that the trail ended into a yawning 6-inch hole. Amelia gasped in surprise. Her mind flicked through so many questions what, why, how, who? And then it hit her right in the olfactory hotspots - that foul air - almost putrid. She made a puking sound as she gagged, and in doing so, she inadvertently announced her presence.

Deep in the hole, a creature awoke. Its eyes and ears flicked to life, as nose caught the presence of an unseen observer. Was this a friend or a foe? Its tiny mind soon processed its fight-flight options. Within seconds, it coursed up the dark tunnel it had created during the night, a hole that was to serve as a resting place. Its agile body moved with speed towards the entrance of the hole, passing all the irregularities of the tunnel with a dexterity that only an animal living in such environments could have. As it neared the narrowing entrance, its fur lightly brushed the sides, dislodging a powdery sprinkling of mud from the inner circumference of the tunnel in its wake. Near the mouth of the tunnel, its body moved close to the ground and tight within itself, coiled to spring out at the possible enemy. Its face poked out, and in less than 3 seconds, the creature had evaluated its threat an 85-kg plump woman with a surprised face, bent low towards it, as animals do when drinking from a watering hole. Ordinarily, the creature would have turned back and sprinted the other way, but its current situation was different. Familial obligations made the creature choose otherwise. It decided on a kill. With surprising speed, the creature emerged from the hole and disappeared under the chin of the surprised woman. The woman was not fast enough to react; her involuntary reflex just widened her eyes and made her corneas spin downwards. And this gap of time was all that the creature needed to operate in a survival mode.

Under the lady’s chin, the creature swung its head to the ground and then, in a split second, in the opposite direction taking full advantage of the swing of its neck. As its head came up in vertical arc, its mouth opened as it neared soft breathing flesh that it hadn’t tasted in a very long time. The saber-like teeth clamped on the woman’s gullet and sunk in right to the hilt. The woman, caught on the defensive, and mobilized by sudden sharp stab of pain, sprang upward, lifting the creature off the ground; but at the same time, the creature swung its head downwards, effectively tearing off the woman’s gullet from the rest of her throat. The woman went up, but the backside of her head and neck banged against the underside of the heavy dining table. Amelia fell back down, hard, on her chest, totally limp, the creature now underneath her. As she struggled to breathe for dear life, air escaped from the front of her neck, making bubbles in the blood that now gushed forth. She felt all the fight go out of her. The ejected blood moved in like a gentle seashore wave to meet the point where her left cheek met the floor. Some locks of her red hair, darkened by blood, covered her left eye; her seeing right eye now offered her a fading view of a world that she would soon not be a part of.

As her eyes began to cloud, she saw the faint image of her attacker as it emerged from somewhere beneath her right breast in a circular path, into her line of sight. The creature sniffed about, its whiskers trying to pull information out of the air near its prey, its ears cocked to listen to the minutest of threat sounds from the surrounding environment. As Amelia eyesight almost blurred, she saw a hazy image of the creature move close to her, almost touching her face. Its mouth opened once again releasing a foul breath. If she could see clearly, she would know that her blood had already lined the edge of its tongue and the bottom of its teeth. The creature’s mouth expanded in front of the woman’s only-seeing right eye. Amelia attempted to scream, but no sound came from her destroyed throat. Panic filled her dying mind as a set of sharp teeth clamped down deep into her eyeball. Amelia heard a gentle pop as her eyeball eased out of its socket and felt a jelly tug as connecting optic nerves snapped. Her world went dark immediately thereafter.

*********

Rick’s world went dark too, and was robbed of promise and happiness. Crystal clear images of the tragedy flooded his mind as he broached the edge of chemical or alcohol induced sedation. It was like a recurring horror that replayed in his mind and each time he closed his eyes. Rick looked for a way in which he could ignore the memory, for all that they eventually left him with was a bunch of what-ifs.

He remembered rolling about the bed on the morning of 16-November-2010, finding excuses to not get up. His wife, on the other hand, threw on a robe and nudged him, but he merely changed direction and snored again. He always struggled to get up in winter, especially when submerged under a warm cuddly quilt. But then, a short while later, something inexplicable happened. His eyes suddenly flew open for reasons he could not explain. It was like he was suddenly wide awake, in state of alarm. Something did not feel right. In the many years of marriage, Rick had developed a strong mental bond with his wife that immediately made him uneasy if his wife was hurt or was facing any serious problem, even if they were not in close proximity. Now he felt that kind of uneasiness, strongly. He threw back the sheets and stepped out of his bed, visibly concerned. With tussled hair, a crumpled tee-shirt, sagging shorts and rubber slippers, he hurried towards the kitchen. “Amy”, he called out, “are you okay?”. There was no answer.

As his body entered within the kitchen doorframe, he saw his wife’s legs horizontally sticking from under the dining table. “What the?”. Rick said and immediately ran to her side. He put one hand on her shoulder but she didn’t seem to respond to his touch. The tee-shirt his wife had worn had ridden up to her navel and she was bare from the waist downwards. She lay on the left of her front side with her left leg straight out and her right leg hiked up, with the knee to the floor. Rick’s mind was in a confused blur. His right hand moved tentatively to her hip which was free of any garment. His palm clasped the cold skin of her hip and he felt confirmed of the absence of life. He closed his eyes and his lips began trembling. He suddenly paused in his emotion and pulled her by her hips from underneath the table. In death, her body seemed to have taken on an added weight. But his true horror was when her face came into view. The visual hit him with such force that he was thrown back against the array of mini cupboard below the kitchen counter near the base of his wife’s feet. He closed his eyes and opened them again as if this would lessen the grotesqueness of what lay before him. Rick started sobbing and shaking his head from side to side because his mind would not accept the inevitable truth. Rick rolled forward onto his knees and gave a heart rending cry of anguish. So disturbing was this release, that all the surrounding neighbours were roused into an uncomfortable pause of slumber.

*********

Within 10 minutes, all the neighbors of the Farrows rushed to the cottage from where the scream had emanated. Cries of profound grief could be heard from within the house. Rick didn’t seem the answer their knocks on the door, so some of the men went around the back of the house and gained entrance through a door there which was always unlocked if the Farrows were at home. Stanley was the first of the three men who entered into the kitchen. He stopped short at the ghastly sight and had to be physically pushed ahead to make way for the other neighborly men who entered behind him. And none of them was prepared to handle what they saw, for it such scenes are never expected, even if they are.

There, before them, was Rick, with his face in his hands, crying piteously with a hoarse voice, like his body was nearly spent with the effort. By his side, in a state of undress, was Mrs. Farrow, and the men were only transfixed on her face. The woman’s nose was missing, as was her right eyeball. The side of the cheek seemed to have been gnawed at to such a degree that both the rows of teeth showed as flicks of white between the sea of red. Her throat was torn or eaten away ? they could just make out the vertebrae in the neck. And the body was still bleeding ? a blood pond surrounded the upper region of the Farrow woman, before finally thinning out into the gaps between the cream white tiles. Stanley pushed back on the men behind him and raced outside to throw up in the external garden adjoining the kitchen door. When he stabilized, he pulled out his mobile and dialed for the police.

*********

Investigative efforts and events succeeding the death of Mrs. Farrow took their natural course, but the perpetrator of the crime was never really identified; a whole lot of speculating was done though. All that was confirmed was that it was an animal kill. Exterminators were consulted with, but few ventured a guess considering the given facts. What animal whose standing width matched the size of the hole would not shy away from large woman; instead, attempt so savage an attack? But Martin, a nerdy, exterminator, had his doubts. He took one look at the crime photos and said, “rats”, and everyone laughed at him.

The murder had rattled every housewife in that sleepy town. Men were made to perform early morning inspections of kitchens in their homes, pestilence contractors had a field day with maintenance contracts and everyone made spring cleaning their top priority - everyone, except Rick Farrow, who remained listless most of his waking time. With the love of his life gone, Rick never cared anymore, never went into the kitchen and never bothered to fill-up the hole that brought death to his wife. And three months passed by?

Then one day Rick awoke; rather, became alive; his grief had become manageable. He dressed, shaved and came down to the kitchen he hadn’t ventured into for a long time. It seemed like a pigsty. He walked into the kitchen, carefully avoiding the place where his wife had lain, and opened one of the cupboards at the bottom of the counter. This storage place usually contained grain supplies and he found that these were totally ransacked. He banged the door shut in anger and disturbed a creature feeding on supplies in one of the succeeding cupboards. The loud slam of the door caused the creature to panic and there was a tremendous flight for survival that happened in the cupboards below the kitchen counter. The creature must have made an opening between the cupboard’s internal partitions where there was none before. Rick followed the fleeing sounds which came from within the array of bottom cupboards, and sequentially opened all of them in a frenzy, hoping to catch a glimpse of the evil creature that had killed his wife. But the creature was too fast for him. All he saw was a blur at the end of the last cupboard and a long tail disappearing into the hole. After a few minutes, he caught himself out of his surprise ? that could not have been a rat. No rat, to his knowledge, could have such a long and thick tail.

A barrage of impulses overtook him. He wanted to rush to the garden shed, return with some cement and seal the hole forever. But then that would not be dispensing justice to the creature in the way he saw fit. Neither would getting the gun from his bedside drawer and pumping slugs into the hole do any good, for he wouldn’t know if the creature would be hit. If this was in fact a mutant rat, the tunnel following the hole would not be straight in length. Rick wanted to see the creature in the eyes and then put a bullet in its brain, but before that, he would have a go at some inventive torture.

Rick called Martin and told him of his extermination plan. And they began immediately. The Farrow kitchen was first cleared of all surface furniture. The yawning hole, now naked, seemed bigger than before. Rick inserted a long twig into the hole to gauge its depth and direction. He soon found out that he had run out of twig for the tunnel was much longer. Rick tucked the fully loaded gun into his jeans back pocket and passed a spade to Martin. Together they uprooted the tiles from an appropriate area around the hole. Destroying the kitchen was of no consequence ? they had to get this creature at all costs. They bared the hole and dug along the cross section of the tunnel. About 4 feet deep, they reached an open space. Martin was amazed that he initially thought a rat could have done this; now, he harbored serious doubts. “If all this is really the handiwork of a rat, it would be enormous, and rats such as these are not found in these parts”, Martin said, as his spade connected with the decreasing floor. In about 30 minutes of organized digging, they reached a widened space within the ground and were shocked at the sight that awaited them there.

Martin gasped, for what he saw is mostly seen in reference books and museums. Rick looked, and was at a loss of words too. For in the clearing, apparently crafted by the creature, they found an entwining of little creatures. “Fuck”, said Martin, “you have a rat king here!!!”. But Rick was not listening; he just pulled out his gun and took careful aim. Martin put his hand out to stop Rick. “Get a camera first, or no one will believe you”. Rick still didn’t move, for he was totally mesmerized by what he saw. His mouth just twisted in anger and revulsion. Martin then pulled out his camera phone and clicked a few snaps.

Pulling Rick aside, he explained. A “rat king” is a term that denotes a collection of rats that become intertwined at their tails, which become stuck or knotted together by blood, grime and excrement. These creatures then grow together joined at the tails. No one knows how this happens or why only a certain number of rats get helplessly entwined, but historically, rat kings are associated with extremely bad omens, more particularly plagues. Some medieval people used to consider a rat king to be one rat with several bodies.

Both men were speechless for some time. Then suddenly, Rick took his gun and shot all the six joined rat creatures in quick succession. Martin was startled with the sound of gunfire but said nothing. But after what seemed like ages, he looked at Rick and said, “you know, only part of your troubles are over”. Rick looked at him questioningly. Indicating the collapsed tunnel, he continued, “it is evident that those creatures, being joined as they are, could not have traveled through that tunnel. This means there must be a real large rat somewhere about who dug this tunnel the width of its body and was using it as a passage to transport food to these little immobile babies”. A thought crossed Rick’s mind, a thought he felt disgusted to think of these creatures must have been fed with fleshy bits of his wife. With renewed anger, Rick dug his spade beneath the mangled remains of the rat babies and picked them up in one swoop. “You babies are going to sleep with me tonight”, he said, crazily. Martin was at a loss to deduce Rick’s actions, but when he followed the man into the bedroom, he understood Rick’s final plan.

That night when the creature returned from scouting outside for food, it found its home rearranged beyond recognition. It sniffed about for its babies and then sniffed the surrounding air for their scent. Rats are intelligent creatures, more adept than other creatures such as mice, rabbits, hamsters, etc., Though they have poor eyesight and are colourblind, they have excellent direction finding abilities and memories to match. And so the creature didn’t have trouble in imagining where its little babies could be. It simply followed the mud tail along its serpentine path into the Farrow bedroom, oblivious of the possible danger that awaited it therein.

There is little you can do to stop a determined rat from entering your house. They can squeeze through very small holes and ascend pipes that will take them to various very high points of entry. And so the creature moved forward with the knowledge that its rat babies could be in danger. Its confident gait was devoid of any fear of ambush. The creature had killed many times before, and it would kill again, if needed.

Rick lay prepared in his darkened bedroom. The dead rat baby mess was at a vantage point. The loaded gun was under his pillow, with its safety catch off. Rick pretended to be asleep on his right side with a 180 degree visual access of the room. He had to wait patiently for the giant rat to come nearby. He wanted to see it up close, look it in the eyes and kill it, just as it did his wife. He wanted it to realize that prospect of death. And he wanted to see fear in its eyes and mind. Only then would Rick pull the trigger.

The creature encountered the dead rat babies just inside the bedroom door. And it knew who had killed all of them. It looked at the bed and sniffed the telling human scent. The enraged creature now bared its long fangs ? strong teeth that had previously allowed it to chew through aluminum, glass, wire, lead and a host of other material that would have stopped a much large animal from advancing through such obstacles. Well, it was time for an eye-for-an-eye session, and it had taken an eye before. Without hesitation, the creature moved to the base of the bed and climbed up easily on its engraved post. It moved to the bed, soiling the silken sheets with foul traces of places it had previously been. The foul smell and form moved closer towards the sleeping man’s face. It sought bitter revenge. It would stare at the man’s face as it killed him, just as it had killed his partner. And it would claim his eyeballs.

Rick watched through almost closed eyelids as the dark shape slithered closer towards him. This couldn’t be a rat, he thought, it’s much too big. He quickly assessed the creature for threat. It was almost the size of a small dog. The creature had to be almost 2.5 feet in length and at least 25 lbs in weight. That was huge for a rat. Rick’s body stiffened in alarm. Where did such a creature come from? Why did it find his place so attractive? All that he learnt about rats didn’t add up ? rats were supposed to be shy creatures who always avoided confrontation, and yet this creature, if it was really a rat, seemed fearless, possibly aggressive. Rick’s body tensed in his anticipation of the right moment. He was suddenly at crossroads with two capture options. Should he just grab the bugger by the neck ? then he would get a chance to slowly torture the creature to death. Or, should he shoot first and then decide later.

He had angled himself in the same pose as he found his wife, more out of a sleeping habit; maybe, it was what he unconsciously picked up from Amelia, a modified form of spooning together. His fingers trembled like a gunslinger’s at a cowboy’s duel. His hand slowly edged underneath the pillow towards the place where the loaded gun rested. He felt the creature climb up on his thigh and move upwards, its furry belly slowly trailed a ticklish pattern on his bare skin. The creature travelled along his hip along the left edge of his body, caressing it in the way that only his wife could. He was revolted that it felt so much like her touch. The creature moved up to the shoulder, paused, and came down the side of his arm to the bed. Rick didn’t know how he had it in him to control his body - he was literally itching to burst out of his body and empty the gun into the creature. But all good things come to those who wait. The creature now circled and moved towards Rick’s face. He could feel its foul breath on the top of his nose. This was close enough and it was time to act.

With a cry of war, Rick threw back the sheets and sprang up. His eyes flashed open to take in the full view of the creature in the dim moonlight that filtered from the side window into the room. With coordinated movements, his left hand lurched forward to grab the body of the creature, while his right hand pulled the gun from underneath his pillow. He aimed and pulled the trigger twice, in quick succession. Blam! Blam! One shot to the face and another in the neck; the destruction had to mimic what was done to his wife. The noise was horrendous and loud enough to startle his reality.

*********

Amelia had always been a good wife and had really taken care of Rick to the best of her abilities. But off late, he had developed this absurd habit of first, talking in his sleep, and then after a few months, moving about. His doctors had given him some sleep medication, but that made him too drowsy to function to full capacity during the day. So Amelia sometimes, unknown to Rick, tied his legs to the bedpost after he was sound asleep. And since she was always the one to first wake up to the alarm, she unbound his legs and no one was any wiser. With a smile, she had internally reasoned that it would keep her man in her bed. She looked at him sleeping soundly. She loved him so much. Since she suddenly felt a surging moment for some couple time, she decided to gently rouse Rick from his sleep. And because she had just awoken in the middle of the night from deep slumber, she was unaware that Rick had earlier turned in his sleep and put their loaded gun normally stored in their bedside drawer, under his pillow. She ran her smooth hand along her husband’s hip, up along the side of his body, right up to the shoulder. She knew that Rick like to be caressed this way. She knew that it was a quick turn on for him. He had to be really fast asleep for he didn’t acknowledge her touch. She grasped his shoulder and tickled a trail down the side of his arm. Still no response from the man. She decided to try one more trick. She moved closer and blew a long breath of air on his sleeping face. And the next thing that happened was a loud cry, twin flashes of flame and loud sounds.

It was 6 am and the neighbours of that sleepy town were jolted awake by a heart rending cry of horror. Rick’s nightmare was now true reality. His wife looked at him from the other side of the bed, her throat had been destroyed, and the bullet in the face had taken out her nose and right eyeball. Outside, rats scurrying about the garden for food, disappeared into their holes on the arrival of concerned neighbours, who rushed towards Rick’s cottage to find out reasons for the early morning scream.

And the rats guessed that the Farrow cottage was a promising place, for lots of people meant lots of food. In the coming days, they would all move indoors for continued sustenance and shelter from the cold.

--xx--


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9 comments

Rishabh Ch..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
I'd rather the end was different. The build up is not in sync with the end anticipated. Or maybe its just that a concept like Rattenknig was not given the burial I was looking for. A little on Rick's mental faculties also needs to be there. It's pretty drastic, what he does. Can it happen if you don't have one of those 'mad-cow' diseases? Rattenkonig ... wow!! King Rat ... wow again !! I think the story needed to continue organically from there.

Ravishanka..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
i would have liked the tempo to end with the death of either the king rat or Rick.The twist at the end seemed out of place. The initial part of the narrative felt a bit labored but the subsequent flow and buildup was pretty absorbing and smooth. Overall an unusual rat story

Shawn Pere..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
Yes, the end needs to change, albiet by popular demand. I intentially didnt close with the death of the king rat or Rick as that would have made the story predictable. @Rishabh - I didnt start from the king rat as I the death of Amelia seems better if it was logicially placed where it is. Now I wonder what end do I give this story. Aaah, Amelia to the rescue? Perhaps. Thanks guys for reading & commenting. I wish I could get feedback & ideas from more people. Interestingly, I had started out to write a variation of the fairytale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and Rattenkonig is what emerged from my keyboard !!! :-)

Ajay Tulsi..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
i liked the build up but the end makes me feel like i shouldn't have read the above part. if the main character is confused about reality, confuse the reader as well..introduce brief lines about actual reality and rick's version, if you write a scene and later tell the reader that it's a dream, hallucination..the reader feels his time has been wasted.

Shawn Pere..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
Thanks Ajay, for your input. I have already started working on a revision. Thought of getting Amelia's ghost to the rescue in the end fight between Rick and the rat. Maybe, this version will go down better with those who read it.

Aditi Chin..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
Ah it's got the Shawn twist! It reminded me of how much I hate rats. At the same time I was curious to know more and more about this creature. The story is well written as always and flows well. I would say that the pace was a little slow for me. Although the descriptions are very good and serve their purpose, I feel they make the scenes move slowly from in front of my eyes. I found myself getting impatient every now and then. But I just love your twists. Keep it up.

dixon..

04 Feb 2014
.., wrote:
Change nothing, Shawn. I absolutely loved the story and it was rivetting from start to finish to say the least. Maybe you could touch up the end a bit so that it's coherent with the rest of the story but I really don't know how. Amazing twist. A little tightening of the loose ends and it's a Storykonig for me. Cheers :)

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